The Strength from Within
It is not often that we hear about Vietnam. In the current context, when one talks about this South East Asian nation, its contemporary history, particularly that of the Vietnam War, is the first thing that comes to mind. Even in the world of literature, the vestiges of the Vietnam War resonated through and influenced several contemporary works such as Viet Nguyen Thanh’s The Sympathizer and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Both are critically acclaimed works with the former even winning the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.
Another Vietnamese writer in Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai endeavored to add yet another masterpiece to this growing list of scintillating tales about Vietnam. In her latest novel, The Mountains Sing, Nguyễn paints the modern history of her native country through the painful history of a Vietnamese family. The novel primarily revolves around Dieu Lan, a widowed grandmother who was in charge of taking care of her granddaughter, Huong, amidst the onslaught of joint American and South Vietnam armies in Hanoi. Huong’s parents and uncles left to join the war.
With the whistling sound of bombs dropping all over Hanoi, Dieu Lan endeavored to protect her granddaughter. When the war started to subside and the dust of the pandemonium started to settle, Dieu Lan patiently waited for the return of her children. With just the two of them, Dieu Lan was forced to give up her low-paying profession. She had to toil hard for her and her granddaughter to survive in an increasingly and radically changing environment. To while the time, Dieu Lan started relating to Huong parts of her life.
“The challenges faced by Vietnamese people throughout history are as tall as the tallest mountains. If you stand too close, you won’t be able to see their peaks. Once you step away from the currents of life, you will have the full view.”~ Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, The Mountains Sing
At its heart, The Mountains Sing is a family saga with Nguyễn vividly painting four generations of Dieu Lan’s family, beginning with her affluent roots and comfortable life in a middle Vietnam village. Her parents were landlords, owning vast tracts of farmland. The family’s fortune took a turn for the worse with the entry of Japanese armies during the Second World War. The end of the war served no reprieve. As Vietnam moved forward, radical changes started taking place. Along with these changes, Dieu Lan’s family became riddled with death.
Undoubtedly, Dieu Lan is the heart and soul of the story. She grew up surrounded by doting parents, in a comfortable lifestyle but she remained humble. All throughout the story, she had to endure pain and death, as her village’s fortuneteller foretold when she was still young. The smell of death pervaded the story, from the start until the end. Death was accompanied by endless grief and sadness, the chief emotions that resonated across the generations of Dieu Lan’s family.
Dieu Lan never let death, misfortune, and the unfairness of life weigh down on her. She barely had time to cope with grief for she had to move and think quick. With indomitable courage, she overcame the betrayals and misfortunes that left a bloody trail on her back. Like a lioness protecting her cub, she roared back. Dieu Lan said, “Looking at the children, the desire not just to live, but to thrive surged in my heart. If those evil people wanted me to surrender, they couldn’t be more wrong. As long as I was a mother, I would never give up”.
The Mountains Sing is a homage to the indomitable courage of a mother who fought against destiny to keep her family intact in times of uncertainties and turbulence. Dieu Lan is the archetype of the stoic Asian parent. However, filial love and devotion welled from her. She subtly demonstrated her love and affection towards her children in ways that were barely noticeable but still echoed with warmth of love. Adding a different texture to Dieu Lan’s painful history is her granddaughter’s coming-of-age story.
“A part of our history has been erased, together with the lives of countless people. We’re forbidden to talk about events that relate to past mistakes or the wrong doing of those in power, for they give themselves the right to rewrite history. But you’re old enough to know that history will write itself in people’s memories, and as long as those memories live on, we can have faith that we can do better.“~ Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, The Mountains Sing
Beyond the story of Dieu Lan and her family, Nguyễn painted a vivid backdrop. The Mountains Sing reminds the readers the evils of war. These are subjects that many a reader has read countless of times.In literature, it is a ubiquitous subject that remains relevant in the modern times. Nguyễn powerfully depicted how the insatiable greed for power and control alters a group of people’s demeanor. In one of her conversations with Huong, Dieu Lan related, “The more I read, the more I became afraid of wars. Wars have the power to turn graceful and cultured people into monsters.”
What makes Nguyễn’s masterpiece stand out is how she weaves different elements of Vietnamese culture and society into the novel. She grappled with a universal theme but remained true to her roots. A fine example is how words and names reflect values or something deeper. Mr Hai, a seminal character in the narrative, was once described by Dieu Lan as “Hai means ocean, a deserving name for a man whose compassion ran deep”. Minh’s children, Thien and Nhan collectively mean “good person”. Another character was named “Wicked Ghost”.
