Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, DUST CHILD

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, DUST CHILD

Zibby speaks to award-winning author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai about Dust Child, a powerful and hauntingly beautiful saga about two Vietnamese sisters, an American veteran, and an Amerasian man whose lives intersect in surprising ways, set during and after the war in Vietnam. Nguyễn reveals how her experience working with veterans, reuniting war-separated families, and bringing former enemies together (in addition to her own memories of the war) inspired this novel. She also describes the lives of abandoned Amerasian children in Vietnam (the children of the dust) and explains how she used poetry, music, nature, and joy to create a book that is as much about trauma as it is about healing.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Quế Mai. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Dust Child, your amazing new novel.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai: Thank you so much, Zibby, for having me on your podcast. I have so much admiration for you and the energy that you’ve been having. Congratulations on your recent award and the opening of your bookshop. You give so much to the world. Thank you for championing writers as well. You’ve done so much for us. Thank you.

Zibby: Thank you. Thanks for saying that. Talk about energy, you worked on Dust Child for seven years with so much research and your PhD and all of it. I’m so impressed. I was really moved by the book. I even was talking about it on a podcast I did recently with Bethanne Patrick about how much we both really enjoyed the book. I’m super impressed. It’s really good, really, really good. You probably know that, but it’s probably nice to hear.

Quế Mai: Thank you so much. Writing this book was challenging because, first of all, English is not my first language. I only had the chance to learn English from eighth grade. For years, I worked as a translator. I was looking for a novel to translate until one day I told myself, why don’t I write that novel myself? That started the crazy journey of The Mountains Sing. When I wrote The Mountains Sing, for years, I couldn’t find an agent because people thought the story was too difficult to sell. When the world tells you no, you just keep going. I kept fighting to tell my stories. I went on to write Dust Child before I had an agent and a publisher. I kept working on it. It also took me a long time. I was really compelled by the real-life stories that I witnessed. During the past several years, I helped people reunite. During the Vietnam War, so many mixed-race children were born, and a lot of them were abandoned. Many of them, tens of thousands of them, have been looking for their parents. Having the chance to work with them has been a privilege. I saw so much courage, so much hope in them that I was compelled to write this novel to document what they have gone through, the Amerasians, the mixed-race people who are in Vietnam, and also their parents. What drove their parents into the situations where they had to abandon their kids?

Zibby: Wow. This is such a perfect example of how taking a specific story of one person’s life — well, here, a few different people’s lives. It takes history and just changes it so much from something abstract to so specific and emotional and all of it, whether it’s feeling like I’m the former helicopter pilot going back to Vietnam and having PTSD and trying to get through this horrible plane ride or being in the field with blisters on my hands. It’s so real, the way you write. It’s just so sensory oriented and well described. It felt absolutely immersive and educational at the same time.

Quế Mai: Thank you so much for saying that. It means a lot to me. A lot of the descriptions come from the real-life scenes I have seen. You just talked about my writing about the American veteran who returns to Vietnam after more than forty-six years. Unknown to his wife, who is traveling with him, he had a child in Vietnam with a Vietnamese woman during the war that now he wants to look for. In writing about him, it was challenging. Also, I had to write it. For years, I’ve been working with American veterans. I accompanied them to their visits to the former battlefield. I translated for them. I translated for their reunions with former enemies. Also, actually, quite a few well-known American writers lost their youth in Vietnam. For example, Bruce Weigl or Tim O’Brien, they were young men when they had to go to Vietnam. Bruce Weigl, who is a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, told me he lost his youth in Vietnam but gained his voice. At Vietnam, he started to write about the horror of war to call for the war to end. I was very much compelled to translate the writing of writers like Bruce Weigl into Vietnamese. I took him around Vietnam and held events and poetry readings for him.

