Writer and teacher Nguyen Ngoc Ky lost the use of his arms at the age of four and has spent his life overcoming adversity. Now he has recounted his university experiences in an inspirational memoir 43 years in the making. He talks to Bui Tuyet about his long and arduous journey to complete the book, which he wrote on his computer by typing with his feet.
Writer and teacher Nguyen Ngoc Ky, whose arms were paralysed at the age of four after he suffered from a severe illness, has fought to overcome difficulties all of his life.
Born in 1947 in the northern province of Nam Dinh, he went to school at the age of seven and learnt how to use his feet to write. He studied hard and excelled in many subjects. For his tenacious spirit, he received medals of honour from President Ho Chi Minh in 1962 and 1963.
Ky graduated from university in 1970 and embarked on a successful teaching and writing career.
After releasing his first memoir, titled Toi Di Hoc (I Went to School) in 1970, Ky began penning several books and poems, mostly for children, and became a member of the Viet Nam Writers' Association. However, it took him 43 years to complete the next volume of his autobiography, which is now on sale. It is titled Toi Hoc Dai Hoc (I Entered University) and covers the author's student life.
Inner Sanctum: Could you tell us a bit about your second autobiography, Toi Hoc Dai Hoc (I Entered University)?
The book has just been published by the Tre Publishing House in collaboration with the Tri Viet-First company. It consists of 37 stories written in the form of diaries and letters from my time at university and my reflections of those days now. It also includes two sketches of Tam Dao Mountain, which I drew with my feet in 1967.
The volume recounts the struggles of me and my friends during our four years at university. On a personal level, I had to overcome the challenges posed by my disability, learning how to use my feet for daily activities. Together with my friends, we also had to face the constant fear of US bombs, which were targeting the northern region at that time, leading to regular evacuations and shortages of food, electricity and water during the years we were trying to study. I am sure that the memoir paints a vivid picture of Viet Nam in the 60s and 70s for readers.
Inner Sanctum: It took you 43 years to complete this book. Why did it take so long and how did you stay motivated, and committed to the story for that amount of time?
I began writing this memoir as soon as I graduated from Ha Noi University in 1970. At that time I was busy with my work as a literature teacher so I could only take advantage of Sundays and summer holidays to write. My ability to put words to paper also depended heavily on my emotions. My fictional work was easier to write than the biographical work. For the last 20 years I have suffered from renal failure and gout, giving me recurrent attacks of acute inflammatory arthritis. This was another obstacle in the writing process. However, in recent years I have written more following my retirement.
Year after year, the memories and emotions from my days started to fade. Therefore, I had to lift my sprits and concentrate hard to recall my memories. Sometimes, I only wrote about 100 words even though I sat thinking for hours.
However, writing has always been one of the ways for me to forget the pains caused by my illnesses. Revisiting old memories was wonderful, and the opportunity to remember my student days - said to be the best time of a person's life - was one of the key motivations for me to finally complete my book.
Inner Sanctum: When did you first decide to become a writer?
As soon as I entered university in 1966, I began writing my first autobiography, which was then called Nhung Nam Thang Khong Quen (Unforgettable Years). That book recounted my struggles to overcome difficulties during my childhood. After graduating in 1970, the book was printed under the title Toi Di Hoc (I Went to School). It was a big success and so I always knew I would write a follow up eventually.
Inner Sanctum: Which writers inspire you?
There are many writers that have had an impact on me, and my favourites change all of the time. However, the first person I would like to mention is the Russian writer Nikolai Ostrovsky.
In his novel How the Steel Was Tempered, he created a character named Pavel Korchagin who inspired me a lot with his sacrifices for his ideals, daring to live with his heart and overcome adversity to live a meaningful life. I dreamed of becoming a writer since I read the book. I would like to inspire people with my story.
Inner Sanctum: What have you been reading lately?
Recently, I have read limbless writer Nick Vujicic's memoir Life Without Limits and the writer/translator Nguyen Thi Bich Lan's Never Collapse. These books filled me with motivation, energy and patience. They can help readers in general to help them overcome their disadvantaged situation, and contribute more to society.
Inner Sanctum: Besides writing, you have spent time taking part in talks to students and doing psychological consultancy work via the (08)1088 switchboard of the Telecommunication Sai Gon Service Company.
That's right. These activities bring me the chances to share my story and inspire people. I myself receive priceless encouragement which helps me forget all my paints and live a happier life.
Inner Sanctum: Do you plan to write another book?
I'm currently working on my third memoir with the title Toi Day Hoc (I Taught) which is expected to be published in 2014. I am also working on an educational psychology book for children called Biet Hoc Het Minh (Learning at Your Best) for the Educational Publishers. — VNS