I have recently read wonderful books by Vietnamese authors, Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous and Thannha Lai’s Butterfly Yellow along with Chris Bohjalian’s new book The Red Lotus, which partially takes place in Vietnam. Each of these books pieces together for readers how beautiful the country is and how deeply rooted the people are in their families and tradition.

The Mountains Sing (Oneworld Publications) by Nguyn Phan Quế Mai is a beautifully told story filled with history and hope amongst conflict. It’s a thorough and honest dive into the tragedy of war and the effect it has on a tightly knit community. From communism to the split of North and South Vietnam to the Vietnam War and the Land Reform, we follow four generations of a Vietnamese family through the eyes of a grandmother and her granddaughter.

Young Huong lives with her grandmother, Dieu Lan, in Hanoi. Her father went to war four years prior and hasn’t returned, so her mother, Ngoc, a doctor, leaves to search for him.

While they hide out in the mountains, to escape the bombings, the grandmother shares many stories of her childhood, traditions and customs with 12-year-old Young Huong.

The Vietnamese people believe in traditional proverbs and connection to generations from the past and the future. Huong’s grandmother tells her about a time when she was little and an old man told her she would have a very hard life. He said she would be rich, but will lose everything and become a wandering beggar in a far away city.

If our stories survive, we will not die, even when our bodies are no longer here on this earth.

Once back in Hanoi, Huong and her grandmother find their house destroyed, and the endless and painful waiting for relatives to return from the war becomes a way of life. Huong’s mother, Ngoc finally comes home alone, full of grief, without her husband, and in dire need of healing. Unable to be the mother Huong hoped to be due to unimaginable trauma she has experienced, Ngoc chooses not to move back in the house.

Huong’s grandmother gives up her teaching job to become a black market trader. This job, widely looked down upon by so many, brings in good money to keep the broken family afloat. She provides contraband books to Huong, and the young girl absorbs all she reads. Along with her grandmother’s stories, books help Huong shape her beliefs about the world and the people in it.

I had heard rumors that American people like to rule other races, that they didn’t have feelings like us,
but now I knew they loved their families, and they also had to work hard to earn their food.
They enjoyed
dancing,music, and storytelling, just like us. Little House in the Big Woods taught her about Americans.

Huong’s unwavering desire to have her mother by her side along with her father, aunts and uncles exemplifies her depth of commitment to family. In lyrical prose, written in English, her second language, Nguyn Phan Quế Mai has given us an epic story of family, sacrifice and loyalty. The Mountains Sing is a beautiful, sweeping saga written from the heart, showing the author’s love for Vietnam and her people.

Author Q & A

This Q&A was conducted in the American Historical Fiction Facebook Group led by Kari Bovee.

Q:  Tell us a little about yourself and your novel.

A:  I am a Vietnamese poet, translator and journalist. Eight of my books have been published in Vietnamese, and The Mountains Sing is my first novel and first book in English. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, the novel leads readers through 20th century Vietnamese history via the lives of four generations of a Vietnamese family. The American involvement in the Vietnam War is vivid in this book, though it is seen via the eyes of Vietnamese women. In reading The Mountains Sing, you will emerge yourself into Vietnam, by tasting Vietnamese food, listening to Vietnamese language and experiencing our traditions and cultural practices.

Q:  What inspired you to write the novel? 

A:  I was born without a grandmother (my father’s mother was killed in the Great Hunger and my mother’s mother died because of childbirth). Growing up, I was very jealous of my friends. I told myself that one day I would write a novel with a grandmother in it. And I found my grandmother in The Mountains Sing, which is narrated in the voice of Grandma Diệu Lan and her grand daughter Hương. 

Q:  What is your writing process like?

A:  In 2012, when I was traveling with a Vietnamese friend in a car, I asked him what it was like for him during the Vietnam War. He told me that he was 12 years old when Hanoi suffered from American bombs. 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 that when I went home that evening, I sat down at my computer and searched about the bombings of Hanoi. I heard 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 wanted to create an epic account of our history, via the eyes of women who often suffer most from war-related events but their stories are rare in Vietnam War fiction in English.

Q:  What research did you do for the novel?  

A:  I think I researched for this novel my whole life: first by listening to the elderly Vietnamese people. A lot of Vietnamese history is untold (due to censorship reasons) and I wanted to document it. I spent a lot of time at my parents’ villages talking to people about their personal experiences. I interviewed countless of people who fought on different sides of the war. I grounded my research through reading fiction and non-fiction books, watching movies and documentaries as well as visiting museums, libraries, special document archives …

Q:  Did you find anything in your research that was particularly fascinating? 

A:  The personal narratives. The Mountains Sing is truly a work of fiction but it is inspired by the stories of my family and those I know.

Q:  What is your favorite time period to write about? To read about? 

A:  Vietnam has a long and turbulent history. There are so many historical events that marked our 20th century history including the colonization of France, Japan, the division of our country into North and South, the resulting civil war, the military intervention of the United States, the economic reform and our struggle to reconcile after the war … I have much to learn about this period and would like to read and write more about it.

Q:  What has been your greatest challenge as a writer? How have you been able to overcome that? 

A:  I only got the chance to learn English in the 8th grade so writing The Mountains Sing felt like climbing a mountain barefoot. But I climbed with my pen in one hand and my dictionary in another. I climbed by reading English novels voraciously so that English words would enter my subconscious.

Q:  What are three things people may not know about you?

A: I am afraid of heights that’s why I always need to have a great book with me while flying. I am a yoga addict and I have been practicing my handstand for the last six months. My goal is to be able to flip by myself up in another few months. I love to go to bed with an audio book so sometimes my darling husband is very jealous.

Q:  Care you share what you are working on now? 

A:  I am finalizing my PhD thesis which includes a full-length novel, written about Amerasians — children of American soldiers born and abandoned during the Vietnam War.

Buy this book!

Quế Mai was born in a small village in the North of Việt Nam in 1973. Thanks to her academic achievements, in 1993, Quế Mai received a scholarship from the Australian government to study in Australia for four years. Upon her return to Việt Nam, Quế Mai worked for several international organisations, including UN agencies, to foster Việt Nam’s sustainable development. Her main research area is the long lasting impact of wars and has worked extensively with veterans and war victims. She has a Masters in Creative Writing with the UK’s Lancaster University and is a Honorary Fellow in Writing of Hong Kong Baptist University.

Quế Mai currently lives in Jakarta, Indonesia with her husband and two children. The Mountains Sing is her first novel.