Recently I had the opportunity to read and review a book called THE MOUNTAINS SING by Vietnamese author Nguyen Phan Que Mai [Algonquin Books, March 2020], and it was one of the most poignant, breathtaking novels I have had the pleasure of reading. Aside from being a lovely book, the author Que Mai, is equally as lovely and has become not only a dynamic presence with the success of her first English translation novel but a beautiful one as well. When her US tour was postponed due to the current pandemic, I was more than happy to engage with her for an Author Q&A. Enjoy!
The Mountains Sing is such a personal, reflective story. Where there parallels here that tied into your life, or your family’s, that played a significant part in how you crafted the narrative? I saw on Instagram some posts you’d shared of you as a little girl, and I saw Hà Nội, so I would imagine this story is very real to you?
The Mountains Sing was fueled by my wish to have a grandmother. Both of my grandmas had died before my birth. Growing up, I was very jealous of my friends who had grandmothers to tell them tales and stories of their family. So I told myself I would write a novel one day with a grandmother figure in it. And finally I found Grandma Diệu Lan in The Mountains Sing.
I have no photos of my grandmothers and as I wrote the novel, I could imagine how my grandmothers looked; I could hear their voices. So, yes, Grandma Diệu Lan is very real to me, as well as all other characters, including Hương, her parents, uncles and aunt. To bring these characters alive required a lot of work and attention to details, and that’s why it took me seven years to write and edit The Mountains Sing.
The novel is set in Hà Nội, the capital of Việt Nam and the city of my heart. I was not born there but worked there for many years. This is the city where I met the love of my life – my husband and gave birth to our two children. While in Hà Nội, I wrote my scooter or bicycle everyday to work, drank tea on the streets, mingled with elderly people who shared with me their stories, visited museums, art galleries. I did not know that all of these experiences were helping me prepare for The Mountains Sing, which I would write years later, after I had moved to Manila, Philippines. (My family has lived in many countries around the world since my husband works in development assistance.)
One of the things I was most captivated by in the novel were the relationships between the siblings and the divide between North and South Vietnam and how that tore apart mothers and children, siblings, etc. Is there anything further you can share on the realities of this that can help people who haven’t experienced something like that really understand the gravity of what that might have felt like—or continue to feel like for family’s impacted?
For many years, I wanted to write a book that encompasses the experiences of not just my family, but of others’ as well. I wanted to create a world which is authentically Vietnamese and fill it with Vietnamese characters, language, poetry, and culture. Yet I could not find a key to open the door to that world.
Then, in 2012, when I was traveling with a Vietnamese friend in a car, I asked him what it was like for him during the Việt Nam War. He told me that he was 12 years old when Hà Nội was targeted by B-52 bombers. His parents were in Russia at that time and he was living with his grandmother, who saved him from the bombing raids. His story moved me so much. When I went home that evening, after putting my two young children to bed, I sat down at my computer and googled about the bombings of Hà Nội. I heard audio broadcasts of the sirens warning citizens about bombing raids. With tears running down my face, I penned 2.000 words which eventually become the opening scene of The Mountains Sing. I wrote without knowing where the story would lead me.
But I knew I had to let Grandma Diệu Lan have many children, who would be separated by historical events which in turn lead them to becoming the enemy of one another. I have met too many Vietnamese families who were separated by the war and who ended up fighting against each other, just like the Trần family in The Mountains Sing.
Forty-five years after the war, tremendous progress has been made in terms of reconciliation between Việt Nam and the United States. But the wounds that divided Việt Nam and Vietnamese families, both at home and in the diaspora, remain profound and painful. For that reason, The Mountains Sing places our people at the center of the Việt Nam War in the hopes that we will be open to difficult but necessary conversations that can help one another heal.
Over the course of the story, I became very deeply connected to Trần Diệu Lan. Her relationship with Guava (Hương) was so intimate and so genuine that even on the other side of the page I felt like I could read my own grandmother into her voice. Who was the inspiration for this character?
Thank you so much for your kind words. My two grandmothers merge into one to become Grandma Diệu Lan. The Great Hunger’s event, for example, is inspired by the experiences of my father’s mother. She was killed in the Great Hunger of 1945. Her children were so hungry that she ventured into the village’s cornfield. She was caught and tied to corn plants. She was too weak to break away. My father knew the man who had killed his mother, and told me that after the Great Hunger, that man moved away from our village. I never knew what happened to that man so I created the character Wicked Ghost in The Mountains Sing. I showed the reader how Wicked Ghost was punished for what he’d done. But in the end, Wicked Ghost was forgiven somehow. In other words, this novel was my way of searching for healing, for forgiveness, because being able to forgive is the greatest gift that we can give ourselves.
This was your first English book. What was that process like? Did you find that the feelings and language you were expressing came across as you intended?
I have translated many books from Vietnamese into English and vice versa. Still, when I decided to write The Mountains Sing in English, it felt like climbing a mountain barefoot because I had never written a novel before. I had no plot for the book when I started writing it either.
But I wrote The Mountains Sing with the mindset of a Vietnamese who is fully aware of the importance of preserving the Vietnamese authenticity of her novel. My Vietnamese characters think and speak in Vietnamese, yet I had to transfer their thoughts and speech into English. My responsibility as a translator was to capture the Vietnamese essence of such expressions and not Westernize them.
I would like to thank readers of the book who accept the challenge of fully emerging themselves in Vietnamese culture by reading The Mountains Sing. It is not just diarictical marks, but you might have noticed that I do not always translate Vietnamese words. For example, early in the book, the reader learns that nón lá is a conical hat made of woven bamboo and palm leaves. After this explanation, I went to use nón lá without repeated explanation. It’s my intention to familiarize the reader with the Vietnamese culture as much as possible, so that hopefully by the end of the novel, they become a part of it.
I mentioned in my review that The Mountains Sing was/is one of the most moving novels I have ever read, and I want to repeat that and thank you again for sharing this story. Can you share more on the emotional journey of writing something so impactful?
Thank you so much for your kind words. I am so honored my novel found you.
It took me seven years to write and edit, hundreds of revisions, many sleepless nights, tears, and countless moments of doubt. I doubted that I was a good enough storyteller. I doubted my ability to express complicated thoughts and emotions in English. But I never doubted my decision in 2006 at the age of thirty-three to return to my dream of becoming a writer.
A few days ago, I listened to the audio book of The Mountains Sing, narrated beautifully by Quyen Ngo. As the book finished, I sat there and cried so hard, for so long. I cried for my grandmothers whom I never had the chance to meet. I miss them more than ever. And I cry every time I re-read the diary entries of Hương’s mother. Those entries represent the sorrow of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese women whose husbands never return from the war.
The printed book is very beautiful, and I was overjoyed seeing my name, the names of all characters and all Vietnamese words and phrases in full diacritical marks. The Vietnamese language has suffered a lot of losses due to colonisation. Our language, when published outside of Việt Nam, is often stripped of diarictical marks to fit the Western eyes and ears. I am so pleased that I can undo some of the losses via The Mountains Sing.
I hope that while reading this novel, the reader will join me in embracing the values of peace, normality and family. All of us are currently fighting the war against coronavirus. I hope everybody with stay safe and healthy. May we rise against all challenges together and overcome all obstacles. May each family, community, country, and the whole world becomes stronger, more united than we have ever been.