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 What people are saying about Haunting Legacy

"What a terrific book!"

Lesley Stahl, correspondent for 60 Minutes


"This is great narrative history and biography combined to create informative case studies."

Walter Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute


"Marvin Kalb and Deborah Kalb’s account of this phenomenon is studiously researched, vividly narrated, and, above all, highly readable. It will stand as a major contribution to the subject."

Stanley Karnow, author of Vietnam: A History and winner of the Pulitzer Prize

 

To read more reviews of Haunting Legacy, click here.

Thursday
Mar102016

Q&A with photographer Catherine Karnow

Catherine Karnow is the author of the new book Vietnam 25 Years: Documenting a Changing Country. A photographer, her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including National Geographic Traveler and Smithsonian. Born in Hong Kong, she is based in the San Francisco area.

Q: How would you describe your relationship with Vietnam?

A: Vietnam has been in my life as long as I can remember. Growing up in Hong Kong, with a reporter father (Stanley Karnow, Vietnam: A History) who covered the Vietnam War, it was a subject very close to me. As a child I thought it was just a war, and didn’t even realize that it was a country until I was a bit older.

As a professional photographer, I first went in July of 1990 and fell immediately in love. Sometimes I wonder, is Vietnam my spiritual home? I have such a strong sense of belonging there.

Let me elaborate. I was born and grew up in Hong Kong. Leaving at the age of 10 was wrenchingly difficult for me. I was being pulled away from my home, a that place I loved, a place that felt just right. Leaving defined the rest of my life in every way.

After we left, I yearned for Hong Kong. Though I returned back on many occasions, I never found what was missing. My sense of loss was one-sided. Around me, Hong Kong didn’t care, life went on, I felt alone. It was no longer the place I had belonged.

Somehow, Vietnam nurtured me, and I found there what was missing in Hong Kong. It is complicated to define how or why. Perhaps it is the Vietnamese people.

The people embrace me the way they embrace foreigners in general. They are a very nostalgic people; they find beauty in sorrow. They pause to reflect; they stop to listen. They are comfortable with emotion.

There is something else about Vietnam, which is a sentiment shared by many people, especially foreigners who live or work there. Vietnam nourishes you. It can bring out your best self.

Vietnam gets under your skin. For example, a close friend of mine went to Vietnam when she lost her husband suddenly. She found in Vietnam a people who had lost their country many times at war, yet remained cheerful and forward-looking. She thought, "If the Vietnamese can bear such terrible burdens and stay positive, then I can too."

For me, being in Vietnam is the best kind of therapy. If I’m feeling rudderless, that goes away when I land in Vietnam. There are always projects to get involved in, fascinating issues to discuss, a spirit of change and progress.

Because I’ve been going there so long, I notice all the changes, even something tiny: there’s a convenience store next to the hotel! Or an air-conditioned supermarket with shopping carts!

Q: You mentioned changes in Vietnam. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen over the 25 years you’ve been going back and forth?

A: Pico Iyer said of Vietnam in the early '90s: “Vietnam, at present, is a pretty girl with her face pressed up against the window of the dance hall, waiting to be invited in..."

That’s how it was in the beginning of my time there. There was a sense of hopefulness and eagerness. From 1990 to 2015, the door opened little by little, and now it’s wide open. The bright, almost harsh, light is flooding the place. Vietnam is wide open to the world.

On the surface, a lot of the texture of intrigue and darkness is gone. Visually many old structures have been torn down, and the street life is diminishing. To some extent, when you’re in Saigon, you feel as if it could be any major city in Asia.

Along with those changes, one of the biggest is in the urban youth. To some degree, the urban youth of Vietnam resemble youth anywhere, with their knowledge of pop culture, music, movies, apps, technology, software, Facebook—they’re just as current as any young person in our global world.

But what is fascinating about Vietnam is the palpable generation gap. Out of a population of 92 million, roughly 2/3 of the population is under 45. Two-thirds of the population has never known war.

It’s completely different from the older generation, because they have only known war.

Another major change is the influx of the Viet Kieu, or Overseas Vietnamese. Perhaps this is one upside of the war. If there hadn’t been the exodus of all those people, you would not now have the return. And they are returning in droves, bringing with them a whole new Vietnam: in fashion, technology, business, hospitality and a new way of thinking.

