Memories Of Tragedy Stay With Author Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Apr 22, 2020
Originally published on April 22, 2020 11:28 am

Author Nguyen Phan Que Mai is a poet and world traveler whose first novel, The Mountains Sing, is about four generations of a Vietnamese family enduring many hardships — something she understands well.

The 47-year-old writer was born in North Vietnam, but grew up in a small village in the South, destitute, hungry and horrified by the ruins of war. "As a child, I saw so many people with missing limbs," she recalls. "I saw mothers without children, people committing suicide because their loved ones didn't come back."

Those images stayed with her as she wrote The Mountains Sing, which centers on a grandmother and granddaughter. She also modeled one character on her uncle, who fought against the Americans in the 1960s and '70s.

"He came back from the war devastated, such a miserable man," she says. "And the thing about this book is that it gives voice to trauma and PTSD in Vietnam."

Que Mai says as research, she interviewed other war veterans. And though her grandparents died before she was born, she wove their family lore into her novel.

"I took the story of my father's mother, who died in the great hunger of 1945," she says. "It's a catastrophe as a result of World War II, where two million Vietnamese people died. It was horrible, and my grandma died, together with her youngest son and her brother."

The total number of deaths in that famine has never been confirmed, as the history is still being written. After the famine of the 1940s, Que Mai also fictionalizes the Viet Minh government's brutal land reform of the 1950s, when her grandfather was beaten, put in prison and died "because of the policy of the Viet Minh at that time, to punish the landowners."

The Vietnamese famine and land reform policies are historical events rarely recorded in fiction, says Viet Thanh Nguyen. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the 2015 novel The Sympathizer says he was so impressed by the manuscript of The Mountains Sing that he sent it to his agent to get it published.

"It is in some ways, I would say, the Vietnamese version of The Grapes of Wrath," says Viet Nguyen, "because it's describing this this time period in Vietnamese history that's deeply traumatic, and yet also poorly understood, and in many ways is a time period that completely contradicted how the North Vietnamese and the Communist Party saw themselves."

Viet Nguyen says writings about these traumas have long been discouraged, even censored. He says the fact that Que Mai wrote The Mountains Sing in English, her second language, ensures the novel has a global reach.

"It's a really crucial novel in terms of the history that it deals with, but also in her way of looking at normal people who are just subjected to completely unexpected catastrophe," he says, "in a similar way to what we as Americans and the rest of the world [are] undergoing with this pandemic. It's a real test of character that she shows."

Viet Nguyen says he's also moved by Que Mai's poetry and her own life story. As she tells it, while her family was poor, her mother nourished her with borrowed books and lullabies: "The lack of food she made up with songs out of Vietnamese poetry."

Before school in the mornings, she worked in rice fields and caught shrimp to sell to neighbors. On the village streets, she sold cigarettes and curtains and handicrafts she made out of bamboo. "At that time, Vietnam was under the American embargo. So life was extremely difficult," she says. "We hardly had enough to eat. So everybody had to work hard."

Que Mai describes herself as a well-behaved girl who loved reading books by the American writer Laura Ingalls Wilder. She kept a diary, and when she was 10, won a writing contest. She learned English in the eighth grade, and won a prestigious scholarship to study business management at an Australian university.

I could only write 'The Mountains Sing' having lived through difficult times. Only through experiencing by myself the challenges faced by the poorest of the poor, the most desperate, could I have that empathy. - Nguyen Phan Que Mai

"Here goes the Vietnamese saying 'good luck hides inside bad luck,' because I was so desperate. I studied day and night, and I came out as the top student."

Que Mai says after college, she got a marketing job in Australia, and then became one of the first investors in the Vietnamese stock market. She consulted for international organizations, including the U.N., earned her master's degree in creative writing, and began translating poetry before moving on to writing her own poetry and prose. She and her husband have traveled the world, living in Bangladesh, Hanoi, Manila, Belgium and Indonesia.

"Looking back," she says, "I'm grateful for the experiences. Because I could only write The Mountains Sing having lived through difficult times. Only through experiencing by myself the challenges faced by the poorest of the poor, the most desperate, could I have that empathy."

Nguyen Phan Que Mai and her husband, a diplomat, had to evacuate their home in Jakarta for the coronavirus pandemic. They're now in Munich with their 20-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son.

She's now finishing her second novel, about Amerasians in Vietnam, children of American military men. "During the war many of them were abandoned, and after the war, they were discriminated against. They suffered so much. Many of them are desperately searching for their parents," she says. "And there are American veterans who have been going back to Vietnam to search for the children they once rejected in the past. There is so much heartbreak out there."

