Interview with Lan Cao: Diving into the Wreckage And Into the World

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1997 marked an important year in Vietnamese American literature when Viking published Lan Cao’s debut novel Monkey Bridge. Cao’s novel about the ramifications of the Vietnam War and the lives and communities built in its wake in the United States was the first novel published by a major press (as there were Vietnamese language publications, for example) about the War written by a Vietnamese American. The book also received much acclaim. Reviewing it for The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called it “[a]n impressive debut,” comparing it to the works of Salman Rushdie and Bharati Mukherjee.

This year, Viking will release Cao’s second book The Lotus and the Storm, the story of a family whose lives are inextricably bound to and altered by the tragic events that led to the fall of Saigon. Epic in scope, the novel alternates between the life of a once decorated soldier, now weak and ailing, in his home in the Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. and that of his daughter, Mai, who grew up in Saigon’s twin city, Cholon.

Lan Cao was kind enough to talk with Diacritics about her new novel as well as her dual career as a lawyer and writer, and the role history plays in literature.

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You’re a lawyer by training. You also teach at the Dale E. Fowler School of Law at Chapman University. Have you always wanted to become a writer? Or was it an interest that developed later?

I love reading, ever since I was a little child. In Vietnam, I was hooked on 1001 Arabian Nights and the Chinese swordsman series by Kim Dung (such as Anh Hung Xa Dieu, Than Dieu Dai Hiep, Co Gai Do Long). Those are plot-driven books and I was held spell-bound by the notion, in Arabian Nights, that storytelling was so powerful it could save the narrator’s life. I was introduced to the English novel as a form by my AP English teacher. I loved James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, for example, a book that to me, explores the process of living with one’s cultural tradition without being constrained by it. So my love of writing originally comes from my love of reading.

In college, I took a course that encourages students to go deep inside themselves, to explore the interior world of the self while at the same time being observant of the vast canvas in the world outside–political, economic, historical, social. The professor encouraged us to keep a journal and write about this interaction between the interior and the exterior. She introduced me to The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I loved the book. We also read Jung and Adrienne Rich’s poetry. I liked the idea expressed by Jung, that everyone carries a shadow. And the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is; and that despite its deep black roots, it is also a fecund source of creativity. When I read Adrienne Rich’s poem about diving into the wreck, it is to me similar to diving into the world of the sinister shadow and emerging from it a  more creative, conscious person. Writing becomes for me learning to live with and loving one’s shadow self. The wrecks that are there can be looked at and written about. Writing becomes natural, a part of one’s self, and also necessary.

I also love law and I like combining writing fiction with the academic life of teaching and writing. When I worked at a law firm in NYC after graduating from law school, Vietnam and other centrally planned economies were making the transition to the market. This was when the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall fell. I saw the potential of the rule of law, to remake society, to foster individual freedom and encourage economic and political development through international integration and trade. So that is where my research interests lie in my legal academic life.

Creative writing and law, to me at least, seem like two very different fields, especially your area of concentration of economic and political development. As a creative writer myself, such topics go over my head. How is being a lawyer like being a writer? Has being a lawyer and academic taught you anything as a writer?

Yes, they are different fields. The writing one does in law, for law reviews or academic books, is different from my kind of creative writing. The former involves mostly research, a lot of research, and then honing this research into a finely tuned thesis. The research is from somewhere else external to oneself—books, articles, interviews. The process is accumulating materials, searching for the truth of the subject, then whittling away all the materials that are in excess of or extraneous to that truth (the thesis). The creative writing that I do comes from my own shadow, my own wreckage, so to speak, and rarely ever involves research. I don’t always have to write about Vietnam; however, even when my topic changes, I don’t see my writing as writing that will involve much research (because I am already doing research for law writing). So in fiction, I’m drawn to a different kind of writing, more rooted in my own experience, my own observations.

I also teach, of course, and teaching is again very different from creative writing or writing of any sort. The teacher/student relationship involves a more interactive process, whereas I see writing as essentially a solitary process. So I like the change that teaching requires, more interactive, more external. The results are immediate. You teach a class, you impart information, you push students to question their assumptions, you hone their critical thinking. You leave the class. And you feel you’ve accomplished something right away. Writing seems much more solitary but also more ambiguous and gray. Sometimes you have no idea where you’re going and you have no idea whether what you write today you’ll keep tomorrow.

