RAVENSYARD PUBLISHING LTD.
NICOLE DUONG, AUTHOR OF
Daughters of the river Huong
The following interview with Uyen Nicole Duong was conducted by the publisher in
advance of the publication of Daughters of the river Huong
in July 2005.
RY: How did you come to write “Daughters
of the River Huong”?
Duong: I’m not sure
anyone – even the writer – can fully understand all the sources for a
writer’s creative energy, but in the case of this book I know that several
themes at work for me were the city of Hue, the River Huong,
and the native people from Champa.
My mother, who is from Hue, has played an important part in my creative
life since childhood. All Vietnam veterans who served in Vietnam, I imagine,
would remember Hue and the battle there during the TET offensive in 1968. Hue was an imperial city, and represented the past glory
of the independent Vietnam before French colonialism. Control of Hue was very
important and one of the reasons why the battle in 1968 was so intense. I
know many American veterans of the Vietnam War remember Hue. One time at a
social gathering at a filmmaker’s home in California, I was introduced to a
Vietnam vet and when he found out my mother came from Hue, all he wanted to
talk about was the battle for the imperial city. In a way, this made me sad
that my mother's hometown was associated only with the bloodshed of war in
the minds of the American public. For that reason, I want to bring Hue and
its motif into my novel.
The River Huong, commonly known among tourists
as the Perfume River, is the landmark of Hue. It is associated with the
beautiful and romantic women of Vietnam. It also has historic significance
independent from the famous battle. One of the last Vietnamese monarchs,
together with two mandarin strategists, plotted a revolt against the French
protectorate government during his boat trips on the Perfume River. Of
course, it was unsuccessful and the young king was exiled. Hue and its River Huong are also associated with the past kingdom of Champa, annexed into Vietnam as of the 15th century. I
have always been interested in the indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia,
including the Champa heritage. In 1991, a
Vietnamese friend of mine, a psychologist who had studied Carl Jung, told me
I looked more like a Cham woman than a Vietnamese. This gave me the idea to
pursue a creative urge. I conceived the novel during the same year.
Initially, the epic novel was called The Queen of Champa. Later, I also wrote a short story called
“The Young Woman Who Practiced Singing,” and a non-fiction piece called “The
Coffins of Cinnamon.” I then combined all three themes into one body of work,
which I called the “Fall of South Vietnam series,” consisting of 3
independent yet related novels. Daughters of the River Huong is the first of the three novels in this
series. I am trying to sell the other two novels in the same series, “Mimi
and Her Mirror,” and “Postcards from Nam.”
RY: How much of the story is
Duong: My story is a
work of literary fiction. It is not an autobiographical novel. However, the
voice of each protagonist in this family saga is authentic. The things I
wrote about were based on what some acting teachers call my own sense-memory
recollection, a stage acting method pioneered by the actress Uta Hagen. I learned about this sense-memory recollection
when I attended acting school. I learned how to tap into my private feelings
in order to render true sentiments to my creative work. It came very
naturally to me and I brought the sense-memory recollection acting method
into my fiction writing. Many critics and writing teachers would say an
author's early work is quite often thinly disguised autobiography. But
remember writers also learn the number one principle: write what you know.
River Huong is what I know.
RY: What was your vision in writing
Duong: I wanted to
capture the beauty of my home culture, and the sorrow of its women in the
form of literary fiction. I followed the heart of Madame Cinnamon, who was a
principal character but never spoke directly in the novel.
RY: Do you expect other
Vietnamese-Americans will enjoy River Huong?
Duong: I hope so.
The River Huong is well known in Vietnam. I take
solace in knowing that the new generation who was born in the US will
hopefully know of the River Huong's romanticism and
place in Vietnamese history via my work.
RY: Is your work political?
Duong: I have no
political statement to make except to note the events and settings in some
parts of this novel were dark chapters of Vietnamese colonial history. The
history of Vietnam is being reevaluated all the time by the writers of
Vietnam, and by Vietnamese-American writers like me. I believe literary
fiction has a great deal to add to the voices describing Vietnamese history.
I hope my writing is of the humanity of this history. I don't wish to write
about politics per se, and I don't want to use the literary art to crusade
for any particular cause. I think that would kill the literary art.
RY: How and when did you come to the
Duong: Via the U.S.
airlift, five days before the fall of Saigon. I was 16.
RY: Tell us about your family and their
Duong: My father was
a professor of linguistics at the University of Saigon, Faculty of Letters.
He continued his teaching career in the U.S. but in a different discipline.