This story was edited for radio by Nina Gregory and adapted for the Web by Mandalit del Barco and Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

The author Nguyen Phan Que Mai grew up in Vietnam seeing the impact of the war. Her first novel, "The Mountains Sing," is about a Vietnamese family. Here's NPR's Mandalit del Barco.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: I reached Nguyen Phan Que Mai at her home in Jakarta before she was evacuated as the coronavirus pandemic spread.

NGUYEN PHAN QUE MAI: I can't even say goodbye to my friends, you know? And I'm not sure if I'll ever see them again, so I'm devastated.

DEL BARCO: She and her husband, a diplomat, made it to Munich to be with their 20-year-old daughter and 18-year-old son. It's the latest challenge for the 47-year-old writer who grew up in a small Vietnamese village destitute, hungry and horrified by the ruins of war.

Q NGUYEN: As a child, I saw so many people with missing limbs. I saw mothers without children, people committing suicide because their loved ones didn't come back.

DEL BARCO: Those images stayed with her as she wrote "The Mountains Sing," a novel about four generations in a Vietnamese family. A grandmother and granddaughter are at the center of the story, but she modeled one character on her uncle, who fought against the Americans in the 1960s and '70s.

Q NGUYEN: He came back from the war devastated, such a miserable man. And you know, the thing about this book is that it gives voice to trauma and PTSD in Vietnam.

DEL BARCO: Que Mai says as research, she interviewed other war veterans. And though her grandparents died before she was born, she wove their family lore into her novel.

Q NGUYEN: I took the story of my father's mother, who died in the great hunger of 1945. It's a catastrophe as a result of World War II, where 2 million Vietnamese people died. It was horrible, and my grandma died together with her youngest son and her brother.

DEL BARCO: The total number of deaths in the famine has never been confirmed, as the history is still being written. After the 1940s famine, she also fictionalizes the brutal land reform of the 1950s, when her grandfather lost his life.

Q NGUYEN: Because of the policy of the Vietminh at that time to punish land owners - so he was beaten up, put into a prison. And he died.

DEL BARCO: The Vietnamese famine and land reform policies are historical events rarely recorded in fiction, says Viet Thanh Nguyen. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the 2015 novel "The Sympathizer" says he was so impressed by Que Mai's manuscript of "The Mountains Sing" that he sent it to his agent to get it published.

VIET THANH NGUYEN: It is, in some ways, the Vietnamese version of "The Grapes Of Wrath," you know, because it's describing this time period in Vietnamese history that's deeply traumatic and yet also poorly understood and, in many ways, a time period that completely contradicted how the North Vietnamese and the Communist Party saw themselves.

DEL BARCO: Nguyen says writings about these traumas have long been discouraged, even censored. He says the fact that Que Mai wrote "The Mountains Sing" in English, her second language, ensures the novel has a global reach.

V NGUYEN: It's a really crucial novel in terms of the history that it deals with but also in her way of looking at normal people who are just subjected to these completely unexpected catastrophe in a similar way to what we as Americans and the rest of the world is undergoing with this pandemic is a real test of character that she shows.

DEL BARCO: Nguyen says he's also moved by Que Mai's poetry and her own life story.

Q NGUYEN: (Singing in non-English language).

DEL BARCO: Que Mai Nguyen says while her family was poor, her mother nourished her with borrowed books and lullabies.

Q NGUYEN: For the lack of food, she made up with songs out of the Vietnamese poetry.

DEL BARCO: Before school in the mornings, she worked in rice fields and caught shrimp to sell to neighbors. On the village streets, she sold cigarettes and curtains and handicrafts she made out of bamboo.

Q NGUYEN: At that time, Vietnam was under the American embargo, so life was extremely difficult. We hardly had enough to eat, so everybody had to work hard.

DEL BARCO: Que Mai says she was a well-behaved girl who loved reading books by the American writer Laura Ingalls Wilder. She kept a diary and, when she was 10, won a writing contest. She learned English in the eighth grade and won a prestigious scholarship to study business management at an Australian university.

Q NGUYEN: So I mean, here goes the Vietnamese say - good luck hides inside bad luck. Because I was so desperate, I studied so hard. And I came out as the top student.

DEL BARCO: Que Mai says after college, she got a marketing job in Australia then became one of the first investors in the Vietnamese stock market. She consulted for international organizations, including the U.N. She earned her master's degree in creative writing and began translating poetry before writing her own poetry and prose. She and her husband have traveled the world, living in Bangladesh, Hanoi, Manila, Belgium and Indonesia.

Q NGUYEN: Looking back, I'm grateful for the experiences because I could only write "The Mountains Sing" having lived through difficult times, only through experiencing the challenges faced by the poorest of the poor, the most desperate that I could have that empathy.

DEL BARCO: While living through the pandemic, Que Mai is finishing her second novel about Amerasians in Vietnam, many of them abandoned children of American military men.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.