Around the world in books: Five books by Vietnamese authors

The month of May is often an opportunity to celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander people and their heritage. In America the month is called Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and in Canada it’s called Asian Heritage Month. For this month, I’ll be sharing books by Asian authors.

I know it’s currently June, but since I missed a week, here’s one more book list with Asian authors for Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.


Have you ever wanted to visit Vietnam? Here’s your chance to visit Vietnam through reading!

Vietnam’s history

Vietnam has such a long history. Throughout their past, many external forces have exerted influence over the Vietnamese. Two of the most recent influences were the French and the Americans.

The French slowly exerted more and more influence over Vietnam over 3.5 centuries, and between 1859-1884, French eroded Vietnam’s sovereignty and forced them to become a French colony. French rule lasted until 1954, with a break during WWII from 1941-1945 when the Japanese took over. In 1954, French Indochina was dissolved into Cambodia, Laos and North and South Vietnam according to the Geneva Accords.

Shortly after the French withdrew, North Vietnam was led by the Viet Minh and the USA started providing military and financial support for South Vietnam. The Vietnam War (or as it’s called in Vietnam the “Resistance war against the United States” (Kháng chiến chống Mỹ) and sometimes called the “American War”) lasted almost 20 years. This war is often seen as a Cold War-era proxy war, as the North was supported by communist parties and the south was supported by the USA and other anti-communist forces.

The Vietnam War has had a huge impact on the Vietnamese people and in turn their literature. There were enormous human casualties, from the 1-3 million Vietnamese that were killed, to the millions of refugees that left the region and the additional 250,000 refugees that died on their way to safety.

Historical impact seen today

All this history has had a huge impact on Vietnam, the Vietnamese people, their culture and even literature. You see it in the banh mi on baguettes that they got from the French and the way that Vietnamese authors are producing literature in different languages and while living outside of Vietnam.

I’ve included a range of books in this list, and notably the books have been written in Vietnamese, French and English. Hopefully this list gives you a glimpse into the range of Vietnamese voices in modern literature and sparks your interest to read more from Vietnamese authors.

Five books from Vietnamese authors

Here’s a list of five books with Vietnamese authors.

  1. Dumb Luck by Vũ Trọng Phụng (1936)
  2. The Crystal Messenger by Phạm Thị Hoài (1988)
  3. Mãn by Kim Thúy (2013)
  4. The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith (2014)
  5. The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai (2020)

I’ve listed them in order of when they were published. Keep reading to find out more about each one and at the end there’s a bonus suggestion!

Dumb Luck (1936)

by Vũ Trọng Phụng, translated by Nguyễn Nguyệt Cầm and Peter Zinoman

  • Year Published: 1936, English version in 2002
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, dark, funny, medium-paced
  • Language: Vietnamese
  • Banned by the Vietnamese Communist Party, first in North Vietnam from 1960 to 1975, then throughout the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam until 1986

Summary:

Banned in Vietnam until 1986, Dumb Luck-by the controversial and influential Vietnamese writer Vu Trong Phung–is a bitter satire of the rage for modernization in Vietnam during the late colonial era. First published in Hanoi during 1936, it follows the absurd and unexpected rise within colonial society of a street-smart vagabond named Red-haired Xuan. As it charts Xuan’s fantastic social ascent, the novel provides a panoramic view of late colonial urban social order, from the filthy sidewalks of Hanoi’s old commercial quarter to the gaudy mansions of the emergent Francophile northern upper classes. The transformation of traditional Vietnamese class and gender relations triggered by the growth of colonial capitalism represents a major theme of the novel.

Dumb Luck is the first translation of a major work by Vu Trong Phung, arguably the greatest Vietnamese writer of the twentieth century. The novel’s clever plot, richly drawn characters and humorous tone and its preoccupation with sex, fashion and capitalism will appeal to a wide audience. It will appeal to students and scholars of Vietnam, comparative literature, colonial and postcolonial studies, and Southeast Asian civilization.

Links:

The Crystal Messenger (1988)

by Phạm Thị Hoài, translated by Ton-That Quynh-Du

  • Year Published: 1988, English version in 1997
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • Language: Vietnamese
  • Described as the ‘renaissance of Vietnamese literature’ and was banned by the Vietnamese government

Summary:

This award winning book has been described as the ‘renaissance of Vietnamese literature’. Written by a young woman in her twenties at the end of an era when Vietnam closed itself off from the world, it is widely regarded as one of the most important works of fiction ever to come out of that country. Ostensibly, The Crystal Messenger is a magical and moving story of two sisters’ journeys to emotional and sexual maturity. But it is also a powerful allegory about the fate of North and South Vietnam, the struggle with reunification after the war, and the effect of consumerism and westernisation on the nation’s soul.

