At the very beginning

Excerpt from The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith

Photo by Rowan Heuvel on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book of short stories called The Frangipani Hotel by Violet Kupersmith.

I WILL START at the very beginning—the beginning we all were taught as children.

Thousands of years ago, a dragon prince and a fairy spirit fell in love. They married, and the fairy bore one hundred eggs, which hatched into one hundred beautiful children. However, the dragon lived beneath the sea, while the fairy’s home was in the mountains, and they could not be together. Fifty of the children went to live with their mother in the high hills of the North, and fifty of the children went south to the coast, where they learned to fish and make boats while their father watched over them from his palace beneath the waves. These children were the first people of Vietnam.

There is a place very close to the center of my country where the green fingers of the southern mountains almost touch the sea. The water there used to be the loveliest in all of the country—warm, clear, and teeming with fish. The buildings of the fishing hamlet by the bay were painted pink and green and turquoise, and the crumbling remains of a Cham temple overlooked it all from the hills. On the outskirts, where the town began to give way to jungle, in a yellow, colonial house, Vu Nguyen’s wife was giving birth. Huong came from a long line of beautiful and tempestuous women, and she thrashed and let out long, guttural screams while Mrs. Dang, the midwife, tried to calm her. Vu was pacing out by a bamboo grove in the yard, trying to ignore the sounds from inside and occasionally looking up at the rainclouds curdling in the sky. It was the beginning of the monsoon season.

Eventually, there was silence from the house. Vu drew in a long breath, looked up at the dark sky, exhaled, then turned and went in. He came across Mrs. Dang first; she was in the kitchen making a pot of tea, and Vu blanched when he saw that she had not washed her hands. He was a very slight man, and at the sight of her fingers and forearms stained with red he almost fell over.

“Anh Vu, congratulations! I’ll bring you a chicken for supper.” In addition to being the local midwife, Mrs. Dang bred noisy brown chickens that were always escaping from their pen and running loose in the streets. “Now go in and see your children!” She grinned at him with betel-nut–stained teeth.

“My children?”

“Ai-ya!” Mrs. Dang exclaimed, striking her forehead with her hand and accidentally smearing it with red. “How stupid—I spoiled the surprise!”

Vu rushed into the bedroom, where he found Huong and his surprise. His wife’s hair was matted and sweaty, and she had a cigarette in her mouth and two little bundles in her arms. Twins. Timidly, he approached their little trinity.

“They’re girls, Vu,” said Huong, exhaling a gray ribbon of smoke. “I know that’s not what you wanted. And there’s two of them.”

Vu came over and sat on the edge of the bed, carefully avoiding the soils from the birth on the sheets. The babies were awake and blinking their eyes—blue eyes in dark faces. Milky blue eyes, like those of Siamese cats. Outside, the distant rainstorm rumbled. Vu shuddered.

He named the girls Vi and Nhi.

Have you read any short stories by Violet Kupersmith? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Frangipani Hotel – Summary

From the story about a beautiful young woman who shows up thirsty in the bathtub of the Frangipani Hotel in Saigon many years after her first sighting there, to a young woman in Houston who befriends an old Vietnamese man she discovers naked behind a dumpster, to a truck driver asked to drive a young man with an unnamed ailment home to die, to the story of two American sisters sent to Vietnam to visit their elderly grandmother who is not what she appears to be, these stories blend the old world with the new while providing a new angle of insight into the after-effects of the war on a generation of displaced Vietnamese immigrants as well as those who remained in Vietnam.

Copyright © 2014 by Violet Kupersmith

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Only through honesty

This is a quote from the book The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai.

Quote by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, “I didn’t want to tell you about his death, but you and I have seen enough death and violence to know that there’s only one way we can talk about wars: honestly. Only through honesty can we learn about the truth.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt from the book here.

The Mountains Sing – 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.