For example, Vietnam has always been a Confucian country. Now the new youth are learning, and are being encouraged by Viet Kieu bosses, to think outside the box and to challenge authority. Because of these factors, the youth of Vietnam are changing the face of Vietnam.

Vietnamese culture is a copycat culture, but it’s starting to change - apps, video, fashion, software - people are starting to create individual, unique products, and it’s exciting.

Finally, there are big changes with LBGT rights. Previously, the Vietnamese government looked the other way, but now gay marriage is even on the horizon. The new gay U.S. ambassador, Ted Osius, is married with children and does quite a bit to encourage gay rights, and marriage equality.

Q: In the book, you include photographs dealing with the effects of Agent Orange. How did you get involved with this issue?

A: When I first went in 1990, I covered the legacy of the U.S. war: Amerasians and Agent Orange. Most people do not realize that there are millions of people in Vietnam affected by diseases associated with Agent Orange, that toxic herbicide the US military sprayed over parts of Vietnam during the war. Now we know that these diseases are passed down genetically.

Back to 1990. In the Tu Du maternity hospital in Saigon, there was a Dr. Nguyen Thi Phuong Tan. She was an obstetrician, and one of the first to notice that many of the babies she was delivering were deformed, and that women were carrying horribly malformed fetuses, which would not make it to birth. 

I photographed Dr. Phuong with a pair of Siamese twins she had just delivered.  In the back room of the hospital were dozens of jars of deformed fetuses. When I was first shown to this room, I was so shocked, I could not shoot. Although I had a tight schedule, I had to postpone this shoot for a couple weeks. It was the most ghastly thing I had even seen. Agent Orange fetuses.

Instead that day, I spent time with a pair of twins – Viet and Duc Nguyen - who had just been separated in a historic operation funded by the Japanese.

While Duc was a sort of a prodigy, able to play on his little piano any tune he had just heard, Viet lay like a vegetable, unable to comprehend anything. I will add that Duc went on to marry and have twins of his own, while Viet died some years later.

It was my first exposure to Agent Orange. It was very powerful. I meant to return to Vietnam and seriously photograph that subject.

In 2010 that I was asked by Charles Bailey of the Ford Foundation to be one of a dozen journalists to shoot a project of our choice on Agent Orange.

I decided to team up with National Geographic photographer and filmmaker Ed Kashi and to shoot a multi-media piece in Danang, a “hot spot” for Agent Orange. He shot video and I did the stills. I did the groundwork to find the families. We focused on two families, one that was well served with a lot of support and one that received little support, to show how support can make a difference. A very simple message.

We spent about 10 days covering the two families in Danang. My still photographs would go on to win awards; they were shown everywhere and made a huge difference. 

A U.S. senator actually visited one of the families. It was the first time someone so prominent in the U.S. government would openly acknowledge the humanitarian issue. These Agent Orange families need help. In all fairness, the U.S. has embarked on a couple environmental projects to clean up these “hot spots,” but I think they are ignoring more important problems.

Recently, I raised $27,000 on a crowd-funding site, to do a small multimedia project to raise awareness, to then do a larger project with bigger funding. I will be shooting this in 2017. I will again concentrate on the families.

Q: I know a lot of people will want to find out more about how your family connections to Vietnam have affected your relationship with the country.

A: I think it’s contributed to my sense of belonging. It’s curious and unusual to go to a foreign country where everybody knows, and admires, your father.

With my father not alive any more, I welcome and cherish any mention of my father, and my mother too. I treasure any memory, anecdote and recognition of my father, and it happens all the time in Vietnam.

Most people don’t know this, but my mother lived in Saigon in the 1950s. It’s pure coincidence. But the Vietnamese will say that nothing is a coincidence.

It’s all wrapped up with—I can’t call it my spiritual home, but something more mysterious is at work with my belonging, my presence, my relationship with Vietnam. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A:  I had been giving my very successful Umbria Workshop (catherinekarnowphotoworkshop.com) for four years when I decided to design a Vietnam Photo Workshop, which launched last October. It took 25 years of experience in that country, three years of thinking about it, a year of intense planning, and a fantastic team to help me put it together.

