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Riverbanks Silky With Ancient Songs : A Discussion With Writer Nguyen Phan Que Mai

“You writers have blood on your hands,” a Vietnamese man once told Nguyen Phan Que Mai in reference to the ability of poetry, stories and songs to have inspired young men and women into wars that claimed so many innocent lives. If his statement is true, one can also fairly say that literature has the power to do the opposite and educate, illuminate and motivate forgiveness.

Thanks to Vietnam’s geography and long, turbulent history, cultural differences and lingering distrust and division exist between people in different regions. As a poet, translator and novelist, Nguyen Phan Que Mai hopes that her work can help change that. “One of the goals I want to achieve with my writing is to bring the Vietnamese together. I think we have done quite a few things in bringing Vietnamese and Americans together, but in terms of the Vietnamese, there are still so many unspoken feelings, a lot of healing to be done. And I think with literature you can do that. We need to read each other, understand each other’s points of view,” Mai tells Saigoneer.

Mai’s background provides her a unique position to help unite Vietnamese people. She was born in a small village in Ninh Binh Province in 1973, the daughter of a poor teacher and a farmer. Her father was sent south to work, and upon noticing the more favorable conditions for growing crops and better educational opportunities in the region, he moved his family to Bac Lieu Province in the Mekong Delta in 1979.

At the time of her relocation, many locals feared that migrants like Mai and her family were coming to steal their jobs and livelihoods. She experienced frequent discrimination and skepticism from southerners, who routinely called her bắc kỳ, a derogatory term for people hailing from the north. In response, Mai quickly learned how to speak the southern dialect to fit in. “Now I reflect and understand what went on in my neighbors’ heads, but at the time I didn’t understand the reasons for such discrimination,” she says.

Mai uses her art to articulate the experience of relocating. She shared with Saigoneer the following poem which recently appeared in WWW - Women, Wit & Wisdom - Multilingual Poetry Anthology of Women Poets, published in India:

MOVING

A tree in bloom
I uproot myself
from my relatives, my friends, my language
Alone I shred my leaves mid-air

I sail across an ocean
So deep, the waves called fear
They lap against each other, they want to sink me
They lap against each other, they want to erase me

I plant myself amongst strangers
A new garden pushes me up
My roots start to bleed
I am lonely among birds’ voices
I am barren among vast green

I break away from laziness
I shed leaves from old things
I shake away all my habits

I open each cell of my tree
I drink each voice of the birds
I eat each breeze that comes to me
I learn to grow new buds

I shudder to bloom
I grow my fruit from my bleeding roots

I am a tree that uproots itself.

While Mai endured adversity and hardships because of the move, ultimately it helped her to better understand and love Vietnam in its entirety. “I learned so much by having heritage from both north and south Vietnam because by living in both worlds I could understand and listen to the stories of both sides and see how the division has hurt our people, and how the war’s ending hasn’t really ended many things inside the people; their thoughts. So much is still going on,” she says. If she can write inclusively about the country, exposing the commonalities that transcend regions, Mai believes she can help people overcome their prejudices.

The poems in Mai’s debut English collection, The Secret of Hoa Sen (hoa sen means lotus), published by BOA Editions in 2014, reveal her commitment to promoting a unified Vietnam. Readers encounter landscapes and locales representing the complete country. For example, the poem 'Mekong,' which depicts a “sampan’s shadow row[ing] backward into the hair of sunset,” is immediately followed by one that describes Hanoi’s night markets, “where the straw hats of the farmers brighten the moon.” The poems argue for Vietnamese people to consider themselves descendants of the entire nation. As the speaker in 'Being Vietnamese' claims, everyone can trace their roots back to the mythic Mother Au Co, while “the immense Trường Sơn range lifts up our voices. / The Red River silkens our lives.”

Mai understands that history is not understood via statistics, dates and decrees but rather “through the lives of the people.” Her work therefore frequently focuses on quotidian events and routines. For example, one poem centers on “women who sit in the city’s garbage dump / to gather, collect, and mend their lives whole from debris.” Similarly, the standout 'Gardener in the Royal Citadel' concerns itself with the truth that: 

Royal courts decline
the gardener engrosses himself in sowing each seed of grass.

On the collapsed royal dynasties,
the sweat of humans rises from their ashes.

When focusing on the stories of Vietnam’s ordinary people, especially those whose experiences might be lost if not recorded soon, Mai cannot avoid the harsh realities of war that lingered in even the most peaceful moments. One poem, therefore, focuses on a man who proposed to the woman he loved with a promise ring made of grass while his village was “filled with bombs and bullets.” Rather than outrage or anger, her poems’ response to violence often takes on a sorrowful tone, such as in 'Separated Worlds,' which closes:

With each footstep I place in my country,
how many bodies of wandering souls will I step on?
How many oceans of tears
of those who haven’t yet found the graves of their fathers?

****

 Photo via Vu Thi Van Anh.

