Friday, January 13, 2023

Q&A with Phong Nguyen




Phong Nguyen is the author of the new novel Bronze Drum, which focuses on the lives of the Trung sisters, legendary figures in Vietnam. His other books include Roundabout. He is the Miller Family Endowed Chair in Literature and Writing at the University of Missouri.


Q: What inspired you to write this novel based on the lives of the legendary Trung sisters?


A: I have always wanted to write a book about the Trung Sisters. I heard the story when I was young and it inspired me to be a better writer so I could one day capture their historical moment.


I was also inspired by the strength of women in my life: my mother, my wife, my grandmother, my close friends-- women who are formidable and capable and defy deep-seated cultural assumptions about what women are capable of.


When everyone was so full of hope in 2016 that we would elect the first female head of state in America, then that highly capable and experienced woman was passed over for a highly incompetent male, it felt urgent to tell the story of these heroic women and the challenges they faced to become kings.


Q: The Kirkus review of the book says, in part, “The sisters have long been revered as national icons in Vietnam, and this fictionalized account of their rise to military greatness includes extensive, cinematic descriptions of battlefield tactics and imagined scenes of heartache and horror while not avoiding references to mistakes in judgment (diplomatic and otherwise) they may have made. Nguyen reminds us that the power of women is nothing new.” What do you think of that description?


A: I appreciate the description, especially the last line because that was a fundamental reason for writing the book-- to challenge the idea that the power of women is particular to the American story and the Western tradition.


The Trung Sisters are sometimes compared to Joan of Arc, but there are important differences between their story and her story: namely, that the Trung Sisters emerged from a matriarchal culture that placed a high value on women's leadership, rather than as an aberration; also, Joan of Arc coronated a king, while the Trung Sisters became kings themselves.


Two thousand years ago, there was a place in this world where the leadership of women was not only permitted but expected, and that place was the land that is now known as Viet Nam. 


Q: What did you see as the right blend between fiction, mythology, and history as you wrote the book, and how did you research the novel?


A: When I first decided that I was going to write about the Trưng sisters, and about the bronze age in ancient Viet Nam, I went to the library and what I encountered there was endless shelves with books about the American War in Viet Nam. This was both daunting and motivating. It suggested that the
research would not be easy, but it also suggested that this book was necessary.


Luckily, during the time I was writing and researching Bronze Drum, a handful of books about ancient Viet Nam appeared, including Nam C. Kim’s The Origins of Ancient Vietnam. After reading these books, I contacted the authors, and struck up a regular correspondence with Dr. Kim, who is an anthropological archeologist specializing in this era. That would be my greatest resource in conducting the research for Bronze Drum going forward.


Ultimately, I had to ignore much of the historical information because I wanted to honor the myth and the image of the Trung Sisters as it exists in the popular imagination of modern Viet Nam. 


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I had the title Bronze Drum from the very beginning, and the bronze drum works as both a symbol and a literal reminder of the impact of the Trung Sisters since so many of these drums are still discovered to this day, although the Han attempted to suppress them by melting them into pillars.


Their role in the life of the Lac Viet people is a matter of speculation, but it's possible that they were used in ritual, in music, and in military life, which is how they are represented in the novel. No matter what their original purpose, they have come to represent the will and strength of the Vietnamese people.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am currently working on another novel, tentatively titled Book of My Son, which is autobiographical and concerns family history, specifically, my father's family from Vietnam during the French occupation to my father's immigration story up to my own upbringing in New Jersey and my life today in Missouri with adult children of my own.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: It has been a pleasure to be interviewed! 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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