Links:

Mãn (2013)

by Kim Thúy, translated from French by Sheila Fischman

  • Year Published: 2013, English version in 2014
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, literary, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • Language: French
  • Kim Thuy is a Vietnamese-born Canadian writer, whose debut novel Ru won the Governor General’s Award for French-language fiction at the 2010 Governor General’s Awards

Summary:

Mãn has three mothers: the one who gives birth to her in wartime, the nun who plucks her from a vegetable garden, and her beloved Maman, who becomes a spy to survive. Seeking security for her grown daughter, Maman finds Mãn a husband – a lonely Vietnamese restaurateur who lives in Montreal.

Thrown into a new world, Mãn discovers her natural talent as a chef. Gracefully she practices her art, with food as her medium. She creates dishes that are much more than sustenance for the body: they evoke memory and emotion, time and place, and even bring her customers to tears.

Mãn is a mystery – her name means ‘perfect fulfillment’, yet she and her husband seem to drift along, respectfully and dutifully. But when she encounters a married chef in Paris, everything changes in the instant of a fleeting touch, and Mãn discovers the all-encompassing obsession and ever-present dangers of a love affair.

Full of indelible images of beauty, delicacy and quiet power, Mãn is a novel that begs to be savoured for its language, its sensuousness and its love of life.

Links:

The Frangipani Hotel (2014)

by Violet Kupersmith

  • Year Published: 2014
  • Storygraph Categories: fiction, fantasy, horror, short stories, reflective, medium-paced
  • Language: English
  • Based on traditional Vietnamese folk tales

Violet Kupersmith was born in America, but her mother is from Da Nang Vietnam and fled Vietnam after the fall of Saigon.

Summary:

A beautiful young woman appears fully dressed in an overflowing bathtub at the Frangipani Hotel in Hanoi. A jaded teenage girl in Houston befriends an older Vietnamese gentleman she discovers naked behind a dumpster. A trucker in Saigon is asked to drive a dying young man home to his village. A plump Vietnamese-American teenager is sent to her elderly grandmother in Ho Chi Minh City to lose weight, only to be lured out of the house by the wafting aroma of freshly baked bread. In these evocative and always surprising stories, the supernatural coexists with the mundane lives of characters who struggle against the burdens of the past.

Based on traditional Vietnamese folk tales told to Kupersmith by her grandmother, these fantastical, chilling, and thoroughly contemporary stories are a boldly original exploration of Vietnamese culture, addressing both the immigrant experience and the lives of those who remained behind. Lurking in the background of them all is a larger ghost—that of the Vietnam War, whose legacy continues to haunt us.

Links:

The Mountains Sing (2020)

by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

  • Year Published: 2020
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, emotional, reflective, sad, medium-paced
  • Language: English
  • Her debut novel and first work in English (known as a poet in Vietnam)

Summary:

With the epic sweep of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and the lyrical beauty of Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan, The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. Trần Diệu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict that tore apart not just her beloved country, but also her family.

Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope.

Links:


Bonus Suggestion: Modern Vietnamese poet Bao Phi

Bao Phi is a Vietnamese-American spoken word poet and community activist. He was born in Vietnam and raised in Minnesota. His second book of poetry, Thousand Star Hotel, was nominated for a Minnesota Book Award, named by NPR as one of the Best Books of 2017, and was named the best poetry book of 2017 by San Francisco State’s Poetry Center.

Thousand Star Hotel (2017)

by Bao Phi

  • Year Published: 2017
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, poetry, race, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • Importance: Bao Phi is a National Poetry Slam finalist.

Summary:

Thousand Star Hotel confronts the silence around racism, police brutality, and the invisibility of the Asian American urban poor.

Links:

Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of books written by Vietnamese authors.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of books to read. If you have a favourite book written by a Vietnamese author, please feel free to share it in a comment below!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of the book?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

Around the world in books: Five books from Indian authors

The month of May is often an opportunity to celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander people and their heritage. In America the month is called Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and in Canada it’s called Asian Heritage Month. For this month, I’ll be sharing books by Asian authors.


Have you ever wanted to visit India? Here’s your chance to visit India through reading!

As long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to visit India. I haven’t had the chance yet, but I know one day I will end up going. But until that time I will continue reading books from India to learn more about the country and it’s culture.

Interestingly, English is the second official language of India, with Hindi being the first official language. There are also an additional 22 scheduled languages considered official languages for use in government proceedings. These 22 languages are either widely spoken or considered an official language at a state-level.