I was ready for things to go wrong, from the weather to people backing out of appointments to things being shut when we turned up.

And yet it went better than I could have imagined. Again, it was almost bizarre - as if, again, I am blessed by a larger presence in Vietnam.

There are many photo workshops, tours and trips given to Vietnam, but nothing even comes close to mine. I offer great photo experiences and visits with fascinating people who can tell us their stories and educate us on history, economy, photography and art, and culture. 

Our experiences include a possible dinner at the ambassador’s residence; offering respects at General Giap’s home, a tour of his offices, and tea with his family; shooting a fashion show with deaf models; dinner in my gallerist’s art-filled house; an exclusive visit at a non-touristy pagoda and a private audience with the head monk; a life-changing afternoon with Agent Orange families, amongst many more.

Plus we have class time and photo critiques both one on one and as a group. This workshop is totally unique.

In Vietnam, something deeper is happening. It’s an enigma that keeps me coming back. I have an endless number of ideas and projects and so much more to explore. 

I self-published this book as a catalog to accompany my grand exhibition in Hanoi in April of this year, at the Art Vietnam Gallery. The show was a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam-U.S. War. The catalog quickly became a 235-page book filled with not only photographs but beautifully written introductions by the writer Andrew Lam, and my gallerist, Suzanne Lecht, and many anecdotes and remarkable stories of my years in Vietnam.

The book can be bought at the following places:

Art Vietnam Gallery, Hanoi

The Caravelle Hotel, Saigon

L’Usine, Saigon

BookPassage, Corte Madera, California

Arcana: Books on the Arts, Los Angeles

By contacting Catherine directly: catherinekarnow@yahoo.com

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears at deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com, including photographs from the book.

 

 

Wednesday
Mar022016

Q&A with Professor Harriet F. Senie

Harriet F. Senie is the author of the new book Memorials to Shattered Myths: Vietnam to 9/11. Her other books include Critical Issues in Public Art and The Tilted Arc Controversy. She directs the M.A. Program in Art History and Art Museum Studies at City College, and teaches at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Memorials to Shattered Myths?

A: It didn’t come to me all together at once. I was thinking about Vietnam for a while—I went to the Vietnam memorial…I began to be very interested in how engaged everybody was with the wall, the objects they left there. That led me to the second chapter, with the spontaneous memorials. That was chapter 1 and 2.

In thinking about Vietnam and the placement of the memorial, it was such a contentious war that almost split the country apart and continues to do so, and we’ve sited it in the midst of the national identity, on the Mall between Washington and Lincoln.

I started thinking about myths of national identity, about Oklahoma City, about Columbine, and the memorials to the victims. They weren’t heroes. As the daughter of parents whose lives were altered by the Holocaust, the construction made no sense to me. With 9/11, it seemed to form a continuum in my mind.

The notion of unintentionally embedding strategies of division and denial has to do with the way the country doesn’t own up to its potential implication in these events. It was piecemeal, and it started with the Wall.

Q: What you’re saying brings me to a quote from the book, where  you write, “Understandably, [the memorials] avoided the toughest question of all: What did these people die for?” Do you think there would be a way for the monuments to address that more directly?

A: I think there is a way…in the way that museums are so focused on interacting. There could be a way to have a place where people could reflect, where questions could be posed, and alluded to what led to these events.

I’m thinking of reading rooms in museums—that’s a fairly common practice, or where there are comment books in museums. If memorials could truly be educational centers, and they allowed for space for thoughtful contemplation and perhaps guided [discussions].

At the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, when you book a tour there, it ends in a room in an old-fashioned kitchen with chairs. I have taken students there. One of the ways the [guides] raise issues is to say, Where were your clothes made? It’s a pretty neutral question. Everybody’s looking at their labels. You can have another kind of contemplation…

Now we are expecting multi-part memorials. There could be a spiritual place, a room apart, for quiet spiritual contemplation with the option for guided contemplation.

There is not any other way because museums impose a narrative, with a sledgehammer. You might be able to build [such a room], in future memorials, if you have that as part of the mission statement.

Q: So you wouldn’t directly throw that question at people.

