Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai - “Writing about the Vietnam war took a toll on me”
The author of Dust Child believes writers can foster peace and understanding to prevent armed conflicts
Dust Child, award-winning Vietnamese poet and novelist Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s powerful second novel, is set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. The story follows two sisters who leave their rural home to work as “bar girls” in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and get engulfed by the war. Decades later, the narrative shifts to modern-day Saigon, where the lives of Phong, a Black-Vietnamese Amerasian, and Dan, a war veteran seeking redemption, intersect. The novel sheds light on the struggles of Amerasian children and explores themes of identity, love, betrayal, and forgiveness.
Phan Quế Mai drew inspiration for Dust Child — which has been labelled best book of the year by Reader’s Digest, Cosmopolitan and Book Riot — from her childhood experiences of being a witness to the discrimination against GI babies (children born to an Asian mother and a US military father). Her doctoral research and interviews with Amerasian children left behind after the Vietnam war deeply influenced her writing process. Through her powerful storytelling, Phan Quế Mai calls for empathy and understanding for Amerasians and veterans scarred by the war. Excerpts from an interview:
In Dust Child, you give voice and agency to Amerasians, the forgotten mixed-race children born out of the Vietnam War (who are often stigmatised), shedding light on their struggles and the complexities of their identities. What inspired you to explore their experiences, and what do you believe is the significance of telling their stories in the present day?
The seed of Dust Child was sown during my childhood. Growing up in Southern Vietnam, I saw Amerasian children, who had been fathered by American soldiers, being discriminated against and unable to go to school. Over the years, I kept thinking about them and wishing that life would treat them better. In 2015, I started assisting American veterans, who were coming back to Vietnam after more than 40 years, searching for the women and children whom they’d once abandoned. While I witnessed some happy reunions, there was also so much heartache, regret, and sorrow.
I interviewed many people and got their permission to fictionalize their experiences into Dust Child. While the characters in the novels don’t resemble anyone in real life, they present real-life issues suffered by Amerasians and their parents. In writing this book, I would like to highlight the long-lasting impact of wars and armed conflicts beyond death and injuries and call for empathy and support toward those who are stigmatized or misunderstood. The best thing that has happened since Dust Child’s publication are the messages I have received from Amerasians, adoptees and their family members who told me they saw themselves in the book. It’s a privilege for me to be a part of a circle of healing.
The novel explores the theme of intergenerational trauma, and the search for identity and belonging through the interconnected lives of Nguyễn Tấn Phong, a Black-Vietnamese Amerasian, Dan, a war veteran, who had an affair with a Vietnamese woman during the conflict, and the sisters Trang and Quỳnh. How did you approach their stories to weave in themes of love, betrayal, and forgiveness?
Phong, Dan, Trang and Quỳnh have to bear the trauma of war yet they refuse to let themselves be defined by it. They have to search for healing for themselves and for others. Through the life of Phong, readers will experience the extent of the racism which still exists within our community, as well as the many things Amerasian people need to do to prove their humanity and contribution to society. Trang, Quỳnh and Dan are three gentle human beings whose youth was snatched away by the war. During the seven years I worked on this novel, these characters showed me where they needed to go, what needed to happen. Through their life experiences, the themes of love, betrayal, and forgiveness emerged. There are many social messages embedded in my novel, but I did not craft the characters so that they became the vehicles of those messages. It’s the life experiences of my characters that call for these social changes, so that other people don’t need to go through the trauma and sorrow that they did.
How did you approach Dan’s character and his search for redemption, and what do you believe his story represents in the larger context of the war’s aftermath?
Many American writers, most of them male, have written in the voices of Vietnamese women, so I wanted to embark on a challenge: to take back the right for Vietnamese women to tell our own stories, and to empathize with the experiences of Americans who were involved in the war. The reality is that the Vietnam War destroyed many American lives and had a long-lasting impact. Many American veterans still commit suicide, nearly 50 years after the end of the war. Many have been searching for redemption, forgiveness, healing. This reality is reflected in the story of Dan, who joined the Vietnam War as a helicopter pilot and who witnessed such terrifying violence that it transformed him. But he also fell in love with Vietnamese people and later, he would realise that in searching for the humanity of Vietnamese people, he was trying to regain his own.
How did you navigate the emotional weight of the war? The novel explores the theme of homecoming, both in terms of physical return to Vietnam and the characters’ internal journeys of rediscovering their roots. How important was it for you, as the author, to incorporate this strand of homecoming in the novel?
