During the 17-year gap between her novels Monkey Bridge (Viking, 1997) and The Lotus and the Storm, Lan Cao gave birth to a daughter and established herself as a well-respected legal scholar in international development, all the while haunted by memories of the Vietnam War.
Cao’s father, the late General Cao Van Vien, was South Vietnam’s Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He received a U.S. Silver Star and a Legion of Merit for leading more than 50 assaults that staunched the incursion of Communist troops. His great hope for Vietnam was a professional military that would remain insulated from politics, but like Minh, the father in The Lotus and the Storm, his refusal to participate in the 1963 American-backed plot to overthrow President Ngo Dinh Diem nearly cost him his life.
Lan Cao, like her protagonist Mai, had a wondrous childhood in Cholon, the Chinese section of Saigon. She left Vietnam in early spring of 1975, entrusted by her parents to the care of U.S. Major General John Fritz Freund, a close family friend. Thinking the trip would be temporary, Cao, who was 13 at the time, packed one suitcase, a few photographs and her favorite stamp album. Arriving in Avon, Connecticut, Cao watched the last days of Saigon on television and realized she would never go home again.
Thanks to serendipitous interventions, Cao’s parents were able to leave Vietnam hours before the collapse of Saigon in April 1975. Cao subsequently reunited with her family in Northern Virginia. She attended high school in Falls Church, Virginia, and later graduated from Mount Holyoke College and Yale Law School. She is now a professor at the Dale E. Fowler School of Law at Chapman University in Orange, CA.
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Tell us about the events that triggered The Lotus and The Storm.
I started the book in 2005. It might have been because what was happening in Iraq at the time started to echo, to me, what had happened in Vietnam. I finished the first draft in 2009 when I was in Vietnam with my daughter, primarily to enroll her in a Vietnamese school to jumpstart her Vietnamese. I revised the novel from 2009 until last year. When I started the book, my daughter was only 3. Now she’s 12.
I wanted to write a novel that is both sweeping in scope and miniscule in detail. I wrote the novel late at night, usually after my daughter fell asleep. My fiction writing began around 9:30 or 10 pm and continued usually until 1 or 2 am, if I had momentum and felt like the writing was going well. Otherwise, I would give up around midnight. I kept telling myself if I wrote one page a day, I would have a decent draft in a year. But it took much longer.
What is the meaning behind the novel’s title?
It’s about tension, the balance of opposites. Serenity and tempest. Peace and war. The religious significance is Buddhist, that is, the state of being open and receptive and spiritually calm despite murky or chaotic surroundings.
In the novel, Mai explains how six distinct tones in Vietnamese can produce six different meanings for certain words. If Bảo (treasure or keepsake – a concept presumably related to lotus) differs from Bão (storm) only by one tone, does it suggest that the lotus is another manifestation of the storm, and vice versa?
Yes, precisely so. One tonal change and the world shifts. For most of us, the balance is but a fine and delicate balance, to borrow from Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (which explored different layers of loss and opened with Agnes’ musings about the fragility of sanity) and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (in which the characters frequently spoke about the need to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair).
Do you ever feel pulled between law and fiction?
I do not feel pulled between law and fiction. I need stability and law offers stability for me. The routine of teaching and legal writing does not upset the (delicate and fine) balance I have strived for. I can see the result of each class and can tell if it went well. In legal writing, I have a body of research to turn to and the contours and structure of a law review article are more accessible. Fiction is messy, mysterious, unknowable, for the most part frustrating. Most of the time while writing I feel that I have failed at what I planned to do. Only later am I able to live with what has been written because I can let go of the original plan and appreciate what occurred instead. Nonetheless, the entire process is fraught. Some of it might be because of the unruly but compelling aspects of fiction – black holes, dark matter, fractures, fissures.
The Tale of Kieu, Vietnam’s epic national poem, is invoked in the novel, with similarities made between Kieu and the mother, Quý– who uses her beauty to save the men in her life. Quýis a savvy business woman with financial resources and an extensive social network. She seems more liberated than most women in 1960s Saigon. Why does she have to resort to sex as a bargaining weapon?
It’s true that Quý has financial resources and is savvy in the world of business. But that’s only one market and it’s a market many women – even if they have access to it – do not control or dominate. There are other markets, like sex and beauty, that historically and across cultures, women have been relegated to. It’s interesting that sometimes, sex is the primary, if not the only, option for women.
Would you say that the dialectical tension in The Tale of Kiều between talent and fate – how fate often thwarts talent – has to do with our tragic national flaw: we as South Vietnamese, raised on Confucian principles, did not know how to construct an effective resistance based on the rule of law?
During the period when The Tale of Kieu was written, protracted fighting raged among different Vietnamese political clans. The French was poised on the horizon. In Japan, fast forward to about 50 years, Commodore Perry too lurked around as the West wanted to force open trade with Japan. But Vietnam never went through the equivalent of Japan’s Meiji period, which historians believe laid the foundation for the modernization of Japan. This was when different feudal factions in Japan forged their allegiances that helped unify the country under the emperor – a necessity in order to fight against Western aggression. Japan engaged in much soul searching and consciously sought out the best of Western laws and values while working to retain the best of its Eastern traditions. A rule of law foundation was established, and a central, unified government created. In Vietnam, we had no such thing. Fate was romanticized. We did not have a strong, robust national consciousness, but one that has always been more oriented towards the micro level – personal friendship, relationship, family.