A: Exactly, not in that space where people are having a traumatic experience. You could have a conversation about why you think the people are heroes.

Most people seem relieved to have that [question raised and] articulated. One woman said, My brother-in-law was just a banker [and family members] are under pressure to recreate him as a hero.

I think these people should be honored, of course. Their families, I can’t begin to imagine the grief. [But] in a national memorial, the conflation [between victims and heroes] is not healthy.

Q: You write, “It is useful to define the memorial process as tri-partite: immediate, interim, and permanent.” What value does each of these phases have?

A: I think we see how important the immediate ones are. You see how often people create them. After 9/11, people needed to express themselves…we need to do something, whatever that is. I started teaching memorial classes after 9/11; I hadn’t before.

They serve a purpose in the immediate shock of the events—to be together, to share our dismay and express ourselves. That’s really important.

Interim memorials are also important. They may be more important to the people who lost somebody. I came to the notion of interim memorials from two directions.

One was the Tribute in Light [for 9/11]. That seemed to help so many people. There was something between the event and the time the memorial was finished. Something where people can think about it…

From the other, from my perception, asking people who just lost somebody to design a permanent memorial is not a good thing. When you’re in grief—my husband died three years ago; it’s a fresh experience in my mind—long-range planning is not something you’re able to do. But it’s good to have something to do.

[Families should be consulted but] building memorials requires a professional background to know what’s possible, how you want something to be different from one memorial or similar to another.

I don’t think, emotionally or professionally, that’s the best way to construct a committee to build a memorial or build a proposal…That was where the interim [idea] came from. I thought, what could they do? It’s good to be together and to have something to do. They should tell us what they need.

It could take many forms—a work of art like the Tribute in Light, maybe a place to gather. Suddenly that seemed to me to solve a lot of problems…I believed that the permanent museum should be largely a professional undertaking…

Q: You look at memorials to the Vietnam War, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine school shooting, and 9/11. What themes do you see running through these memorials?

A: Kirk Savage was the first person to write about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as a therapeutic memorial. It’s become the model for everything else. It set a new way of thinking about memorials. Before, they were never thought about as therapy, but to honor or celebrate…

With Vietnam it’s arguable, but they all conflate heroes and victims. If it were only Vietnam, I wouldn’t say that, but in a way you can consider people killed in the war victims of government policy. I could make that case. I would say at the very least they are conflated….

The seeds of that [conflation] are there in every memorial—it’s obvious and misguided. People who went to work or school that day may have behaved heroically, but were victims of that time and place. To create memorials that honor them as heroes is a disservice. It’s a disservice to what really happened, to the truth, so it is a real problem.

The other thing that comes about as a result is by defining victims as heroes, in the end we define ourself as a nation of victims, and that’s the opposite of what was intended.

One more thing beneath the surface is the Holocaust. The Holocaust is related to every one of these. I wasn’t expecting to find this. The [Vietnam] memorial and the [Holocaust] museum were approved by Congress at the same time.

With Oklahoma City, the man who wrote a book about the Holocaust Museum and a book about Oklahoma City said [the Oklahoma City memorial] is based on the Holocaust Museum. Edward Linenthal. That’s the direct link. When I was in Oklahoma City for the 10th anniversary, the Holocaust was linked to it. Holocaust survivors began the ceremony.

Columbine was on the anniversary of Hitler’s death. The director of the 9/11 Museum was previously the director of the Holocaust Museum. That’s fewer than six degrees of separation.

I just mention this in the introduction—it strikes me as resonant. The Holocaust victims stand as the quintessential victims in Western European history, in the 20th century. It’s lying there.

Q: So you see this issue of conflation relating back to the Holocaust.

A: It does for me. I grew up among Holocaust survivors. Growing up, they got together, families stayed close together, [they] celebrated. Children are very quick to pick up on tone, if this were a depressed crowd, and they were not. “Oh my God, what did I lose”—I never heard that, and my mother lost plenty.

I was having one of those “what” moments. It’s not to dishonor the families and their grief, or those who died tragically, but they were not heroes. Many behaved heroically during the Holocaust, and during these events, but they were not heroes as a group, except on Flight 93. There could have been other things like that, possibly, but we don’t know.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m co-editing a huge anthology for Wiley Blackwell, The Companion to Public Art. I have an essay on the conflation of heroes and victims.