“I always had the dream to write because I felt when I was so little, writing...took me away from where I was...the rice field, sweating under the sun, selling things on the street. Only by writing I was able to dream and to travel,” Mai explained to Saigoneer. Despite this desire that existed from a young age, Mai did not plan on becoming an author. Because of her family’s poverty, she took a practical approach to her education and career. Thanks to her diligent studying she received a scholarship to attend university in Australia, where she pursued business. Upon graduation, she returned to Hanoi and landed employment at an international company. She personally got involved in real estate and finance. In the late 1990s, she was even one of the first people to purchase stock on the Vietnamese exchange.

While working in Hanoi she met her husband, a German diplomat whose job forced them to relocate frequently — Bangladesh, the Philippines, Belgium, and now, Indonesia. In each country they moved to, Mai had to find a new profession, including teaching, working in a library and communications. In 2012, at the age of 39, she moved to the Philippines and was once again faced with the daunting task of starting a new career. Her husband, however, encouraged her to instead devote herself to writing. The timing seemed right: she had been writing and translating as a hobby since 2008 and a few of her books had been published, earning her several top awards, including the Poetry of the Year 2010 Award from the Hanoi Writers Association and the Vietnam Writers Association’s Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Advancement of Vietnamese Literature Overseas.

In coordination with her commitment to writing full-time, Mai applied for a Master's degree in Creative Writing (distance learning) through the UK’s Lancaster University. She was awarded a Master's scholarship, followed by a PhD scholarship, which allowed her to research and write about the American War. The courses represented her first time formally studying creative writing.

Writing and publishing before ever having attended a single course on the subject has given her a refreshingly straightforward style. She is not interested in flashy linguistic sleights of hand or the experimental flourishes that are often nurtured in the cloistered halls of academia. Instead, she writes naturally and from the heart about Vietnam and why she loves it. For example, in the The Secret of Hoa Sen’s first poem, the speaker’s mother “lifted a pair of chopsticks and twirled sunlight into a pot of boiling rice,” while elsewhere “rice seeds taste as sweet as a lullaby” and “women carry the seasons of guava, mango, and plum to me, / the seasons of lotus, green young sticky rice on their shoulders.” Presented in earnest and plain-spoken language, Mai’s connections with and appreciation for the country allow the descriptions to resonate.

Fresh metaphors and images like those exhibited in the above examples appear throughout the book and provide evidence that Mai’s work excels beyond its value to motivate social change. She doesn’t have to sacrifice her craft to make way for her goals of letting people empathize with others; rather her goals become attainable because of the elegance of her craft.

Being physically distanced from Vietnam doesn’t make it hard for Mai to write about the country, instead, she claims it creates a sense of longing that manifests itself in the form of reverence for the smells, sounds, tastes and experiences of the country. This admiration comes across in particular when describing the country’s natural elements. For example, spring is the time when “birds call for newborn grass / and a blue sky is willing to burst itself from the failing light.” Her work doesn’t make distinctions between Vietnamese people and the land, and individuals are often described as being part of their physical surroundings as evidenced in the following lines:

all I need do is to look at his bare hands,
cracked with a life of labor and suffering,
and know it will be safe
to let my heart grow in his love.

***

 Photo via PXL.

In the last ten years, Mai has published eight books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction in Vietnamese, nine books of translations from Vietnamese into English and vice versa, as well as frequent columns in Vietnamese newspapers. When asked about how she achieves such a prolific output she says, “I consider myself growing a garden, you can sow many seeds at the same time. A seed may grow into a tree, it may not, but your job is to tend the land, to water the tree and try to grow it with your love and your passion and hopefully, it will flower.”

Mai admits that she doesn’t suffer from writer’s block — her mission is too important, and inspiration too abundant. She told Saigoneer that she writes every day, and it’s easy to trace the roots of such diligence. As she once revealed, “when I was little, I always woke up at 4am, went to the field and caught tiny shrimps to sell at the morning market. These days you might see me at my writing desk at 4am, catching the earliest words of the day.” Right now, she is working on two manuscripts in Vietnamese, translating another one or two, and progressing on three different books in English.

Mai speaks fluent English, which is especially remarkable considering the small town she grew up in had no public school English teacher and her parents couldn’t afford private lessons. The dual-fluency has some surprising effects on her writing process. Depending on the audience and content, she writes some works first in English, and others in Vietnamese.

Even though she now thinks and dreams in English, she will sometimes force herself to switch and think and write in Vietnamese and convert it into English later to not only capture native linguistic flavors, such as the prevalence of proverbs, but also to capture deeper cultural truths. For example, she is currently working on an English language project which involves a Vietnamese woman who was the victim of rape writing a letter to her husband explaining what happened. When she tried to write it in English, it came out inauthentic because the language forced her to approach the situation from a Western mindset where emotions are easier to verbalize. Once she wrote it in Vietnamese, however, she was able to accurately portray how the character would express herself.

Translations, especially in poetry, are fraught endeavors that often fail to maintain the power of their original versions since they adhere too closely to literal transcriptions or, alternatively, veer too far in the opposite direction and lose authorial intentions, to say nothing of forms and sounds. By serving as her own translator, however, Mai can avoid many of these issues. When translating 'My Mother’s Rice' from The Secret of Hoa Sen into Vietnamese, for example, most people would have gone with a direct translation of the title ('Cơm Của Mẹ'), which sounds uninspired to Mai. Because she is her own translator, however, she has the artistic freedom and understanding to revise and rearticulate, and thus chose 'Gian Bếp Của Mẹ' (“In the Kitchen Corner of My Mother”) because it better reflects the nuances of the emotion behind the poem and its original English title.