Monkey Bridge (1997)
Monkey Bridge (1997)

You said writing is about reconciling the conscious self and the “shadow” self. In Monkey Bridge, this is very much what the characters try to do. Indeed, the mother character, Thanh, uses writing to chronicle her life and to tell her daughter the truth about her history. Do you think writing and storytelling is important for minorities–particularly immigrants and Vietnamese Americans? Where do you think writing fits in the making of identities and/or communities?

 I think writing and storytelling is important for everyone who needs it (for example, one can think of Thoreau with Walden or May Sarton with Journal of a Solitude). Writers may write for their own journeys. But I think writing and storytelling may be important for immigrants in a different way (though of course writers who are immigrants can write for themselves too and for their own journeys). For immigrants, writing may be a way of building a community and creating an orchestra of voices that are important for the community to understand each other and for the world out there to understand the community. So there may be a communitarian aspect to writing when one is an “immigrant writer.” (Although I think a part of me believes that all writers write about some sort of journey and in that respect, all are immigrants).

For Vietnamese American writers of a certain generation, Vietnam and the war continue to be a part of us. It is earth and water (dat nuoc). Can’t escape from it. And when one sees Vietnam and the war be presented in a way that is exclusionary (of us and our experience), then writing takes on a different dimension. It is internal writing and external writing. It is writing for self and writing for others. It is both writing and translating. If there is too much writing for others, I think the balance can tip and it won’t work. So there has to be a balance.

All stories (even history) have a point of view. Vietnamese American writers are important merely because by writing, (and by no other reason beyond writing), we are adding our point of view to the orchestra of voices on Vietnam (assuming the Vietnamese American writers are writing about Vietnam). At some point, perhaps Vietnam won’t be such a pull anymore, and Vietnam and the war no longer need to be “translated.” At that point, we will write as any other writers write, and that too is of course enough.

Why do you think the Vietnam War still needs to be “translated”? Why are writers still writing and readers still reading about the War nearly forty years after its end? Recently published War-related books include: Kill Anything That Moves by Nick Turse (2013), The Reeducation of Cherry Truong by Aimee Phan (2013), Birds of Paradise Lost by Andrew Lam (2013). There is interest in the War that does not seem to die, and this seems to be on all sides—American writers, Vietnamese American writers, etc. What do you think draws us back as writers and as readers?

It needs to be translated because the Vietnam War for the Vietnamese diaspora is experienced and remembered, almost in a different language, than the Vietnam War for the Americans (and even then, the “American” perspective is hardly homogeneous). For the diaspora, we have different memories. For me, for example, when I read T.S. Eliot’s “April is the cruelest month,” I think of April 1975.

So far, we have mostly heard, at least in the English language, from the Americans. Writers and readers still write and read about this war forty years after its end because this war is a historically significant war. It is historically significant in its own right—it was fought at the twilight of French colonialism, marking the end of the age of colonialism, and at the beginning of the rise of communism. Vietnam (under Ho Chi Minh), Cuba, China, the Soviet Union, North Korea, the African countries emerging from post-colonialism, bought into the “romance” of Communism. It was in Vietnam that a line was drawn, to prevent the spread of Communism into other parts of the world. So this war was significant in its own right.

But it’s significant also because the U.S. fought it and did not win. It was and remains a controversial war. Was it a war of Vietnamese independence against American imperialism? Many students from the West demonstrating on campuses thought so. They marched carrying the flag of the NLF and placards with Ho Chi Minh’s pictures. Was it a war of Northern aggression against the South? Was it a war against international communism fought by non-Communist nationalists? Was it a war of wills between the US camp (South Korea, the Philippines, New Zealand, Australia, and other allied forces) and the Communist camp  (North Vietnam, China, USSR)? Its televised unfoldment on a daily basis on the evening news added to its controversy. The guerilla nature of the war also meant civilians were pulled into the battlefield in an unprecedented manner, and military and civilian deaths were chronicled and televised. The war also raised questions about the neutrality of countries that allowed their territory to be used as a launching platform against another country (Cambodia vis-à-vis South Vietnam). Demonstrations erupted when the U.S. launched military operations into Cambodia to destroy border bases. The publication of the Pentagon Papers provoked ancillary but significant issues for Americans—Can governments be trusted? How is secrecy justified in a free and open society?

