I don’t remember what or who drew my attention to the first book of Khanh Ha’s I read, Mrs. Rossi’s Dream, but I do remember reluctantly closing the last page, unwilling to let go not only of the story (which left me weeping) but also, as a writer, stunned by how skillfully Khanh Ha had managed to twist my heart, engage my senses, create characters, including Vietnamese from both sides of the war, American soldiers, an American mother that I had come to care deeply about, and immerse me in the country, in all its devastation and beauty.
I didn’t know then about his literary awards, though when I saw the many he has garnered I was not surprised: he is a nine-time Pushcart nominee, finalist for The Ohio State University Fiction Collection Prize, Mary McCarthy Prize, Many Voices Project, Prairie Schooner Book Prize, The University of New Orleans Press Lab Prize, and The Santa Fe Writers Project. He is the recipient of The Sand Hills Prize for Best Fiction, The Robert Watson Literary Prize in Fiction, The Orison Anthology Award for Fiction, The James Knudsen Prize for Fiction, The C&R Press Fiction Prize, The EastOver Fiction Prize, The Blackwater Press Fiction Prize, The Gival Press Novel Award, and The Red Hen Press Fiction Award.
What did puzzle me, after I’d read most of Khanh Ha’s other books, was that he had not received more national attention. I hope this interview will help garner him more of the notice his work deserves.
Wayne Karlin: Let’s start with the usual background information: I know you were born in Huế. Tell me a little about your family and education there. What did they do in the war?
Khanh Ha: Both my grandfathers were high ranking mandarins of the Nguyễn dynasty. My maternal grandfather, one of the last mandarins of the Nguyễn dynasty, was beheaded by the communists, because of his affiliation with the French colonial government. My father was the chairman of a major political party in South Vietnam, Đại Việt, which was anti-dictatorial and anti-communist and was pledged to the unification of the two nations. Because of his political stance, he was imprisoned by the Diem government and my family was exiled to Huế, where we lived with our grandmother until the coup d’etat in 1963; and only then were we reunited with our father.
After the overthrow in 1963, which saw Diem and his brother killed, my father was set free. He took office with the military junta as the minister of the interior, but he resigned shortly after because of the irreconcilable differences with the military government.
WK: How did you come to the United States, and what impact did that drastic change in environment have on you?
KH: I came to the US in 1972 to attend college at Ohio University. But much like my childhood in Vietnam, I was never attached to any place. Therefore the change of locations did not overwhelm me. I overcame the strangeness of the new country fairly quickly. I am forever an outsider and an observer at the same time.
WK: What fueled your desire to become a writer, and what other writers’ works have strongly affected you?
KH: I write because the urge to write has always been within me since I was a child. There was no plan and there was no “why.” It’s a passion and it’s innate.
I read heavily when I was a teenager in Vietnam, from Chinese classics to contemporary Vietnamese literature. I read with interest to broaden my mind; but the writing influence came much later after I began studying English as a high school junior. I read Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Cormac McCarthy. Faulkner for his characterization which brings its humanity home. Hemingway for his stylish precision masked by simplicity of the words, the sentences put together, the clarity of his style. McCarthy for his unparalleled use of the regional dialogue. In fact, I owe much to them for their early influences.
WK: Although your books have centered on Vietnam, the war, the country, its history, in general, you don’t write about the experiences of assimilation or non-assimilation, the tensions and rewards of being in the diaspora. Why not? Basically, can you speak to your thematic choices in your novels and stories? What do you want your readers to take from your books?
KH: This is a sensitive question. In fact, it’s a noteworthy question. I don’t have a label on me as a writer. I write not about the pains of losing one’s country and being displaced, but about human beings, regardless of race, or ethnic background, or political affiliation. These human beings, immigrant or not, just happen to belong to a certain race, a certain locale when I created them. But it’s always about human tragedy, human compassion, and always human redemption.
My novels often seek out the nature of man, good versus evil, and the truth of heart and soul, as you mentioned human conflicts and the gamut of love, hate, remorse, redemption. Regarding the second part of the question: my novels are not about immigrants, the boat people, the dust children. As a Vietnam-born and also a Vietnamese person, I had a country. Much later I became a U.S. citizen and a Vietnamese American, and I have another country. But as a person, I am not attached to a people, nor do I identify myself with a religion, or a political party. I can live anywhere; I do not have the urge or the desire to assimilate to a culture, a society, or a country. It’s not by choice or by desire; rather it’s an inherent nature in me in my entire life, which detaches me from all the burden of human doctrines, divisions, which simply breeds hatred. I never intend to send readers any message in any stories I write. But I do like stories that give me food for thought. I like stories that offer a redemptive value. And I hope my novels do.
WK: The next-generation Jewish writers, such as Philip Roth, Mailer, Bellow, etc. that flowered in the 1950s and 1960s just as the next-generation of Vietnamese-American writers is doing now, tended to spotlight not the immigrant experience but rather America itself, as seen through the eyes of those who were both insiders and outsiders. Is that something you would like to take on in future work?
