In 2005, Elizabeth McLean quit her job in Canada, sold her apartment and came to Viet Nam on her own. The journey not only offered new adventures, it also enriched her writing career. Six years later her first historical fiction book, Imagining Viet Nam, won the Impress Prize for New Writers 2011. McLean unveils to journalist Nguyen Phan Que Mai
the path which led to her experiences in Viet Nam.
Inner Sanctum: Elizabeth McLean, when did you first hear about Viet Nam and what made you move to Viet Nam to live and work?
I first heard about Viet Nam in the 1970's, when I saw students demonstrating on the campus of the University of Toronto against the American Government sending troops to Viet Nam, and when I read about young Americans escaping to Canada to avoid being drafted into the US army.
Some three decades later, on a walk not far from my home in Ottawa, I passed a large villa which turned out to be the Embassy of Viet Nam. On an impulse, I went in, told the woman at the Reception that I had a doctorate in International Relations from a Canadian university, and asked if there was something I could do in Viet Nam. She said that she was a graduate of the Institute for International Relations in Ha Noi and perhaps I could teach there. She gave me the name of the Dean and I wrote him a letter to which he replied promptly saying that he could not bring me to Viet Nam, but if I came on my own he would like to see me. I left my job, sold my condo, and in November 2005 flew to Ha Noi. I was interviewed by two senior staff of the Institute and two weeks later stood at the lectern.
Inner Sanctum: Could you describe your work in Viet Nam?
For the first four years I lived on Pho Chua Lang, in the Guesthouse of the Institute (now called The Diplomatic Academy of Viet Nam) and taught a seminar in contemporary international relations to 4th year students. The students read analytical articles from prominent European, American and Canadian publications, and discussed them in class. The subjects ranged from the impact of global warming, to world terrorism, to Barak Obama's presidential campaign, to Viet Nam's role in the United Nations, etc. Every year, I taught five large classes.
In the last year a half I lived with a Vietnamese family in their house on Doi Can and worked for the Women's Publishing House. I coordinated the translation and issuing of an anthology of short stories by Canadian women writers (Truyen ngan nu Canada) which was published in the spring of 2011.
Inner Sanctum:How did the anthology of short stories by Canadian women writers come about? What was its purpose?
The project came about as a result of the visit of the Canadian Ambassador to the Women's Publishing House. Three Canadian women and three editors of the Publishing House talked about making more Canadian books available in Viet Nam. The idea of having some short stories translated into Vietnamese fell from the sky and all of us agreed that it would be a good idea. I volunteered to make a list and write summaries of stories for the editors of the Women's Publishing House to choose from, and from my rather long list they eventually selected 17 stories by 15 writers to be translated. A year later, we had a beautiful book.
The idea behind Truyen ngan nu Canada was to show Vietnamese readers the range of themes and topics found in modern Canadian literature. The stories selected for publication dealt with family discord, with conflicts between husbands and wives or parents and children, and showed how women in Canada deal with life's misfortunes and disappointments. (The stories) complemented very well the socio-political similarities and differences between Viet Nam and Canada that I often raised in the classroom.
Inner Sanctum: Did you plan to write about Viet Nam before you came?
No. I came to Viet Nam because I was ready for a change and wanted to live in a culture different from mine. I planned to support myself by teaching – but no more than 12-15 hours per week (as compared with 40 hours per week I worked in Canada). I was determined to leave myself enough time to travel, to read about Vietnamese culture, and to write ‘something'.
Inner Sanctum: How was life as a foreigner for you in Ha Noi?
On Pho Chua Lang, life was easy because many of my wonderful English-speaking students lived in the dormitory down the alley. They showed me where to eat and where to buy groceries, took me to the swimming pool and to the National Library to get a membership card, and were helpful in countless other ways. By the time I moved to Doi Can I knew enough Vietnamese to buy my fruit and vegetables in the market, order dishes in a restaurant, and ask for direction.
I chose not to ride a bicycle or motorbike, so my explorations of Ha Noi were mostly on foot, which is the best way because you see things at close range. You can exchange a smile with an older person, hug a toddler, finger merchandise in stores, and observe how people live and work. An ordinary street in Ha Noi is a stage in the theatre of life – human dramas unfold before you as women who cook or do the laundry argue and discipline their children, grandparents read and chase after their grandchildren, and men work at every conceivable type of job from bicycle repairs to iron works. The warm climate of Viet Nam is conducive to spending much time outdoors, something that we cannot count on in Canada.
I left Viet Nam in June of 2011, and settled in Vancouver, close to my daughter. My son lives in Montreal. I felt it was time to return to Canada. When I lived in Ha Noi, I saw my children once a year. They are adults, but need to see their mother more often. I miss the crackling excitement of Ha Noi, the chaos and the bustle. In Vancouver, I live on a quiet street of single family homes, where I seldom see my neighbours and nothing much happens. I miss bun cha and Bia Ha Noi terribly.