At the same time, because it was a controversial war, it called into question all kinds of bedrock principles. It called into question the nature of democracy and the constitutionality of the war (undeclared by Congress, but funded by Congress). For the young, the 60s youthful, idealistic students, the war was a diversion of resources, away from antipoverty programs to the “military industrial complex.” The war might represent superpower acts of aggression against a Third World people (which was how Hanoi depicted it)—creating a vortex of movements such as the peace movement and the civil rights movement aligning themselves against the war, as it was seen as a war against people of color (in Asia).

In the U.S., we had Martin Luther King against the war (black boys shouldn’t be sent across the world to fight yellow boys, none of whom had ever called them the n word). We had the youthful idealism of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), spawning the more violent Weathermen and then Weather Underground (to reflect a more feminist turn, changing men to underground). We had SNCC (students nonviolent coordinating committee); SCLC (Southern Christian Leadership Conference)—all opposed to the war. In addition, the baby boomer generation also created its own “counter culture”—question authority, question the rat race (dropping out became a good thing)—rock and folk singers (the voice of the baby boomer generation) such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, even the Beatles, all denounced the war and sang for peace. The Woodstock generation questioned everything that the WWII generation had fought for.

There is of course another side—that of those who opposed the counterculture 60s movement that fueled the antiwar movement. These Americans believe in the need to win the war and that the war was winnable. But there was nothing cool about this group—they are the “establishment”—the grownups that the boomers were against. Who wants to write about them? They’re the status quo.

So that’s the context in which the war is remembered—as part of a turbulent time where America itself came of age, where its nobility is questioned (unlike World War II), where the projection of American power and the limits of American power were themselves questioned. That the war was itself intrinsically, historically important, coupled with its cultural, metaphorical, contextual significance, meant it remains a source of continued interest. In addition, the war itself spawned all kinds of questions that continue to haunt the U.S. every time it embarks on another war elsewhere. The U.S. continues to fear “another Vietnam,” whatever that means.


The Lotus and The Storm (2014)
The Lotus and The Storm (2014)

In your new book, The Lotus and the Storm, one of your main characters has flashbacks prompted by scenes of fighting in Baghdad and Basra. In what ways, do you think, was the situation in the Middle East similar to that in Vietnam during the War? Was it “another Vietnam”?

The flashbacks in the novel experienced by the soldier aren’t flashbacks of the sort caused by a traumatic experience. They’re more remembrances (not PTSD). The character’s view is thus: as he sees how American newscasters present the story of America’s intervention in Iraq and prepares the stage for U.S. exit, he is reminded of how the US too prepared the stage for American exit from Vietnam. In both cases, the Americans start by questioning the legitimacy and wisdom of the intervention (i.e. what John Kerry called the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time); making the case for the notion that it is thus better to leave ASAP (after wreaking havoc) than to allow a mistake to be long and drawn out; extolling themselves for having fought well and having done their best; deriding the Vietnamese and the Iraqis (and now the Afghans) for not being able to get their act together—in other words, portraying the undifferentiated mass of undeveloped non-Europeans as a people that cannot be helped, marred as they are by incompetence, corruption, lack of cohesion, etc. Edward Said wrote about this in his landmark book Orientalism. The East is the inert, passive Other to the more dynamic West.

The point is to be able to leave and not lose face and the way to do it is to blame the loss on the natives. In the end, they’re not “worth the effort.” Both Vietnam and Iraq are non-European countries. One wonders (from the character’s standpoint) whether the U.S. would fight in a European country the same way.

Do you think there’s a connection between war and literature? That is to ask: is there a function to literature or art in wartime? And then after wartime? If so, what?       

