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Yasuko Thanh is an award-winning writer, mother and punk rock/rockabilly singer. Born in Victoria, B.C. to a German mother and Vietnamese father in 1971, her short story collection, Floating Like the Dead, was published in 2012. The title piece won the McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize for best story published in Canada in 2009 and another won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Short Story. Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, her debut novel, was published last year through Penguin Canada’s Hamish Hamilton imprint and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust award.

The novel is set in Saigon, French Indochina, in 1908, and focuses on Nguyen Georges-Minh, a Vietnamese National and Paris-educated physician. Riddled with guilt and dislike for the French who have made him rich, he is involved with an underground group that plots to poison a unit of the occupying forces. Things do not go as planned and Georges-Minh and his family are forced into hiding.

Culture caught up with Yasuko recently and chatted to her about family and the inspiration for her novel.

Tell us about your father’s family and their experiences in French Indochina.

My father was born in 1940, in Phnom Penh, into an ethnically Vietnamese family. His father’s family had come from China, and my grandmother’s family had lived in Vietnam for generations. As a boy growing up in Cambodia, he studied at a French school. Only the elite could secure placement, and my father’s family, wealthy from selling pharmaceuticals based on traditional medicines, formed part of Cambodia’s elite. He left Cambodia for France in 1963 to go to university.

Did those experiences inspire you to write Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains?

The character of Georges-Minh finds roots in my family’s history. Like my great-uncle and grandfather, he trades in homemade medicines, and considers himself separate from other Vietnamese because of his French schooling. [Another character] Khieu’s manner of relating to women may have a connection with stories I heard about a great-grandfather who would periodically abandon his wife and a great uncle who had many girlfriends. My grandmother saw the tortured collaborator, according to family lore, as she searched for my grandfather, who’d fled into hiding for political reasons after someone was shot in their store. Whether or not she truly had to participate in what happened to the man (I guess part of me finds it hard to believe) ultimately has no bearing on whether the story I heard was true. My great uncle, with his snappy clothes and fine face, physically resembles [the man who falls in love with Georges-Minh], Chang.

Why is the issue of identity so central to Georges-Minh?

Georges-Minh grew into himself through my desire to explore how beliefs are shaped, and what happens when they’re tested. How do we know who we are, and if we discover that we aren’t who we think, first of all, how does that manifest, and, second, what do different people do with that? Georges-Minh wrestles with his wealth, his sexuality, his love/hate relationship with the French. My French uncle who lived near Paris, who listened to jazz, and smoked long cigarettes, plotted with other Vietnamese expats to overthrow the communist government. Though nothing came of it, I wondered about a similar group, and what might happen to them if an inciting event, like a poisoning, forced them to confront ideas about themselves. Much fiction begins by thinking, What if?

Have you been to Vietnam?

I collected stamps, carefully steaming off images of men with hoes and sickles or around a pair of tanks, water buffalo, dancing elephants, and wrestlers, from envelopes originating in Nha Trang or Ho Chi Minh City that my father’s family would send when I was a child. An open cardboard box sat in the kitchen by our shoes, filling over a period of days or weeks with items like boxes of toothpaste, care packages my father forwarded to relatives. I did projects on Vietnam for school but I’ve yet to visit the country and my relatives there.

How did you delve into the culture of angry ghosts?

I tapped into my own belief system. Many write the world they believe in, or the world they wish to see, and so it’s been suggested that all fiction is in some way corrective. If I go to my kid’s band concert and tell the parents on the bleachers next to me about benevolent ancestors or interfering ghosts, most will think I’m crazy. My writing stands in the stead of conversations too sad, scary, or intimate to have in public.

Where did the idea for the character of Chang come from?

Chang grew as a character through his devotion for Georges-Minh. Exploring his motivations as an unrequited lover created many of the details of their shared past. The emotional content could be easily filled in with elements of my own life, because each of us have experienced, to varying degrees, an infatuation, and the complicated heartbreak that results from one’s continuing sacrifices on behalf of a person who doesn’t notice us.

Tell us about your decision to explore your characters’ sexuality the way you did.

 I knew Georges- Minh had a love interest and in the early days, before committing anything but notes to the page, I had convinced myself it was [the female servant] Thu. However, I went ahead by writing the characters’ names on tiny slips of paper and folding them into squares that I dropped into a mug. It was an exercise to release creative juices. I’d consider whichever character I pulled equally worthy as Thu to play the third corner of the love triangle. I withdrew Chang’s name and had an “of course” epiphany. Chang, with his sophisticated taste and love of language, who, as an ethic Chinese, would feel to some degree the same cultural alienation as Georges-Minh, who studied in France, of course they would be drawn to each other! It never occurred to me to put only women’s names into the mug.