Her ability to move between languages has also allowed Mai to pursue translations that serve Vietnam and its people. Many of the books that typically get translated into Vietnamese are ones that can turn a profit: self-help books and works focused on investing, for example, but works of contemporary foreign literature rarely make it onto shelves here. Mai recognizes the potential they have in connecting people, however. Her most recent release, Bay Lên (Taking Flight), exemplifies this belief.

Bay Lên is an anthology of short stories from international writers such as Junot Díaz, Margaret Atwood, Amy Tan and Viet Thanh Nguyen translated into Vietnamese. When pressed as to why she spent her time on these translations given that it could have been instead devoted to her own work, she said she hopes everyday people read the book. She believes the tales are valuable because “the more I know the world, the more I know we are alike — love for family, treasuring normal moments — once we understand other people’s perspective we have more empathy. And the world needs empathy.”

Many of Mai’s translations, however, have focused on disseminating the work of Vietnamese writers outside of the nation’s borders. For example, she has introduced English-speaking audiences to contemporary Vietnamese poets such as Huu Thinh, Tran Quang Quy and Nguyen Trong Tao. While distinct from her own voice, they all share Mai’s focus on scenes of Vietnam and its common people. Thinh, for example, writes about:

grains of silt so familiar
somehow so like a fairytale

the ladies who guard the water pumps,
their gazes long as betelnut knives

In translating their work, Mai adds to the number of voices singing the same song of Vietnam, just set to a different melody.

Unfortunately, there is virtually no money to be made in poetry, and even less in translating it, so Mai does it out of love for the art and because she is “frustrated that Vietnam is seen as a war instead of a culture and a country. I want to change that. Maybe I can’t change it, but someone has to start.”

One of her more exciting translation projects in line with this goal involves blending Vietnamese music with poetry. Entitled “Lanterns Hanging on the Wind,” the radio show is similar to a previous project with the radio program Melodically Challenged on Public Radio Exchange which matched Mai’s poems in English and Vietnamese with traditional music performed by singer-songwriter Ngo Hong Quang. “Lanterns Hanging on the Wind,” which is being co-created with Melodically Challenged director Katherine Kincer and American writer Jennifer Fossenbell, will involve the work of 17 poets including Luu Quang Vu, Xuan Quynh and Giang Nam, whose poems have been memorized by generations of Vietnamese. 

***

Mai reading at the Lannan Foundation. Video via YouTube channel Lannan Foundation.

The circle of Vietnamese diaspora writers is small, so it was only a matter of time until Mai met Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the heralded The Sympathizer, at a conference in America. They exchanged books and began a long-distance dialogue. On the morning of the day he was informed his book had won the Pulitzer Prize, he sent her an email discussing Vietnamese literature. Being a devoted supporter of such work, he later helped forward the synopsis of her unpublished novel to one of the agents who helped sell The Sympathizer. The rest is history — the prestigious American publisher Algonquin Books plans to release it in the spring of 2019.

Mai started working on the novel during her Master's program at Lancaster University. She was actually in the middle of a different project when inspiration struck in the form of a conversation with a friend. He described to her what it was like to be a child living in Hanoi when American bombers made their frequent assaults. After hearing his story, Mai watched YouTube videos of the air raid speakers blaring in the city’s small neighborhoods and started writing a scene of her novel.

The book tells the multi-generational story of a family in northern Vietnam between the 1930s and 1980s, relying on countless interviews Mai conducted. It amalgamates aspects of their lives with her own experiences in an effort to reclaim the war’s narrative from the all-too-prevalent American perspective. It also features female protagonists whose stories are frequently ignored in art related to Vietnam. As Mai said in the introduction to a collection of Vietnamese poets translated into English for a special edition of Prairie Schooner magazine devoted to aunts, “as Vietnam struggles to move forward, Vietnamese women have to bend their backs low and shoulder economic burdens,” and yet hardly receive recognition.

The novel also involves her commitment to showing Vietnamese people the experiences and values they all share, regardless of geographic origin. To that end, in addition to characters who live both in rural and urban places, one of the characters ventures south, which allows the narrative to include details about the lives of people there as well. Mai made the choice because Vietnam is “like a family, a family with brothers and sisters that have been pushed apart because of the division of the war. It’s time that we overcome the past and be together again.”

In Vietnam and elsewhere, people are reading less than ever, choosing movies, video games and social media over literature. Mai, like many, laments this development because of what the art form means to her, its unique ability to foster empathy both among and for Vietnamese people and its power to record a country’s past in the midst of rapid change. Faced with the grim reality of what would be lost if people stopped reading, she simply says: “you have to believe.” Thanks to her tireless work, we can all believe in a world that still speaks of “riverbanks silky with ancient songs / The fragrance of fresh rice straw along country roads 1.”

  1. Taken from the poem “Being Vietnamese” in The Secret of Hoa Sen.


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