• Letters to My Daughter: Storytellers of the War

    Return to Viet Nam

    I’ll address these notes to you, my daughter, about this whole venture I’m on to return to Viet Nam. I’ve addressed nearly all my writing about the US war in Viet Nam to you.  You were eight when you first asked about the war. Your father was in the military, and I remember the day you asked, “How come Dad didn’t go to Viet Nam, and you did?”

    I don’t know. Dad had been spared since he was in graduate school.  For me, one thing had just led to another. A Red Cross recruiter came to my Texas college. They wanted young people who could bring something of home to the soldiers in the war, and show them they hadn’t been forsaken. I was young.

    Do Thi Hai Yen as Phuong in a 2003 movie of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.

    But after you asked, I started writing, so I could try to tell you about that year I went.

    Today you’re not surprised I want to go back. We trace the route I’ll travel from Boston to Detroit, to Seoul, to Saigon.  You shake your head.  

    Remember the wall of books in our Portsmouth house, upstairs along the hall? Our bench there overlooked the back cove of the Piscataqua. The books were a part of all the Air Force bases and reassignments and new schools. I remember the places we went by the books we read – Rome, NY, Omaha, Upper Heyford, Pease. The last one brought us to New Hampshire.  With all those books in our lives, it makes some sense to tell you why I’m preparing to return by talking about the storytellers of the war.

    Now I want to tell you I was totally shaped by Graham Greene’s fiction when I was in college.  Don’t read him, Lizzie. The Quiet American is set during the French occupation of Vietnam. They called the country, along with Cambodia and Laos, French Indo-China. His lead, Fowler, is a jaded British reporter. He’s covered the French occupation a long time and is clear-eyed about the hopelessness of the whole thing for the Vietnamese, the French, and the looming Americans. He also knows the complexities, the vice grip, of situations people are put in when they must serve in a war. He’s in love with a young Vietnamese woman, Phuong, who wants to survive. In Saigon’s still famous Continental Hotel, he meets Pyle, an American policy maker. The French will fall in the famous battle at Dien Bien Phu, but they haven’t yet. It’s a long time before President Kennedy will send the Green Berets. It’s still 1953. Fowler offers Pyle information about the way of things, but finds that  Pyle “was absorbed already in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined — I learnt that very soon — to do good.” Pyle is oblivious to the culture he has entered.

    Be sure not to read this book, Lizzie and all the sons and daughters. It’s true, though, that if I hold the book and open to the first scene, I can’t close it. I am gripped by Greene’s manner of holding a story as a whole. He begins with the climax and weaves it through. The whole is in every scene. It’s all there, and you read in awe at the way he unfolds the tale. It is prophetic and spellbinding. And the American grunts I knew haven’t even arrived.

    Here’s why you can’t read The Quiet American.  It was written with all the sensibility of the 1950s around what a woman is. Graham Greene writes Phuong, who is Fowler’s lover, as a symbol. He writes that embracing her is like holding a bird, and I think of the slender thread that is the shape of Viet Nam. She is a symbol of an occupied country, which could be interesting if we could have met her as a woman, too. But Greene doesn’t let us hear her voice.  You need to hear the voices of the girls and the women.

    This same year I’m going back to Vietnam, I’m selling our house with the bookshelves and the bench by the window overlooking the cove.  I wonder if the new people will keep the floors and the stairs the same aqua blue you said was fine but was not authentic to the period. (You became a historian.) The books are gone.  But the books I tell you about here will be on the bookshelf in our minds.

    Everything I tell you won’t be about the storytellers of the war. But look how words can be breath and life. These are lines from a poem by a young Vietnamese American woman who grew up in California, Mai Nguyen Do (Đỗ Nguyên Mai). https://donguyenmai.com/

    In her poem “Unanswered,” the speaker is one who hasn’t survived, but fiercely and tenderly gives strength to a refugee who crosses the sea in a “ship” and lives. The poem ends,

    when I become the sea

    swelling beneath your swaying ship –

    em ơi,

    I will carry you

    to shore.

    Next Letter: “When I Meet Le Ly”

  • Writer for Children Reflects on Intercultural Collaboration

    Author Terry Farish reflects on the collaboration process for A Feast for Joseph with writing partner OD Bonny and gets insights from other authors and illustrators who have also collaborated on children’s books.

    School Library Journal OnLine

    This is also a reading essay about books by contemporary children’s book authors who are writing collaboratively, often from different cultural perspectives. Writers include Saadia Faruqi and Laura Shovan (A Place at the Table), Charles Waters and Irene Latham (Can I Touch Your Hair), Susan Hood and Pathana Sornhiran (Titan and the Wild Boars: The True Cave Rescue of the Thai Soccer Team), Louisa Jaggar and Shari Becker (Sprouting Wings: The True Story of James Herman Banning, the First African American Pilot to Fly Across the United States), Anne Sibley O’Brien and Reza Jalali (Moon Watchers) and OD Bonny and Me (A Feast for Joseph). We describe our processes which are each quite different.

