‘Child of Dust’ offers a fresh, compassionate look at Vietnam

Writer Nguyen Phan Kuo Mai is coming to San Diego tomorrow to discuss her new novel Dust Child. The book features the voices of the often-unseen women during the Vietnam War and the American-Asian children left behind by the withdrawal of American troops.

Writer Nguyen Phan Cuo Mai grew up in Vietnam and witnessed abuse of Asian-American or mixed-race children born and abandoned during the war. But since her family moved from North Vietnam to South Vietnam, she felt like an outcast and was bullied.

“I think that was the seed of my novel Dust Child,” Nguyen said. “I thought about them for many years and wished life would treat them better. So, in 2015, I read an article that touched me very much about this American veteran who returned to Vietnam in his early 70s. He walked the streets of Saigon with an album of old photos of him and his ex-Vietnamese girlfriend He asked people in Saigon if they knew her because he was looking for her again and he wanted to find her so he could fulfill his fatherly duties.”


NGUYEN FAN KU MAY (c) Tapu Javeri

Author Nguyen Phan Kuo Mai will be in San Diego on Tuesday, March 21st to discuss his new novel Dust Child.

The article also inspired Nguyen to become active. She has worked with American veterans who have returned to help rebuild her homeland, assist victims of Agent Orange, remove unexploded ordnance, and, in some exceptional cases, search for her Amerasian children.

Her book follows a variety of characters whose lives intersect over the decades.

“I wanted to include the voices of the Amerasian fathers as to why they left their children. The Amerasian mothers, the difficult decisions they had to make when they abandoned or gave away their children. And the experience of the Amerasians who grew up in Vietnam, who were called the children of the enemy. As we speak today, tens of thousands of them are still looking for their parents,” Nguyen explained.

The book never takes sides, but rather explores the layers of complexity surrounding these issues. He calls for compassion, reconciliation and forgiveness.

“I have seen how wars dehumanize people,” Nguyen said. “Soldiers on both sides of the war were encouraged to kill the other side, so they were encouraged to view others as inhuman. I think there is so much going on in literature to humanize people so that we understand that we are all the same. We are fathers, we are sons, we are daughters, we are children of Mother Earth, and we should love each other and help each other, not kill each other.”

At one point in the book, the character of Dan, an American veteran, was reading books written by his enemies, and Nguyen writes, “In search of their humanity, he tried to reclaim his.”

This is a beautiful line that reflects the author’s compassion for all parties and the desire to understand all his characters. There is a deep sense of guilt on the part of the characters for what they did or didn’t do, and they seek forgiveness.

“All my characters feel guilty and seek forgiveness not only from others but also from themselves,” Nguyen said. “I think that wars and conflicts push people to make decisions they don’t normally make. So they feel guilty afterwards. And it takes years of reflection to be able to forgive yourself. I think in order to be able to forgive and move on, you have to come to terms with your past. Nobody’s perfect. I grew up in Vietnam. I have witnessed this guilt in most of the people I see, people, mothers and fathers, who were forced to make the decisions they had to make in order to be able to save their families.”

In addition to gracefully conveying a complex sense of history and past, Child of Dust also conveys a wonderful sense of Vietnamese culture through poetry, music, customs and food.

On Tuesday, Warwick Books hosts a dinner with Nguyen Phan Kuo Mai at La Jolla Country Club, followed by La Playa Books’ evening with the author at Point Loma Assembly.

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