That was one of the most life-changing experiences I had. The people who once fought against him came together at these poetry readings. They shared their common humanity. It’s just unbelievable. The stories that I witnessed at these events really changed me as a person too. I was very much compelled to write about war, to call for peace. I think as a human race, we have done enough to each other. Look at the war in Ukraine at the moment. It’s devastating. Every day, I think about the citizens who have to survive all of these bombs and the difficult situation that they have to live under. It’s devastating. As a child, I remember when I was six years old, I was standing on my village road. It was just after the Vietnam War. The war killed three million people, Vietnamese, Americans, Cambodians, Laotians, people from so many nationalities. At that time, I was small. I was standing on my village road. I was looking at the bomb craters around me and the people who had lost their arms and legs and relatives. I told myself as a little girl, the human race could not be so stupid to wage another war. I firmly believe in that. I cannot believe how many wars are still going on now.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s really unthinkable that we still are doing that in this day and age. It’s just horrible. You had one comment in the book, to your point about meeting former enemies, that part of their reunion is getting to know people who they had had to dehumanize in their heads so that they could get through the killing. There’s no other way. They just had to believe something different, that these people couldn’t also have feelings and emotions and all of that. I’m now extrapolating. Tell me about that.

Quế Mai: Exactly. Dehumanization is the weapon of war. For soldiers to kill the other side easily, the armies had to use propaganda to dehumanize the other side, that we are not equal to the other side. Growing up in Vietnam, I was told that American soldiers didn’t have feelings. They were just killing machines. I was taught that. In our textbooks, there were really horrific scenes about all the horror that could happen. Of course, some of that is true. As a writer, I wanted to bring in the forefront, the humanity of all sides. The soldiers who had to participate in the war, they were young. They were taught different things. If we look at everyone in their human capacity, we could have more human compassion. In my first book, The Mountains Sing, I have this young girl who loved reading. During the war in Vietnam when her parents were at war with Americans, she was at home waiting for their return. Then she and her grandma brought home books from America that had been translated into Vietnamese. Hương started reading these books.

She fell in love with the American people, with American culture. She had resented them before. Then she told herself, if everyone is willing to read each other and see into the light of all the culture, there would be no war on earth. On the contrary, also, there have been American veterans who told me that they were told to look down on Vietnamese people and Vietnamese culture when they were about come to Vietnam. Actually, there’s this veteran who told me that on his plane to Vietnam, he was worried about killing Vietnamese people. He was a young man going to Vietnam and not knowing about the country. His leader actually told him, don’t worry about killing the Vietnamese. They have been at war with other people for hundreds of years. They don’t love their families like we love ours. Then when he arrived in Vietnam, he didn’t have a chance to make friends with Vietnamese people. Sometimes we do that to each other. My viewpoint is that we are all children of mother earth. We should love each other more than find reasons to fight against each other. Wars are really costly.

Zibby: That too.

Quế Mai: It costs taxpayers money, not just taxpayers’ money, but also lives and also trauma that is inherited for generations to come.

Zibby: Yes. The costs are not properly evaluated, perhaps, at the outset. The whole notion of the Amerasians who were treated so badly, especially children of Black Americans with Vietnamese who were so degraded and taunted at school — you have one scene where a young boy is scrubbing frantically to try to take his skin color off, which just broke my heart. Even though they wanted to meet their parents or leave the country, they had to get a letter proving who their parents were, which, of course, is impossible. They were all first treated so terribly and then prevented from seeking a better life. It’s the worst of all worlds for some of the people. Tell me what it was like in your conversations with them as grown-ups coming to terms with their childhood and how they make sense of it all now.

Quế Mai: When I started researching into this novel, I was shocked to know how many Amerasians are illiterate. They did not have the chance to school. Dust Child is actually — the title comes from the term bụi đời in Vietnamese, children of the dust, which is used for homeless Amerasians. They were homeless, so they were called bụi đời or the dust of life. This book proves that no one is the children of the dust. Everyone deserves love and respect. The Black Amerasian in my novel, even though he went through a lot, he’s a carpenter. He’s a musician of Vietnamese traditional music. I wanted to write beyond these people as victims. As you said, they have been through so much. First of all, a lot of them were rejected by the society because they were considered by many people as remnants of the American invasion or remnants of the enemy or children of the enemy. They were looked down upon. Also, a lot of people considered that they were children of the women who slept around with American soldiers. These Amerasians were very much rejected and discriminated against. There was a lot of racism against Black Amerasians as well. Because of that discrimination and racism, the American government implemented something called the American Homecoming Act that allowed Amerasians to immigrate to America. With the implementation of the act in the early nineties, Amerasians could immigrate to the US and could bring along family members.

