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V Magazine Interviews Mong-Lan



April 2002

V Magazine- I know this is late coming, but congratulations on the Juniper Prize. I read the Song of Cicadas and 3/4 (three fourths) of it reflect Viet Nam in one way or another. How attached are you to the country and people of Viet Nam?

Mong-Lan: Thank you. I would say I am quite attached. Viet Nam was where I was born, and I continue to think about Vietnam everyday, about visiting in the future, about my relatives and friends both in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. I have been back three times since I left with my family in 1975, and plan to spend a lot more time there in the future.

V - Understanding the elder Vietnamese's mentality (our parents'), were you ever pressured in to taking another direction, rather than being an artist? Tell us about that experience? How did you deal with it?

ML: Since both of my parents are medical doctors, they wanted all of five of us their children to be medical doctors, to follow their footsteps. They believe that by being a medical doctor, one can serve the community nobly by healing and also be able to support oneself and one's family financially. In large measure because of my parents' wishes, all of my siblings, my three brothers and one sister, are medical doctors.

How did I deal with this? Because being a medical doctor didn't appeal to me, I always continued in the path that I felt was right for me, that of the artist. There was friction between my parents and me in my teens and early twenties as to my career, but I told myself that I had to wait, patiently, to get older, and continue to do what I loved to do. I have always believed that one's life is most worth living if one loves and enjoys what one does. If you enjoy what you do, then you bring joy to the world.

V - Tell us about the Long Bien Bridge. What happened on that particular day that inspired you to write the poem?

ML: I walked over this bridge several times when I was living in Hanoi in 1995-96. I began to feel and imagine what the bridge must've felt during these decades, these hundreds of years, living through several wars. The poem was a result of these musings: how an object such as a bridge could be a reservoir of happenings, events, thoughts, transpired through decades and centuries

V - Some of your poems are so vivid with images that are almost touchable I almost can "see" it. How much of an influence does being a visual artist have on your writing?

ML: Being a visual artist definitely has influenced my writing a lot. I think that my first education was to see the world objectively as I could, to be able to draw that faithfully onto paper. My next education began after I realized I could alter that objectivity yet still be truthful; I realized I could be subjective, yet truthful to one's feelings and emotions through a certain objectivity. I could do this with the visual arts. The difference with being a writer is that you can sift through the layers of your feelings and report this through the medium of words.

V - Your writings are so plain in English but depict such rich emotion, colorful images and insightful thought (correct me if I am wrong); is it somewhat YOU? Describe yourself Mong-Lan.

ML: Yes, I think you are right. As with most writers, I began to write because I felt the best way to contain all these emotions, these ideas, these images, was through words. I had to put them down, put a form to them

It is never easy to describe one's self. How I see myself may well be quite different from how others see me. Most of us, I think, tend to be complicated in our own ways. I would also say I work hard and would like to think of myself as creative. And I sense that unless I can express my creativity, regardless of the genre, I will always feel unfulfilled.

V - Do you read and enjoy VN poetry? Who is you favorite VN poet? How much of an influence does he/she have on you writing?

ML: I read Truyen Kieu, by Nguyen Du, in my teens with my mother beside me. With her, I read other Vietnamese poets such as Han Mac Tu and Ho Xuan Huong.
When I was in Ho Chi Minh City last year, I met a wonderful group of poets, Nguyen Quoc Chanh, Tran Tien Dung, and others, and I continue to read them in my spare time.
I don't have a favorite Vietnamese poet, as I don't have a favorite American poet, but all these poets, especially the ones I read in my teens with my mother, have influenced me.

V - Your thoughts on Viet Nam, its people and their way of life?

ML:Most of the stereotypes are true: the Vietnamese way of life is a hard one. I have family there still, both in the North and South and try to visit them on a continuing basis. One must live as one can, in the circumstances that one finds oneself.

Vietnamese people are family-oriented, industrious, hard working, and for the most part, accept suffering as a way of life. But there are differences between the people in the North and South in terms of their happiness.

Although HCMC is more developed than Hanoi, Hanoi is experiencing more infrastructural growth perhaps because more government money is being poured into Hanoi. HCMC is growing at a much lesser rate. This has impacted the people in many ways economically and socially, and I have felt it through my relatives and friends in both parts of the country. Hanoi has changed drastically in the last 7 years whereas in these years HCMC has changed very little to my eyes.

V - In your quiet moments, do you ever wish for a better Vietnam? What is your ideal Vietnam?

ML:Of course I wish for a better Vietnam, as I am sure we all do. An ideal VN, like any other ideal country, would have more concern for human rights, would be more free from corruption, would have more autonomy for women. An ideal VN would be more open to the world and thereby be less homogenous.


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