Young Vietnamese bestselling author Phan Viet, back in Viet Nam from the US to serve as a judge at the YxineFF film festival, throws more light on her carreer as a writer in a conversation with Thu Trang.
Inner Sanctum: What is your assessment of this year's films in the YxineFF, where you are a jury member? What do you think of Vietnamese films' potential compared with those of other countries?
I haven't been following the event every year, and I am by all means an outsider to movie-making, so I can't really say much here. But it has been a pleasure to be a jury member of this festival. I was impressed with the movies I've watched. As a writer, I care about story-telling in a movie, and I must say that I see some sort of trend among the movies I have watched. It's as if in this global age, life has become so fragmented and hard to put into neat boxes with clear messages that filmmakers have to basically return to simply showing you that "here, this is life…" And as you watch a movie, you have to build a story yourself based on the seemingly scattered, random and non-linear images and stories that they show you.
I am also impressed with the attention to detail, boldness and professionalism that young and independent movie makers are putting into some of the movies of this festival. There is reason to believe that we will have a new generation of Vietnamese movie makers who think about and make movies that can compete fair and square internationally.
Inner Sanctum: When did you start writing books? What is your source of inspiration when writing them? How many books have you written so far? Can you give a cursory introduction about them?
I started writing when I was still in junior high school and in fact, published some of my first stories in Viet Nam News when I was in college. But as for books, my first book was published in 2005. It was a collection of short stories called The Book of Vanity. You asked about inspiration. The easy answer would be that it comes from life itself. I would hear a story from someone or experience something myself, and I almost always know the moment I hear it that it would make a good story, so I would write it down. So far, I have published five books, all of which have something to do with people's struggle to figure out who they are and what life is all about, especially for young Vietnamese women and immigrants in America.
Inner Sanctum: Which book leaves you with the deepest impression? Why? How do readers greet your books?
I used to be able to tell how each book leaves me with a different experience, like this one is so hard to write, that one is easy and brings so much joy, etc. But not anymore. Now, I almost feel like each of my books is a stranger to me. I created them, but they have gone on to live their own lives independent of me and have nothing to do with me.
Maybe that's because I have moved on from them myself. Right now, I am all excited about the third and last book in the trilogy Unhappiness Is An Asset.
You know, I am not sure and honestly don't think much about it. As a writer, all you can do is to write the best book you can and leave it to readers to like it or not, to understand what you want to say with the book or totally miss it. Take my latest one, Across America, for example. It's a book about a young Vietnamese woman struggling through a divorce as she moves across America. I've received emails from readers saying my book helped them tremendously, but other younger readers have also said they felt misled because they thought the book was supposed to be a travelogue.
I remember that in 2005, my first book came out and won a prize, and some critics said really positive things about it, but others also said really terrible things about me and my future as a writer. But I kept writing. I think that after five books now, I have built a readership that understands what my books are about and perhaps sense that I am the kind of writer who will always try to make the next book better than the last one. And so they follow my works to see what I will do next. I am excited about that too. I am excited to see what I will and can do with my next book.
Inner Sanctum: What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing books based on your experiences? What are the similarities and differences between Vietnamese and US literature?
I am not sure I understand this question. Writing is extremely hard, I will tell you that much. And so far, my biggest problem is time. I have a full-time job as a professor of social work at an American university, and I can only work on my books by squeezing out whatever time I can from that already busy life. But that life also gives me a lot of materials with which to write.
I really don't think you can compare between the two. The differences are too many and not at all comparable. — VNS