Many Vietnamese at that time tried to escape Vietnam, so they started to use Amerasians as tickets. They were buying and selling Amerasians. Can you believe it? In my book, I document these really horrific experiences. Amerasians who were young and illiterate needed helped to get out of Vietnam because paperwork was very difficult. They needed help. They were tricked into accepting strangers as family members to be able to go to the US. Overnight, from the children of the dust, they became children of . They were old. They were traded. Quite a few of them, in reality, went to the US with people who, when they succeeded in arriving in the US, abandoned them once more because they did not consider them as adopted family members. Amerasians have certainly gone through a lot of trauma, have suffered so much, but I have seen so much courage in them. In my book, I also talk about successful Amerasians. Some of them have become really wonderful singers. I know an Amerasian in real life who’s an award-winning film director. I think everyone, regardless of our past situation, we have something to contribute to our society. I want to highlight the humanity and the incredible things that Amerasians can contribute to our society if we accept them and endorse them and embrace them. They should be embraced.

Zibby: What is it like now? Is there stigma attached? Has enough time gone by that it’s not like that anymore?

Quế Mai: There’s still stigma attached. In Vietnam, mixed marriages are still quite uncommon, so mixed-race people are still looked at very differently. Especially, half-Black people, there’s still racism against skin color, for example. I talk about that in the novel, including in the current situation. At the moment, the situation is better. Because Amerasians have experienced discrimination and racism for so many years, they lack access to a lot of opportunities. The Amerasian families that I know in Vietnam, quite a few of them are struggling to make ends meet. Their children also can’t afford to go to school because if the parents are poor and illiterate and live in the countryside and don’t have access to opportunities, this will lead to consequences with their children as well. The situation is not that easy. Most of the Amerasians have actually migrated to the US. In the US, quite a few of them are doing well, but there are also quite a few homeless Amerasians or Amerasians who are struggling because of the trauma that they carry with them.

Zibby: Oh, my goodness. How did you take care of your own feelings and emotions while you were digging through this and working in person with people with PTSD and all of it? These reunions, how do you leave that translator job, or in this case, when you’re actually writing the book, and move on with your own life? How do you process all of that?

Quế Mai: This book, it’s very much about trauma, but it’s also finding the pathway to healing. For me, I balance the difficult research process and writing about trauma with music, with poetry, with joy, with nature. I also bring a lot of that into the book. I also have fun writing against colonialism, the colonization of Vietnam. For example, Mr. Thien, the tour guide in my novel, says this about the French invasion of Vietnam. When France invaded Vietnam, they brought bread, we took the bread and made it better. If you have eaten Vietnamese sandwich, bánh mì, I hope you agree with me that it’s better than French sandwich. That’s why I said when France invaded Vietnam, they brought bread, we took the bread and made it better. Vietnamese sandwich, bánh mì, is made from French baguette. We learned the way to make the bread from them because traditionally, we eat rice only. We took the bread from the French, and now we turned it into bánh mì. In that French baguette, we put roasted pork. We put chili, coriander, pickled carrots, and a lot of delicious things. Vietnamese bánh mì is one of my favorite food. I talk a lot about food. I also talk about music. I talk about poetry and literature in the book as well. There are quite a few joyful moments in the book. I want to present Vietnam beyond the war, so that’s why it’s important for me to bring all these cultural elements into the book as well.

Zibby: That’s amazing. Describe how you like to write and what it looks like for you. Are you working at your desk in the library? Computer? Handwritten? What does that all look like?