The African character of Birago, was so different from the others. How did he come about?

My father spoke about a man from Senegal who had an affair with one of my relatives (who was married to someone else). She became pregnant and when the baby was born, her parentage became clear, but her husband raised the girl as his own, and this was the end of the story. The moral, if one could extrapolate, to overlook personal pain in order to be a good person, or that sometimes doing the right thing involves swallowing one’s pride. In any case, I became intrigued about the history of men from Senegal in Vietnam, and read about how the French military often recruited soldiers from their colonies. I found this interesting, in that the colonized would be fighting against the colonized. In essence, fighting versions of themselves.

Mental imbalance and madness play a central role in the book. Why?

Author Bill Gaston, whose work I admire, said “Write what you know…to be true.” During the writing of the book, I suffered a number of breakdowns, physical and mental. Someone else said, “The life you live shapes what you write.” I wrote from a hospital bed. At one point I suffered paranoid delusions and thought people wanted to kill me. The connection between a failing body and [Georges-Minh’s wife] Dong’s confused outlook, which gets progressively worse when Georges-Minh forces her on the run hours after giving birth, emerged from my serial disturbances, and my experience with a close friend whose mental illness made him episodically psychotic.

How do you think French rule impacted Vietnamese society, even today?

The fusion of culinary techniques is unrivaled. Vietnamese sandwiches with head cheese on baguettes, for one. I can’t speak to a national psyche or claim the legacy of colonialism as mine, but, in general terms, oppression and political subjugation impact a country resulting in a kind of national PTSD. Epigenetic, the science of how trauma affects DNA on a molecular level, reveals how it can be inherited from one generation to the next. I used my experiences as a street kid to enter the story.

How did your parents react to the book? Did your father help provide any of the background research?

My mother isn’t a huge reader and my father and I never discussed the book post-publication in a manner that engaged with its content. I don’t know if he’s read the whole thing. The Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize legitimized my writing to my parents, and provided them the external validation that I’m not wasting my life.

Tell us a little bit about your immediate family. How was it growing up as the child of a German mother and Vietnamese father? 

My parents met as pen pals when my father was in France and my mother in Germany. They chose to come to Canada in 1970. Why? Trudeaumania! My father ended up selling shoes and my mother stayed at home.

We didn’t interact with members of either culture so, lacking this potential context, I grew up aware of my parents’ differing ideas and values, but without a sounding board for the reasons why we were different from most of my friends. I had no way of knowing if the variations were cultural or idiosyncratic. I envied the close relationship I assumed my friends had with their parents, the lack of formality, though this was probably based on TV stereotypes as much as anything else.

You dropped out of school and lived on the streets at age 15, but then went on to receive a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Fine Arts.  Tell us about that journey.

I almost barfed from nervousness my first day at the University of Victoria. I returned to school after a 20-year absence but found a rhythm that I and my two young children could build a new life around.

You’ve had many jobs in the past, which did you like the best? And the least? You even dealt opium at one point. Was that helpful when describing Georges-Minh’s experience at the opium den?

Working the streets, I liked the least. To write each day is a privilege, and the closest I come to joy. I transported and dealt opium in Mexico, and fictionalized the experience for Floating Like the Dead. Georges-Minh and I share much in common, namely an ability to rationalize one’s use of a substance, to minimize its impact on oneself and others, and the motivation to escape one’s pain.

As well as being an author, you are in the bands 12 Gauge Facial and Jukebox Jezebel. Tell us about the creative energy that propels you.

I go a little crazier by the day when I don’t write. Music can head me off at the pass as a fair substitute, especially 12 Gauge Facial because I get to scream, sometimes on key, original lyrics.

What are you working on now?

A memoir tentatively titled Mistakes to Run With.

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Maureen LittleJohn
Maureen Littlejohn is Culture Magazin's executive editor. She is a Canadian award-winning journalist who has practiced her craft around the world including in the United States, Africa and Vietnam. Currently based in Toronto, she has a keen eye for detail and has a deep appreciation for the “East Meets West” approach of Culture Magazin. Travel is her passion and she is happy to be able to share her adventures on a regular basis with the magazine's readers.