India has a very diverse language landscape. There are 122 major languages, with an additional 1,599 used in India. In the 2018 census, there was a total of 19,569 unique mother tongues listed on the census. But a vast majority, 96.71%, of the population have one of the scheduled languages as their mother tongue (Source).

Since there are so many languages used within India, you’ll notice that Indian literature spans many languages. Many Indian authors also write books in English. You’ll see a similar diversity in the books listed below.

I believe this also poses unique accessibility barriers for Indian literature. Books written in English are easily accessible to the rest of the English speaking world, but often times the lesser known languages may have difficulty getting translated.

Photo by Debashis RC Biswas on Unsplash

Five books from Indian authors

Here’s a list of five books with Indian authors.

  1. The Crooked Line: Terhi Lakir by Ismat Chughtai (1944) – translated from Urdu
  2. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy (1997) – written in English
  3. Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh (2008) – written in English
  4. Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree (2018) – translated from Hindi
  5. Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi (2019) – written in English

They are listed in order of when they were published. Keep reading to find out more about each one.

The Crooked Line: Terhi Lakir (1944)

by Ismat Chughtai, translated from Urdu by Tahira Naqvi

  • Year Published: 1944 (English version in 1995)
  • Storygraph Categories: fiction, lgbtqia+, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • Importance: An influential work of Urdu fiction from a feminist writer of that time

Summary:

In India’s colonial past, in a time of political and social revolution, Ismat Chughtai masterfully unfolds her magna opusThe Crooked Line: the semi-autobiographical tale of a fiery-spirited, middle-class Muslim girl bent on exploring the shape and nature of consuming desire. Writing with the same honesty and passion as her scandalous short-story, “The Quilt,” Chughtai exposes the complex relationships developed between women living and working in relative seclusion, and the intellectual and emotional contradictions lying in the heart of a rebellious country on the brink of independence from the British Raj and ultimately Partition.

Links:

The God of Small Things (1997)

by Arundhati Roy, written in English

  • Year Published: 1997
  • Storygraph Categories: fiction, classics, historical, literary, emotional, reflective, sad, slow-paced
  • Importance: Winner of the Booker Prize in 1997, and the Dublin Literary Award Nominee in 1999

Summary:

Compared favorably to the works of Faulkner and Dickens, Arundhati Roy’s debut novel is a modern classic that has been read and loved worldwide. Equal parts powerful family saga, forbidden love story, and piercing political drama, it is the story of an affluent Indian family forever changed by one fateful day in 1969. The seven-year-old twins Estha and Rahel see their world shaken irrevokably by the arrival of their beautiful young cousin, Sophie. It is an event that will lead to an illicit liaison and tragedies accidental and intentional, exposing “big things [that] lurk unsaid” in a country drifting dangerously toward unrest. Lush, lyrical, and unnerving, The God of Small Things is an award-winning landmark that started for its author an esteemed career of fiction and political commentary that continues unabated.

Links:

Sea of Poppies (2008)

by Amitav Ghosh, written in English

  • Year Published: 2008
  • Storygraph Categories: fiction, historical, literary, adventurous, challenging, medium-paced
  • Importance: Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2008
  • Part of the Ibis trilogy

Summary:

At the heart of this vibrant saga is a vast ship, the Ibis. Her destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean shortly before the outbreak of the Opium Wars in China. In a time of colonial upheaval, fate has thrown together a diverse cast of Indians and Westerners on board, from a bankrupt raja to a widowed tribeswoman, from a mulatto American freedman to a free-spirited French orphan. As their old family ties are washed away, they, like their historical counterparts, come to view themselves as jahaj-bhais, or ship-brothers. The vast sweep of this historical adventure spans the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the exotic backstreets of Canton.

Links:

Tomb of Sand (2018)

by Geetanjali Shree, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell

  • Year Published: 2018
  • Storygraph Categories: fiction, literary, emotional, mysterious, reflective, medium-paced
  • Language: Hindi
  • Importance: Winner of International Book Prize in 2022

Summary:

An eighty-year-old woman slips into a deep depression at the death of her husband, then resurfaces to gain a new lease on life. Her determination to fly in the face of convention – including striking up a friendship with a hijra (trans) woman – confuses her bohemian daughter, who is used to thinking of herself as the more ‘modern’ of the two.

At the older woman’s insistence they travel back to Pakistan, simultaneously confronting the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition, and re-evaluating what it means to be a mother, a daughter, a woman, a feminist.

