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Nguyen Phan Que Mai on her novel 'Dust Child'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

War in Vietnam has been at the center of many outstanding and wrenching American books and films. But the Vietnamese who suffered most in that war are often portrayed mostly as bystanders, victims or aggressors. Nguyen Phan Que Mai, an award-winning Vietnamese writer and journalist, has written a novel that tells the stories of people of mixed-race born out of wartime relationships between U.S. servicemen and Vietnamese women who are often left to languish in orphanages, shunned in their communities, left behind and forgotten by their biological fathers. Her novel, "Dust Child," and Nguyen Phan Que Mai joins us now from Seattle, where she's on book tour. Thank you so much for being with us.

NGUYEN PHAN QUE MAI: Thank you so much, Scott.

SIMON: You heard a lot of personal stories from people that made you want to write this novel, I gather.

QUE MAI: Yes, definitely. For quite a few years, I've been helping Amerasians to unite with their parents. So this novel actually started in 2015 when I was interviewing a group of American veterans who were returning to Vietnam to look for the women and the children they once abandoned. So I asked one of them if they could write a letter to, you know, one of their former girlfriends and tell her why he had abandoned her when she was pregnant and why he was going back to look for her. And he wrote a very moving story, and I published it together with the stories of these American veterans on a national Vietnamese newspaper. And then, three weeks later, I heard from one of the women in the article that the veteran was looking for. They united after more than 46 years. And, you know, I mean, there were so many amazing stories that I witnessed, and very heartbreaking as well.

SIMON: I want you to read a section from your novel that introduces us to one of your characters, Phong, who is Amerasian, waiting at the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City, 2016, with his visa application.

QUE MAI: OK.

(Reading) Around him, many Vietnamese were waiting in chairs or in lines for their turn to speak with one of the visa officers who sat at counters behind glass windows. Some Vietnamese cast curious glances toward Phong, and he felt the heat of their eyes. Half-breed, he imagined them whispering. Throughout his life, he had been called the dust of life, bastard, Black American imperialist, child of the enemy. These labels had been flung at him when he was younger with such ferocity that they had burrowed deep within him, refusing to let go. When he was a child living in the Lam Dong New Economic Zone with Sister Nha, he once filled a large bucket with water and soap, climbed inside, and rubbed his skin with a sponge gourd to scrub the Black off it. He was bleeding by the time sister Nha found him. He wondered why he had to be born an Amerasian.

SIMON: And you saw such youngsters growing up in Vietnam in the 1980s?

QUE MAI: Yes. As a person who moved from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, I felt like a refugee. You know, people from the North, like my family, were resented, and I was bullied. So I felt such compassion towards Amerasian children, who were also bullied, around me. But I didn't dare to speak up. For years, I was wondering what happened to them. So when I researched about this novel, I was shocked to see the extent of the discrimination that they faced, and I was very much inspired to see their courage and, you know, their struggles over time. And in this book, you know, I want to present Phong, a Black Amerasian, not as a victim. He's a loving father, a wonderful character and a musician.

SIMON: I got to tell you what some of the toughest parts of the novel were for me, which is to read about how some U.S. servicemen treated Vietnamese women they met in bars.

QUE MAI: Yeah. I mean, it was shocking to me when I researched for this novel to find out how many Vietnamese women had to work, you know, to serve American servicemen. There were hundreds of thousands of them, and they suffered a lot of physical abuse because their clients were very traumatized by the war and also because of the circumstances. So they were looked down upon, you know, considered as sexual objects. And you have seen the representation of these women in many Hollywood movies, you know? They appeared as very - I don't know - stupid, sexual. So I wanted to write about them in their full human capacity and the extent of the discrimination that they had to face and how they had to overcome so many things to survive.

SIMON: Yeah. I'll note you tell the story of Dan, who'd been a U.S. pilot - Kim, a Vietnamese woman he knows from the countryside. They meet at a place called the Hollywood Bar, which isn't really just a bar. Dan never quite tells Kim that he's engaged to a woman named Linda, but he brings Linda back as his wife. What does he want to find in Vietnam when he comes back?

QUE MAI: So Dan wanted to search for healing, for ways to overcome his trauma, to improve his relationship with Linda. But when he returned to Vietnam, he realized the root of his trauma is caused by the relationship that he had with Trang, whose bar name is Kim, and he had abandoned her when she was pregnant. So then, he was determined to find Trang and their child. So, you know, this book is a book of searches. Dan has to search for healing, for forgiveness. Phong has to search for his parents. And Trang and her sister have to survive the war and find healing for their family members.

SIMON: U.S. readers will find the spellings of Vietnamese names in your novel different from what some of us grew up reading. What we might call Saigon is rendered as two words, Sai Gon. Why was it important to you to do that?

QUE MAI: When I wrote my first novel, "The Mountains Sing," I made a difficult decision. I told my publisher I would rather keep my name and the names of the characters and the Vietnamese words in my novel in the authentic Vietnamese way to show respect for my culture rather than to sell more books. The fact is throughout our long history, we have been colonized, occupied by so many empires, and we have suffered so much loss to our language. Whenever the Vietnamese language is published as part of the English text, we are expected to take away the diacritics of our names to make it easy to the Western readers. And here I am to say that if we remove the diacritics, we misspell the Vietnamese words.

For example, my name Que, if it's written in the right way, with - you know, with a hat and with a sac, it says qway (ph). That means cinnamon. But if you spell it, like, the normal English way - you remove the diacritics - it becomes qware (ph), and it means a stick. Diacritics are really important to our language. You know, by reading my novels, the readers are embracing the Vietnamese culture, Vietnamese language. So I thank you for that.

SIMON: Nguyen Phan Que Mai, her novel, "Dust Child." Thank you so much for being with us.

QUE MAI: Thank you so much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.