I tried to articulate why I think that’s possible, going back to the ‘60s and the inversion of values and new types of movie stars like Dustin Hoffman and new music stars like Dylan. It was an inversion of what we thought of as stars. It gave me the opportunity to push that theme more strongly and contextualize it in a cultural way.

Also, an anthology on the relationship between museums and public art. That has less of a broader cultural reach. It’s more of an art-world thing.

And long-range, I’m working on the theme of the road in American art. We have road literature, road movies—there’s also road art. Art is always marginalized in general. I have started work on that—that’s going to be fun.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.

Monday
Feb292016

Q&A with writer C.J.C. Whitehouse

C.J.C. Whitehouse is the author of the new book Lone Buffalo: Conquering Adversity in Laos, the Land the West Forgot. It is a fictionalized version of the life of Manophet Mouidouangdy, whom Whitehouse first met in Laos in 2001.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and why did you opt to fictionalize your protagonist’s life?

A: Little is known in the West about what it was like to grow up on the Plain of Jars in the aftermath of the devastating bombing to which the area was subjected during the Secret War.

For years, Westerners were prohibited from entering Laos, and when the country finally reopened its doors few northern Laotians could speak any language other than their own.

But Manophet (the protagonist) had taken a far-sighted decision to teach himself English, and this gave him a rare ability to communicate the missing history to outsiders.

I felt his unusual story deserved to be more widely heard, but the Lao have no tradition of story- or biography-writing, so there was a risk that it would simply be forgotten if a westerner didn’t step up to the plate.

It soon became clear that much of the information that I was gleaning in interviews was only moderately reliable.

Until recently, most northern Lao depended exclusively on the spoken word, writing nothing down, and accounts of events could vary, depending on who I was talking to – particularly when it came to events that had taken place 30 or 40 years earlier.

To confuse matters further, “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” is not really a recognized concept in Laos. Truth tends to be offered piecemeal, and some Lao have a habit of borrowing truth from the lives of others when it suits them.

Against this background, fictionalizing the story seemed to make more sense than trying to write a biography, and this approach felt increasingly appropriate as I proceeded, even though many of the “characters” in the book were still alive.

Q: What sort of research did you need to do, and was there anything that particularly surprised you in the course of your research?

A: With so little written material to draw on, my primary objective was to interview as many of Manophet’s family, friends and acquaintances as I could persuade to talk to me.

Arranging an audience with his mother (who is almost 90) and other siblings presented an interesting challenge. Following Manophet’s untimely demise, the only English-speaking member of the family was a brother based in the U.S., so I began by flying across the Atlantic to meet him.

Once he had satisfied himself that my desire to write a book was genuine, a rapport developed, and in due course I asked if he would be prepared to arrange a meeting with the rest of [his] family and act as interpreter.

It took several months to overcome the logistical difficulties, but eventually he flew 8,000 miles west around the globe, while I flew 6,000 miles east, and we all met up at his mother’s house on the Plain of Jars.

It came as a delightful surprise to learn that Fred Branfman had retained Manophet’s e-mails to him and was happy for me to read and reproduce them. They convey a wonderful sense of both men reaching out to one another.

Fred was already something of a legend in Manophet’s eyes when they met, but Manophet then became a significant piece in Fred’s jigsaw, because Fred was painfully aware that his seminal book, Voices from the Plain of Jars, had been written in absentia. Manophet was able to supply him with the insight and context for which he had always thirsted.

Q: What do you think are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Laos in the United States and Britain?

A: A not-uncommon misperception in Britain is that Laos is in Africa! From what I can gather, education levels in the U.S. (as regards Laos, at least) are higher than in Europe, possibly because the Vietnam War does not feature prominently in school curricula over here.

Many Europeans are not even aware that Laos was bombed, let alone that it is the most heavily bombed country on earth. There is a widespread perception that an incompetent regime was entirely to blame for Laos’s failure to prosper between 1975 and 2005, a time when most other countries in the region were flourishing – when in fact the country’s war legacy was also a significant factor.

