Today I'm on the blog tour for The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai and I've the pleasure of sharing an extract.
Set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War, The Mountains Sing is the enveloping, multi-generational tale of the Trần family, perfect for fans of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing.
Hà Nội, 1972. Hương and her grandmother, Trần Diệu Lan, cling to one another in their improvised shelter as American bombs fall around them. Her father and mother have already left to fight in a war that is tearing not just her country but her family apart. For Trần Diệu Lan, forced to flee the family farm with her six children decades earlier as the Communist government rose to power in the North, this experience is horribly familiar. Seen through the eyes of these two unforgettable women, The Mountains Sing captures their defiance and determination, hope and unexpected joy.
Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, celebrated Vietnamese poet Nguyễn's richly lyrical debut weaves between the lives of grandmother and granddaughter to paint a unique picture of the country's turbulent twentieth-century history. This is the story of a people pushed to breaking point, and a family who refuse to give in.
About the author:
Born in Vietnam in 1973, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai grew up in the aftermath of the war and witnessed its devastation on her country. She worked as a street seller and rice farmer before winning a scholarship to attend university in Australia. She is the author of eight books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction published in Vietnamese, and her writing has been translated and published in more than 10 countries, most recently in Norton’s Inheriting the War anthology. She has been honored with many awards, including the Poetry of the Year 2010 Award from the Hà Nội Writers Association. She lives with her family in Jakarta.
Red on the White Grains
Hà Nội, 1972–1973
Grandma is holding my hand as we walk to school. The sun is a large egg yolk peeking through a row of tin-roofed houses. The sky is as blue as my mother’s favorite shirt. I wonder where my mother is. Has she found my father?
I clutch my jacket’s collar as the wind rips through the air, swirling up a dust cloud. Grandma bends, putting her handkerchief against my nose. My school bag dangles on her arm as she cups her palm against her face.
We resume walking as soon as the dust settles. I strain my ears but hear no bird. I search, but there isn’t a single flower along our path. No grass around us, just piles of broken bricks and twisted metal.
“Guava, be careful.” Grandma pulls me away from a bomb crater. She calls me by my nickname to guard me from evil spirits she believes hover above the earth, looking for beautiful children to kid- nap. She said that my real name, Hương, which means “fragrance,” would attract them.
“When you come home today, you’ll get our favorite food, Guava,” Grandma tells me. “Phở noodle soup?” Happiness makes me skip a step. “Yes. . . . The bomb raids have stopped me from cooking. But it’s been quiet, so let’s celebrate.”
Before I can answer, a siren shatters our moments of peace. A female voice blares from a loudspeaker tethered to a tree: “Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. One hundred kilometers away.”
“Ôi trời đất ơi!”
Grandma cries for Heaven and Earth. She runs, pulling me along. Streams of people pour out of their homes, like ants from broken nests. Far away, from the top of the Hà Nội Opera House, sirens wail.
“Over there.” Grandma rushes toward a bomb shelter dug into the roadside. She pulls up the heavy concrete lid. “No room,” a voice shouts out from down below. Inside the round pit just big enough for one person, a man half kneels, half stands. Muddy water rises to his chest.
Grandma hurries to close the lid. She pulls me toward another shelter. “Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. Sixty kilometers away. Armed forces get ready to fight back.” The female voice becomes more urgent. The sirens are deafening.
Shelter after shelter is full. People dart in front of us like birds with broken wings, abandoning bicycles, carts, shoulder bags. A small girl stands alone, screaming for her parents. “Attention citizens! Attention citizens! American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. Thirty kilometers away.”
Clumsy with fear, I trip and fall. Grandma pulls me up. She throws my school bag to the roadside, bending down for me to jump onto her back. She runs, her hands wrapping around my legs. Thundering noise approaches. Explosions ring from afar. I hold on to Grandma’s shoulders with sweaty hands, burying my face in her body.
“Attention citizens! Attention citizens! More American bombers are approaching Hà Nội. One hundred kilometers away.”
“Run to the school. They won’t bomb the school,” Grandma shouts to a group of women lugging young children in their arms and on their backs. At fifty-two years of age, Grandma is strong. She dashes past the women, catching up with those ahead of us. Bounced up and down, I press my face against her long, black hair that smells like my mother’s. As long as I can inhale her scent, I will be safe.
“Hương, run with me.” Grandma has squatted down in front of my school, panting. She pulls me into the schoolyard. Next to a classroom, she flings herself down a vacant shelter. As I slide down next to her, water rises to my waist, gripping me with icy hands. It’s so cold. The beginning of winter. Grandma reaches up, closing the lid. She hugs me, the drum of her heart throbbing through my blood. I thank Buddha for the gift of this shelter, large enough to fit us both. I fear for my parents on the battle- fields.
When will they come back? Have they seen Uncle Đạt, Uncle Thuận, and Uncle Sáng?