KH: That’s a very interesting question. In fact, I have entertained that thought for a long time and eventually it came to fruition. My next novel features a man who had lived in Vietnam during the Indochina war and then the Vietnam war, and later in the United States. As both insider and outsider of these worlds, he fought the moral problem in a battle of good versus evil.
WK: Here is something you wrote in your blog: “Every night as I sat down to write, I chanted the Lotus Sutra, ‘Were you with murderous intent, thrust within a fiery furnace.’ In between I would stroke a statuette of the Laughing Buddha carved out of jackfruit, burnished brown, on my desk.” Can you explain the significance of the Lotus Sutra to you?
KH: I’m glad you read that piece of writing. I thought nobody would read it. And yes, the Lotus Sutra. In Vietnamese it’s called Kinh Pháp Hoa. It’d be a challenge to capture the gist of this wonderful sutra in a few sentences. But this sutra, alongside the Shurangama Sutra, and the Diamond Sutra, are the spiritual beacon of my life, especially the Diamond Sutra. But perhaps I can cite a virtuous aspect of the Lotus Sutra, and it’s about the self-effacing virtue: the climax of modesty shall leave one without an ego, empty yet full of compassion.
WK: Your books have been published by independent publishers: Gival, Red Hen, etc. What has been your experience with them? Would you prefer being published by one of the bigger publishers: Knopf, Random House, and so on?
KH: It’s a pleasure to get published by a small press. Most of them are eclectic and therefore reject most of the submissions. They don’t have the resources to compete or get coverage. It’s more of a mission than a career, for both writer and publisher. But I always believe that a good book will find its readers, regardless of who publishes it. Write a good book. It may be a paper moon sailing over a cardboard sea; but if it’s believable, it will catch on.
WK: One of my favorite of your novels is Mrs. Rossi’s Dream. The basic storyline of the first is hung on the quest of an American mother. Mrs. Rossi, and her adopted Vietnamese daughter, who come to Vietnam in the 1980’s to search for the remains of her son, Nicola, KIA in the war. Yet as we follow that story, because you give it to us mainly through the voice of their Vietnamese guide, Giang, we get to hear his story and the stories of many other Vietnamese: fishermen, farmers, war survivors and war veterans. Some are not necessarily as linked to the MIA story line, to Giang, as others, but each is could be a novel in itself. We even get the story of Nicola in the war, through the device of letters that he, as a ghost, a wandering soul, “write” to his mother, and we get the story of another American, who becomes enamored of Vietnam, and later becomes a prisoner of war. Several of the characters, Giang for one, but also Rum, fought on both sides of the war; Giang a North Vietnamese soldier who defected to the ARVN, whereas Rum was a former Viet Minh, who is drafted unwillingly to ARVN, and who then, when he finds his wife and child were murdered with the rest of the village by the ARVN, becomes Viet Cong. What were you hoping to convey with that choice of characters?
KH: I grew up in Vietnam during the war and later lived in the United States. I have had the time to look back and form opinions about the war. I have read war novels written by American as well as Vietnamese authors, and though their books are informative—and good—I want to know more. Perhaps as a journalism major I always desired to hear both sides of a story. So in that novel I did just that. I hope readers can see and hear a Vietnamese soldier’s point of view when he was with North Vietnam and later with South Vietnam. I also hope that readers can see and hear an American soldier’s point of view, his raw perception of a lesser country in which he was sent to fight and how some of them in the end come to love the country and its people. If that elicits sympathy from the readers, it would be rewarding.
Finally, the cast in this novel is diversified. They come from all walks of life, each with a unique background, and yet all having a connection to the Vietnam War and its traumatic effects on their lives. These characters are flawed in the sense of physical deprivation, or having a piece of their lives missing. Yet I was hoping readers can sympathize with them. The word “sympathy” here should be expounded further. The author must be skilled enough to evoke such sympathy from a reader who, on the other hand, must be capable of sympathizing and empathizing.
WK: For me, it made me aware in a visceral way of the depth of loss experienced by everyone. Another thread I saw in the novel was the presence of ghosts, wandering souls, both Vietnamese and Americans, mostly those who had died in the U Minh Forest. Can you speak about that?
KH: As a child growing up in Vietnam, I had an indelible belief in animism. Those anthropomorphic images implanted in a child’s mind actually began with the legendary origin of Vietnam when a teacher read a textbook story to the class: “The Dragon and the Immortal,” or Tiên Rồng, from whom the Vietnamese claimed their lineage.
WK: Something else that runs through all of your books are the very detailed, sensual depictions of both the country itself, and in particular food: the way it is cultivated or caught, the way it is prepared, the way it looks and feels and smells, the way it is eaten. Even at one of the most dramatic moments in Mrs. Rossi, when Giang brings Nicola’s things to his mother there is a long description of a corn vendor, the way she prepares the corn, the way the three of them eat it—why then?