I don’t think there is any direct connection between war and literature per se. Literature is connected to everything, which may include war, but I don’t see an intrinsic or organic connection between the two. Having said that, I should add that a writer who is surrounded by war or whose life is touched by war may naturally be prompted to write about war, but there is no obligation to do so. The writer writes what she or he sees. Kafka said: “Anyone who cannot cope with life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little his despair over his fate…but with his other hand he can jot down what he sees among the ruins, for he sees different and more things than the others ….”

Furthermore, when the writer does write about war, there is no obligation to portray that war in any particular way other than the way the writer and the characters see it. I do not feel I have to write about the war in Vietnam in a way that will satisfy the Vietnamese diaspora’s sensibility, whatever that might be. I do not believe writers should submit to the apostles of purity who have wrought havoc on mixed up human beings, to paraphrase Rushdie.

I am glad you asked this question because in my prior answer about translating Vietnam, I do not mean to suggest that there is any right way to translate Vietnam or the war—just that when I found myself reading hundreds of books about Vietnam in high school, I noticed that there was hardly any Vietnamese voice deemed worthy by the mainstream to be listened to and more disturbingly, the absence of such voice was not even noticed.

Because I am personally compelled to dive into the wreck of war, I have thought a lot about how one writes about this subject. So I’ve been drawn to the writings of writers whose novels are embedded in intimate ways in the turbulent canvases of their time but do not venture into the realm of didactism or ideology. Their writings are about home and the world without erecting an inviolate fence between the two.

You said in high school, you read many books about Vietnam, but rarely were those written from the Vietnamese perspective. Indeed, your first novel Monkey Bridge is considered to be one of the first novels by a Vietnamese-American about the War and its aftermath. Did you face any challenges getting it published?

I think a lot of things happen in life serendipitously. I wrote Monkey Bridge primarily as a mother daughter story. My own mother had a stroke and that, not Vietnam, was the trigger that got me to write. I incorporated Vietnam, of course, into the story, because Vietnam is in my being. In some ways, because the emotional impetus for the novel was my mother, it subdued my lawyerly inclination to “make a point” –about Vietnam, for example. Writing a novel is so different from writing a brief, as I’m sure you can imagine.

So after I finished the novel, I just let it sit. (I had written other versions of a novel that I wasn’t pleased with, and those sat in a box under my bed).

Then I went to my weekend escape—a beach in East Hampton. I sat next to a person who was reading the monthly magazine The Advocate. The cover had a survey about how often gay men couples, straight couples, and lesbian couples continued to have sex in long-term relationships. I thought it was an interesting, provocative cover headline, so I struck up a conversation with her. I can’t remember what I said, but she thought it was funny. We became immersed in a long conversation. She said she was a literary agent at Curtis Brown. I blurted out I just wrote a novel, and immediately was embarrassed because I imagined she got that retort often. She asked what it was about and when I told her, she immediately said to send the manuscript to her. This was in 1996 and I was on the verge of leaving to go to Vietnam. I gave her the manuscript, left (to go teach a course on contracts at Ho Chi Minh Faculty of Law and Hanoi Faculty of Law). I wasn’t in touch with her during that trip at all (there wasn’t really email much then). When I returned, she told me she had offers from three or four publishers. I remember it was Viking, Ballantine, Simon & Schuster and another one. I met with each of them and picked Viking because the editor and I clicked immediately. She got the book, and I got her.

So it was easy to get the book published.

Monkey Bridge examined a mother and daughter relationship. The Lotus and the Storm seems to be about a father and daughter relationship. What was the inspiration for this book? How was writing this book different from writing the first?

For this book, I want to write about life during the war and life changed because of losing the war. That means writing about the life of someone who fought in the war and how the major turning points of the war affected him. Thus, I picked the 1963 coup against President Diem, the 1968 Tet Offensive, the 1973 Paris Peace Accords, the 1975 collapse, post-1975 boat people exodus. And to add a personal touch to it, I want the soldier to have a wife, daughter, friends, family—in other words, writing about the intimate details of their lives together. Unlike Monkey Bridge, this novel is much more epic in scope because it combines the sweeping canvas of a historical war with the pointillist details of family life.

Writing this book is different from Monkey Bridge because I’m not naturally inclined to write about military issues, including military policies, strategies, battles. That was something very new to me. By contrast, everything I wrote about in Monkey Bridge was intimately familiar to me.