Most visitors are profoundly shocked when they discover how many Lao are still being killed by unexploded cluster bombs each month, even though mortality levels have fallen steadily over recent years.

Q: What do you think Manophet’s story says about relations between Laos and the United States?

A: The Lao living on the Plain of Jars give the impression that they are ready to forgive the enemy who turned a blind eye to their country’s neutrality and razed their state capital and its environs to the ground. U.S. politicians, for their part, appear more than happy to capitalize on their generosity and let the misapprehension that America never bombed Laos take root anew.

And yet, as the book highlights, there is a chasm between the reaction of successive U.S. administrations, which have one by one abrogated as much responsibility as they can for clearing up the mess left behind by the bombers, and the reactions of ordinary U.S. nationals when they are apprised of what was done in their name by the U.S. government of the time.

Several individuals have recently tried to make reparation in their own way, and their generous actions have gone some way to restoring America’s reputation.

Q: How did you choose the book’s title, and what does it signify for you?

A: Lone Buffalo was Manophet’s self-styled sobriquet (the school that he founded is now called the Lone Buffalo School). On the face of it, the name derives from a situation that arose when he was at his lowest ebb, which is described in the book.

But when I asked him about this in 2001 he gave me a different, rather elliptical, explanation that hinted at something deeper. Alas I was never able to get to the bottom of this riddle.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’ve always felt a writer should abstain from writing unless he’s convinced he has something worth saying. Right now, I have no compelling idea up my sleeve.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Digging into the Secret War and its legacy can be a grim exercise, but Manophet’s determination not to be beaten by his circumstances makes this an uplifting book, as opposed to a depressing one. He set a remarkable example during his short life, one that I hope readers will find inspiring.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.

Sunday
Feb212016

Q&A with writer Lynn Kanter

Lynn Kanter is the author of the novel Her Own Vietnam. She also has written the novels On Lill Street and The Mayor of Heaven. She is a writer for the Center for Community Change, and she lives in Washington, D.C.

Q: You've said that your own youth was shaped by the Vietnam War. What impact did it have on you, and how did that affect your decision to write this book?

A: When I was a teenager, the Vietnam War was everywhere: on TV, in the newspaper, the subject of heated discussions at home and at school. The anti-war movement too was all around me, in the streets, on the news, even reflected in the clothing people my age wore and the music we listened to. I was only a dabbler in anti-war sentiment, but two things happened in 1970 when I was 16 that profoundly shook me.

One was that my older brother turned 18. Draft age. His fate would be decided by a man who reached into a large transparent canister and pulled out a blue plastic capsule about the size of a ping-pong ball. In the capsule was a date, and that date would determine the order in which boys would get drafted, based on their birth date. It was a lottery straight out of Shirley Jackson. My brother got lucky; other boys didn’t.

The second pivotal experience took place in May of 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard took aim at college students protesting the Vietnam War on their own campus at Kent State University. The Guardsmen fired into the crowd, killing four students and injuring nine others.

As a child, I had struggled with the notion that not long ago, millions of people in Europe had been slaughtered simply because they were like me: Jewish.

Now I had to grapple with the idea that my own government had murdered four kids simply because they were what I hoped to become: politically engaged college students.

I felt a deep sense of alienation from government, from authority, from the older generation, from the way things were. Kent State was the spark that turned me into a lifelong activist.

(Years later I would realize that there had been another yet another layer to this twist of history. Just a few weeks after the Kent State massacre commanded headlines across the country, two students at Jackson State in Mississippi were killed when authorities decided to quell a campus protest by raking a women’s dorm with gunfire. They were African American students at a historically black college, and their deaths drew little notice.)

If I were to draw a line between the influence of the Vietnam War in my life and my decision to write Her Own Vietnam, it would be long and jagged.

In fact, I wouldn’t even say I decided to write the book; it was more that I was thunderstruck by a question. What would it be like to be a woman who had served in Vietnam? A woman who had been inside the experience that overshadowed my youth, and who now carried it inside herself? The only way for me to find the answers would be to write the novel.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Della, and why did you choose to focus on a woman who served as a nurse in Vietnam?