My mother was a teacher of Vietnamese literature, who left her family in
order to teach at Faifo, a port town adjacent to a
war zone. She saw her students pulled into the war and various sides of the
ideological battle. The port town of Faifo was a meeting
place between east and west, where international traders and the missionaries
first set foot in that part of the world, on their voyage from India to
China. I consider my mother's action quite feministic for her time: leaving
home to teach and rejecting a pre-arranged marriage in the name of love. She
married my father in Faifo for love. But despite
this independent spirit, she has remained a very traditional woman faithful
to Confucian values all her life. I was born in Faifo.
I also should point out that both of my grandmothers were influential in
every endeavor I have undertaken in my life, including my creative writing,
even though neither could read or write even their native tongue, Vietnamese.
This was not unusual for their generation -- the generation of Vietnamese
women coming from the villages of Vietnam, born at the turn of the century.
Yet, this was the generation that survived and bore the bloodshed of
continuous warfare. My paternal grandmother died in California. My maternal
grandmother died in Saigon, only a few years after the communist takeover.
RY: How has your profession as a lawyer
affected your work as a writer?
Duong: Currently, I
am a law professor. I have been making a living and maintaining my
professional standing in the law for 20 years, at all times maintaining my
commitment to excellence in the law. It has been a hard struggle to combine
law and art, and the combination at times has been exhausting. But I never
compromised excellent performance in the law. This is very important to me
because, although I did not choose this role, it happened that I was the
first Vietnamese American female in various places within the law. This
distinguishes me from other lawyer-cum-writers.
To me, law is a beautiful end in itself – containing notions of freedom,
liberty, and justice for all. I will never give up working with the law. It
is not just a day job. If I had wanted just a regular job to earn a living, I
could have done something far less demanding and concentrated on my writing at
night. I do not want to do that. Other writers may think of law as a day job,
in which they plug themselves to wait for that commercial break with their
novel. That's not how I want to live my life. When I say I can do both law
and art, I will do both.
I have found it is possible to combine both. It all depends on the
writer's level of determination and sacrifice. It turned out that all my
professional life I have dealt with the conflicting demands of both the law
and art, internally and externally. In my various law jobs, for example, I
have had to fight a bias that as an artist I did not take my law job
seriously. Wrong. This bias was enhanced because I was a Southeast Asian
woman living with those cultural stereotypes. Further, the law is restrictive,
and art is free, and the creative processes are different. I wrote about this
conflict between law and art in my scholarly research work on law and
literature. Yet, in many ways I have found that for me the worlds of law and
art compliment each other.
RY: Your novel has poetry and music in
it. How does this come about?
Duong: Again, I draw from my life experience to
write fiction. Music, poetry, the
performing art and the visual art are just as important to me as literature. The only thing that I have not experienced
RY: Who would you want to be if you weren’t
Hm. What a loaded
question! I could name a dozen people
I would want to be, or I could honestly say no one (pause). Maybe Maria Callas. No reader of River Huong
should be surprised by this, I guess, since the novel is textured by
classical music and the poetry of Baudelaire.
It is the love story of “that young maiden who practiced
Callas had a very sad life, even scandalous, yet it was the glamorous life of
a diva and the disciplined life of an artist dedicated to the search for
perfection. She was also a dramatist,
in life and on stage. Drama was in
every feature of her face and her expressive eyes, as well as in her delivery
of all the great female roles of the operatic world. Her unique voice was technically imperfect.
It was beautiful yet full of raw edges.
In my view, Ms. Callas really lived. And struggled along in that life.
An icon of style and fashion, yet she struggled to stay thin and to combat
skin problems. Alienated and exploited by many, including her loved
ones. She must courageously have
learned to live with solitude and pain in all that glamour. So much hurt by love, and so much driven by
her art. A life full of eccentricity, anguish, anxieties, conflicts and
despair, gains and losses, as well as the limelight of her stage. I think that if I were to desire somebody
else’s life, it might as well be the life of an imperfect, yet immortal
artist who has really loved and has really lived with all the negative as
well as positive emotions. Ms. Callas
did not build the world’s greatest wonder, nor find a cure for cancer, nor
put a stop to a world war, but she left us something so fragile yet so strong
and enduring, so mortal yet so eternally beautiful it is with us
forever. It is the human voice
delivered by an artist, all wrapped in the dramatic yet vulnerable nature of
a passionate woman. All legacies of
the great men and women of our world can be politicized, but not when it is
pure art, like the voice of Maria Callas and the music her wonderful voice
has delivered to us, during her lifetime and continuously after her death. ‚
The Writers Post
magazine of literature
1999, based in the US.
7 ISSUE 2 JULY
published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine (ISSN: 1540-1723).
© Uyen Nicole Duong 2005.
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