The Lives Lived Beneath the Surface

By Angie Chau

Categories: Alum Experiences, Women's Voices,

As many of you know, Quiet As They Come took me back for a homecoming in Vietnam at the start of 2012. I was invited to give talks at the U.S. Embassy in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. I don’t use the word homecoming lightly. We left the fallen city of Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh) in 1978 when I was 3. My parents and I escaped by boat in the middle of the night. We had tried twice before, once in 1975 and again in 1976 when we failed. There was a Malaysian refugee camp in between when we were countryless. But that is a whole other narrative. This story is about connection. This is about the gift of writing, about how we create reshaping us, about the brilliant unknowns in life akin to the writer’s journey that can be so unexpectedly delicious.

As I look back on Southeast Asia, here are a few of the snapshots from the album I keep in my head. Inside the militaristically high security Embassy, after handing over my passport and possessions to the drab gray uniformed guards, I enter a packed room with a colorful audience aged 16 to 65+. They wear a combination of sneakers and sportswear as well as traditional long flowing ao dai. The beaming smile of betel nut blackened teeth from an older woman with fair almost opalescent skin still glowing despite her age. The medieval amidst the 21st century, this is Vietnam today.

Another scene, high in the mist shrouded mountains of Tam Dao, once a French colonial mountain resort at the turn of the century and now a village so sleepy when we went to the one open restaurant and ordered the chicken, the proprietor literally had to find a chicken, kill the chicken, boil the chicken. I am far from the steamy bustle of Hanoi to get some words down at the invitation of Nguyen Qui Duc the writer and broadcaster. Upon hearing I was in country from a mutual friend, he handed the keys to his writing retreat although we have never met before. It is a blustery January morning and I am 5000 feet in the air cliff side when finally the clouds fade and the sun falls thick as honey on my blank page announcing the arrival of an idea. The generosity of this place just kills me.

Nine flights in two weeks, bumpy small plane rides coasting above the South China Sea, sunrise flights when the air is cool and smells of sweet jasmine, sunset landings when the tarmac is crackling and feels like banh trang baking and rising right beneath our very sandals.

And finally, underground in the Cu Chi Tunnels, on my hands and knees to do research for the new novel. It is humid and shadowy and everyone is gasping so loudly for air an echo pulsates in the tight red clay chamber. All I can think is how in the world did these men and women have the conviction to live without seeing sunlight for months on end while being shelled, gassed, and bombed in the most devastated area in the history of warfare? I think about the act of writing and trying to unearth lives lived beneath the surface. I think about the sweat and perseverance, the grasping for direction in the dark, the faith required. While I am 15 feet underground, I realize it is about pushing on even when it feels impossible, a good metaphor for life and the writer’s path, one that usually means taking the road less traveled of course, and yet somehow well worth the long arduous bushwhack of a journey.

Below is a photo collage of a few places Quiet As They Come has taken me. It has been a wild and rewarding ride so far. The best part has been reconnecting with old friends and meeting new friends along the way, folks that I would not have had a chance to meet if it were not for the book. As a result of your support, the little story collection has gone into its second print run and I humbly thank you.

 

 

Hedgebrook supports visionary women writers whose stories and ideas shape our culture now and for generations to come. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily representative of the opinions of Hedgebrook, its staff or board members.


3 Comments

  • suzanne
    7:25 PM - 20 August, 2012

    Thanks for sharing your traveling experience to your homeland. Look forward to hearing from you when your next novel is published!

    • angie
      11:14 AM - 20 August, 2014

      Suzanne,
      Thanks for your encouragement and support!

  • Dmitri
    4:26 PM - 29 August, 2012

    That was beautiful. I love that ordering chicken required that he go “find a chicken”. I thought chicken came in plastic wrapped mounds.

    Beautiful metaphors drawn between those tunnels and bushwacking your own path, and living the life of a writer. Or any artist. Or any human.

    We all eagerly await your next novel! I’m sure it will be fueled by that trip.

Leave a Comment