Your work is very much tied to history—(inter)national and personal. For instance, the mother in Monkey Bridge is very concerned with karma—punishment because of history and the repetition of history—but the backdrop of her story is the history of the Vietnam War. How is history important to you as a writer?

History is important to me because I am living with the history of the war in Vietnam. How that war was waged by the U.S. has consequences for us the Vietnamese diaspora. But if I were to write another work of fiction that doesn’t involve Vietnam, I would think history would still be braided into this work. I am interested in the crosscurrent of past and present; in particular, how the past bleeds into the present. And the past doesn’t have to be historical past. History with a capital H. It can also be one’s personal history. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” as Faulkner said.

I find this very Vietnamese. For example, the concept of lam phuoc. I’m not sure how to even translate phuoc. I guess one could say blessing. The notion that is peculiarly Vietnamese is the notion that one can create this by one’s thought and deed. And not just create it but also pass it down to one’s children. I don’t know if this is an explicit concept, but it’s implicitly understood in everyday life. You might have heard people say lam phuoc cho con. That has to mean you, the parent, do something to create good blessings, luck, and that luck/blessing can be passed down. Very similar to the notion of karma. Karma doesn’t just get reproduced and appear in next lives but even in this life. Same with lam phuoc. So the past (acts from the past—done by a person or a country)  will have ripple effects that are felt in the present. My mother always talked about how the Vietnamese treated the Cham, the Khmer. She always thought that created very bad “phuoc.”

And as a final question: what advice do you have for younger writers?

I can’t presume to have any advice for anyone because I sort of stumbled into this process. But I think reading is really important because it exposes writers to the cadence and rhythm of a story. You learn to write without really consciously learning to write. Also be very observant of your surroundings, of life’s dynamics, interactions. They can provide inspiration for writing. There are so many ways of writing, so I suppose read books that you find compelling and see how the writer achieved what you find to be successful in the book. For example, I really love John Updike’s Rabbit series. Part of it is because I love the fact that current events of the day are woven into the narrative in a seamless and effortless way. So both “home” and “the world” are entwined in his books. And I also like the fact that although Rabbit is not necessarily always a very nice person, he is often endearing despite his flaws. Updike treated him lovingly, tenderly, and his craftsmanship and authorial voice make a story about a small American town, peopled by the Protestant middle class, a universal one. I love his use of arcane language, sometimes mixing words in ways that one hasn’t seen before. So my point is, if you find an author you like, read that author. It might be very good for your writing.

The “advice” I’m giving now in answer to your question is also mostly advice I give myself. One has to know what one’s natural inclinations are and what the potential flaws of those inclinations may be, and find ways to counteract them. I know I am more drawn to narrative and interior life, to lyrical writing than to external plot. I never know what comes next when I write. One line, sometimes spilling almost of its own accord onto the screen, is followed by another line, and somehow the book is written. Nothing is ever plotted out. I think more about the psychological makeup of a character and wonder what that character would do in such and such a situation. (Rather than think of the situation, the plot, and have the character perform it). But although I’m fine with that, I also advise myself to be careful because one still needs to have a story told, a scene depicted. Plot is still important. And with that thought in the back of my head, I think of stories that have great plots—1001 Arabian Nights, the Chinese swordsman stories, for example. Just a way to remind myself not to overlook plot.

Lan Cao is the author of the critically acclaimed novel Monkey Bridge, published by Viking Penguin in 1997, and of The Lotus and the Storm, forthcoming with Viking Penguin in August 2014. She is also a professor of law. In 2013, she joined Chapman Law School as the Betty Hutton Williams Professor of International Economic Law after more than a decade on the faculty at William & Mary Law School. She is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College and Yale Law School where she was Notes Editor of the Yale Law Journal. After graduation from law school, she clerked for a federal judge and practiced as a litigation and corporate attorney in NYC before joining legal academia. She has also taught at Brooklyn Law School, Duke Law School and Michigan Law School.

Eric Nguyen has a degree in sociology from the University of Maryland along with a certificate in LGBT Studies. He is currently an MFA candidate at McNeese State University and lives in Louisiana.


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