How to keep a country alive: Nguyên Phan Quê ́ Mai
“International readers often know about Việt Nam as a war […] I aim to present it as a country rich in culture and literary heritage.”
Nguyên Phan Quê ́ Mai was born in 1973, two years before the end of the Việt Nam War. As a child, she “experienced magic” in the books she read. “I witnessed incredible stories of human survival and those stories haunted me,” she says. So from an early age, she knew she wanted to be a writer. When she was 10, she even secretly submitted an essay to a writing competition and won a prize. But there was the reality of financial security and parents’ wishes.
Quê ́ Mai worked a number of jobs, including as a rice farmer and street vendor, even as she attended school. She was, however, encouraged to learn, and her scholarly aptitude won her a four-year scholarship from the Australian government.
After her return home, Quê ́ Mai worked for several international organisations, including UN agencies, to foster her country’s sustainable development. Her extensive work with veterans and war victims would come in handy years later when she began research for a very personal novel, as would much of her life and work experience during the years in between.
“Even though I spent most of my life in Vietnam, I have lived and worked in Australia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Belgium and now Indonesia,” she says in an email interview. “My experiences have opened my eyes, enabled me to look at the Vietnamese history with an open mind.”
Honour the grandmothers
When, at the age of 33, Quê ́ Mai finally returned to her dream of writing, she started off as a poet, journalist, non-fiction writer, literary translator, even documentary filmmaker, winning various local and international accolades and fellowships for her work. Today, she is the author of multiple books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction in Vietnamese.
On March 17, 2020, she published her first novel in English to international critical acclaim. The Mountains Sing, a book that took her seven years to conceptualise, research and write, is a multigenerational history of Việt Nam through the eyes and lives of the Trần family, especially its women.
Quê ́ Mai had never met either of her grandmothers – one had died in childbirth and the other in the 1945 Vietnamese famine, which is estimated to have killed up to two million people. When she researched this great hunger, as well as the land reform, she realised that most of the stories and the historical events of those times were just the memories of a generation, fast disappearing along with them.
The Mountains Sing sprang from Quê ́ Mai‘s strong yearning to honour the grandmothers she wished she could have met and cherished, and simultaneously keep alive the “under-represented women and children who often suffer the consequences of wars the most, but must hide their sorrows to become pillars of strength and comfort for returning soldiers.” She wrote the book as part of her MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University, and completed it during her PhD.
Reclaiming the tones
Quê ́ Mai believes in the power of stories, especially those of normal working-class people and their ability to provide a valuable learning framework, not just for intellectuals but also decision makers and politicians. For her, fiction is real “in the sense that it can educate, inform and inspire people to act”. She writes to better understand herself, the history of her family and her nation, as well as the world around her.
What compelled her to write these personal stories in a language she didn’t learn until she was in the eighth grade?
“The canon of the Việt Nam war and postwar literature in English is vast, but there is a lack of voices from inside Việt Nam,” she says. “I wrote The Mountains Sing in English to reclaim the Vietnamese narrative and challenge stereotypes about its people and women. I wrote also to give voice to the stories of women I met throughout my life: women who had to bear the burden of history, who remained to be the pillar of our families and community; women who would do anything to keep their family together; women who make mistakes and have to live with the consequences.”
While the novel includes fictionalised accounts from her own family’s history, Quê ́ Mai also interviewed hundreds of people and read numerous fiction and non-fiction books as research, drawing on her skills as a journalist and filmmaker and her mind as an academic. As a translator, she realised the importance of embracing Việt Nam’s oral storytelling tradition, the poetry and proverbs that are an intrinsic part of the culture. In The Mountains Sing, which uses full tonal marks, she attempts to undo some of the losses suffered due to colonisation, such as the stripping away of diatrics which “may look strange at first but are as important as the roof of a home”. She explains how the word “ma”, for example, can be written as ma, má, mà, ma̓, m, mã; each meaning very different things: ghost, mother, but, grave, young rice plant, horse.
Quê ́ Mai recently defended her PhD with a complete manuscript of her second novel, which is inspired by the real-life experiences of approximately 1,00,000 Amerasian children born during the Vietnam War. Does she have a wish for the future?
“In the words of my character, Hương: Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth,” she says.
From HT Brunch, March 28, 2021
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