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"Dust Child" is the new novel by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai.
Algonquin Books
"Dust Child" is the new novel by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai.

'Dust Child' offers fresh, compassionate lens on Vietnam

Author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai will be in San Diego tomorrow to discuss her new novel "Dust Child." The book gives voice to the often-invisible women of the Vietnam War and to the Amerasian children left behind when American troops departed.

Author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai grew up in Vietnam and witnessed how Amerasian or mixed-race children born and abandoned during the war were bullied. But since her family had moved from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, she felt like an outcast and was bullied.

"I think that was the seed of my novel, 'Dust Child,'" Nguyễn said. "I was wondering about them throughout the years, and I wanted life to treat them better. So then in 2015, I read an article that moved me very deeply about this American veteran who came back to Vietnam when he was in his early 70s. He walked the streets of Saigon with an album of old photos of him and his former Vietnamese girlfriend. He was asking the people in Saigon whether they knew her because he was back looking for her, and he wanted to find her, to be able to meet his responsibility as a father."

Author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai will be in San Diego on Tuesday, March 21, to discuss her new novel, "Dust Child."
Author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai will be in San Diego on Tuesday, March 21, to discuss her new novel, "Dust Child."

The article also inspired Nguyễn to activism. She has worked with American veterans who returned to help rebuild her homeland, assist victims of Agent Orange, remove unexploded ordnance, and in some extraordinary cases, to look for their Amerasian children.

Her book looks to multiple sets of characters whose lives intersect over decades.
"I wanted to include the voices of fathers of Amerasians, why they had walked away from their children. Mothers of Amerasians, the difficult decisions they had to make when they abandoned or gave away their children. And the experiences of Amerasians who grew up in Vietnam, who were called children of the enemy. As we speak today, there are still tens of thousands of them out there looking for their parents," Nguyễn explained.

The book never takes sides but rather examines the layers of complexity surrounding these issues. It encourages compassion, reconciliation and forgiveness.

"I have seen how wars dehumanize people," Nguyễn said. "Soldiers of both sides of the war were encouraged to kill the other side, so they were encouraged to see the others as inhuman. I think in literature, there is so much in humanizing people so that we realize that we are all the same. We are fathers, we are sons, we are daughters, we are children of Mother Earth and we should be loving each other and helping each other rather than killing each other."

At one point in the book, the character of Dan, the American veteran, was reading books written by his enemies and Nguyễn writes, "In searching for their humanity he was trying to regain his own."


It's a beautiful line that reflects the compassion the author has for all sides and for trying to understand all her characters. There is a deep sense of characters suffering guilt over things they did or did not do, and seeking forgiveness.

"All of my characters experience guilt and they are searching for forgiveness, not just from others, but from themselves," Nguyễn said. "I think with wars and conflicts, people were pushed into making decisions that they would not normally do. So then they feel guilty afterwards. And it takes years of reflection to be able to forgive oneself. Sometimes people refuse to acknowledge their past wrongdoings and I think to be able to forgive and move on, you have to reconcile with your past. No one is perfect. I grew up in Vietnam. I have witnessed that sense of guilt in most people that I see, people, mothers and fathers who were pushed into making decisions that they had to make to be able to save their families."

In addition to gracefully conveying a complex sense of history and the past, "Dust Child" also conveys a beautiful sense of Vietnamese culture through poetry, music, customs, and food.

On Tuesday, Warwick Books hosts a luncheon with Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai at the La Jolla Country Club, and then La Playa Books presents an evening with the author at Point Loma Assembly.

I cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.
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