Montreal Novelist Caroline Vu
Interviewed by Menaka Raman-Wilms
This month, Ottawa Review of Books' Menaka Raman-Wilms speaks with Montreal novelist and short fiction writer Caroline Vu.
ORB: When did you start writing, and do you know why you started?
VU: I started writing around 11 with letters to friends, but they were not your typical letters – they were pure lies! I was born in Vietnam and lived through some of the worst years of the war. When my doctor mother had the chance to further her training in Connecticut, we all grabbed our suitcases. This was in the early 70s. Getting out of Vietnam was extremely hard in those days; I guess my mother had connections somewhere. I bid goodbye to friends – to them, I was the lucky one, I was going to America! But I soon realized that life in a small American town was not that fun. I was the only visible minority student in my grade that year, I didn’t speak the language, I didn’t understand the culture. I had trouble adjusting to a different school system, a different weather pattern, I was bullied in the schoolyard. Yet I couldn’t complain to my mother who was busy with her career and her own issues, and I couldn’t write about my petty problems to friends back home, knowing their difficult circumstances. So I invented a happy go-lucky alter ego. Oh, how I twisted reality! In my letters to friends, I let my imagination run wild. I daydreamed on paper and re-wrote what I understood of American TV shows. It was pure fiction and it was therapeutic. I could make a book of short stories with those letters.
As an adult I had the opportunity to spend five years in Latin America and two in Europe, and while I travelled I wrote travel articles for the Toronto Star, The Medical Post and Doctor’s Review. Those were my first paid writing assignments. You know, I was an insecure writer because I never studied creative writing or literature, I had a sciences background. Being published by established newspapers and magazines encouraged me to go on with my writing.
ORB: You write in English and your works have been translated into French. Are you involved in the translation process? Does seeing it in another language change the way you think about your own work?
VU: I am very lucky to have both novels Palawan Story and That Summer in Provincetown picked up by the French language publisher Les Editions de la Pleine Lune, and my novels were translated by Ivan Steenhout, twice winner of the Governor General Translation Prize. When you deal with such accomplished professionals, you don’t tell them what to do! That said, I did give my feedback in a number of cases. These were mostly Vietnamese expressions that can lose their meanings if translated out of context. My French language publisher was quite accommodating.
Although the translator did a great job, the French versions lost a bit of the punchy, in-your-face tone that characterizes my novels – a tone more in keeping with English. But I don’t mind. With French being a poetic language, some translated passages actually read better than the original ones. Less edgy, but more lyrical, and that’s fine with me.
ORB: Do you find that your English and French speaking audiences react to your work differently?
VU: There is no point talking about the two solitudes in this day and age, the taste of English and French speaking audiences don’t differ that much anymore. When a book is good, it will touch most people, regardless of their maternal tongues. That said, the popularity of a book depends very much on promotion and reviews. With so many books published each year, readers must rely on reviewers to guide them. New authors need good publicists to promote them, and all authors are at the mercy of reviewers. The French version of my novels had great reviews, so I was able to reach a large French speaking audience in Quebec. Reviews for the original English version of my novels had also been very good, but perhaps not as good as the French reviews, so I wasn’t able to reach as many English speaking readers as I would’ve liked.
ORB: You’ve written a lot about Vietnam, a country you left as a young child. Do you have strong memories of those formative years, and do they drive your writing about the country?
VU: I lived through some of the worst years of the Vietnam War as a child, an experience that I cannot shelf and forget. I would not feel authentic writing about other topics.
Do I have strong memories of those years? Yes and no. The Vietnam War ended more than 40 years ago. With time, my recollection of that period naturally becomes hazy. While doing research for my novels, some memories resurfaced. But I sometimes wonder if I actually witnessed the event or if I only saw it on TV. At times, it’s hard to differentiate between personal and collective memory.
You know, the Vietnam War was one of the first wars to be broadcasted live on TV. The extensive media coverage was unheard of before. Be it in Saigon, Montreal, New York or Paris, we all saw the same grainy images of death live in our living rooms. Later, we watched documentary films, Hollywood remakes and read Timothy O’Brien’s stories. They are all part of our collective memory now. I’d like, with my novels, to contribute a small part to that collective memory.
Personal memories can be flux and unreliable. But the collective memory will soldier on. Hopefully it will remain solid. When we let our collective memory crumble, when we forget the lessons of history, that will be the beginning of Fake News.
ORB: What are you currently working on?
VU: I recently became a finalist for a short story contest in the UK, so short stories have my attention now. I am also experimenting with writing directly in French. It is such a beautiful language! Thank God for my French and French Canadian friends helping me with the grammar. Vietnam is still in my soul so I am still writing about it. But one of these days I might surprise my friends with a Plateau Mt Royal tale!