A: I knew that the majority of the women who served were nurses, so I began to imagine the character who would become Della Brown. How did she end up in Vietnam as a young woman? Did she volunteer, was she running away from something, was she shocked to find herself deployed there?

I thought about what kinds of economic forces or personal choices might motivate a young woman to join the service in those years. Which ideals did she think she was serving?

While I loved doing the research to be able to portray her experiences in Vietnam, I was particularly intrigued by the question of what Della’s life was like now.

If you looked at her you would see an unremarkable middle-aged woman going about her business. You would never guess that Vietnam smoldered inside her. What pressures might shift and build to make the war come alive for her again, after all these years?

Q: What kind of research did you need to do to write the novel?

A: …A few of the books I read included A World of Hurt, by Mary Reynolds Powell, American Daughter Gone to War by Winnie Smith, and A Piece of My Heart by Keith Walker, all of which contain personal reflections by women who had served.

I also read journalistic examinations of the Vietnam War, including Long Time Passing by Myra MacPherson and Winners and Losers by Gloria Emerson, as well as articles and interviews online. I studied photos and videos of the places my characters would have worked and lived in Vietnam.

[After joining a listserv for women Vietnam veterans, I met a group of women.] Many were nurses, some had held other military jobs, and one was a civilian who had served as a librarian on an Army base in Vietnam.

They shared their own memories and helped me pin down the details that can help make a story come alive, like the kinds of junk food they missed while they were in Vietnam. It was important for me to try to get the small things right, so no nurse or Vietnam vet who read the book would feel that their experience had been disrespected.

Q: The book jumps from one period in Della's life to another, and back again. Did you plot out the entire book before you started writing, or did you come up with ideas as you wrote?

A: …I never know where the book is going or how it will end. I start with a situation or a question, and then discover the plot as I write.

I knew that this book would have sections that take place in the present day of the novel, which is 2003 just before the Iraq war begins, and in Della’s war experiences in 1969-1970. But after writing those scenes, I spent a lot of time moving them around and trying to figure out the right sequence and balance.  

Q: Do you think there are parallels in Della's experience to the experience of women serving in combat areas today?

A: I do think women serving in the military today will recognize some of Della’s experiences. For instance, only in December 2015 did the Pentagon announce that women can now serve in combat posts, although in reality women had been fulfilling combat roles for years, taking the same risks as the men but without gaining the same recognition and respect.

Della and the other nurses didn’t fight, but they did live and work in a combat zone, in constant peril from bombs and bullets.

Although my book doesn’t focus on this, it does allude to the fact that much of the danger the women faced was from some of the men they served with, who wore the same uniform but saw the women as prey rather than partners. I think that is an outrageous reality for many women serving today.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what do you see as the Vietnam War's legacy today?

A: The title Her Own Vietnam has a few layers of meaning for me. One is that each person experiences war alone, although they’re surrounded by others. That’s why you sometimes hear veterans refer to “my war,” even with other vets.

Della carries her war inside herself, rarely attempting to share her experiences with her family and perhaps unable to make them understand even when she does try.

I also think it’s interesting that the word “Vietnam” has come to mean a quagmire, a terrible situation you can’t escape. Of course, the Vietnamese people don’t think of it that way. They call it the American War.

My father, a World War II veteran, once told me, “The difference between your generation and mine is that my generation trusted our government.”

The Vietnam War is one reason why that changed. For the first time in history, regular people could watch the war on TV every night, and anyone could see that our political leaders were lying to us. The shimmer of righteousness that had illuminated the U.S. since WWII began to flicker out.

Certainly the shadow of the Vietnam War continues to shape American foreign policy, as you discuss in your book Haunting Legacy. So many decisions about how we engage with the world, and how we treat our own veterans, are based on what we have learned or failed to learn from Vietnam.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on some research for my next novel.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Her Own Vietnam is my third novel, but the first where I’ve gotten to interact with book groups that are discussing the book. I’ve found this completely fascinating.

People bring so much of their own perspective and life experience to reading a book that I’ve learned to see my own novel in new ways as a result of readers’ insights. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Lynn Kanter will be participating in the Temple Sinai Authors' Roundtable in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 27. This Q&A can also be found on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.

