|photo: Tapu Javeri
Born and raised in Việt Nam, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is the author of The Mountains Sing, runner-up for the 2021 Dayton Literary Peace Prize and winner of the 2020 BookBrowse Best Debut Award, the 2021 International Book Award for Literary Fiction, the 2021 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award and the 2020 Lannan Literary Award Fellowship for Fiction. She has published 12 books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction in Vietnamese and English. Her writing has been translated into 20 languages and has appeared in the New York Times and other publications. She has a Ph.D. in creative writing and was named by Forbes Việt Nam one of 20 inspiring women of 2021. Her novel Dust Child (Algonquin Books) was inspired by the American veterans returning to Việt Nam to search for the Vietnamese women they once loved and the Americasian children they left behind.
Handsell readers your book in 25 words or less:
Set in Việt Nam, Dust Child is a suspenseful saga about family secrets, romance, hidden trauma and the overriding power of forgiveness.
On your nightstand now:
On my bedside table are these magnificent books which I have just finished reading and writing a blurb for: Banyan Moon by Thao Thai, The Book of Everlasting Things by Aanchal Malhotra, The Moon Represents My Heart by Pim Wangtechawat, The Paris Daughter by Kristin Harmel and Hula by Jasmin Iolani Hakes. The writers are women from different backgrounds, and I highly recommend their new novels.
Favorite book when you were a child:
Dế mèn phiêu lưu ký (The Adventures of a Cricket) by Tô Hoài, a favorite Vietnamese author of mine. I featured this book in my debut novel, The Mountains Sing. I often reread it with my children, as it fueled my imagination and inspired me to become a writer.
Your top five authors:
Margaret Atwood for her wit, her writing, her bravery and her contribution to humanity; Viet Thanh Nguyen for his groundbreaking work with The Sympathizer and many things he has done to uplift minority writers via his nonprofit DVAN (Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network); Elif Shafak for her commitment to and advocacy for human rights issues via her many novels including The Island of Missing Trees and 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World; Thi Bui for her beautiful writing and illustrations in The Best We Could Do and her advocacy for refugees; Kristin Harmel, whose novels, including The Book of Lost Names and The Forest of Vanishing Stars, are among my favorites and who is bravely sharing her cancer treatment journey to encourage others to take better care of their health.
Book you've faked reading:
I grew up in Việt Nam and had to read a lot of propaganda books for school. I often skimmed through them just to be able to pass the required tests, or I faked reading them if I could.
Book you're an evangelist for:
Any book by Master Thích Nhất Hạnh (Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices; The Miracle of Mindfulness; Peace Is Every Step; The Art of Living; Silence: The Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise). They are life-changing and inspire us to live with love, care, empathy and compassion.
Book you've bought for the cover:
I am not sure I have ever bought a book by the look of its cover alone. I am a global nomad and need to be careful about which books I can bring along with me, so I often stand at a bookshop reading the first chapter of a book before deciding to buy it. I always have a long reading list based on recommendations, so these days I rarely buy a book which I haven't heard about.
Book you hid from your parents:
I grew up in Việt Nam during the American embargo, and we didn't have access to many books. There was no library I could visit. My parents have always been hungry readers, so they used our little money to buy whatever books were available at that time. I read some of them so often until the covers fell off, and my father had to use cardboard to make new covers for these books. Books were precious to us, and we shared everything we had. There was no secret between my parents and me when it came to books, and I was grateful for that since it brought me close to my parents.
Book that changed your life:
Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices by the Vietnamese Zen Master Thích Nhất Hạnh. Life is demanding and can be overwhelming. This book reminds me every day about the importance of being present and to appreciate the smallest moment of joy, to spread love and peace and positive energy to the people around me.
Favorite line from a book:
"In the moments of difficulty, I hold on to a line of poetry and pull myself up." --Phùng Quán, a favorite Vietnamese poet of mine.
Five books you'll never part with:
I have been living the life of a nomad due to my husband's job. We moved from Việt Nam to Bangladesh, the Philippines, Belgium, Indonesia, and now we are in Kyrgyzstan. I have hundreds of books that I can never part with. (I carry them from one country to the next.) My list of books I'll never part with is long but if I must choose five, here they are: the Bible, The Tale of Kiều (a Vietnamese epic written in 3,254 lines of poetry by Nguyễn Du), Happiness: Essential Mindfulness Practices by Thích Nhất Hạnh, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini and The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.
Forthcoming books you are excited about:
I am, with the Pulitzer Prize-winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, a member of the editorial board of DVAN's publishing series. We publish books about the diasporic Vietnamese experience in order to fight against invisibility and reclaim representation on our own terms. Collaborating with independent and university presses, we spotlight emerging and innovative writers to show the diversity and complexity of the literature of the Southeast Asian diaspora. I am very excited that we are publishing titles such as Hà Nội at Midnight (a short story collection by Bảo Ninh, the acclaimed author of The Sorrow of War), Nothing Follows (a poetry collection by Lan Duong) and Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose (the 25th anniversary edition). Another forthcoming title is On Being a Writer: Vietnamese Diasporas in Dialogue, which brings together writers and poets from different countries to speak with each other about issues that are important to us as writers. This book will be the first of its kind to engage a global perspective on the plurality of the Vietnamese diasporic experience and imaginaries.