Author Interview: Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai 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 not just her beloved country, but her family apart.

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. The Mountains Sing is celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s first novel in English.

Photo by @thebookishfiiasco

We spoke with Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai about what inspired her to write The Mountains Sing, the importance of independent bookstores, and more.

Please tell us a little bit about what inspired you to write this book and how this story took shape for you.

Vietnamese people have gone through so much that each family’s account could be written into an epic novel. For many years, I wanted to write a book that encompasses the experiences of not just my family, but of others’ as well. I wanted to create a world which is authentically Vietnamese and fill it with Vietnamese characters, language, poetry, and culture. Yet I could not find a key to open the door to that world.

Then, in 2012, when I was traveling with a Vietnamese friend in a car, I asked him what it was like for him during the Việt Nam War. He told me that he was 12 years old when Hà Nội was targeted by B-52 bombers. His parents were in Russia at that time and he was living with his grandmother, who saved him from the bombing raids. His story moved me so much.

When I went home that evening, after putting my two young children to bed, I sat down at my computer and googled about the bombings of Hà Nội. I heard audio broadcasts of the sirens warning citizens about bombing raids. With tears running down my face, I penned 2,000 words which eventually become the opening scene of The Mountains Sing. I wrote without knowing where the story would lead me.

But I knew I had to let Grandma Diệu Lan have many children, who would be separated by historical events which in turn lead them to becoming the enemy of one another.

In two sentences or less, what’s something that might surprise listeners about your audiobook?

During the 7 years working on The Mountains Sing, my Vietnamese-English dictionary stayed by my side. I wrote this novel in search of my grandmothers who had died before I was born.

Have you listened to your own audiobook? If so, what struck you about the narration?

I listened to the entire audio of The Mountains Sing as soon as it was available. And when the book finished, I sat there and cried, hard, for at least half an hour. I felt that I had found my grandmothers in Quyen Ngo’s narration.

When my editor and I selected Quyen Ngo based on her voice, from the list of actresses proposed to us by the audiobook producer Dreamscape, we did not know that five years earlier, she had translated my poetry from Vietnamese into English. She knows my work so well and is the perfect narrator to capture the spirit of The Mountains Sing.

Quyen Ngo has shared with me that narrating The Mountains Sing was “a spiritual experience, a profound alignment of so many parts of my life. While recording this novel, I was swimming in the complexities of Vietnamese history and identity that I’ve spent my entire life trying to grapple with and honor.”

I can feel Quyen’s connection to the book, to our ancestors’ homeland through her narration, and for that I am very grateful.

Are you an audiobook listener? If so, what are some of your favorite audiobooks?

I started listening to audiobooks five years ago and it changed my life. Having books read to me is just a great blessing. At any given time, I am always listening to an audiobook. I listen when I cook, exercise, does laundry or clean up my house. I love being told stories and love falling asleep listening to an audio book. I have listened to too many books and please don’t ask me for favorites because as an author, I respect the work of each author out there.

What I can say is that I have just finished listening to Inland by Téa Obreht and Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha. I just re-listened to What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes, too. I am currently listening to There There by Tommy Orange. It sounds crazy but I often have both print and audio editions of the books which I love.

Reading and listening to books keeps me alive; it is an act of living.

What have independent bookstores and/or booksellers meant to you personally and professionally?

I love independent bookstores so much that whenever I visit a new city or town, I always try to check out the local bookstores to see what type of books they stock and promote. For me, bookstores say so much about a city or town’s culture and atmosphere, politics and life. I love to see the smiles and enthusiasm on booksellers’ faces as they talk about the titles they are excited about.

As I pen these words, booksellers have braving the coronavirus pandemic to be able to deliver books to readers. They are my heroes! I encourage readers to please support independent bookstores. Small businesses are fighting for survival and independent bookstores need our help more than ever.

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