KH: Before that devastating climax, I aimed to create a scene in which everyone relaxes and enjoys themselves in that last evening they share together before saying farewell. I live in the moment; therefore my characters do the same—they are anchored in the moment manifest through the drinks they sip, the food they taste, the vibrant landscape they see around them. The landscape plays a major role in all of my novels. I treat it as another character. I paint the landscape to set the mood. Landscape must be a part of the setting, which is about the mood and the atmosphere.
WK: Let’s talk about your new novel Her: The Flame Tree, which will come out in the fall. I want to do that in part because while it still centers on Vietnam, it goes in a different direction for you: a kind of folkloric tale of a royal eunuch and his adopted daughter going from the days of the emperor’s court, to the war with America. I have to say you bring your talent for descriptive writing, writing that makes a reader experience what you describe with his senses, to the process of making someone a eunuch: it was effectively uncomfortable to read; I read in fact in a kind of permanent wince. What drew you to that tale?
KH: I wanted to restore the complex history of Vietnam, from the cloistered world of the eunuchs and concubines of the Imperial Court to the struggles of the countryside, familial ties in love and mystery, and deep in the background the war and the West in the mid 1960s. A love triptych, the novel sweeps through the panorama of two generations of colonial and post-colonial Vietnam, from the fall of the French Indochina to the national agony of America’s involvement in the war.
WK: When you (I, the reader?) think of someone who becomes a eunuch, the tendency is to look away, or to make into a joke. Yet you make the motivations of that character understandable and you bring out his humanity. Could you speak a little about how and why you did that?
KH: Let me begin by saying that you must have empathy and compassion when you create a set of characters in your novel. The human touch is achieved when you juxtapose good and evil in a way that brings about the reciprocity of benevolence between the characters, which endows the novel with a humanitarian perspective, the compassion for all the characters on any side.
WK: I ran across a quote from Haruki Murakami: “What I want to say is that in a certain sense while the novelist is creating a novel, he is simultaneously being created by the novel as well.” Would you mind commenting on that statement? If you agree with him, in what ways are you created by the novel you are creating?
KH: It seems like a protagonist usually bears the author’s traits, but that’s not always so. The novelist understands, never judging, because he is everything―being the Maker―when he writes. I believe that we see ourselves in others as much as they see themselves in us. And you will discover these reciprocal effects during the writing. You might care for one character more than others. But undeniably, you exist in all of them. Conversely, they all exist in you. That’s the dynamics of self-discovery during the writing process.
As a human being, I believe that we are at the very core universally unique, sharing the same essence. We have passed through eons in the cosmos, here or elsewhere, theologically and spiritually, born in different cultures, races, having different skin colors at one time or another, in this cyclic transmutation and endless evolution. So who are we? We are who we are by birth, and yet at the innermost of our beings, we are the same. That’s why I must say that you, as the Maker, creates the cast who, in turn, creates you, the Maker.
WK: In addition to Her: The Flame Tree, you have two other books coming out. Two final questions: first can you say a little about those books? Second, your advice to any young writer, and particularly to any young Vietnamese-American writer.
KH: The titular story “The Eunuch’s Daughter” in the collection The Eunuch’s Daughter & Stories, which will be published by Blackwater, was adapted from the novel Her: The Flame Tree, much like Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon, which started out as a long-short story and was later peopled with a larger cast in the novel. With this knowledge, both of my publishers agreed to have their books mutually benefit from each other.
The Afterlife of a Threadbare Jester, to be published by Red Hen, opens a door for readers to glimpse the unvarnished truths of the horror of the Vietnamese communist labor-camp system. It’s not a novel of ism excoriation; it is, in fact, a story that seeks questions to the truths of life and asks the question: “How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand a man who’s cold?”
Finally about the advice. As you know, each writer’s tip to aspiring writers is unique, because it comes from his own learning experience. For me, it’s reading and writing that has molded me as a writer. Just WRITE and READ a lot. Then you will find out the incredible intricacy of fiction writing that no one else can teach you. It’s like learning how to ride a bicycle. Either ride–or choose to sit and listen to someone teaching you how to ride!
Khanh Ha has published, or will publish nine books: The Leper Colony (2000), Flesh, (2012), The Demon That Peddled Longing, (2014), Mrs. Rossi’s Dream (2019), A Mother’s Tale (2021), All the Rivers Flow into the Sea and Other Stories (2022), as well as three new books: The Afterlife of a Threadbare Jester (2023), which was the winner of the Red Hen Press Fiction Award, Her: The Flame Tree (Fall, 2023), which was the winner of the 2022 Gival Press Novel Award, and The Eunuch’s Daughter and Stories (2024).
Wayne Karlin has published eight novels: A Wolf by the Ears, Marble Mountain, The Wished-For Country, Prisoners, Lost Armies, The Extras, Us, and Crossover, and three works of non-fiction: Rumors and Stones, War Movies, and Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Dead and the Living in Viet Nam. A collection of his short stories, Memorial Days, will be published by Texas Tech University Press in May, 2023. Karlin has received two Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Paterson Prize in Fiction, the Vietnam Veterans of American Excellence in Arts Award, and the Juniper Prize for Fiction.