Copyright © 2020 by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Five books about the American War in Vietnam

May is Asian and Pacific Islander heritage month! So for this month I’m going to share reading recommendations from across Asia and the Pacific Islands.

I love this part of the world and I’m excited to be sharing books from here. I think books are a great way to gain insight into peoples’ lives and their culture. You may not be able to travel or live everywhere you’re interested in, but you can definitely read books from anywhere in the world.


One world altering event, I’ve been enjoying learning more about is the American War in Vietnam (as called by those in Vietnam).

The more that I read from different perspectives the more nuance I gain in understanding complex events. I think most world altering events deserve as much nuance as possible. There are always good and bad decisions, but the individuals involved in carrying out those decisions are rarely purely good or bad.

Personally, I’ve been interested in learning about the Vietnamese perspective of the war. I grew up in the Western world and so the little I understood about the war was shaped by the societies’ perspective of the war. I know most North Americans are used to hearing about the “Vietnam War”, but even just what we call it shows different perspectives.

Importance of different perspectives

Books written by Vietnamese authors are a great way to gain some insight into the diverse opinions and experiences of the Vietnamese. Just like any event, no two perspectives or experiences are going to be the same.

I think it’s important to read from multiple perspectives, such as from survivors of the war, refugees of the war (and their descendants), and the generations that grew up in the aftermath of the war. The more perspectives you read about, the more pieces of the puzzle you gain, and slowly a larger picture or understanding will form.

For context, it’s important to understand that the Vietnamese government still has influence over the publishing industry in Vietnam, meaning all media has to be reviewed/approved by the government. This influence has been exerted over all media in Vietnam since the war ended (1975), with many writers either being arrested or having to leave the country.

Due to the government censorship, some books (like The Mountains Sing) are actually written in English to avoid being altered or affected by the government. Interestingly English might allow them a bit more freedom of expression, because it helps them get published outside of Vietnam (aka outside of the government’s influence).

I’ve included a range of books to help showcase a range of perspectives.

Photo by Thijs Degenkamp on Unsplash

Five books about the American War in Vietnam

Here’s a list of five books that explore the American War in Vietnam.

  1. The Sorrow of War / Thân Phận Của Tình Yêu (The Fate of Love) (1987)
  2. Novel Without a Name (1991)
  3. The Sympathizer (2015)
  4. The Mountains Sing (2020)
  5. Wandering Souls (2023)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve listed them in order of when they were published.

The Sorrow of War / Thân Phận Của Tình Yêu (The Fate of Love) (1987)

by Bảo Ninh, translated from the Vietnamese by Phan Thanh Hảo and edited by Frank Palmos

  • Year Published: 1987
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, literary, dark, reflective, sad, slow-paced
  • Won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize

Bao Ninh, a former North Vietnamese soldier, provides a strikingly honest look at how the Vietnam War forever changed his life, his country, and the people who live there. Originally published against government wishes in Vietnam because of its non-heroic, non-ideological tone, The Sorrow of War has won worldwide acclaim and become an international bestseller.

Links:

Novel Without a Name (1991)

by Dương Thu Hương, translated from the Vietnamese by Phan Huy Duong & Nina McPherson

  • Year Published: 1991
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, dark, slow-paced
  • Hương was labeled a “dissident writer” by the Vietnamese Communist party for her criticism of the party and its members.

Twenty-eight-year-old Quan has been fighting for the Communist cause in North Vietnam for a decade. Filled with idealism and hope when he first left his village, he now spends his days and nights dodging stray bullets and bombs, foraging scraps of food to feed himself and his men. Quan seeks comfort in childhood memories as he tries to sort out his conflicting feelings of patriotism and disillusionment. Then, given the chance to return to his home, Quan undertakes a physical and mental journey that brings him face to face with figures from his past—his angry father, his childhood sweetheart, his boyhood friends now maimed or dead—and ultimately to the shattering reality that his innocence has been irretrievably lost in the wake of the war. In a voice both lyrical and stark, Duong Thu Huong, one of Vietnam’s most beloved writers, powerfully conveys the conflict that spiritually destroyed her generation.

