Vietnamese author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s new novel DUST CHILD is a heartbreaking masterpiece. Her readers will shed their tears and smile their way through this epic page-turner about the living casualties of America’s war in Vietnam.
Honestly, I did not expect Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai to do it to me once again. Less than three years ago I picked up her first novel The Mountains Sing and sat down to read a chapter or two on a Saturday morning in Hanoi. I got so caught up by the opening chapter taking me straight into the infamous Christmas bombings of Hanoi in 1972 that I could not put it down until I finished the last page in the early hours of Sunday morning.
After a few hours of sleep, I sat down again to share my amazement on my blog with these observations on The Mountains Sing. No wonder that this beautiful story has traveled the world since then in 16 different languages.
Yesterday, the exact same thing happened with Dust Child. Again, I could not put it down. Again, I am sitting here after too little sleep to share my experience with others.
Dust Child and The Mountains Sing are similar and different at the same time. Both novels are generation spanning tales of the destructions of war and its countless victims. Both offer their readers a unique insight in Vietnamese history and culture, including Quế Mai’s irresistible sharing of classic Vietnamese proverbs – like ‘Rough seas make good sailors’ and ‘Life is riding high on an elephant, then low on a dog’.
The differences are harder to pinpoint, but nevertheless very real in their impact on this reader. The Mountains Sing made me smile more often than sending chills down my spine, when confronted by the tragedies of war.
It’s the other way around with Dust Child, named after the thousands of children born during the war by Vietnamese mothers and American fathers. In Vietnamese they are referred to as ‘Dust of Life’.
Here is how they are treated by neighbors in Quế Mai’s words: “Hey you black American with 12 assholes. You lost the war. Why don’t you go fucking home.” The words of a Vietnamese man, while kicking a small kid, born in the very last days of the war.
The first 300 pages of Dust Child leave you with very little hope for the main characters: The countryside sisters Trang and Quỳnh, who are lured into the seedy girlie bars of wartime Saigon ending up in prostitution, being paid USD 3 for ‘long time services’.
The baby in a tree
We meet the homeless orphan Phong, found 3 days old hanging in a tree in a bag, and for the rest of his life rejected by the post-war community because of his ‘ugly’ black skin and afro-hair, inherited by his American soldier father. Then there is Dan, the all-American college kid, turned into a miserable monster as a helicopter-pilot in the killing zones of the Mekong Delta. Dan returns to Vietnam in search of the love of his youth, with his frustrated wife Linda screaming on the sidelines.
Somehow, Quế Mai manages to inject beauty and compassion in her heartbreaking story. As a reader, you cannot avoid taking sides with the characters, as they refuse to accept defeat and continue their uphill battles to get a better life. I shall not disclose here who succeeds, and who never had a chance. Read for yourself, please.
Quế Mai’s novel is fiction, of course, but is based on meticulous research, in which she spent years interviewing former bargirls and Amerasians, desperately trying to connect with their unknown fathers in the US.
Unfortunately, the tale is all too true.
Working as a young journalist in Vietnam in the early 1980’ies, I remember all too well, how real this tragedy unfolded after the war. One scene is forever in my memory for the past 40 years.
It was an early evening in Saigon just before the 8 pm curfew. Out of nowhere a young light-skinned girl grabs my arm, pleading: “Daddy, daddy give me dollar.” Then offering her body for USD 5. There were hundreds like her living on the streets.
Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s Dust Child deserves a readership, at least as wide as her bestselling The Mountains Sing.
Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai: Dust Child. 339 pages. Algonquin books of Chapel Hill.