• Letter to My Daughter: It Takes a Village

    Return to Viet Nam.3.

    I have to start with the small Covid test panel to which I add three drops of the concoction I’d created.  I do this after a close exposure within my family.  So my C line lights up. OK.  But I have to give it 15 minutes. Then the T line shows really faint. But I know, I can’t go to Viet Nam.

    “Mom,” you say, “that’s what everybody has to do. Everybody’s things get cancelled.” I sit with that.

    I called Rebecca to tell her I had to teach my yoga class tonight on zoom, and I couldn’t go to Viet Nam. We solved the class issue, but about the journey, Rebecca said not so fast.  She pulled up the CDC calculator. When are you leaving? It was today you tested positive? The CDC site calculated I could end isolation on the day before my flight was scheduled.  Unless I get worse symptoms.

    Wendy texted fluids, fluids, fluids. I see it takes a village to leave a home.  Part of the village are now the triage nurses at Kittery Family Practice who get me Paxlovid and you, Lizzie, picked it up because I’m isolated and sad.  And you brought me soup from Ceres.

    A bit in limbo, I write this post about the many people who have been a part of my working to get on the plane. I’m determined to imagine.

    My class of Red Cross workers in San Fransisco waiting to board the plane for Hawaii, then Saigon. I must have taken the photo. This was our dress uniform we never wore again.

    Through Facebook, I’ve been in touch with a few other Red Cross workers. They are a part of the village. I re-met René Johnson who was in my training class in DC.  I have followed Penni Evans and Lane Query Stallings. I’ve read Ann Kelsey and Sandra Lockney Davis, who were Special Services.  René had recently traveled to Viet Nam. We talked by phone and she is the only Red Cross worker I’ve talked to in some depth about her experience.  She also told me the vaccines you really need if you go.  René introduced me to members of the American Red Cross Overseas Association.

    A large group of English language learners are with me, people I’ve read stories with and many have written their own experiences. This very morning I met, on zoom, with students from Second Start Adult Education in Concord, NH. Their teachers said they are reading books about food and differences between cooking in the U.S. and their home countries.  In that vein, they’ve just read A Feast for Joseph about a small boy from Uganda and South Sudan. They sent me pictures of favorite foods they loved as children. Here are dishes a South Sudanese student sent. Thank you, my friends, at Second Start.

    Another member of my village is Emma Spencer who interviewed me for her thesis project at Amherst College. It was a work of photojournalism called Vietnam War Veterans Now and Then and was another link to the country for me. Emma wrote that when she arrived at Amherst, she took a history course called “The Modern American Experience of War Through Literature and Film,” taught by Mark Jacobson which was a step in her inspiration for the project.

    Katie, in my village, taught in Hanoi, and introduced me to The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, and this book travels with me. Maren wrote me a good luck charm which I need. She wrote: “You will not bring enough paper notebooks for the times you want to write something down and a computer is not present. You will find something about geography or tradition or music or art or storytelling you had forgotten and you will discover something amazingly new.”

    You are all with me. And while I’m drinking  fluid, fluids fluids, I’m deep into Le Ly’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places again.  I’ll always remember brother Sau Ban of Le Ly’s memories and wonder if I’ll meet young cousins in the family who look just like Sau Ban. Or Anh. Or Mama Du.

    Le Ly and I began to work with folktales her Mama told her with the plan of sharing them in English.

    Now I’ll sleep and be ready.    

  • Letters to My Daughter: When I Met Le Ly

    Return to Viet Nam.2. In a series of letters about my return journey to Viet Nam.

    I spent a long time imagining who I might go to Viet Nam with. Who would come with me?  This was a journey I didn’t want to do alone. My friend Rodger, who had been a combat engineer in the war, went back with his daughter, Marieke. Rodger is a poet and journalist and describes his return in his writings. My friend Matt had been to Tibet on a spiritual journey. I didn’t know what a spiritual journey looked like, but the focus made me curious since that was a little of the journey of my life from the young Texas girl in anti-war America who was simply curious about Viet Nam.

     I called the man who ran a group called “Soldiers on a Mission.” He was planning a trip for fall 2022, but the Vietnamese government wouldn’t let them come anymore on the visa they had come on. I found later they were on a Christian mission, in addition to being vets on a medical mission.  Evangelical Christianity is considered “suspect” by the Communist government. Anyway, it was their last mission.