Links:

The Sympathizer (2015)

by Viet Thanh Nguyen / Nguyễn Thanh Việt

  • Year Published: 2015
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, literary, thriller, challenging, dark, tense, slow-paced
  • Won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. The general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, unaware that one among their number, the captain, is secretly observing and reporting on the group to a higher-up in the Viet Cong.

The Sympathizer is the story of this captain: a man brought up by an absent French father and a poor Vietnamese mother, a man who went to university in America, but returned to Vietnam to fight for the Communist cause. A gripping spy novel, an astute exploration of extreme politics, and a moving love story, The Sympathizer explores a life between two worlds and examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.

Links:

The Mountains Sing (2020)

by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai (written in English)

  • Year Published: 2015
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, literary, thriller, challenging, dark, tense, slow-paced
  • Won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction

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:

Wandering Souls (2023)

by Cecile Pin

  • Year Published: 2023
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, literary, emotional, reflective, sad, medium-paced
  • Finalist for the 2023 Waterstones Debut Fiction Prize

A luminous, boldly imagined debut novel about three Vietnamese siblings who seek refuge in the UK, expanding into a sweeping meditation on love, ancestry, and the power of storytelling.

There are the goodbyes and then the fishing out of the bodies—everything in between is speculation.

After the last American troops leave Vietnam, siblings Anh, Thanh, and Minh begin a perilous journey to Hong Kong with the promise that their parents and younger siblings will soon follow. But when tragedy strikes, the three children are left orphaned, and sixteen-year-old Anh becomes the caretaker for her two younger brothers overnight.

Links:

Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of books.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of books to read. I’d love to know which books you love or that you would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read any of these books? What did you think of it?

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

Your mother is back

Excerpt from The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Photo by Silver Ringvee on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai.

I heard the door closing, moans, footsteps. “Hương,” Grandma called. “Your mother is back. Give us some light.”

My mother? Could this be true? I fumbled in darkness, searching for the box of matchsticks. I struck one and a fire sprang up, wobbled, and died. I tried another. It didn’t ignite. For the third time, I struck three sticks against the side of the matchbox. Holding the fire, I turned.

A woman stood, her head on Grandma’s shoulder. Her eyes were closed. Her face was red and swollen, her hair glued against her skull.

“Hương, your mother is home. She’s home!” Grandma sobbed.

The fire ate into my fingers. I dropped the matchsticks onto the floor. I didn’t feel any pain, for I’d seen the deep anguish on the woman’s face. My mother’s face.

Mẹ.” I struggled against darkness, rushing to her. My cheek was hot against her chest. My hands clung to her bony frame. “Mẹ, mẹ ơi.

My mother’s fingers trembled over my nose, mouth, eyes. “Hương. Oh, my darling. Hương . . .”

The tears that I’d buried inside of me burst. I cried for the years we’d been apart, for Uncle Thuận’s death, for the deaths of my classmates, for myself and the fact that I no longer had any real friends.

Grandma relit the lamp. She pushed the money on the phản aside. I helped my mother lie down, drying her with a towel. She shivered under my hands.

As Grandma went to get a change of clothes for my mother, I kissed her forehead. A fever seared through her skin. She moaned.

“You’ll be better soon now that you’re with us, Mama.” I ran the towel along her legs, wiping away the mud, eyeing the large bruises imprinted on her skin. “How did you get home, Mama? Where’ve you been?” I wanted to ask about my father but feared the answer.

“Hương.” My mother opened her eyes. “Your Papa . . . Did your Papa come back?”

My heart paused in its beat. The lamp stopped flickering. “Mama, you didn’t find him? You didn’t see him?”

A tear slid out of my mother’s eye. As she shook her head, I stood up. I walked to the room Grandma had reserved for my parents, putting my face against its door. My mother had led me to believe that she could find my father and bring him back to me. I had believed she could do anything she wanted to.

