In Conversation with Nhung Tran-Davies11 min read

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The weekend was stormy, quite usual for Fall in Vancouver. During my conversation with Nhung Tran-Davies about her young adult novel A Grain of Rice sees water as a force to be reckoned with. Also on the other side of the equation, water is a guiding element, able to provide hope when we’ve surpassed its challenges. The novel tells a story of Yen, a thirteen-year-old girl, going through the experience of Vietnam after the crisis. What begins is a tumultuous adventure through the Mekong river with Yen’s family as they make their way to the open sea to a new life once they’re past their vast unknown.

Nhung works as a physician by day and juggles her passion of writing with the responsibilities of being a mother and an advocate for social change. Our phone call through the stormy night was warm and full of laughter. We discussed her work and how books are tools for empathy, empowerment, to bring about positive change in the world.

Adapting From Reality

Vincent Ternida (VT): For a young adult book— you don’t hold anything back with regard to the aftermath and the atrocities of war. Much of the darker aspects of the war has been suggested and implied without being explicit, in drafting the story— did you want to make the story lighter or was the story as is and it only differed with how much you wanted to reveal or suggest at your discretion?

Nhung Tran-Davies (NTD): The book actually started out as a challenge from my publisher, Michael Katz, four years ago. I had submitted a picture book manuscript at the time and instead of a rejection letter, Mike called me up to say that even though he liked the story, the story didn’t resonate with him. To my surprise, he asked if I could write a chapter book. I had never written a chapter book before, but I took him up on the challenge. I didn’t want to pass up such an incredible opportunity. Of course, I had to go and buy a book on how to write a novel. Mike was very kind and patient in guiding me along with the first few drafts of the first chapter until I found my rhythm.

I confess I haven’t been able to read many young adult fiction, being busy with life’s responsibilities. And so, I didn’t really know with respect to the genre how much detail I could depict. I knew it was a book that I wanted to write for a long time because I wanted to honor the courage of my mom and what she faced during the war and its aftermath. Furthermore, I wanted to highlight the challenges faced by the hundreds of thousands of refugees at the time. Even though the book is geared for a younger audience, I could not bring myself to not depict what actually happened because I want readers to know the horrors of war and the atrocities the survivors faced in its aftermath

Fortunately, Mike and my editor were good at advising me on which details I should exclude. We were able to retain the darkness of the time without being too graphic. It is faithful to what had happened and I am happy with that.

VT: How many characters were recollections from your siblings’ personal accounts? Some characters like the revelation of Yen’s father and the pirate attack felt real and heartbreaking.

NTD: Because the book is loosely-based on our family’s story, most of the characters and events were real. Even the time frame and the sense of urgency throughout the book is based on the fact that the events leading up to our family’s escape actually happened within a relatively short period of time. From the time our hut was flooded in the rural village to when my older siblings came from Saigon to inform us that we had to secure our place on the boat, to when we embarked at sea were all within the course of a month. Most of the events that transpired on the boat, however, was actually inspired by my brother-in-law’s story. The character of the young man with the jade necklace was integrated to link our family’s story to his story. Their boat ran out of fuel, they drifted at sea for 9-10 days, many were starving, and pirates attacked. There was this heart wrenching story of a doctor who had tied his two children to his wrists with the hopes of not losing them in the crowd, but when the boat capsized, he and his children were lost at sea. Being tied to them, he could not save his children.

As we were growing up, my mother would recall these stories to us to remind us of what happened through those challenging years. With regard to Yen’s father, I wanted to explore the aspects of my mom’s husband’s character. He was abusive. Yen was young and saw her father as perfect from her sparse memory. She would come to the realization that he was not as perfect as she had thought or hoped. It is a heartbreaking truth that helped her grow as a person, to appreciate her mother for what her mother had suffered through and sacrificed, to recognize that her mother is enough and through that experience, she not only is more appreciative of her mother, but is also more courageous like her mother.

Water As Character

VT: The two big bodies of water serve not only as setting but also as distinct characters. I felt that the river represents the connection between the survivors of the war, but also carries within it all the trauma that the war brought. The sea represented the unknown but also a far flung hope to those who overcame it. Did the idea of juxtaposing these two bodies of water come out in the drafting of the story, or was it originally planned to call attention to the setting?

