Tatjana Soli guest posted here when her first novel, The Lotus Eaters released. This lovely debut went on to become a New York Times bestseller, was named a notable book of the year by the New York Times and the ALA, was a finalist for the LA Times Book Award, and WON the James Tait Black, England’s oldest literary award, and one of the world’s most prestigious. Next week, Tatjana’s second and even more accomplished novel, The Forgetting Tree, releases. To celebrate, I’m rerunning her lovely post. Enjoy! – Meg
Almost ten years ago when I first got the idea of writing a story about the Vietnam War from the perspective of a female photojournalist, a woman seeking her destiny within the war, the reception was lukewarm to say the least. I was told that Vietnam was considered a niche audience, all military and all male, that a woman’s perspective, not a soldier’s, would be too limiting. Discouraged, I moved on to other projects.
But I live in Orange County, CA, where the city of Westminster — Little Saigon — is home to the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam. In the local newspaper, stories from after the war are frequent, stories of leaving one’s homeland and starting life anew. Individual stories of adversity and triumph. So I began writing the stories of Vietnamese emigrants coming to the US. The idea of the war could not be left behind, it just came out a new way.
The stories started in Orange County, but they migrated across the ocean, moved backward in time. One dealt with a man who escaped on the boats and landed in the refugee camp of Pulao Bidong, Malaysia. It got to the level of an obsession. One of my favorite compliments from this time is when a literary quarterly editor knocked on my door at a writers’ conference and was shocked when I answered. She thought I was Vietnamese and had an exotic European name. My stories got closer and closer to Vietnam, closer and closer to the time of the Fall of Saigon. My first character for the novel formed — Linh, a gentle young poet, who leaves his home to avoid the war. So I began the book, not because the idea had been green-lighted or there was an enthusiastic agent or editor waiting for it, but because I couldn’t bear not to.
The dedication of my novel reads:
To my mom,
who taught me about
brave girls crossing oceans.
It’s a cliché to liken the publication of a book to the birth of a child. But I will say that it’s an extremely moving moment the first time you hold your book. It represents not only a great sacrifice of time out of your life, but also a sacrifice from those around you. Absent spouse, uncooked meals, uncleaned house, spotty social life. No matter how un-autobiographical, the book contains your essence — maybe not in location, history, or plot — but in the way that characters move through the world, the way language unspools on the page. When I received my ARC’s last fall, it was the culmination of many things for me. I sat my mother down, opened the book to the dedication page, and gave it to her. I had kept what I had written a surprise. She cried, as mothers do. Of course, she was proud of her daughter, but it was more than that.
My mother had left Austria as a single mother and come to the United States not knowing anyone. People told her she was foolish, that it was a reckless undertaking with a small child, but she was determined. She wanted a better life for us. Although she has flourished, I think in the back of every immigrant’s heart there is this doubt, this uncertainty that she will ever truly belong. In my mom’s case there is an overwhelming love for her new country that has given her so much, even as there is sadness at what was left behind. You see, once you’ve left your home, your heart cannot be whole again. I cannot imagine being so brave.
Because my mother would not listen to the naysayers, because she taught me not to take no for an answer, I kept writing a story I wanted to tell. The Lotus Eaters is coming out this spring, the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. Because our country is involved in other problematic foreign wars, Vietnam is again seen to be current, if not prophetic. If one didn’t know better, it almost seems planned. And yet it all boils down to the personal. It all comes down to one woman — my mother, me, the character, Helen, in my book — seeking her destiny against all odds. – Tatjana