Quế Mai: I don’t have the privilege of living near a library because I am currently based in Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia where if there are libraries, they have books in Russian, in Kyrgyz language. Because I’m married to a German diplomat, I’ve been traveling around the world. My writing life really saved me because for years, I was looking for a job wherever my husband was posted to. Then one day, I went back to school. I started creative writing because I wanted to bring my career with me. I’m so lucky that now I can work as a writer because I can have that writing career on the road with me. I wrote Dust Child through so many countries. I started writing it when we were in Belgium. Then I continued when we were in Indonesia. I finished it when we were in Kyrgyzstan. This book is a product of my travel, my life in three different countries. I wrote on the plane, in the car, on the train. We move a lot. Each time of moving, it’s challenging. Writing really calms me down. It’s like meditation, almost. I really need it. I like to write the books that I want to read. That’s why I have multiple timelines and multiples perspectives, so that I can create suspense. With Dust Child and also my first novel, The Mountains Sing, I did not know the endings. The endings totally shocked me. I feel like as a writer, I want to be surprised every day as I sit down and work on my book because I think unless I can surprise myself, I can’t surprise the readers. The ending of Dust Child really shocked me. I didn’t know that it would end like that. Thank you so much for reading my book so carefully. You have so many authors and so many books coming at you. You read it so carefully. You also recommended it to many places. Thank you. Good Morning America, you recommended there as well.

Zibby: It’s really good.

Quế Mai: Thank you so much. Thank you.

Zibby: It’s really good. What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Quế Mai: Write the stories that make you sleepless, that refuse to be ignored. Write stories that matter to you. Don’t think about selling the book. Don’t think about finding readers for it. If you write something that matters to you, that will keep you going. For myself, the reason I had to write Dust Child is that these stories refused to sleep. When I wrote this book, there were times that my husband told me, “This book is going to kill you.” When I was writing it, there were times I didn’t sleep much. When my husband went to bed, I was at my writing desk. When he woke up, I was still at the desk. He said, “Did you ever sleep?” I said, “Yeah, I did, but the characters were calling me. They were saying, get up and write. Our stories can’t sleep unless you tell them.” How about you, Zibby? How are you managing your job as a writer, as a bookshop owner, as a broadcaster? You do so many things. How do you have time to write? How do you carve out that time?

Zibby: I don’t. I miss it. I miss writing. I did my novel in discrete times where I could clear a whole day. I had, even, a weekend where I had to clear three days so I could just get stuff done. I don’t know. I squeeze it in around the edges. I don’t have a lot of time, so I don’t take a lot of time. I know I have to get it done, so I get it done. I can fix it in editing and things like that. I’m just doing my best. I like it, but my book is not — I don’t write the way you write. This book could win the National Book Award type of thing. That’s not what I’m after. My writing is very much like our conversation. I write the way I talk. It’s very informal.

Quế Mai: I love your novel. I love your writing. You are a very unique writer. We need to hear more from you. I can’t wait to read your next book. Please give us another book and carve out the time because you have done so much for others.

Zibby: Thank you. That’s really nice. I would like to. I’m trying to get my head above water here and figure out what to focus on most. I do love it. I will not give it up. Even if it’s dribs and drabs on Instagram, it’s still a little bit of writing each day, even a paragraph just to keep it going.

Quế Mai: Being a published writer is tough. For you, you have to do so many other things. That’s why I’m amazed. You are also managing your bookshop and setting it up. I don’t know how you can do all of that.

Zibby: I have a great team. I do have a great team. I do have a team. Yes, I’m still all over the place.

Quế Mai: You need to write as well. I appreciate all the things that you do, but I need you to write as well. Sorry.

Zibby: Thank you. That’s really nice.

Quế Mai: I loved your novel. I can’t wait for another one.

Zibby: Thank you. This was so wonderful. Congratulations. I’m just looking forward to seeing this book soar in so many ways. Congrats.

Quế Mai: Thank you so much, Zibby, for the honor of the conversation with you. I’ve been admiring you for years, so this is a great honor. Thank you.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, thank you so much. Thank you.

Quế Mai: I’m only here thanks to women like you or thanks to people like you who uplift my voice. I don’t live in the US or in the UK, so the chance for me to present my book is limited. I’m disadvantaged because I don’t live there. I don’t have easy access to a lot of opportunities. Thank you for having me on the podcast and having my book in your bookshop and for recommending Dust Child. I really appreciate it. Thank you.

Zibby: It’s my pleasure. Thank you. I hope to stay in touch.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, DUST CHILD

DUST CHILD by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

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