NTD: We were living in the rural part of Vietnam, in the Mekong delta, where many of the rivers led to the sea. It was only natural that the river was part of the setting. But at the same time, I do appreciate what you’ve picked up in the juxtaposition. I would agree: the two bodies of water do seem to exemplify the different characters and the different aspects of life’s journey. We’re all carried by the current in this river of life so to speak. Unfortunately, along with this current, in this river of life, many of us experience sadness, pain and trauma. The river does carry us to this sea or ocean of the vast unknown— if we’re courageous enough to face and overcome the dangers— there’s hope and beautiful things that can come out of some of the darkness.

Along the same line, I feel the water itself is a character. It is an important element in this story with the rain and the storm. It’s an element that impacted the direction of the characters’ lives. Like anything in life, it can be both good and bad. In medicine, any medication is at one dose poisonous and another medicinal. With war, it may bring about peace, yet it causes so much destruction. With rain— it can sustain life and give life. With water—it carries the boat forward. Water and rain can also destroy— taking the lives of all the people on the boat who left mere minutes before our boat and flooding and destroying the village we had lived in. It represents a complexity, to me anyways, in people and humanity because people and humanity are complex— we’re capable of great good, but we are also greatly flawed.

A Grain Of Rice

VT: I love how your title “A Grain of Rice” captures the entire adventure story so succinctly and profoundly. Every single resource contributed to getting Yen and her family out of their predicament. I was really fascinated how every character counted in their journey, many stories dismiss weight and mass characters as merely background, but everyone played a part.

NTD: I so appreciate the fact that you appreciate the title. As we were growing up in Canada as refugees from the war, my mom would often bring up that phrase in reference to how difficult it was finding just a grain of rice to eat, how our older siblings sacrificed eating so we younger ones could eat. People were being robbed and killed for a bag of rice. For me, the title reminds us of how we come from war and poverty, and so we should be grateful for what we have, however little it is. That grain of rice is a reflection of the hardship of the time.

It was difficult for mom trying to make a living and raise six children on her own. My mom told us of how people helped us when we were starving. How some people, despite what little they have, they would still give us a few grains of rice.  And vice versa, when we were suffering, mom would give what little we had as well to those who were suffering more. Even though a grain of rice is small, it represents the great power of kindness that stems from even the smallest act of kindness.

This theme of kindness ties my characters, and people in general, together, as we pay forward the kindness we received along this journey of life. At the same time, reflecting on my present life, and appreciating the fact that all that I have and all that I’ve become is because of the sum of all the people that came into our lives at one point or another, whether it be a negative or positive force. They all serve to help us be who we are. I’ve become a strong believer in this greater force beyond us. Everything happens for a reason and people come into our lives for a reason. This is the premise I deliberately presented in conveying the importance of every character and every event. Like a grain of rice, every single person matters, every action matters, as we weave into each other’s lives. That’s where the importance of every grain of rice—all characters in the book matter.

Books As Tools of Empathy

VT: In your author’s note: you juxtaposed the current exodus from Syria to the mass exodus from the Vietnam war. What did you want the readers to take away from the book and apply towards this ongoing humanitarian crisis?

NTD: Around the time I was writing the book, images of the war in Syria flooded the news station. The reports of many refugees in rammed boats perishing at sea— it brought back images of our own family’s journey and it moved me. So in 2015, I brought together two groups of friends to help sponsor two refugee families from Syria.

I believe that the youth, they embody the hope for the future. I want to inspire them through my book. I feel that books and stories have great power to create empathy, compassion and understanding for one another. It’s been 40 years since the Vietnam crisis, yet humanity hasn’t learned from what happened. We’re still at war with one another. I want readers to recognize that refugees don’t choose to become refugees. There are circumstances beyond their control that force them to flee their homes. I want readers to connect with this story and appreciate the plight of the refugees that are out there now. We can do something to help these individuals.

I am grateful for this opportunity to write; I feel that this story needed to be told. I’d like readers to recognize, just from a single act of kindness that they can change the lives of all these individuals. I feel compelled to draw a connection between what’s happening now to what has happened in the past because we all are connected in some ways.

Books are so powerful: Readers are immersed in the world of the characters; they can feel all the emotions. You become really connected to them, the words hang in your mind. Books are the most powerful tools we have to empower and inspire, to affect positive changes in the world.

A Grain of Rice published by Tradewind Books are available at booksellers and was nominated for the Red Maple Award.

Vincent Ternida’s works have appeared on Ricepaper Magazine, Dark Helix Press, and was long listed for the CBC Short Fiction Prize. The Seven Muses of Harry Salcedo is Ternida’s first novella. He has a collection of short stories in development. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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