“I’m sorry, Hương.” Her voice was a bare whisper.

The door was hard and cold against my forehead. I wanted to break it open.

“Now the war is ending, Hoàng will be back any day. He’ll be back,” Grandma’s voice said.

“Did you ever get a letter from him?” my mother asked.

“Not yet, Daughter. Perhaps he found no way to send it.”

“How about my brothers, Mama?”

“I’m sure they’re fine, and they’ll be home soon.” I turned to see Grandma sitting my mother up, giving her a glass of water. I looked up in the direction of Uncle Thuận’s altar, feeling thankful for the darkness: it had concealed the truth from my mother, for now.

As I helped Grandma change my mother, I eyed her protruding ribs. The bruises were not just on her legs, they marked their presence on her back, chest, and thighs. What had happened to her?

Grandma brought a towel and a pail of warm water. As I cleaned my mother’s face and hands, she lay there, her eyes tightly shut, her body shuddering. I turned away. I didn’t want to look at her, nor pity her. Where had my strong and determined mother gone? She didn’t ask about Grandma and me, how we were doing and how we’d survived the bombings.

“Let her rest,” Grandma whispered, pulling a blanket to my mother’s chest. As she started cooking, I went out to our young bàng tree. The rain had died into the earth. A half-moon dangled from the sky. I closed my eyes and saw myself as a child, my mother combing my hair, her singing voice the wind in my ears.

Grandma came out. She embraced me, her arms felt as solid as tree roots, holding me up. “I’m sorry your Mama isn’t well, Hương. We must be the pillars for her to lean on.”

“She used to be my pillar, Grandma.”

“I know, but you’re a strong woman now. . . . She needs you.”

I looked up at the moon and tried to let its soft light calm me. Perhaps it was wrong of me to feel disappointed at my mother. At least she’d tried to find my father and bring him back. Grandma had said that it was an impossible task.

“Don’t tell her about your Uncle Thuận yet,” said Grandma. “When she sleeps tonight, I’ll bring Thuận’s belongings into our room.”

I nodded and buried my face into Grandma’s hair. Years later, looking back through the journeys of my life, I understood the fear Grandma must have carried, not knowing what would happen the next day to her children. Yet she had to appear strong, for only those who faced battles were entitled to trauma.

That night, after Grandma had fed her a bowl of phở, I sat guarding my mother. I thought that if I watched her closely enough, she wouldn’t disappear again. I believed that if I told her how much I’d missed her, she’d once again be the mother I knew.

But as a fifteen-year-old girl, I couldn’t imagine how the war had swallowed my mother into its stomach, churning her into someone different before spitting her out. I couldn’t understand how she could scream so loud in her sleep, about bullets, shooting, running, and death. There were words I didn’t understand. And I couldn’t understand how my father’s name could sound so sad on her lips.

In the days that followed, several neighbors came to visit my mother. To my surprise, she didn’t get out of bed or sit up. She only nodded or shook her head at their questions, her face sad and empty. She did the same with her friends and colleagues from the Bạch Mai Hospital. After a while, they all left, whispering that she was exhausted and needed to rest.

But I knew it was more than that. Sometimes when I was alone with her, her shoulders trembled. She must have been crying, but still, no sounds emerged. They only came during the night, when she slept, her body shaking with nightmares.

Fearing my mother would hurt herself in her sleep, I moved into her room. She didn’t want me to be on the same bed, so I unrolled a straw mat onto the floor. I’d been a good sleeper, but no longer.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

The Mountains Sing – 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.

Copyright © 2020 by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Five epic poems from around the world

April is Poetry Month! So I will be sharing lots of poetry suggestions to help you find more poetry that you enjoy.

Like most forms of art, poetry is subjective and very personal. It can take time to find what you like. I want to remind you that you don’t have to like the poetry that people say you should, but I would encourage you to keep exploring poetry until you find what you enjoy.