So yes, I think that the Vietnamese do not have a platform that promotes impersonal, rational discourse — rule of law, principles that extend beyond the coterie of friends and family. Disputes become an opportunity for interpersonal manipulation, gossip and ostracism rather than good faith attempts at moderation through a set of impartial guiding principles.
The novel vividly describes military strategies and battles fought during the Vietnam War, from a Southern Vietnamese perspective. The details are hauntingly specific, as in the passage about Minh’s Cambodian campaign: “We marched in ponderous silence. Each man has a ragged patch of white cloth tied to his shoulder. The soldier behind fixed his eyes on the floating whiteness, ensuring that he would remain in position within the undulating column” (Chapter 10 – Across the Border). Did you base your research of military history on your father’s personal account, and/or his monograph, The Final Collapse? Any other Southern Vietnamese sources?
I know I generally use the term “South Vietnamese” as a shorthand for those who lived in South Vietnam. I don’t mean to limit the term only to those who are actually born to parents who are from the South. Obviously this is because many “South Vietnamese” are Northerners who fled North Vietnam in 1954 and made South Vietnam their home.
Some of the details are from stories my father told me. When my father commanded the airborne brigade, he was indeed shot and wounded in a battle that took place along the Vietnam/Cambodia border and that battle was my model for the Cambodian battle in the novel. Other details came from my cousin who was a ranger in the South Vietnamese army and had battlefield experience. Some came from my brother who joined the army in 1974.
As far as actual research is concerned, opening up the pages of a book or going through search engines on the internet, it was limited to things that are more of a factual nature, such as which divisions of the Vietcong or North Vietnamese army attacked Hue or Saigon during Tet 1968? What year was this or that battle fought? Over the span of 30 plus years, I have read tens if not hundreds of books about the war (and the antiwar movement). Most were written by Americans. But I have also read many accounts of the war by Vietnamese commanders (written in English), many of which had been commissioned by the U.S. Army Center for Military History. Other South Vietnamese sources include A Distant Cause by Mr. Bui Cong Minh, which I included in the acknowledgment section of my novel.
You said in another interview that the Vietnam War still needs to be translated for Americans since Vietnamese refugees remember or experience it quite differently from the way it is perceived or experienced by Americans. It reminds me of a similar remark by a Vietnamese writer, “To write in English about Vietnam is to explain and instruct, but to write in Vietnamese about Vietnam is to commiserate with the homeboys.” Does the need to translate or explain a perspective not generally known impose an aesthetic burden on your fictional framework?
I have thought a lot about translations. In Brian Friel’s play Translations, there is a memorable scene in which names of places known to the 19th century locals in Gaelic had to be altered and rendered into English to be recorded on a map for the English rulers. The act of mapping, which might at first seem like an innocuous, technocratic exercise in translation, became something much more intrusive and violent, reflecting the balance of power between the Irish and the English at the time. The powerful has the power to name cities or map countries. The victors too can rename. Saigon swiftly became Ho Chi Minh City in April 1975.
On one level, translating an experience to the wider American public poses no additional burden beyond that which most of us are already doing and/or already accustomed to. As refugees and immigrants, we’re all translators navigating between the world of the native tongue (which ironically some of us don’t even speak well) and the world of the adopted homeland.
While the translation process has become normalized, deep down it reflects a basic fact – that some people change how they represent themselves (or are pushed into this by the convergence of social and cultural forces) by translating their identity in ways that are more easy for others to grasp.
I want translation to be leveraged differently so that we can portray ourselves with self-awareness, so that our stories can be told rather than excluded – or excluded so pervasively that the exclusion isn’t even noticeable. History is not just an amalgamation of dates and facts – it is socially and culturally translated. It has a point of view. I want the story of the Vietnamese diaspora to be understood, by the Vietnamese, the parents and the children, as well as by the wider world out there. This is especially important because Vietnam has become an American experience, an American story, and as such, the experience of the Vietnamese, the stories of the Vietnamese have been rendered inconspicuous and invisible.
Mai remarks that “[t]he molecular makeup of the melting pot is three parts mundane and only one part visionary.” Would you elaborate?
Sometimes the American Dream is portrayed as something that is a dazzling, slightly Pygmalion-like process that involves taking the raw material of the refugee or the immigrant and molding her into this new being called an American. Sometimes, it’s a very violent process. I remember Bharati Mukherjee saying somewhere that it’s akin to murdering a part of your old innate self and creating this new entity – but the new entity is a cobbled, brittle self prone to dissolution.
Other times, the route towards Americanization is quite uninspired and workmanlike – one new word, one new sentence, one new perspective at a time. I felt that way a little bit when I was in high school. I had just arrived and within three months, had to be enrolled in the 9th grade, where apparently grades start to count. And I remember studying very hard and trying to fit in to the culture of school itself, navigating through PE class, the cafeteria line, the lunch table. And then there was the citizenship test to study for and to pass. But it felt like a technocratic endeavor – one math problem here, another bad experience there, being the last to be chosen in softball, a game I found mystifying. Nothing felt inspired and all of it felt like an exercise in slogging through the necessary steps to arrive at the destination.
Thuy Dinh is a bilingual writer and editor of the Vietnamese literary e-zine Da Mau. Her work also appears in Amerasia Journal, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and the anthology Twenty Years of Vietnamese American Experience, ed. Andrew Lam and De Tran (Andrews McMeel: 1995). Her poetry translation (with Martha Collins) is published in Asymptote, Manoa, and the anthologyThe Defiant Muse: Vietnamese Feminist Poems from Antiquity to the Present(The Feminist Press: 2008)
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