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Bringing the mountains to the lowlands

Update: February, 09/2015 - 16:33

Fond memories of her native place, Ha Giang, and empathy for women who live difficult lives there impells Do Bich Thuy to write stories that reach the heart of urban dwellers, but her love for Ha Noi is also a muse, the author tells Thu Trang.

Inner Sanctum: When and why did you start writing?

I like reading books. I read a lot and am interested in many stories, so I think about writing too. I have been writing stories since I was in high school. I wrote everything, including prose, poems and short stories. Writing gradually became my career.

When I was in Grade 7 or 8, I dreamt of writing interesting things like the stories I had read. And so, I wrote a few stories and sent them to some newspapers. I received VND10,000 in royalties for my first story. At the time, I was able to buy two bowls of pho (noodle soup) with the money. Then, I became obsessed with writing. I wrote on a small table on my bed.

I have been writing for 21 years and have published two novels, one long story, five short stories and two pieces of prose.

Inner Sanctum: You are very famous for stories about mountainous areas. Can you tell us about these stories?

I was born in the northern mountainous province of Ha Giang and spent my childhood there. Mountains and forests give me many ideas that the plains do not offer. In fact, mountains and forests are my sources of inspiration, my real-life experiences, my materials, and the air I breathe so that I can write about it. I write with the memories of a child living far from her hometown.

I bring everything I can from the mountains and forests to Ha Noi, but the one thing I know I cannot bring is nostalgia.

This sense of nostalgia draws me back to my hometown in its 3,000-square metre valley, surrounded by mountains on three sides. There was a small road, a small pure stream and luxuriant plants and trees there. Laughing thrushes sing there in the mornings, while coucals sing in the afternoons and geckoes sing in the evenings.

There, I lived in a small roof-top room, which had an old iron trunk filled with torn children's storybooks. These books brought me to the doorstep of literature.

Some people thought I was wasting my time and called me dotty. But I knew that many people who had left Ha Giang Province, including myself, had to work hard to adapt to the pressures of urban life and felt a tug on their heartstrings whenever they came across anything related to Ha Giang, even if it were only a motorbike licence plate bearing the number 23 - the regulated number for Ha Giang Province.

These fleeting connections are like a call echoing from the past, where we, as children, still cling to our steps in Ha Giang, even though for a few simple reasons, we had to leave our hometown. Here, in the urban setting of Ha Noi, this nostalgia helped me write my stories.

Whenever I sit before my computer and write about the mountains, I feel as if I have come back home, drank water from the stream, breathed in the winds blowing from the mountains' gorge, sat in my room and played with my dog. All of these things are so familiar to me. I really want to have a similar feeling when I write about Ha Noi. I love Ha Noi, and I write about it with love and emotion whenever I think about it. It is like when a man loves a woman, he will find every way to confide in her.

Most of my female characters have a sad destiny, and they have to search hard for rare moments of light in their lives. I think the Vietnamese rarely live for themselves. They always live for others and consider the happiness of others to be theirs.

Girls in mountainous provinces are even more disadvantaged than those in plain area. When they are only 12 or 13 years old---flower buds that have only just opened---these girls are forced to become wives and then mothers. Their lives from that point are resigned to suffering and sacrifice. I like the archetypal female who dares to do anything for love. Thus, in my stories, I let my female characters attempt to overcome all kinds of obstacles, even death, to hold onto love, although in many cases their attempts are unsuccessful.

Inner Sanctum: Can you tell us about the novel Cua hieu giat la (Laundry) which earned you the prize of the Ha Noi Union of Literature and Arts Associations for excellent stories about Ha Noi last year?

I wrote that novel in only two months, the shortest time so far for me, using the setting of my husband's family's laundry. This laundry is located on Le Van Huu Street in Hai Ba Trung District. In the novel, I wanted to view Ha Noi through the eyes of a laundress.

The novel totally separated me from thoughts of the mountains. So far, I have lived in Ha Noi for 18 years. At first, I thought this was a strange place to live in, and I was like a fish out of water. Now, I find that Ha Noi is familiar and lovely. My experiences here have inspired me to write about this city.

The prize is meaningful to me. As one of my friends has pointed out, it was my "literature family record book". I wrote about Ha Noi, and Ha Noi welcomed it. I am extremely happy about that.

Inner Sanctum: Did you have any difficulties when moving from Ha Giang to Ha Noi?

I did not have difficulties when moving my work and my life to Ha Noi. Everything went according to plan. I wrote most of my stories about mountainous provinces while living in Ha Noi. I think that the distance from my hometown caused my emotions to grow and intensify. The most important thing is to have goals. If we have goals and strive to achieve them, adapting to a new environment is only a small issue. I have family in Ha Noi, and my children were born and raised here. This is why I love Ha Noi and cannot leave it to go elsewhere. — VNS

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