For this week, I wanted to focus on epic poems. Epic poems are very long narrative poems, so basically a story told in verse. They often follow the typical hero or journey arc, but can be on any theme.

I think one of the most well-known epic poems in the western world would be The Odyssey or The Iliad by Homer. But there are so many more than that, and from many different parts of the world.

My last post talked about some of the most influential epic poems and for this post I want to focus on some lesser known, but fascinating, epic poems. I’ve included examples from around the world to show how diverse the options are, and also because it seems like most areas of the world have a history of epic poems.

Personally, I wonder if epic poems were common in the past because they were an easier way to share and remember the stories orally due to the rhythm, structure, and rhyming. I imagine it could be similar to how we memorize song lyrics.

I know for most of human history storytelling was primarily oral and any kind of written content was limited to “elites”, those either with lots of money, power or part of a religious order.

It’s amazing to think of how much more accessible the written word is today. Anyone can put their thoughts down on paper (or a digital document) and share it with anyone else. I think that’s beautiful.

I know nowadays epic poems are rarely the form of choice, but epic poems can be found in the literature of most cultures throughout history. And today I want to share with you a few that you might not know or realize were a poem.

Photo by areej fateyma on Unsplash

Five epic poems from around the world

Here’s a list of five epic poems from around the world.

  1. Beowulf by Anonymous / Unknown (975-1025 CE)
  2. Shahnameh by Ferdowsi (977-1010 CE)
  3. The Five Great Epics by Tamil Jains and Tamil Buddhists (no specific individuals) (5th-10th century CE)
  4. Ramakien (13th century)
  5. The Song of Kiều by Du Nguyên (1820)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve listed them in the general order of when they were “published”.

Beowulf (975-1025 CE)

by Anonymous / Unknown

  • Year Published:975-1025 AD
  • Language: Old English
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, fantasy, poetry, adventurous, medium-paced
  • One of the most often translated and important works of Old English

Composed toward the end of the first millennium, Beowulf is the elegiac narrative of the adventures of Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero who saves the Danes from the seemingly invincible monster Grendel and, later, from Grendel’s mother. He then returns to his own country and dies in old age in a vivid fight against a dragon. The poem is about encountering the monstrous, defeating it, and then having to live on in the exhausted aftermath.

Links:

Shahnameh (977-1010 CE)

(Persian: شاهنامه, ‘The Book of Kings’, also transliterated Shahnama)
by Ferdowsi

  • Year Published: 977-1010 CE
  • Language: Persian
  • Storygraph Categories:
    nonfiction, classics, history, poetry, challenging, informative, reflective, slow-paced
  • One of the longest epic poems in the world, and the longest written by a single individual
  • Considered a literary masterpiece and important to Persian literature

Among the great works of world literature, perhaps one of the least familiar to English readers is the “Shahnameh: ThePersian Book of Kings,” the national epic of Persia. This prodigious narrative, composed by the poet Ferdowsi between the years 980 and 1010, tells the story of pre- Islamic Iran, beginning in the mythic time of Creation and continuing forward to the Arab invasion in the seventh century. As a window on the world, “Shahnameh” belongs in the company of such literary masterpieces as Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” the plays of Shakespeare, the epics of Homer- classics whose reach and range bring whole cultures into view. In its pages are unforgettable moments of national triumph and failure, human courage and cruelty, blissful love and bitter grief.

Links:

The Five Great Epics (5th-10th century CE)

(Tamil: ஐம்பெரும்காப்பியங்கள் Aimperumkāppiyaṅkaḷ)
by Tamil Jains and Tamil Buddhists (no specific individuals)

  • written over the 5th-10th century CE
  • Language: Tamil
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, literary, poetry, adventurous, slow-paced
  • Are a source of historical information on the Tamil people, including their society, religion, culture and academic life

Names of all five epics:
1. Cilappatikāram 
2. Manimekalai
3. Cīvaka Cintāmaṇi
4. Valayapathi 
5. Kundalakesi

Cilappatikāram Summary

One of the world’s masterpieces, The Cilappatikaram (5th century ce) by Ilanko Atikal is India’s finest epic in a language other than Sanskrit. It spells out in unforgettable verse the problems that humanity has been wrestling with for a long time: love, war, evil, fate and death.