Rather than respond to tragedy with seriousness, Geetanjali Shree’s playful tone and exuberant wordplay results in a book that is engaging, funny, and utterly original, at the same time as being an urgent and timely protest against the destructive impact of borders and boundaries, whether between religions, countries, or genders.

Links:

Burnt Sugar (2019)

by Avni Doshi, written in English

  • Year Published: 2019
  • Storygraph Categories: fiction, contemporary, literary, dark, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • Importance: Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize
  • Originally published in India under the title Girl in White Cotton

Summary:

In her youth, Tara was wild. She abandoned her loveless marriage to join an ashram, endured a brief stint as a beggar (mostly to spite her affluent parents), and spent years chasing after a dishevelled, homeless ‘artist’ – all with her young child in tow. Now she is forgetting things, mixing up her maid’s wages and leaving the gas on all night, and her grown-up daughter is faced with the task of caring for a woman who never cared for her.

This is a love story and a story about betrayal. But not between lovers – between mother and daughter. Sharp as a blade and laced with caustic wit, Burnt Sugar unpicks the slippery, choking cord of memory and myth that binds two women together, making and unmaking them endlessly.

Links:


Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of books written by Indian authors.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of books to read. If you have a favourite book written by an Indian author, please feel free to share it in a comment below!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of the book?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

Around the world in books: Five books from Thai authors

The month of May is often an opportunity to celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander people and their heritage. In America the month is called Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and in Canada it’s called Asian Heritage Month. For this month, I’ll be sharing books by Asian authors.


Have you ever wanted to visit Thailand? Here’s your chance to visit Thailand through reading!

Thailand is a really common tourist destination, but unfortunately there’s a limited number of works translated from Thai. Translating any work is a very time consuming and expensive process, requiring incredible skills in two languages.

Publishers are unlikely to put the time and effort into translating a book when they are unsure if the book will have an audience or do well financially. However, this can cause a negative cycle, where there’s so few options that people are unaware of Thai literature, causing lower demand and reinforcing a lack of access.

Some countries disrupt the cycle by providing funding for translations and increasing access, helping to develop a demand for their literature. South Korea and Japan are great examples of this. Their governments provide significant funding to support translators and translations of literary works, which has greatly increased global access to their literature. You can see this whenever you look up recommendations for translated Asian literature, the majority of the suggestions will be Korean and Japanese. Increasing access has also increased demand.

However, not all governments are able to or have chosen to provide funding for translation. But we can choose to promote and show our support for literature in languages, like Thai, that have fewer translated works. We can show support by buying and reading these books, and just increasing awareness and interest by talking about them.

This is an opportunity to show some support for Thai literature!

Photo by Evan Krause on Unsplash

Five books from Thai authors

Here’s a list of five books with authors from Thailand. All but one have been translated from Thai.

  1. The Judgement by ชาติ กอบจิตติ (Chart Korbjitti)
  2. Moving Parts by ปราบดา หยุ่น (Prabda Yoon)
  3. Bright by เดือนวาด พิมวนา (Duanwad Pimwana)
  4. The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth by วีรพร นิติประภา (Veeraporn Nitiprapha)
  5. A Good True Thai by Sunisa Manning

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve listed them in order of publication date in their original language (the English version typically gets published much later).

1. The Judgement (1981)

by ชาติ กอบจิตติ (Chart Korbjitti), translated by Phongdeit Jiangphatthana-Kit & Marcel Barang

  • Year Published: 1981 (English version in 2003)
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, reflective, medium-paced
  • Won the 1982 South East Asian Writers (“S.E.A. Write”) Award

Summary:

This is the story of a young man who took as his wife a widow who was slightly deranged. The story would probably have ended there had the widow not been his father’s wife…

Fak is the humble janitor of a provincial temple school. A former novice with the prospect of an outstanding career as a monk, he defrocks to help his ageing, struggling father. While Fak is in the army, his father takes a wife. When the old man dies, Fak shares his hut with the widow. As he repels her advances and protects her from a hostile community, he falls prey to prejudice and misunderstandings from his neighbours, and there is nothing he can do to overturn the people’s judgment. He finds solace in alcohol, which ‘liberates’ him by providing oblivion…

Links:

2. Moving Parts (2002)

by ปราบดา หยุ่น (Prabda Yoon), translated by Mui Poopoksakul

  • Year Published: 2002 (English version in 2018)
  • Storygraph Categories: fiction, short stories, challenging, dark, reflective, medium-paced
  • ปราบดา หยุ่น (Prabda Yoon) won the 2002 S.E.A. Write Award for another book of his short stories

Summary:

Surreal and puncturing short stories from the Thai master of the form.

