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A Waterfall that Fueled an Ending

Here is a picture of Thac Ban Gioc, on the Vietnam-China border in the Vietnamese province of Cao Bang.

Thac Ban Gioc

What does this waterfall have to do with my new novel? Until yesterday, nothing. But the mind seeks ways to justify actions and plot-lines, and I often find that the way I do that is going back to my experiences. It’s there; I just have to flesh it out. Spend a little time thinking, and suddenly, all is obvious.

OK, let me be more specific.

I’m down to the final 10,000 or so words of my untitled third novel. For the longest time, I thought the father and son in the story would be leaving Vietnam on a plane to Bangkok. From Bangkok, the son was going to decide that he had unfinished business and I was going to figure out a way for him to jump the border somewhere and get back into Vietnam to finish things. However, as I finally reached the point where Bangkok fit into the plot, I realized that Bangkok didn’t fit into the plot.

Now what?

Should they not leave Vietnam?

Should they go somewhere else?

Is there another secret way into Vietnam?

And then the waterfall came to my mind. I traveled there on a long 6 hour motorbike trip a good dozen years ago. It was an amazing trip and breathtakingly beautiful. The waterfall, when we saw it, was during low season and not completely filled out as it can be. But wonderful nonetheless.

I remember chatting to a guard there and he told me not to put my foot in the water or he would have to arrest me because the water is the international border between the two countries. I promised that I wouldn’t. I didn’t want to find out what a Cao Bang jail was like.

But in contrast, the Chinese from across the border, treated the ‘sacred’ water as a play-land. They got on little boats, crossed unabashedly to the Vietnamese side and splashed joyously in the water.

My first thought was, ‘no fair’. I want to do that! But I didn’t, mindful of the young guard who was polite enough to warn me about his handcuffs.

And so my travelling party enjoyed the majestic scene by sight only.

But now, as I tried to think of a way to get a person across the Chinese border, my mind immediately came back to the happy Chinese crossing at will on their little tourist rafts.

I got it!

And so the plane which was heading to Bangkok was diverted to Hong Kong. One short flight to Nanning, a tourist package to the falls, and my protagonist is set to illegally cross the border to finish what he started.

Perfect.

I love it when little ideas and memories provide the template for everything you need.

Now, to write it!

(Photo Credit: Me! I took it. The background on the other side of the water is China. The foreground is Vietnam.)

Description: Draft Writing from 3rd Novel

Here’s a teaser. I shared this paragraph at the writing workshop last night. It’s just a draft description of the Vietnamese countryside which may eventually make its way into my third novel – currently in process. I’d appreciate your comments.

This part of the Vietnamese countryside has witnessed little change through the centuries. The crooked-back peasants face another daunting day every time the sun slips over the eastern ridge, greeting them with stoic reminders of the paddies which need tending. The giddy, shirtless, barefoot boys still ride the water buffaloes out through the paddy ridges to find slivers of green grazing that will keep the beasts contented until the next time they are needed to plow under the sun-baked soil, readying the field for another planting. The dawn illuminates a village which awakes like a colony of ants, miles to go to feed oneself for another day. The crows overhead witness the ants, scurrying out from underneath the palms which shield the single- story cement dwellings from the relentless afternoon sun. The busy-bodies hunker down in the fields, women side by side with sister and aunt, neighbor and cousin, donning the cone-like, pointed hats which protect their face from darkening in the heat of the day. The dainty hands, each with a single stock of rice seedling no more than six inches tall, skillfully pushes the heroic staple into the mud until it settles in the place where it will thrive and grow, giving the planters their rewarded survival. They owe their lives to the blessed crop which gives them sustenance; they owe their age to the cursed crop which robs them of years and sentences them to curved backs and ridged, hard skin. This is the land of their ancestors, a canvass of paint, so vivid, so real, so far removed from the toil of the modern masses. These people have become one with the land, one with time, one with each other, as they etch out a noble existence for which two thousand years of Vietnamese history owes them much.

Cross-Cultural Storytelling

(I just did a guest blog for http://www.ritareviews.net, called “Cross-Cultural Storytelling.”  It gives some insight into how I used the cultural contexts of Vietnam in my novel “Beauty Rising.” I’ll give you a teaser here and you can read the rest on her site.  I hope you enjoy.)

I’ve been fascinated for years with cultural differences and the differing worldviews of the many people I’ve had the privilege of getting to know in Asia.  When I first came to Asia as an inexperienced, meat and potatoes, rice-hating American (if you can believe that, how did I even survive those years?), I was thrown headlong, full force into mind-boggling circumstances I knew nothing about. What I thought I understood, I didn’t  When I thought I was doing the right thing, I wasn’t  After living in Asia for a couple of years, someone introduced me to the idea of value orientations – how different cultures have belief systems and values which orient their point of view from completely different starting points.

READ THE REST HERE!

