The international best-selling author of The Mountains Sing, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, brings us her second novel, Dust Child, a moving and suspenseful saga of family ties, trauma, forgiveness and war. Set in both present-day Việt Nam and the harrowing days of the war, this is a novel that is equal parts heartbreaking and redemptive.

Desperate to help their parents pay off their debts, sisters Trang and Quỳnh leave their rural village to become “bar girls” in the city of Sài Gòn, flirting with American GIs in exchange for pay. It is 1969, the war is moving closer to the city, and Trang finds herself falling in love with an American pilot. Decades later, a veteran, Dan, comes back to Việt Nam with his wife, struggling with PTSD and secrets from his past. At the same time, Phong, the son of a Black American solider and Vietnamese woman, is searching for his birth parents after growing up in an orphanage being called “son of the enemy” or “dust child.” As the two come together, past and present collide as they come to terms with decisions made during a time of war.

Our March guest author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is an award-winning Vietnamese writer and journalist,  with a PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster University. She has published 12 different books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction in both Vietnamese and English. She currently divides her time between Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam with her husband and two teenagers. She is currently the Peace Ambassador for PeaceTree Vietnam, an organization that works to remove unexploded bombs in Việt Nam, the Author Advocate for Room to Read, an organization that aims to erase global illiteracy and promotes girls’ education, an editor of DVAN’s publishing series, a non-profit which publishes books to fight against misrepresentation, the Advisor for Stories of Vietnam, a project that publishes and distributes free children books in Vietnamese and English, and the Ambassador for ShelterBox Bookclub, a UK charity book club which has raised £1 million to provide emergency shelter for families across the world after disasters and was named by Forbes Vietnam as one of 20 inspiring women of 2021. Inspiring is an understatement!

Click here for our exclusive interview with Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai and the inspirations for her new book, creative writing, and decolonizing English literature. 

The Book I……

I last bought/am currently reading: Novelist as a Vocation by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen). It’s so good and insightful. If you are a fan of Murakami or an aspiring writer, I highly recommend this book. It reads like a memoir in which Murakami discusses the difficult situation he was in before he became a successful writer. He talks about the importance of developing a unique voice as well as physical and mental fitness to be able to have a long career as a writer.

I recommend to everyone: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I admire the author’s ability to write about difficult topics with humor.

That was my favorite to read last year, and why: The Paris Daughter by Kristin Hammel, which I read and provided a blurb. It is brilliantly crafted and heart-shatteringly beautiful – a timeless book of survival, strength, courage, a forever lasting song calling for peace. It is coming out in June 2023 and I can’t wait for you to read it.

Whose author I would love to have lunch with: The Handmaid’s Tale. I already spent a few days with Margaret Atwood at the Dayton Literary Peace Prize award cememony in Dayton, Ohio in November 2021 but I can’t have enough of her company. She is sharp, funny and brilliant. She brightens a room whenever she walks in. And she is already 83 years old. I asked her how she can be so productive, and her question was short: “deadlines.”

That made me realize language had power: The Book Thief.

I’d like to see adapted to the screen: Books from Vietnamese writers who write in the Vietnamese perspectives because Hollywood has too often depicted Vietnam as a war whereas we are a country with more than four thousand years of culture and history.

That made me laugh out loud—or cry—while reading it: Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I loved how Pi employs humor to overcome his terrible circumstances.

That has the most gorgeous cover: I hope it’s OK for me to say that my new novel, Dust Child  has the most gorgeous covers, for both the US and UK editions. The US cover was designed by Christopher Moisan, creative director of Algonquin Books and it was love at first sight for me. Christopher had read my book very carefully and did a lot of research to be able to come up with this beautiful cover. The tree on the cover represents an ancient Bodhi tree. In the book, my main character, Phong, was abandoned under this tree as a baby, and the nun who raised him said: “This tree is a symbol of Buddhism and even though the founder of our orphanage was Catholic, she insisted that we take care of it to show that people of all religions can live in harmony.” So this cover really conveys the key message of my book: peace and harmony to the world.

With the best opening line: “Once upon a memory, at the far end of the Mediterranean Sea, there lay an island so beautiful and blue that the many travelers, pilgrims, crusaders and merchants who fell in love with it either wanted never to leave or tried to tow it with hemp ropes all the way back to their own countries.” The Island of the Missing Tree by Elif Shafak.

Bookstores that are my favorite: I have too many favorite bookstores to name. I remember so vividly that during the peaks of the Covid pandemic, booksellers braved all difficulties to be able to keep literature alive. I am so thankful to them and I would like to shout out to these wonderful bookstores who are holding in-person events for me during my March/April U.S. book tour: Powell’s Books (Portland), Elliot Bay Book (Seatle), Green Apple Books (San Francisco), Eastwind Books of Berkeley (Berkeley), Skylight Books (LA, Orange County), Warwick’s Bookstore (San Diego),  La Playa Books (San Diego),  The Writer’s Block (Las Vegas), MacDonald Bookstore (Estes Park), Boulder Book Store (Boulder), Blue Willow Bookshop (Houston), Loyalty Bookstores (Washington D.C.), Titcomb’s Bookshop ((East Sandwich, MA), Brookline Booksmith Bookstore (Brookline, MA), Yu & Me Books (New York), and White Whale Bookstore (Pittsburgh).

Bonus: What question do you wish we asked, and your answer!

Favorite audiobook narrator: Quyen Ngo. Quyen is one of the few audiobook narrators in the industry who speaks multiple languages. Her narration of stories related to Vietnam is powerful and authentic and helps us tremendously as we work to reclaim our space to tell our own stories. Her voice acting experience brings characters not just to the imagination, but to life.