The Tale of an Anklet is the love story of Kovalan and Kannaki. Originating in Tamil mythology, the compelling tale of Kannaki—her love, her feats and triumphs, and her ultimate transformation to goddess—follows the conventions of Tamil poetry and is told in three phases: the erotic, the heroic and the mythic. This epic ranks with the Ramayana and the Mahabharata as one of the great classics of Indian literature and is presented for the first time in a landmark English verse translation by the eminent poet R. Parthasarathy, making it accessible to a wider audience.

Links:

Ramakien (13th century)

(Thai: รามเกียรติ์, ’Glory of Rama’; sometimes also spelled Ramakian)

  • Year Published: 13th century
  • Language: Thai
  • One of Thailand’s epic poems and
  • It is considered Thailand’s version of the Ramayana as it shares most of same the tales, but has been adjusted to the culture of Ayutthaya

Ramakien tells the story of the battle between Tosakanth (king of the demons) and a human, King Rama. Tosakanth kidnaps Queen Sida, wife of King Rama, with the hope that she will fall in love with him. The battle over Queen Sida has Tosakanth and his relatives and friends on one side, against King Rama, his loyal brother Phra Lak and an army of monkey warriors, including Hanuman the demi-god white monkey.

Links:

The Song of Kiều (1820)

The original title in Vietnamese is Đoạn Trường Tân Thanh (斷腸新聲, “A New Cry From a Broken Heart”), but it is more commonly known as Truyện Kiều (傳翹, “Tale of Kiều”)
by Du Nguyên

  • Year Published: 1820
  • Language: Vietnamese (written in Chữ Nôm – Chinese characters)
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, classics, poetry, emotional, reflective, sad, medium-paced
  • Most famous Vietnamese poem and a Vietnamese literature classic

A stunning new translation of the legendary Vietnamese epic poem, now for the first time in Penguin Classics

Considered the greatest literary achievement in Vietnamese, The Song of Kieu tells the story of the beautiful Vuong Thuy Kieu, who agrees to a financially profitable marriage in order to save her family from ruinous debts, but is tricked into working in a brothel. Her tragic life involves jealous wives, slavery, war, poverty, and time as a nun. Adapted from a seventeenth-century Chinese novel, Jin Yun Qiao, written by an unknown writer under the pseudonym Qingxin Cairen, author Nguyen Du upended the plot’s traditional love story by conveying the social and political upheavals at the end of the 18th century in Vietnam.

Links:

Final thoughts

I hope you found something of interest in this list of epic poems.

I’m always looking for more suggestions of what to read. I’d love to know which poems you love or that you would recommend. Let me know in a comment below!

Have you read any of these epic poems, or a part of one? What did you think of it?

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

See the fierce power

This is a quote from the epic poem Song of Kiều by Du Nguyên, translated from the Vietnamese by Timothy Allen.

Quote by Du Nguyên, “See the fierce power of a poem. Learn how words can leap across the years.”

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

If you’re interested, you can read an excerpt from the book here.

Song of Kiều – Summary

A stunning new translation of the legendary Vietnamese epic poem, now for the first time in Penguin Classics

Considered the greatest literary achievement in Vietnamese, The Song of Kieu tells the story of the beautiful Vuong Thuy Kieu, who agrees to a financially profitable marriage in order to save her family from ruinous debts, but is tricked into working in a brothel. Her tragic life involves jealous wives, slavery, war, poverty, and time as a nun. Adapted from a seventeenth-century Chinese novel, Jin Yun Qiao, written by an unknown writer under the pseudonym Qingxin Cairen, author Nguyen Du upended the plot’s traditional love story by conveying the social and political upheavals at the end of the 18th century in Vietnam.