In a pink-walled motel, a teenage prostitute brings a grown man to tears. A love-struck young boy holds the dismembered hand of his crush, only to find himself the object of a complex ménage à trois. A naked body falls from the window of a twenty-story building, while two female office-workers offer each other consolation in the elevator…

In these wry and unsettling stories, Prabda Yoon once again illuminates something of the strangeness of modern cultural life in Bangkok. Disarming the reader with surprising charm, intensity and delicious horror, he explores what it means to have a body, and to interact with those of others.

Supported by English PEN Translates.

Links:

3. Bright (2003)

by เดือนวาด พิมวนา (Duanwad Pimwana), translated by Mui Poopoksakul

  • Year Published: 2003 (English version in 2019)
  • Storygraph Categories: fiction, literary, hopeful, reflective, sad, medium-paced
  • Honorable mention in the Global Humanities Translation Prize
  • เดือนวาด พิมวนา (Duanwad Pimwana) is an important women’s voice in contemporary Thai literature

Summary:

When five-year-old Kampol is told by his father to wait for him in front of some run-down apartment buildings, the confused boy does as told―he waits, and waits, and waits, until he realizes his father isn’t coming back anytime soon. Adopted by the community, Kampol is soon being raised by figures like Chong the shopkeeper, who rents out calls on his telephone and goes into debt while extending his customers endless credit. Kampol also plays with local kids like Noi, whose shirt is so worn that it rips right in half, and the sweet, deceptively cute toddler Penporn.

Dueling flea markets, a search for a ten-baht coin lost in the sands of a beach, pet crickets that get eaten for dinner, bouncy ball fads in school, and loneliness so merciless that it kills a boy’s appetite all combine into Bright, the first-ever novel by a Thai woman to appear in English translation. Duanwad Pimwana’s urban, and at times gritty, vignettes are balanced with a folk-tale-like feel and a charmingly wry sense of humor. Together, these intensely concentrated, minimalist gems combine into an off-beat, highly satisfying coming-of-age story of a very memorable young boy and the age-old legends, practices, and personalities that raise him.

Links:

4. The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth (2013)

by วีรพร นิติประภา (Veeraporn Nitiprapha), translated by Kong Rithdee

  • Year Published: 2013 (English version in 2018)
  • Storygraph Categories: fiction, literary, magical realism, emotional, slow-paced
  • Won the S.E.A. Write Award for fiction and a best-seller in Thailand

Summary:

On the day Chareeya is born, her mother discovers her father having an affair with a traditional Thai dancer. From then on, Chareey’s life is fated to carry the weight of her parents’ disappointments. She and her sister grow up in a lush riverside town near the Thai capital, Bangkok, captivated by trashy romance novels, classical music and games of make-believe. When the laconic orphan, Pran, enters their world, he unwittingly lures the sisters into a labyrinth of their own making as they each try to escape their intertwined fates.

The original Thai language edition of The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth won the prestigious South East Asian Writers (“S.E.A. Write”) Award for fiction and was best-seller in Thailand. It is translated into English by Thai film critic and recipient of France’s Chevalier dans I’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Kong Rithdee.

Attuned to the addictive rhythms of a Thai soap opera and written with the consuming intensity of a fever dream, this novel opens an insightful and truly compelling window onto the Thai heart.

Links:

5. A Good True Thai (2020)

by Sunisa Manning

  • Year Published: 2020
  • Storygraph Categories: fiction, contemporary, challenging, informative, reflective, slow-paced
  • Finalist for the 2020 Epigram Books Fiction Prize

Note, this is not translated, it was originally written in English. The author, Sunisa Manning, was born and raised in Bangkok by Thai and American parents. She also studied in the USA, and has a Bachelors degree in English Literature from Brown University and an MFA (Master’s in Fine Arts) in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Summary:

In 1970s Thailand, three young people meet each other with fateful results.

Det has just lost his mother, the granddaughter of a king. He clings to his best friend Chang, a smart boy from the slums, as they go to college; while there, Det falls for Lek, a Chinese immigrant with radical ideals. Longing for glory, Det journeys into his friends’ political circles, and then into the Thai jungle to fight. During Thailand’s most famous period of political and artistic openness, these three friends must reconcile their deep feelings for one another with the realities of perilous political revolution.

Links:


Final thoughts

I love reading translated fiction because it gives you such insight to the way different people live. You may struggle with not recognizing names or terms of things that are uncommon in your country, but you can always do a quick search to find out what it means.

I hope this list serves as inspiration for one of the books you’ll read in the future.

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of the book?

I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.