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[Interview] The Mountains Sing: celebrated writer depicts impact of war in her debut novel

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai talks to Chào about her upcoming novel

Stephanie Lilly

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Faced with battle torn soldiers, charred lands and broken families, war can breed generational trauma for a country, and it is this hefty topic which acclaimed Vietnamese writer Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai tackles in her new book The Mountains Sing.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai
Image courtesy of Hartwig Klappert/ the International Literature Festival Berlin

Celebrated for her authenticity and ingenuity in telling important narratives surrounding her country and culture, Quế Mai has found resonance with readers from around the world and recently discussed the upcoming novel with Chào over email.

“It is a desperate call for peace and for humans to love other human beings more.”

The story sheds light on how war not only tears countries apart, but tears apart families too. The reader sees the war through the eyes of Vietnamese people, with strong emphasis on the use of the language and traditions of Vietnam throughout the narrative. “The novel takes readers through recent Vietnamese history via the lives of four generations of a Vietnamese family,” Quế Mai says. “It is a desperate call for peace and for humans to love other human beings more.”

Khiem Hanh 1973 Willie Vicoy By Manhhai
Vietnam 1973 – press photo. Image courtesy of manhhai.

Much has been written in English on the Vietnam-American War, but a pivotal voice that is lacking from the discourse is the voice of the Vietnamese people from inside Vietnam. And it is these Vietnamese voices that Quế Mai sets to inject into the cannon of literature in English.

“The Vietnamese language is rich, beautiful, and musical, and I was thrilled to transfer some of those elements into the English language for The Mountains Sing. I wanted to show the reader that Vietnam is not just a place of war, but a country with rich cultural heritage and with people who would do anything for their families,” she says. “I also know the book is not an easy read because it deals with losses, wars, trauma, separations, and longing. But I hope beyond that, the reader will appreciate the value of family bonds, the power of hope and human kindness, and the importance of forgiveness.”

Born in Ninh Binh in 1973, Quế Mai saw the devastation of war and its aftermath though the eyes of a young child. Growing up during a time of destruction and rebirth, fraught with economic disparity, she took on difficult jobs to support her family such as hawking on the street and working in rice fields.

1973 Khiem Thien Manhhai
The devastation from the bombings. Image courtesy of manhhai.

The novel, an engaging multigenerational story of the Trần family set during the years of the Vietnamese-American War, illuminates Quế Mai’s love for her homeland, and she says one of the protagonists of her book Trần Diệu Lan represents the grandmother she always wished for.

“Both my grandmothers had died before my birth and I wanted to have a grandma who would sing me lullabies, tell me the legends and tales of my village, as well as teach me what I needed to know about my family’s history,” she says. “Diệu Lan’s granddaughter, Hương, embodies my own experiences growing up in Vietnam and witnessing the war’s devastating effect. But more than that, she represents a generation of Vietnamese who have no choice but inherit the trauma of war brought home by returning soldiers.”

A Woman With Child Kham Thien 1973 Werner Schultze By Manhhai.
A woman with a small child in 1973. Image courtesy of manhhai.

Although the book is partly inspired by her own family’s experiences, Quế Mai also interviewed hundreds of people and “fictionalized their stories” as well as read many books on Vietnam to gain a deep understanding of her country’s turbulent history. “I have gathered information for this book my whole life. The writing and editing process took me seven years, hundreds of revisions, many sleepless nights, tears as well as joyful moments,” she says.

With its ambition to present an epic account of Vietnam’s 20th century history via the lives of Vietnamese people, The Mountains Sing has received high praise from critics including starred reviews from Library Journal and Library Journal. Publishers Weekly described it as “a brilliant, unsparing love letter to Vietnam that will move readers.”

Upon the release of The Mountains Sing, Quế Mai will be on tour in Indonesia, the United States and Canada from March 18 to April 14. She will be having events in Jakarta, Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, New York, Boston, Washington DC, Maryland, Philadelphia and Toronto. Details of the tour are available on her website: nguyenphanquemai.com.

To order the book, visit workman.com/products/the-mountains-sing

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