This content is also available in: Vietnamese
A tropical country, with the weather staying almost the same all year round and picturesque scenery, Vietnam has been a destination that stimulates tourists’ urge for discovery, learning and experience. In addition, thousands of years of rich history help creates the country’s mysterious aura for visitors to discover the people as well as the land. Visitors come to Vietnam mostly to enjoy the many unique features of this country such as scenery, customs, food… only a few come to Vietnam for a source of inspiration. A Canadian author did just that, and after years living in Vietnam, finished her book: Imagining Vietnam. That special tourist is author Elizabeth McLean.
The Author & The Dream
Elizabeth came to Canada from Warsaw in 1960 to study at the University of Toronto, and later worked as a radio producer for CBC, and a researcher for TIME Canada.
Elizabeth first heard about Vietnam in the 1970’s, when she saw anti-war demonstrations in Toronto. Three decades later in Ottawa, when passing the Embassy of Vietnam, on an impulse, she went inside to tell the receptionist that she had a doctorate in International Relations from a Canadian university, and asked if there was something she could do in Vietnam. The receptionist gave her the name and address of the Dean. Elizabeth wrote a letter to the Dean, which he replied to promptly.
In 2005, she left her job, sold her condo, and flew to Ha Noi. Two weeks later, she officially stood at the lectern.
Elizabeth planned to support herself by teaching – but no more than 12-15 hours per week. She was determined to leave herself enough time to travel, to read about Vietnamese culture, and to write “something.”
While in Hanoi, Elizabeth wrote for three hours a day, six days a week, glued to her bamboo stool, and did not answer the doorbell or emails. For the rest of the time, she taught a seminar about International Relations at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam – a university-level institution training professionals for careers in foreign services. Later, she became consulting editor for the Women’s Publishing House, where she coordinated the compilation of an Anthology of Short Stories by Canadian Women Writers (published in 2011). This collection showcased to Vietnamese readers the range of themes and topics found in modern Canadian literature. The stories selected for publication complemented very well with the socio-political similarities and differences between Vietnam and Canada, topics that she often raised in the classroom.
These days, she’s busy with the first draft of a novel based on the life of the Trung Sisters, who in the first century of our era, led the Vietnamese army into battles against the Chinese while wearing no armour (yes, in the nude, she emphasized).
The Literary Destination
Imagining Vietnam is a collection of eight fictional narratives spanning a millennium into the history of Vietnam. The book won the 2011 Impress Prize for New Writers administered by Impress Books in the UK, and was published there in February 2013.
[quote_box_right]Imagining Vietnam is not about Vietnamese history. The stories were inspired by the history of Vietnam, but the characters came entirely from the author’s imagination.[/quote_box_right]
History books, according to her, filled with dates of battles and feats of great men, did not give her enough sense of how people actually lived. She found herself driven to imagining them into existence (particularly women), painting a canvas of their conflicts and pursuits, and making the imaginary real.
The author’s vivid characterizations can be seen through women – young or old – those who must always subdue to the will of fathers, tough feisty grandmothers, mothers-in-law who rule the lives of their sons’ wives, or young poetesses living in the royal court in Hue far from their families. Many complicated psychological aspects are manifested through the anguish of her many characters: a young Jesuit priest struggling to proselytize in a hostile land, a humble soldier filled with pride and patriotism as he thrusts sharpened tree trunks into the Bach Dang riverbed to snare the Mongol’s ships, a French adventurer and his relationship with a woman dreaming of making her fortune as a plantation owner against the setting of Vietnam in the 1930’s.
Long after closing the book, readers will remember the vivid images of the people’s lives: preparing frogs and eels for the family evening meal, the elaborate and painful procedure to bring beauty to a young girl through the process of blackening her teeth with lacquer; and always the importance of marriage and of family life.
The Author’s Impression of Vietnam
Her explorations of Ha Noi were mostly on foot, which is the best way to see things at close range; to exchange a smile with an older person, hug a toddler, finger merchandise in stores, and observe how people live and work.
The warm climate of Vietnam is conducive to spending much time outdoors. An ordinary street in Ha Noi is a stage in the theatre of life – human dramas unfold before you as women who cook or do the laundry, argue and discipline their children, grandparents read and chase after their grandchildren, and men work at every conceivable type of job from bicycle repairs to iron works.
She was fascinated, overwhelmed by Vietnamese customs: the chewing of betel and the staining of teeth, the requirement for the bride to live with her husband in his parents’ house, the practice of taking the second and a third wife, the concept of filial piety.
After learning a bit about the ancient customs and traditions of Vietnam, she began to imagine how the lives of the people must have been like in those times. She dreamed up character after character and let them guide her through the dips and upswings of their lives. She worked on the book for five years.
[quote_box_right]A year earlier, Elizabeth wrote, she fell in love with a quai thao (Vietnamese traditional hat) she had seen in the house of a friend. It was so exquisite, so sturdy yet delicate, and the two red ribbons evoked romance. Before leaving for Canada, she bought a beautiful quai thao hat at Dong Xuan market in Ha Noi and brought it back to Vancouver. She hangs it on her wall and gazes at it when she writes. One of the watercolour pictures she painted on the hat was featured on the cover of Imagining Vietnam.[/quote_box_right]
Upon returning to Vancouver in June of 2011, she missed the crackling excitement of Ha Noi, the chaos and the bustle. I miss bún chả (grilled pork vermicelli) and Bia Ha Noi (Ha Noi beer) terribly,” she wrote.
Another Literary Adventure to Come
Elizabeth has already begun a novel based on the life of the Trung Sisters who died in 43 AD. She said: “I am sticking my neck out with this project because the Trung Sisters have been worshiped, glamorized and politicized in Vietnam. They have become a symbol of patriotism and courage as well as an archetype of Vietnamese womanhood.”
Her intention is to bypass the symbolism and depict their lives in the hamlet Me Linh two thousand years ago as two stubborn, tough and rough sisters who boldly stepped out of the roles assigned to women in the 1st century. They had to be gutsy and rebellious from an early age to be able to lead a successful rebellion against the mighty Chinese.
Elizabeth McLean’s choice of Trung Sisters – two Vietnamese heroines venerated by all Vietnamese no matter what political affiliation they belong to – as protagonists of her novel, to me, an author growing up in Vietnam, is a great, adventurous and perilous journey which requires a pen as strong and sharp as the Trung Sisters’ swords centuries ago.
McLean really captured the essence of the people and culture of Vietnam. In a comment about the book, a reader wrote: “I could smell the familiar, pungent odours and visualize the city streets, the pagodas, and the rural villages.”
Allow me to quote this reader’s comment as the conclusion for this article and please join me on the Imagining Vietnam journey, to go back in time and visit an ancient, respectable, and beloved Vietnam.