Inner Sanctum: Please tell us about the creative process which you embarked to write Imagining Viet Nam.
After arriving in Viet Nam, I read voraciously books of Vietnamese history in English and French and became fascinated, overwhelmed really, by Vietnamese customs: the chewing of betel and the staining of teeth, the requirement for the bride to live with her husband in his parents house, the practice of taking the second and a third wife, the concept of filial piety – there were so many traditions completely foreign to me. They were well explained by Vietnamese anthropologists and by French scholars who had spent years in Viet Nam during the colonial times and later wrote about their experiences. Absolutely invaluable were: Histoire du Viet Nam des origin a 1858, by Le Thanh Khoi, Connaissance du Viet Nam, by Pierre Huard and Maurice Durand, and The Ancient Civilization of Viet Nam by Nguyen Van Huyen. I also benefited greatly from the two dozen booklets on Vietnamese customs published jointly by Lady Borton and Huu Ngoc, both of them good friends. I am a bookworm by nature and you could have found me any day browsing in the bookstore of The Gioi Publishing House on Tran Hung Dao street, looking for books in English, or by one of the bookstands at the History Museum, behind the Opera House, where the best selection of books in French can be found.
After I learned a bit about the ancient customs and traditions of Viet Nam, I began to imagine what the lives of the people must have been like in those times. I just dreamed up character after character and let them guide me through the dips and upswings of their lives. Imagining Viet Nam includes eight dramatic stories, spanning the last 1,000 years of Viet Nam's history. I worked on the book for five years and submitted it to the Impress Prize a month before leaving Viet Nam.
A year earlier, I fell in love with a quai thao hat I had seen in the house of a friend. It was so exquisite, so sturdy yet delicate, and the two red ribbons evoked romance. Before leaving for Canada, I bought a beautiful quai thao hat at the Dong Xuan market in Ha Noi and brought it to Vancouver. I hangs on my wall and I look at it as I write. I painted several pictures of it in watercolour, and then suggested to my British publisher that we put it on the cover of Imagining Viet Nam. He agreed.
Inner Sanctum: Imagining Viet Nam won the Impress Prize for New Writers 2011. Please tell us about this prize and what it means to your career as a writer?
The Impress Prize is one of the few literary prizes in the world for writers who have never published a full-length work of fiction but have a manuscript (almost) ready. The prize aims to identify new talent. I know of only two other similar prizes and both of them are open only to residents of the United States. The Impress Prize is open to residents of any country, as long as the manuscript is written in English.
Another bonus is that you do not have to submit the whole manuscript – just a very good synopsis and the first 20 pages of your work. But the rest of the manuscript should be well advanced, because if you win, you have about 6 months to finish and submit it to Impress Books. I was notified that Imagining Viet Nam was the winner in the first week of December 2011, and I handed in my manuscript to Impress Books by the end of June 2012. Some editing was done by the publisher and by me in July and August of 2012 and the final proofreading in September. So if you win, you pretty well have to cancel eating, sleeping, reading, and traveling, and write full time to whip your book into shape.
You chose to write your first book about Vietnamese history, which is extremely complex and could be sensitive. Some people would say you are taking risks of being criticized by the Vietnamese. What would you say to them?
Imagining Viet Nam is not about Vietnamese history. The stories were inspired by the history of Viet Nam but my characters come from my imagination. They live in a certain historical period, which I researched carefully to make sure that the names of reigning kings, battles, or crucial reforms were correct. But the narratives that unfold are fiction and will be judged on the strength of my writing. Things will be more difficult with my next book which is be about the lives of the Trung Queens. There are so many conflicting tales and interpretations of their life, I know I will be criticized no matter how I portray them.
Why did you decide to write about the Trung Queens (Trung Sisters)? Please tell us more about this book.
I have already begun a novel based on the life of the Trung Queens who died in 43 AD. I have written a 20-page outline, which is in the hands of my agent, and have almost completed the first chapter. I am sticking my neck out with this project because the Trung Queens have been worshiped, glamorized and politicized in Viet Nam. They have become a symbol of patriotism and courage as well as an archetype of Vietnamese womanhood.
I intend to bypass the symbolism and show them the way they must have been living in the hamlet of Me Linh two thousand years ago: two stubborn, tough and rough sisters who boldly stepped out of the roles assigned to women in the 1st century. They had to be gutsy and rebellious from an early age to be able to lead a successful rebellion against the mighty Chinese. Fortunately, there is very little factual material on them – only the bare bones of history – when they lived and what they did before they died at a young age. Which means that I can freely ‘imagine' what their characters and personalities and daily lives were like. I am putting my imagination to work 200 per cent, and fully expect to be criticized for whatever narrative emerges at the end. But I welcome the challenge of writing this book and will deal with the critics when the time comes. — VNS