03 May Dust Child by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
A heart-breaking story of the unexpected legacy of war
At 46 years old, Phong has never known his parents – all he has learned from the kindly nun who brought him up is that his father was a black American GI, his mother a Vietnamese woman, who left him at an orphanage at just a few days old.
After Sister Nha’s death when he is just 12, Phong finds himself on the streets, but gradually makes a life for himself and is now married with two teenage kids. But he has never let go of his dream of emigrating to the USA and finding his father.
But he’s thwarted at every turn.
Meanwhile, white America GI Dan is in Vietnam with his wife Linda. Traumatised by his wartime experiences, he hopes to make amends for the suffering he caused by tracing the Amerasian child he knows he left behind over 40 years ago.
The two men’s stories have parallels – can they help each other in their quest?
No-one is untouched by the horrors of war
This was a very powerful story exploring not just the horrors of the Vietnamese war, but the legacy it has left up to the present day, in the presence of the bui doi or “dust children”, Amerasian men and women who, contrary to expectation, are not looking for a free pass to America, but for answers to their origins, just like any other abandoned child.
Told in a dual timeline, it begins in 2016 when we first meet Phong and his family. His plight is emotionally described – despite his tough life on the streets and his struggles to better himself, he comes across as sensitive and vulnerable and my heart really goes out to him.
The story switches to Dan, haunted by the ghosts of his past. In his anguish, he is another sympathetic character, and his wife Linda is a triumph in character study – loyal, patient, loving and compassionate, yet feisty in her relationship with Dan when she learns he has not told her everything about his experiences in Vietnam.
“The war is a monster, baring its teeth”
The narrative continues to flow back and forth, taking us to 1969, when sisters Trang and Quyhn leave their country home for Sai Gon, to work as bar girls and send money home to their ailing parents.
Just teenagers, they are exploited by the people they work for and are expected not just to entertain the GIs who come to the bar, but to sleep with them.
As the stories all come together, the narrative explores how the horrors of war happen not just on the battlefield, but in the hearts and minds of all those who are involved, willingly or unwillingly, leaving a lasting bitter legacy.
“The war is a monster, baring its teeth” says Trang sorrowfully as she watches her sweetheart turn from a gentle soul into a man possessed by demons. It’s a powerful statement indeed.
But there is so much hope in the book, too, In the story of Trang, Quyhn, Phong and Dan, we’re given reassurance that humanity and decency will always win through. There is wrongdoing, but there is also forgiveness, redemption and a compassion that encircles the whole story as it comes to a satisfying conclusion.
Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s writing is very poetic – whether she’s describing the streets of Sai Gon (now Ho Chi Minh City) or the rice fields of Phu My village, the busy food markets or the peaceful altars, she brings Vietnam to life in a glorious colour that negates the greyness of war, and reminds us that the land and its people are so much more than the terrible times they experienced.
Dust Child is a powerful, moving and compassionate story that I would recommend everyone to read.
Dust Child by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is published by One World in hardback, ebook and audio format
About the Author
NGUYỄN PHAN QUẾ MAI is an award-winning Vietnamese poet and novelist. Born in the Red Delta of Northern Việt Nam, she grew up in the Mekong Delta, Southern Việt Nam. She is a writer and translator who has published eight books of poetry, short stories and non-fiction in Vietnamese. Her debut novel and first book in English, The Mountains Sing, is an international bestseller, runner-up for the 2021 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and winner of the 2021 PEN Oakland/ Josephine Miles Literary Award, the 2020 Lannan Literary Award Fellowship, and others, and has been translated into fifteen languages. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster University, and her writing has appeared in various publications including the New York Times.
Quế Mai was named by Forbes Vietnam as one of the twenty most inspiring women of 2021. Dust Child is inspired by her many years working as a volunteer helping family members unite, and reflects the real-life experiences of Amerasians and their family members.
Thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me on this blogtour and to publishers One World for the copy of the book.
Catch up with the rest of the blogtour at the links on the poster
More reviews of stirring stories of lost families
- The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi
- The Forgotten Promise by Paula Greenlees
- The Letter Home by Rachael English