Women bore much of the burden of the Vietnam War, but their voices have long been absent from the trove of literature on the topic, author Nguyen Phan Que Mai says.
Speaking ahead of yesterday’s 45th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, Que Mai says her new novel The Mountains Sing — written in English — aims to shine a light on the stories of women who not only endured and survived conflict, but had to rebuild shattered lives time and again.
“I’ve read a lot of Vietnam War fiction in English and most of it is written in the voices of men,” the poet and writer said.
“I grew up with incredible women around me,” she said, adding that while many sons and fathers lost their lives in combat, it was women who had to deal with the heartache and the consequences.
“My childhood was full of images of women who were waiting for the return of their loved ones from the war. My village was basically empty of men and the women later had to carry on, had to raise the kids and survive,” she said.
The Mountains Sing is written from the perspective of a Vietnamese grandmother and her granddaughter. It tells the story of four generations of their family through much of the 20th century, spanning the French colonial period, the rise of communism, the war with the US, to present day.
Novels such as The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and Graham Greene’s The Quiet American have become classics, but offer few details of the female experience, while Vietnam’s most celebrated novels on the topic, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Sympathizer and Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War were written by men.
Que Mai wanted to take a fresh approach.
“I wanted to show the Vietnam War and Vietnamese history from another angle, from the angle of Vietnamese women,” she said. “I could see that women are the people who bear the burden of the war.”
She believes it is vital to help people see there is more to the nation than the war, hailing it as a place full of complexity, colors and culture.
Born in 1973, Que Mai spent most of her childhood in the south in the post-war years after her father, a teacher, was relocated from the north.
They moved to the tip of the Mekong Delta in 1979, where the land was lush and fertile, but bullet shells had to be removed to plant rice, she said.
Like many people at the time in Vietnam — which was under a US embargo — they were dirt poor and her family rarely had enough to eat.
She rose every day at 4:30am to catch shrimps in nearby rice fields, before heading to school. After class, she would sell water spinach and cigarettes on the street.
Despite reunification on April 30, 1975, division between the north and south was as tangible as ever, she said, recounting a terrifying first night in her new home.
“I was eating dinner and I heard a ‘boom’ — someone had thrown a rock at our house,” Que Mai said. “The southern people considered us invaders.”
Four decades on, many of those old wounds have yet to be healed. For those who fought in the brutal conflict with the US and for the family members left behind, there is still unresolved trauma, she said.
“I have a friend who fought in the war and he cannot sleep with a ceiling fan in the room, because he still thinks of American helicopters chasing and shooting him, and for many people the war still hasn’t ended because their loved ones haven’t returned home,” Que Mai said.
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