BY HONG VAN
Writing is a therapeutic way of releasing strong emotions that have been bottled up inside for a long time. For Kien Nguyen, author of “The Unwanted,” writing wasn’t just therapy — it saved his mind and soul.
Nguyen will come to Seattle for a special free writing workshop and reading on Saturday, Oct. 15.
Nguyen was born in 1967 in Nha Trang, a coastal city located in South Vietnam, to a Vietnamese mother and an American father.
He grew up during a time when Vietnam was in chaos and the war was unfolding. Explosions were a familiar sound to hear and would frighten any adult, let alone eight-year-old Nguyen.
His book, “The Unwanted,” is a memoir that chronicles Nguyen’s childhood and the traumatic, tragic events that occurred around him as Saigon fell to the Communists. It also tells the story of his attempts to escape his homeland.
After several failed attempts, Nguyen, along with his mother, younger brother (who was also an Amerasian with a different father) and sister left Vietnam in 1985 when he was 17 years old through the United Nations’ Orderly Departure Program.
Nguyen still vividly remembers the day he left.
“I can close my eyes and be right there on the plane,” Nguyen reflects. “I was the first kid to get on the plane.”
He and his family boarded the Air Vietnam plane. Nguyen remembers a Vietnamese song playing in the background with some of the lyrics meaning, “How could you leave Vietnam? How could you leave this country?”
The family made their way to Bangkok where they stayed there for 22 days.
Then, they made their way to a refugee camp in the Philippines on an island called Bataan, where they stayed for three months. They were then off to the United States.
Although Nguyen left his homeland and all the hardships of living under Communist rule behind, the destruction and chaos from Vietnam still had a strong grasp on his mind.
“When I came [to America] I was pretty traumatized by the whole thing but I didn’t know it,” Nguyen said. “My body was okay but my mind was screaming for some relief.”
Nguyen’s dreams were plagued with vivid scenes from Vietnam; in the epilogue of his book, he describes some of them.
“Often I dreamed that I was still on the streets of Saigon, trying to get the last of my documents signed. And across the city, the plane was leaving without me. Other times, I saw myself drowning in the middle of a vast ocean. Above my head, pale corpses wrapped their limbs together to form a shield of flesh, preventing me from reaching the surface.”
Relief didn’t come until 1998 after he graduated from the New York University College of Dentistry.
Although he was able to function like a normal person, his mind was being eaten alive by a monster from the past, which in turn gave him suicidal thoughts.
He decided to see a therapist after the nightmares had returned with revived intensity.
“I knew that I wasn’t a sick person, but I acted like a sick person,” Nguyen said. “I didn’t really live because I was surrounded by images of the past.”
Nguyen said that his therapist recommended him to “write down everything,” and so he did. He kept a diary of his dreams and day after day, the contents of his mind were written down.
When he had a nightmare he wrote it down. When he had a nervous breakdown, he wrote it down.
“I began [the diary writing] process in August and stopped writing [by] Christmas and the nightmares stopped,” Nguyen said.
Since his nightmares stopped, Nguyen said that he set his writings aside until one day an agent he knew showed interest in the book.
At first Nguyen was hesitant because he was afraid to expose his past, but eventually he decided to go ahead with it. A bidding war for the book began.
“It was a really strange feeling, a combination of pride and fear,” said Nguyen about the bidding war on his story.
The day his book was sold to a publishing company, his mother suffered a heart attack.
When Nguyen went to see his mother, she was in a coma. But he managed to talk to her and told her “that I sold the book to a very large publishing company.”
He also confessed to his mother that he wasn’t going to depict his mother in a light that would make her seem always beautiful and perfect.
“I wanted to tell the truth [in my book],” Nguyen said. “I didn’t want to lie. I wanted to clear my conscious.”
After his mother had the heart attack, she suddenly woke up and came out of the coma. She told Nguyen that she had heard what he said to her and wanted him to write the book as truthful as possible.
Nguyen says that he doesn’t remember much from his childhood from ages five to eight. His mother provided a lot of information from those years, including the detailed events of his fifth birthday party described in the first chapter of his book.
He also interviewed a lot of people who knew his mother at the time to gather even more details.
When asked if he had any favorite or good memories from his childhood, Nguyen paused and said that that was an interesting question.
“When I wrote the book, I was infiltrated with horrible memories,” he remarked. “[The good memories] didn’t show up until years later.”
He and his brother Jimmy, who is two years younger, were very mischievous children. His fond childhood memories were of the two of them trying to survive together.
As for the their fathers, Nguyen says that both he and Jimmy have tried looking for them, but after seeing other Amerasians go through the process, he decided not to pursue the search.
“To find him is not a difficult task,” Nguyen said. “I have a list of 1400 engineers [that were in Vietnam at the time] and [can] narrow it down to his name.”
Many people have offered their help in finding his father but Nguyen turns them down.
He says that he follows Zen Buddhism and believes that “things happen for a reason.” If he runs into his father one day, then “so be it.”
Nguyen just lets things happen as they come, enjoying life day by day and letting fate take its course.
Today, fate has taken him to Huntington Beach, Calif. where he lives with his wife Kathleen and two sons, who are two and 12.
His wife, along with a group of people, run a radio station, “Little Saigon Radio,” and a newspaper, “Viet Tide,” with which Nguyen also helps out.
Nguyen, who once considered writing as therapeutic, now enjoys working on several projects at once, including writing a new book, writing and directing a movie called “Five Spices” and traveling the world to absorb all it has to offer to help with his writing.
“I’m a writer, I love what I do, I find this is my calling,” Nguyen said. “I can sit at a typewriter and feel like I’m not wasting my life away as I felt [I was doing] as a dentist.”