A Heartfelt Letter to the Author of The Mountains Sing
As I read The Mountains Sing, lots of words came to me to describe its beauty. But they all somehow overwhelmed me. By the time I sat to review the book, a bunch of scattered phrases came out, an incoherent mess I couldn’t mould into a good review. So I won’t review the book. Consider this, not a review, but a heartfelt note of gratitude to the author herself (one that she’ll read because she’s so approachable and humble).
Dear Dr Quế Mai
You’re so approachable, ma’am, but I’m a little nervous writing this to you. Most other letters I write will never reach their intended recipient. But you’ll read this one, and that makes me tremble a little.
I read your post a while back, where you told us why you wrote The Mountains Sing in English – you said you wrote it to fight back the ways Western literature and Hollywood movies have represented Vietnamese women (as pitiful victims). I resonated so much with that! Now, after actually reading the book, I understand better, what you meant.
You’ve shown the “other side” of the war –the side of women, who suffered and fought in their own way in something men started. You’ve written about the common people who did nothing wrong, but still suffered the wrath of the wars that Vietnam faced throughout history.
It was a true wake up call, ma’am, this book. Reading about Grandma Diệu Lan and her beloved Guava brought the war alive for me – to whom something happening so far away was a mere statistic till now.
I think that’s the genius in what you did. By giving names and voices to the people who experienced all that trauma, you’ve made the war more than a number (“more than two million people died”).
Now, the Vietnam war, to me, means Diệu Lan and Hương, her parents Ngọc and Hoáng, her aunt Hạnh and her uncles Minh, Dạt, Thuận and Sáng.
The war means Hương’s innocent musings about food and Grandma Diệu Lan’s stories about the devastating Land Reform.
It means the heaviness I felt when I saw everything Grandma went through, the tears I cried when Huong saw the war’s effects on her family, the admiration I felt for Grandma Diệu Lan when she survived every tragedy thrown at her.
Reading about all that was so hard, ma’am, but writing about it must have been harder, no? You based these stories on real people, and writing this heartbreaking story must have brought all those memories for you, too. I’m so awed by you for this, ma’am. It’s truly an honour to have read a book you wrote.
I don’t think I’ve conveyed everything I felt in these measly words, but I hope you know that your book now has a piece of my heart – a piece I never want back.
I can’t thank you enough for writing it.
Forever in awe, Ananya
I haven’t come anywhere near expressing all my awe for this book, but with thoughts of Grandma Dieu Lan and Huong and the entire Tran family still in my mind and heart, I cannot do better.
The Story Behind the Name
There comes a part in the book (no spoilers, promise!) when Hương is given a beautiful wood carving of a lark, called Sơn Ca in Vietnamese. This is when the meaning of the book’s name becomes clear – Sơn Ca literally means “The Mountain Sings” because apparently, when the otherwise unremarkable bird opens its mouth and sings, it seems like the mountains around are singing, too.
But Dr Quế Mai is a poet. The name has more than this one obvious layer to it. In the beginning of the book, Grandma Diệu Lan tells Hương, “The challenges faced by Vietnamese people throughout history are as tall as the tallest mountains…” So, says the author, the mountains represent the challenges that Vietnamese people have faced – still face. And singing? That symbolises courage and hope.
Beautiful, no? Poetic, even.
Thank you, ma’am, for humouring me with this answer! My reading of the book was much enhanced by my conversations with you.
Dr Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is an award-winning writer and poet who’s written in both Vietnamese and English. Her eight books of poetry, short fiction and non-fiction in Vietnamese have received some of Vietnam’s top literary awards. The Mountains Sing, an International Bestseller, is her debut novel and her first book in English. It is also the first English novel written by a Vietnamese citizen to be published to international acclaim.
Born in a small village in the North of Việt Nam in 1973, she migrated with her family to Mekong Delta in the South when she was six. She grew up destitute, hungry and horrified by the devastation that war had wracked on her country.
Her academic achievements enabled Quế Mai to receive a scholarship from the Australian government to study in Australia for four years. When she returned to Việt Nam, she worked in several international organisations to foster her country’s sustainable development. She later did a Masters in Creative Writing at UK’s Lancaster University and went on to do a PhD in Creative Writing from the same University.
She currently lives in Jakarta, Indonesia with her husband and two children, where she runs weekly creative writing workshops for Afghan refugees. Apart from being a renowned author, she is also the translator of seven books published in Vietnam and the United States, and has received the Vietnam Writers Association Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Advancement of Vietnamese Literature Overseas. She regularly writes for newspapers of Việt Nam, including leading publication Tuổi Trẻ, where her essays on women and children’s rights, education, and more have been featured on the front page.
I hope to meet this incredible lady at some point in her life, and get my copy of The Mountains Sing signed by her!