Copyright © 1820 by Du Nguyên.

Translated from the Vietnamese by: Timothy Allen (2019)

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

Women in Translation: 5 books from Southeast Asian women

This month, August, is a chance to celebrate women in translation, specifically women authors who’s works have been translated. There’s so much good translated literature out there. For this month, I’ll be sharing some inspiration for women authors from around the world who have had their work translated into English.

I know a lot of people read works translated from English into their own language, and there’s so many languages that works need to be translated into. But since I only read in English, I’m going to be highlighting works that have been translated into English.


This week we’ll be visiting Southeast Asia, which usually consists of countries including: Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Indonesia.

I find that these countries are less likely to be included in lists of translated literature, which makes me feel like it’s even more important to highlight books from this region.

When it is difficult to find women authors from specific countries, it makes me wonder how much we are missing out on. Every country has talented authors, with incredible stories to tell. And it breaks my heart that certain countries are just seen as not a priority for the publishing world.

But the more that people take time to notice and show interest in these countries, the more likely that publishing world will also pay attention. After all, publishing is still a market, so where there is demand, there will be a supply. So let’s create the demand.

Five books from Southeast Asian women

Here’s a list of five books with women authors from Southeast Asia.

  1. Vietnam: Paradise of the Blind by Dương Thu Hương (1988)
  2. Malaysia: The Age of Goodbyes by Li Zi Shu (2010)
  3. Thailand: The Blind Earthworm in the Labyrinth by วีรพร นิติประภา (Veeraporn Nitiprapha) (2013)
  4. Vietnam: Mãn by Kim Thúy (2013)
    Vietnam
  5. Indonesia: Apple & Knife by Intan Paramaditha (2018)

Keep reading to find out more about each one. I’ve ordered them based on the year they were published in their original language (not the year of the English translation).

Paradise of the Blind (1988)

by Dương Thu Hương Translated by Nina McPherson & Phan Huy Đường

  • Year Published: 1988
    English version in 2002
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, historical, emotional, reflective, slow-paced
  • Language: Vietnamese
  • Country: Vietnam
  • Currently banned in Vietnam

Paradise of the Blind is an exquisite portrait of three Vietnamese women struggling to survive in a society where subservience to men is expected and Communist corruption crushes every dream. Through the eyes of Hang, a young woman in her twenties who has grown up amidst the slums and intermittent beauty of Hanoi, we come to know the tragedy of her family as land reform rips apart their village. When her uncle Chinh‘s political loyalties replace family devotion, Hang is torn between her mother‘s appalling self–sacrifice and the bitterness of her aunt who can avenge but not forgive. Only by freeing herself from the past will Hang be able to find dignity –– and a future.

Links:

The Age of Goodbyes (2010)

by Li Zi Shu, translated from Chinese by Y.Z. Chin

  • Year Published: 2010
    English version in 2022
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, literary, emotional, mysterious, reflective, medium-paced
  • Language: Chinese
  • Country: Malaysia

By one of Southeast Asia’s most exciting writers, The Age of Goodbyes is a wildly inventive account of family history, political turmoil, and the redemptive grace of storytelling.

In the summer of 1969, in the wake of Malaysia’s deadliest race riots, a woman named Du Li An secures her place in society by marrying a gangster. In a parallel narrative, a critic known only as The Third Person explores the work of a writer also named Du Li An. And a third storyline is in the second person; “you” are reading a novel titled The Age of Goodbyes. Floundering in the wake of “your” mother’s death, “you” are trying to unpack the secrets surrounding “your” lineage.

The Age of Goodbyes—which begins on page 513, a reference to the riots of May 13, 1969—is the acclaimed debut by Li Zi Shu. The winner of multiple awards and a Taiwanese bestseller, this dazzling novel is a profound exploration of what happens to personal memory when official accounts of history distort and render it taboo.

