BY HONG VAN
On Saturday, Oct. 15, the International Examiner presents: “Taking the Journey: Vietnamese American authors explore the journey of writing.” Aimee Phan and Kien Nguyen lead free writing workshops and public reading at the Seattle Public Library Central Library.
While most kids were probably playing with toys or running around outside, Aimee Phan was busy filling binders with stories that she wrote.
Because her mother strongly encouraged Phan and her younger brother Andrew to read at a very young age, Phan says that she developed a love for writing early.
“I’ve always been interested in writing,” says Phan, who was born and raised in Orange County, Calif.
Later on in high school, her passion for writing led to an interest in journalism. She then fell into fiction writing while she was a student at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
Phan says that the skills she learned from journalistic writing was helpful in doing fictional work and by her second year of graduate school at the University of Iowa, she was hard at work on her book, “We Should Never Meet,” which was published last September.
The book is a collection of eight interweaving stories that vividly illustrate the traumatic effects of Operation Babylift.
Four of the eight stories follow the story of one orphan’s journey from Vietnam to the United States from distinct points of view.
The other stories are set in present day “Little Saigon” in California and chronicle the lives of four former orphans.
Phan says that picture in a magazine of Vietnamese children on an Operation Babylift airplane piqued her curiosity and sparked the idea for the book.
The operation itself was a humanitarian effort to evacuate thousands of Vietnamese orphans and children before the Fall of Saigon in 1975.
Many of the planes used during Operation Babylift were ill-equipped to carry passengers and the first flight crashed due to a mechanical problem and killed 154 people, nearly half of those on board.
Phan says that seeing her mother, a social worker helping foster children, particularly Vietnamese ones, was another reason for the book.
“I’d seen my mom with foster children, and it’s hard enough being a refugee but it’s even more hard [to be a refugee] and not have a family,” she said.
Instead of focusing on just one particular person or one story, Phan chose to create her characters based on general research of Operation Babylift.
In the midst of Phan’s extensive research on Operation Babylift and writing the book, Phan’s brother surprised her with some information.
“In the middle of writing the book, my brother told me that mom was a part of Operation Babylift,” Phan said.
Because of her work as a social worker in Orange County, Phan’s mother was asked to help with the operation and was on one of the flights. Phan also had an uncle and an aunt that helped with the mission.
Though her family’s involvement with Operation Babylift surprised Phan greatly, she understands why it wasn’t something her mother talked about.
“A lot of people of that generation dealt with so much,” Phan says. “It’s a part of their life.”
Phan says she learned a lot about writing from the book and that she’s received a lot of support for it.
“It’s nice meeting people who have read the book,” she says. “People have been pretty supportive.”
Her family has also enjoyed the book. Her parents particularly enjoyed the chapter about a farmer and nun who were once betrothed and were awkwardly reunited years later in an effort to save several orphans.
“I think [my mom and dad] really liked it. They thought the [story about] the farmer and the nun was really romantic, although it really wasn’t romantic,” said Phan with a laugh.
She added that one of her aunts cried when she read the book.
Currently, Phan is working on another book that she says is going “slow but steady.” She is also now an assistant professor in English at Washington State University.
On Oct. 15, Phan is coming to Seattle for a Vietnamese writers workshop at the Seattle Public Library Central Library sponsored by the International Examiner and plans to make her workshop session an interactive one.
She says she wants to know “what [people] are interested in and what they’re writing about. I definitely want to hear their ideas.”
When asked who her favorite author was, Phan says that she doesn’t really have one.
Instead, she says that she has favorite pieces of work and that she really likes Vietnamese literature, which Phan remarks is a “field that’s growing.”
One of her favorite pieces of work is Andrew X. Pham’s “Catfish and Mandala,” an account of the author’s journey through Vietnam on a bicycle.
“I thought it was beautiful,” Phan said about “Catfish and Mandala.”
As Phan looks back upon growing up in Orange County home of Little Saigon, she feels fortunate.
“I appreciated it a lot more as I got older. I was lucky to be around so many Vietnamese people,” Phan reflects. “I think it did a lot for [my writing] because writing deals a lot with where you live.”
For more information on Aimee Phan’s workshop, please visit www.iexaminer.org and click on Examiner Events.