Saturday
Jan162016

Q&A with writer Vu Tran

Vu Tran is the author of the new novel Dragonfish. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The O. Henry Prize Stories and The Best American Mystery Stories. Born in Saigon and raised in Oklahoma, he now teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Dragonfish?

A: In 2008, I was asked to contribute a short story to the crime fiction anthology Las Vegas Noir, and my assignment was Chinatown. The story I wrote, “This Or Any Desert,” ended up in The Best American Mystery Stories 2009, and since I was struggling with another novel at the time, I decided to put it aside and expand “This Or Any Desert” into something longer.  

It’s now essentially the second chapter of Dragonfish, but at the time something about the four main characters in the story—Robert, Suzy, Sonny, Junior—felt nascent and worth further exploration, and so I thought it would be interesting to expand the world around them and connect them all in a backstory that takes place in the immediate wake of the Vietnam War. 

The short story was very much a pastiche of noir fiction, but I wanted the novel to use those noir conventions to tell what was basically an immigrant narrative—or more precisely, a story about refugees.     

Q: Can you say more about Las Vegas as the setting for the novel?

A: As I mentioned, the setting was Las Vegas because the original short story was a contribution to a crime anthology about the city. 

As I expanded the story into a novel, though, I gradually recognized some metaphoric value in setting it there. In our popular imagination, Vegas has become a place of secrets and illicit behavior, and while the reality of the city is much more normal, boring, and suburban than people would think, part of that reality does match this romanticized notion of the city. 

Most Vegas citizens are from elsewhere, coming to the city to make a better life for themselves and carrying all the stories from their previous lives that they might share only in part, in altered form, or not at all. This is similar to the immigrant who comes to a new and alien country with all the stories from their homeland that they often keep to themselves or share with only a few other people. 

Refugees, in particular, whose departure from the homeland could have been extremely traumatic, will carry around these hidden stories and, in effect, hide a significant part of themselves.  

Sometimes, the desire is to remake or redefine themselves in some way. There are plenty of immigrants who have no problem talking about the life they lived before coming to their adopted country, but I’ve always been interested in the reasons why certain immigrants do not share the stories they’ve been carrying around for so long. 

So Las Vegas became a setting that framed those reasons in a dramatic and compelling way.   

Q: While the story is told from Robert’s perspective, you include letters written from Hong/Suzy’s perspective. Why did you opt to write the novel that way?

A: For a while, the novel was basically operating as a crime narrative with Robert at the center, but once I got a few chapters in, that felt insufficient to me. His story alone wasn’t interesting enough, and it just felt like the novel had to be more than just a crime story. 

It wasn’t until I reached into Suzy’s backstory and fleshed out her reasons for doing what she did in the past, for behaving the way she did with Robert and other people in her life—only then did I find the heart of the novel. 

In many ways, Suzy’s letters provide an emotional foundation for the story that ties all the main characters to each other. In a sense, it’s in how she has hurt others and been hurt by others that ends up explaining so much of her behavior and the behavior of those in her life.  

So when I finally figured out her letters, I ended up writing all of them before going back to page 70 or so of the “crime narrative” and then continuing it until the end.

Q: How did you choose the novel’s title, and what does it signify for you?

A: The working title of the novel was actually the title of the original short story,  “This Or Any Desert,” which was more literary but also—my editor thought—not as memorable as it could be for a crime novel. 

Because I couldn’t come up with a better title, she ended up suggesting Dragonfish, which is a reference to the Asian Arowana fish in the second chapter. 

To be honest, it doesn’t mean very much and hopefully just sounds cool. After the title change, though, I went back and added a line about how Asians believe dragonfish bring good luck, keep the family together, and ward away evil. I like the irony that they don’t do any of those things in the novel.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I haven’t actually started writing anything new just yet, but I was rereading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier recently and was fancying the idea of writing a Vietnamese Gothic novel. 

I haven’t developed the idea enough to talk about it with any clarity or certainty, but I do like the idea of using that framework—the atmosphere and style of the gothic tradition—to tell a story about colonial Vietnam, the impact of the French and American footprint there, and how it has shaped the resulting Vietnamese diaspora. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb. This Q&A also appears on deborahkalbbooks.blogspot.com.