Superstitious beliefs were also embedded in the story. Huong was nicknamed Guava by her grandmother so that evil spirit will be warded off by her “ugly” name. The role of astrology and the zodiac is evident as the characters repeatedly discussed how the year of their birth dictate their destiny. Sounds also marked every important phase of the story. The land reform was characterized by the “threatening drum rolls” while bombs and explosions characterized the Vietnam War.
Another theme that Nguyễn extensively dealt with is how politics, political ambitions and political ideology shape a family. “Don’t sell your family so cheap for some political ideology.” Dieu Lan’s family was a microcosm as these political ideologies which has divided her family also tore apart the nation. The dichotomies in beliefs of “South” and “North” created a crater that forever scarred the country. The war has left a very deep impression on the minds of those who have witnessed its evils. In its trail, the Vietnam War divided a nation, with the northerners resenting the libertine southerners and the southerners loathing the socialist northerners.
“Human lives were short and fragile. Time and illnesses consumed us, like flames burning away these pieces of wood. But it didn’t matter how long or short we lived. It mattered more how much light we were able to shed on those we loved and how many people we touched with our compassion.”~ Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, The Mountains Sing
The Mountains Sing, however, is a very graphic novel. Violence and bloodshed were captured in rich details and these were parts that can be very difficult to read, heartbreaking and traumatic at most. There were parts where a sepulchral atmosphere hovered, amplifying the tone of death and suffering. Despite these, the narrative soars, an impressionable narrative about a painful phase of a nation’s history but also one that is overflowing with hope for the better.
War and death permeated all throughout the narrative. They leave behind them an abhorrent path. However, what truly surfaces in The Mountains Sing is the promise of a bright future, both for Dieu Lan’s family and her country. Beneath the heavy layers of grief and pain, The Mountains Sing is the story of healing and forgiveness. History will always be embedded in the minds of those who experienced it but the burden can be lightened. Dieu Lan has realized that in order for people to move forward, they must learn to forgive.
The Mountains Sing beacons with its powerful voice that resonates through a time of uncertainty and turbulence. In the timeless and popular Vietnamese folklore, Legend of the Lake of the Returned Sword, the turtle said to Emperor Le Loi “The world will only be at peace if all people let go of their weapons.”
Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%) – 27%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%
I must admit that Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s The Mountains Sing was yet another of my random purchases for the year; I wasn’t planning on buying it until I learned that it was published this year. And I am glad I opted to purchase a copy of the book. Through it, my understanding and appreciation of our South East Asian neighbors deepened. Nguyễn vividly and powerfully painted the dark phases of her country’s history. More importantly, The Mountains Sing resonated with hope and positive. I loved how Nguyễn underlined the fact that we can carry the burden of history in our hearts but we can lighten our load through forgiveness.
Author: Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publishing Date: 2020
Number of Pages: 342
Genre: Historical Fiction, Family Saga, Coming-of-age
Set against the backdrop of the Viet Nam war, The Mountains Sing tells an intimate, enveloping story of four generations of the Tran family, as seen through the eyes of the matriarch, Tran Dieu Lan, and her granddaughter, Huong. Dieu Lan was forced by the Communists to flee her family’s prosperous farm during the Land Reform in 1955; with five of her six children she embarks on a perilous journey to keep them safe – and is forced to make unthinkable choices along the way. Years later, in Ha Noi, she survives the American bombardment with young Huong, whose parents and uncles have left to fight in the conflict that continues to tear both her family and her beloved country apart.
As Huong comes of age, awaiting word of her mother and father, Dieu Lan gradually reveals the secrets of her past, teaching her granddaughter indelible lessons about not only what it takes to survive but what it means to live with courage, grace, and compassion.
Page-turning, lyrical, and steeped in the language and traditions of Viet Nam, The Mountains Sing offers a moving account of the spirit of resilience among the women and children left behind by war.
About the Author
Nguyễn Phan Quế Ma was born in 1973 in a small village in North Vietnam. When she was six-years old, her family moved to the Mekong Delta in South Vietnam.
After winning a scholarship grant from the Australian government, Quế Ma started attending an Australia university in 1993. After returning to Vietnam, Quế Ma joined several international organizations, including various United Nations agencies, with the hope of a sustainable development in her country. She received her Masters in Creative Writing and PhD from UK’s Lancaster University.
Quế Ma has penned several poetry, fiction and nonfiction books, mainly in her native language. In 2020, she published her first novel, and first work written in English, The Mountains Sing. For her poetry works, she was honored by the Hà Nội Writers Association with the 2010 Poetry of the Year Award. She has also been awarded with the Việt Nam Writers Association’s Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Advancement of Vietnamese Literature Overseas.
She currently divides her time between Vietnam and Jakarta, Indonesia.