Quyhn Dao was a ‘boat person’ who arrived in Australia as a refugee in 1979. In her book, she does not describe the politics and military aspects of the war that was waged against the entire Vietnamese people by Ho Chi Minh’s regime from 1945 until long after the fall of Saigon in 1975. She shares instead her girlhood memories: her mother’s garden, her love of books, the antics of her brothers, the love story of how her parents met. But these are impossible to relate without also recording the impact of the conflict, even in her quiet mountain city of Dalat. The war permeated homelife, family connections, schooling, books, clothing, music, food – everything.
Confiscations, sackings, compulsory labour, imprisonment, torture, people forced to speak against their friends in order to survive, books burned, the value of money ruined, millions plunged into poverty by stupid policies – the pervasive horror mounts and mounts. Yet Dao principally focuses on the quiet small things of her ordinary life. She writes in a clear calm voice and only occassionally shoots out stinging lines.
Uncle Ho, the self sacrificing, self denying, self effacing living saint wrote a book to extol his own virtues. (Ch. 11, about the Chairman’s appalling ‘poetry’.)
I had a strong reaction to this book. I frequently paused in anger and surprise that there was so much I had not known. I was a boy when Australia was sending soldiers to Vietnam. There was antipathy to the war. As my 18th birthday approached I hoped my name would not be drawn in the ballot for National Service in Vietnam. But the Australian troops were withdrawn before then. After reading Quynh Dao’s memoir I now feel, 40 years too late, that most of what I thought I knew about Vietnam was badly misinformed.
The Foreword is by Malcolm Fraser, the Prime Minister of Australia who welcomed in refugees who had taken the enormous risk of fleeing the disaster.
Hundreds of thousand of Boat People never reached friendly shores. They died by drowning, of hunger, thirst or rape. Thousands of young women and girls were kidnapped by pirates, never to be seen again. (Ch. 13).
Malcolm Fraser reminds us that, ‘Australia is a much better country for having opened its door to refugees and asylum seekers from all around the world.’
I highly recommend reading Tales from a Mountain City by Quynh Dao. It was shortlisted for The Asher Literary Award and Wlliam Saroyan International Prize for Writers.
You can read more about the author here . She has also written The Beauty That Remains about her journey to freedom.
You are in the blog of Mark O’Dwyer. As well as being a bibliophile, I am guardian and photographer for Mawson Bear, one of this bright world’s very few Writer-Bears. Mawson wrote It’s A Bright world To Feel Lost In.