Writing about wars is never easy and it did take a toll on me emotionally, especially because it evokes trauma I witnessed as a child growing up in Vietnam. However, Dust Child offers a path to healing and that’s why I have incorporated joyful moments into the book: from delightful Vietnamese food and music to descriptions of nature and landscape. I really appreciate that you noticed the theme of homecoming in the novel: I wrote the novel to return home. Due to my husband’s diplomatic postings, I have been travelling and living in different countries around the world. Writing about Vietnam offers me the chance to return home. It gives me tremendous joy to bring Vietnam alive on the page. When I write, I need to hear the Vietnamese language, our poetry, our music, taste the food, experience our daily customs.
You write that the novel sprang from your doctoral research and interviews with Amerasian children left behind after the war. How did this research influence your writing process and the portrayal of these characters? What were some of the most striking or poignant insights you gained from your exploration of their experiences?
As a writer of historical fiction, I would like to be truthful to historical events and experiences, therefore, real-life interviews are very important to me. I was very lucky to be able to carry out the research for Dust Child within the framework of my PhD programme at the UK’s Lancaster University. Under the guidance of my supervisor and the ethics committee, I learned to apply the principles of ethics into my research. For example, I took care in formulating my research questions so that they were sensitive to my research participants’ experiences. My PhD studies also gave me the chance to research representation issues and highlighted the need for me to write beyond stereotypes and to decolonize literature about Vietnam by presenting my homeland not as the war but as a country with more than 4,000 years of history.
The themes of absolution and acceptance resonate strongly as Tấn Phong and Dan grapple with their past actions and long for reconciliation with their respective families. Did you set out to dwell on their quests for healing and peace in the aftermath of war?
Amerasians like Phong, who were abandoned at birth and who don’t know their parents, naturally yearn to be accepted and acknowledged. As for Dan who walked away from his pregnant girlfriend and unborn baby, he has to live with regrets and seek forgiveness. These are complicated emotions which are deeply rooted in the personal history of each character. My job as a novelist is to let readers experience these emotions so they can feel the need for healing and peace in Phong and Dan.
Dust Child addresses the issue of post-war reconciliation and healing, not only on an individual level but also within the broader context of Vietnamese society. How did you explore the process of reconciliation and its role in moving forward from the wounds of war?
The Vietnam War lasted 20 years and killed millions of people. Millions of others were injured, traumatized. Hundreds of thousands are still missing. Nearly 100,000 Amerasians were born into the war and most are still searching for their identity and their parents. Reconciliation and healing is therefore urgently needed because so much time has passed yet the wounds of war are still bleeding.
The novel shuttles between 1969 and 2016, bridging the past and the present to reveal the lasting consequences of the war. Did this structure allow you to explore the connections and intersections between Phong, Dan, and the sisters in a better way?
I love novels which employ a complicated timeline to build suspense, tension and to invite readers to take part in figuring out the plot. Therefore, both of my novels, The Mountains Sing and Dust Child, feature a dual timeline by presenting different perspectives from different time periods. Writing a novel based on this structure is much more complicated using a linear timeline, it is like working on a puzzle. But I enjoy figuring out how the pieces will fit together. That’s the magic of creative writing: it can take you to unexpected places. When I started writing Dust Child, I had no idea how it would end. And when I discovered the ending, it shocked me. And you are right; this complicated structure helped me explore the connections and intersections among the characters, so they become much more complex, more human.
The book highlights the need to support and recognize Amerasians and push for the well being of veterans whose lives were deeply impacted by the war. What actions or initiatives do you believe can facilitate this?
There are many ways in which we can help Amerasians, war veterans and women who were pulled into the vortex of wars: by acknowledging their trauma, listening to their stories and assisting them in their search for family members in ethical ways. I really hope that more DNA test kits, for example, are available for people who need to search for their family members yet can’t afford to purchase them. My website has a page that lists organisations which I have been volunteering with and readers are most welcome to join me.
Having witnessed the horror of war myself, I grew up hoping that our human race would learn from the costly lessons of the Vietnam War, so that we can work together to build sustainable peace for generations to come. I am heartbroken to see many wars currently going on. We have much work to do to foster peace and understanding around the world, to prevent wars and armed conflicts, and the type of tragedies that took place in my novel.
In what ways can literature contribute to raising awareness and promoting understanding of marginalized communities?
Many readers have told me that my novels make them cry because they care about the characters in my books. They empathize with what these characters go through. Such care and empathy is much needed for raising awareness and support for people who have been marginalized. Therefore, I believe in the need to foster more diversity in literature, so that we can hear more stories from people who have not been represented in it before.
What are you currently working on?
I have just returned home after four months of being on tour for Dust Child (I travelled to seven countries and had more than 60 in-person events). I was also in Vietnam and Thailand doing research for my next book. I just started working on my third novel and my ideas and characters are not yet fixed. They are evolving and I am excited to discover the creative journey ahead of me.
Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology of New Writing: Select Short Stories by Women Writers.