    Writer for Children Reflects on Intercultural Collaboration, SLJ online

  • Unanswered by Do Nguyen Mai

    As I prepare to return to Vietnam, I found this exquisite poem by Do Mguyen Mai who is from California.

    Unanswered by Do Nguyen Mai

    After Joshua Nguyen

    Em ơi,

    don’t look back

    when my spine snaps

    against the cold click

    of the trigger,

    when my lungs flood

    with the fullness

    of the night sky,

    when my body drops


    when the ocean folds

    its palms over my chest,

    when my ribcage whistles

    with the waking shore,

    when the water ripples,

    when the boat tips over,

    when I become the sea

    swelling beneath your swaying ship –

    em ơi,

    I will carry you

    to shore.

    Do, Mai N. (2019) “Three Poems: Charges Against a Newborn; Unanswered; For the First Generation,” Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement: Vol. 14 : Iss. 1 , Article 3. DOI: 10.7771/2153-8999.1183 Available at: https://docs.lib.purdue.edu/jsaaea/vol14/iss1/3


  • Children’s Stories from Vietnam and the Vietnamese Diaspora

    In 2023, I’m returning to Vietnam, a journey I could only imagine till now. Come with me through stories. Here’s my in-progress reading list of children’s books.

    A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui, Capstone, 2017.

    Bao Phi is from the newest generation of writers. He came as a child with his family who migrated to the U.S. after the American war in Vietnam.

    A Different Pond by Phi, who is also a poet, is illustrated by the amazing graphic artist and writer, Thi Bui. Bao Phi tells a story of a small Vietnamese-American boy’s ritual of fishing early in the morning with his father. They’re catching food for supper before the father goes to work, one of his two jobs. The text and illustrations capture the boy’s respect for his father. They show his growing skill in their ritual, his fear, and the tight web of their family as they learn to survive in the U.S. This story is a model for writers who seek to tell their own migration story. The author selects one ritual vital to the life of a migrant family and allows the emotion and the story to flow from it.

    My Footprints by Bao Phi, illustrated by Basia Tran, Capstone, 2019

    Bao Phi returned to Capstone Publishing with a second book, My Footprints. A little girl with her two Vietnamese moms, think of the strongest animals they can imagine. Thuy wants to be THAT strong when she’s bullied.  Together, they become a phoenix. “Thuy sees their shadows curl into long blue feathers.” She and her moms “hold hands with Thuy in the middle, then spread their arms wide so that together their shadows form a great wingspan.” Then Thuy makes up her own magical creature all “different shades of pretty.” In the lovely, child-silly climax, Thuy creates a creature of her own. She steps into her own powerful footprints.

    My First Day by Phùng Nguyên Quang & Huynh Kim Liên, Make Me a World, imprint of Random House, 2021.

    The author/illustrator team live and work in Ho Chi Minh City. My First Day is a fantastical yet universal experience, told in sweeping panoramas of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. A small boy paddles a sampan through the river on his way to his first day at school.  “I paddle out into the floodwaters, past yesterdays and all the things I didn’t know.” His journey is through mangroves, past crocodiles, under sky that is a “crayon box of colors.” The boy meets up with laughing children paddling their own little boats to arrive at their school on the banks of the Mekong. 

    Wishes by Múón Thi Van, illustrated by Victo Ngai, Orchard Books, 2021.

    “The night wished it was quieter. The bag wished it was deeper. The light wished it was lighter.” With such simple lines giving emotion to inanimate objects, Van tells the deep fear and emotion of a mother boarding a boat with her little girl and a baby, having left all they love at home. Van helps young child readers imagine the courage to continue the voyage.

    Interior illustration by Jeanne M. Lee from her retelling of the folktale, Toad is the Uncle of Heaven.

    Con Cóc là Cậu Ông Trời (Toad is the Uncle of Heaven)

    The toad’s legacy goes like this: In a time long forgotten, Heaven made a drought so vicious, so brutal, that the lakes and rivers were sucked dry.” This line is from a version of the tale found on the site of DiaCritics, the Diasporic Vietnamese Artist Network .The Toad is the Uncle of Heaven is the story of a toad who is considered ugly by the other animals, but he shows his great worth to them in the time of the terrible drought. The tale warns about being judgmental, and also explains why toads croak before a big rain.

    Jeanne M. Lee retold the tale and many, many other tales from Vietnam and Cambodia including I Once Was a Monkey: Stories Buddha Told.

    For those a bit older:

    The Buddha’s Diamonds by Carolyn Marsden and Thây Pháp Niêm, Candlewick, 2008.

    Niêm and Marsden help children understand the Buddhism of Vietnam. The book is a retelling of a talk Niêm gave  at the Deer Park Monastery in California. “One Sunday, Thây Pháp Niêm told the children how his Vietnamese village had been destroyed by a cyclone – and how this devastating experience opened him to a deep encounter with the Buddha.” Niêm’s childhood experiences form the basis of The Buddha’s Diamonds. A year after the storm, Niêm escaped post-war Vietnam in a small boat and made it to safety. He later became a Buddhist monk.