Is it Fair to Judge a Writer?

(In my last post I picked on an old professor. That made me think of another old professor whom I’ll add to the list of blog-post inspiration. By the way, I enjoyed learning under both of them.)

One of my old professors taught me that when reading a poem, never assume that the poem’s perspective is that of the poet.

OK. Let me think about this a second. Let’s take a few lines from one of my favorite poems – “Hap” by Thomas Hardy:

IF but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

So according to my professor, it’s unfair to say that Thomas Hardy is angry at God or that his life is in a turmoil, and he’s looking to make sense of it of a terrible loss he experienced in his life.

Because who is the “I” that he is referring to? Himself? A friend? A relative? A completely made-up person? No one at all? Perhaps these are just the words that came to him randomly? We obviously don’t know (unless he decides to tell us).

It would be foolish to judge Thomas Hardy’s personal life based on the perspective of his poem.

Likewise, it would be rash to judge an author solely by what he/she wrote in a novel. It’s so easy to assume that the perspective, tone, or themes of a particular book permeate directly from the soul of the writer. That may be the case, but it also may be the furthest thing from the truth.

Which writer would like to be judged by the content of his/her writing? No one I know, but I fear that is a common occurrence, and naturally so. Writers certainly pull a lot of truth from their own life, twist it around, spice it up, coat it with several layers of implausibility, and slap it on the page as a new creation. The real truth of any given phrase may be very difficult to assess.

For example, in my novel “Beauty Rising”, depending on what passage one looks at, I could be accused of being a hater of Vietnamese people, a lover of Vietnamese people, a critic of the Vietnamese government, a critic of small town America, a cynic of family, a believer in faith, a denier of faith, a hopeless romantic, a lover of tragedy, etc… you get the picture. Whether these are true or not, to me, isn’t important because I just wanted to write a good story.

I suppose Thomas Hardy just wanted to write a poignant poem.

So I would say this. If you want to judge someone, judge them for what they say and how they live, but not what they write.

Fiction Thrives When Truth Abides (guest post on Cellardoorians)

I just published a new post “Fiction Thrives When Truth Abides” on Cellardoorians.  It talks about how I used my real-life experiences to help shape my fictional work. I’ll give you a teaser here and then you can read the rest on their site. Enjoy!

I’ve been asked this question a lot lately in reference to my new novel, “Was your father really like that?” In my story, the protagonist tries to carry out his abusive father’s dying wish, and it has made more than a few people question my own background to see if I was inspired by a dysfunctional past.

All of this got me thinking of the writer’s mind – which truly can be a scary place if you happen to stumble upon it at the right, or perhaps wrong, moment. Writers try to tell tales of truth or universal ideals wrapped in a fictional shroud of imagination where reality and make-believe co-exist, co-habitat, and intermingle in ways which can make it difficult to separate the truth from the fiction.

Read the rest HERE!

Vietnamese New Year & Tet ’68

Happy Vietnamese New Year Everyone!

I enjoyed many Tet holidays in Vietnam visiting neighbors, being stuffed with delicacies by eager grandmothers who wouldn’t be satisfied until I would hold my stomach in agony and beg her not to put more on my plate. (She should anyways.)  Tet is a wonderful time for family and friends to commune and feast while the trials and troubles a a year’s hard work are long forgotten.  It’s a three day non-stop filling of the celebration of Vietnamese life.  It’s a time to remember the past, enjoy the present, and drink for the future.

But for a different generation of Americans, the word “TET” means but one thing – a horrible reminder of the pain of war from 1968.

The Tet Offensive in 1968 changed the Vietnam War, but it didn’t do so in the way you might expect.  Leading up to the Viet Cong attacks on the first day of their New Year, the American people had been led to believe from their government that great progress was being made in freeing South Vietnam from the Communist instigators who had been reeking havoc in the delta and central regions of the country for nearly a decade.  But the Tet Offensive proved once and for all that the reassuring words from Washington via the press corp were hollow at best and possibly down right deceitful.

On the first night of Tet 1968,  the Viet Cong pulled off nearly fifty coordinated and simultaneous attacks which caught the Americans and the South Vietnamese armies off guard.  From the former Imperial city of Hue, to the central highlands where American missionaries were killed, to the fortified city of Saigon itself, these attacks reverberated loudly throughout the country, the world, and especially the American media which drilled home this point to the American people – we were not winning the Vietnam War.

It mattered little that American firepower pushed back every single one of these advances.  That’s right.  America won them all, but the Viet Cong delivered a devastating punch and a massive dose of reality to the American people.   From that point on, cynicism crept in and led to one of the most turmoil filled years in American history, from President LBJ deciding not run for president again, to the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, to the urban riots, the Tet offensive set the stage for them all.

This shows me that above all else, we need government that is checked by an independent news media, driven by principles and not ideological conviction – something today that is certainly hard to find.