Links:

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
  • Language: Thai
  • Country: Thailand
  • Won the prestigious South East Asian Writers (“S.E.A. Write”) Award for fiction and a best-seller in Thailand

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:

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
  • Country: Vietnam & Canada
  • 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

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:

Apple & Knife (2018)

by Intan Paramaditha, translated by Stephen J. Epstein

  • Year Published: 2018
  • Storygraph Categories:
    fiction, horror, short stories, dark, medium-paced
  • Language: Bahasa Indonesia
  • Country: Indonesia
  • You may want to check content warnings before reading

Inspired by horror fiction, myths and fairy tales, Apple and Knife is an unsettling ride that swerves into the supernatural to explore the dangers and power of occupying a female body in today’s world.

These short fictions set in the Indonesian everyday—in corporate boardrooms, in shanty towns, on dangdut stages—reveal a soupy otherworld stewing just beneath the surface. Sometimes wacky and always engrossing, this is subversive feminist horror at its best, where men and women alike are arbiters of fear, and where revenge is sometimes sweetest when delivered from the grave.

Mara finds herself brainstorming an ad campaign for Free Maxi Pads, with a little help from the menstruation-eating hag of her childhood. Jamal falls in love with the rich and powerful Bambang, but it is the era of the smiling general and, if he’s not careful, he may find himself recruited to Bambang’s brutal cause. Solihin would give anything to make dangdut singer Salimah his wife – anything at all.

In the globally connected and fast-developing Indonesia of Apple and Knife, taboos, inversions, sex and death all come together in a heady, intoxicating mix full of pointed critiques and bloody mutilations. Women carve a place for themselves in this world, finding ways to subvert norms or enacting brutalities on themselves and each other.

Links:


Final thoughts

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

I’m always looking for more suggestions of books to read. If you have a favourite book written by a Southeast Asian 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 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.

tình bạn ~ friendship

Excerpt from Mãn by Kim Thúy

Photo by Sam McNamara on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book Mãn by Kim Thúy, translated from the French by Sheila Fischman.

tình bạn ~ friendship

Julie was the first to stick her head into the opening through which I delivered the plates. Her smile stretched from one side of the aperture to the other. The enthusiasm of her greeting was like that of an archaeologist upon discovering a trace of the first kiss. Promptly, before even a word was uttered, we became friends, and with time, sisters. She adopted me as she’d adopted her daughter, without questioning our past. She took me to see movies in the afternoon, or we would watch classics at her place. She opened her refrigerator and had me taste its contents in no particular order, according to her mood of the day: from smoked meat to tourtière, ketchup to sauce béchamel, and including celery root, rhubarb, bison, pouding chômeur and pickled eggs. Sometimes Julie would come and cook with me. I ld show her how to keep sticky rice in superimposed layers of banana leaves by squeezing them firmly but without smothering the rice. It’s always a fragile balance, one that fingers can feel better than words can explain.

At the end of every January, we had to prepare several dozen of the treats because my husband wanted to offer them to his friends and his distant relatives for the Vietnamese New Year, as his mother used to do in her village. The scent of banana leaves cooked in boiling water for many hours reminded him of the days before Tết when the whole neighbourhood spent the night feeding the fire under cauldrons full of rice rolls stuffed with mung bean paste, smooth and as discreetly yellow as the moon.

Julie came to our restaurant often. She invited her friends for lunch, organized monthly meetings of her book group, and reserved the entire restaurant to celebrate family birthdays and wedding anniversaries. Every time, she brought me out of the kitchen to be introduced to her guests, embracing me with her whole body. She was the big sister I’d never had, and I was her daughter’s Vietnamese mother.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Mãn – Summary

Here is the book 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.

Copyright © 2013 by Kim Thúy.

Translated by Sheila Fischman (English version published 2014)

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.