    It would have been one thing to travel with a group of vets, with this group or another.   I had been the champion of soldiers. I would have learned a lot with a group of people who had been shaped by the war in all our odd ways.  But I didn’t want to see Viet Nam that way.  We’ve had a sort of a refrain, Lizzie. I say, Do you remember…. And you say, Mom, I wasn’t born yet. And we laugh. It’s just so funny, I imagine you as a part of all my life. You were always curious why I went to the war. I wanted to understand that better myself by meeting people in Viet Nam today

    Saigon: Terry playing cards with children in 1970

    Years pass. It’s 1987.  You’re ten years old. That’s the year I started as the children’s librarian in Leominster, MA.  Along with the French Canadian kids and the Italians and the Irish, here were all these Vietnamese kids whose families had resettled in the area.   In Leominster, I read Vietnamese folktales along with tales of other cultures for story times.  I met Vietnamese moms and dads. I began to experience the culture with the families, now some 9,000 miles from home. 

    A few years later, a book was published that filled in a vast gap of my knowledge of the war. It was from the Vietnamese point of view. I had devoured the accounts by U.S. soldiers and journalists. I’d never read the story of a Vietnamese woman and now here was a book available in English. It was called When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip, a young Vietnamese-American woman. The New York Times headlined a review of her book with the words, A CHILD’S TOUR OF DUTY:

    New York Times Review of When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip (1989)

    I read the book then and am re-reading it now. She addresses Americans, maybe especially returned veterans as her husband had been. In the prologue she writes:

    It was not your fault. It could not have been otherwise. Long before you arrived, my country had yielded to the terrible logic of war.

    Then we hear the reality of her life as a child in a village at war. Ky La in central Vietnam is a village shattered. Le Ly describes a war between the communist north steeped in Buddhist tradition and the south with a U.S.-backed president and long shadows of French colonialism and Catholicism.

    For you it was a simple thing: democracy against communism. For us, that was not our fight at all. For most of us it was a fight for independence…

    Many Vietnamese-American writers have followed Le Ly, bringing the changing interpretations of cultural identity and dialogues between east and west. To me, Le Ly offered a bridge to cross.

    Oct. 2022. I continued my search for someone to travel with. I found academic trips with an agency in Boulder, and that would have gotten me deep into the history and culture of Vietnam. The tour was described as luxurious and that concerned me as I didn’t desire luxury. I imagine that there would be westerners in evening attire having cocktails like the English on the patios I’d pictured in A Passage to India. No. I couldn’t do that.

    Then I found the impossible.  The same agency introduced another tour. Le Ly Hayslip was organizing a pilgrimage to her home village near Danang in February, 2023. Le Ly had invited others to join her to highlight the humanitarian work she with others have done for decades. “34 years ago, Le Ly’s newly-inaugurated East Meets West Foundation commenced its mission of healing the wounds of war in Vietnam.” The journey takes us from Saigon, to Le Ly’s home village once called Ky La, and to schools and clinics her foundation supports. Then we go to Hanoi, a city where I have never been.

    During the months we prepared for the journey, Le Ly and I became friends. She has read my children’s books and my writing collaborations across culture. We began to talk about preparing folktales in English, tales her mother told to her when Le Ly was little. Heaven and Earth is full of passed-down tales and lullabies from mother to daughter and father to daughter. They reflect the world at war she grew up in and a world she wants to document for all generations. She writes:

                            Children and soldiers have always known [war] to be terrible.

    Next: It takes a village to leave a village

  • Letters to My Daughter: Storytellers of the War

    Return to Viet Nam.1.

    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 stories I tell you 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”

  • Children’s Stories from Viet Nam and the Vietnamese Diaspora

    This year, I’m returning to Vietnam, a journey I could only imagine till now. Come with me through stories for children I’ve been reading over so many of years with children in story programs and with adults learning English. I include folktales, a contemporary story about a child who paddles a sampan across a lagoon to get to school in the Mekong Delta, to a story of recent history about a mother wishing safety for her child as they flee by boat.

    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.

  • 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