Award winning author Yasuko Thanh will be reading from her newly published novel Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains at the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch on May 18 as part of Incite: An Exploration of Books and Ideas series presented in partnership with the Vancouver Writers Fest.
At the heels of an early well-traveled Bohemian life, Thanh won the 2009 Journey Prize for her short story “Floating Like the Dead,” which is included in her collection by the same name. Her debut novel, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, is set in Vietnam at the turn of the 20th century while under French colonial rule.
“I remembered my father’s stories and started writing to learn more about the time in which my great grandparents were alive. Coming across the Hanoi [Poison] Plot, I found myself building around this in the process of finding out,” Thanh explains.
Shaping a story
The story begins in medias res as we sit in on a clandestine meeting of five local Vietnamese resistance collaborators plotting to poison and overthrow the French colonial occupying forces in 1908. Each partisan is burdened in different ways: Dr. Nguyen Georges-Minh is on a search for atonement for the ill-gotten gains of his family in their ongoing collusion with the French, and soon finds himself deeply entangled in the jungles of his country. The complexities of the time weigh equally on the other characters.
In one of the novel’s stories, says Thanh, an innkeeper abandons his wife and children to fend for themselves. Yet when he returns, his wife seems to take him back, and her true resilience and ingenuity only becomes gradually apparent as the events unfold.
“In parallel developments, we learn more about the mountain resistance to the foreign invasion, as underneath it all, we find the emblematic story of a strong woman,” adds Thanh.
Layers of exploration
Thanh took a special approach toward the hostile subject matter and the treatment of recorded historical events. She says various versions of the truth are shown through numerous points of view.
“In literary terms,” Thanh says that she had multiple voices wanting to compete for the protagonist’s voice.
“Not for accuracy, but as diverse layers adding to verisimilitude,” she says. “It’s an invitation to look at each and every word, right from the first sentence.”
The build-up of the layers throughout the novel creates a cumulative effect much more profound than one simple epiphany. Thanh says that rather than a linear account the story needed a complex, more circular narrative mode to convey a deeper understanding. The overall effect is closer to a sense of transcendence than an analytical description.
“Magic Realism intrigues me,” Thanh continues, “as do the spiritual influences of the region, including Buddhism, local beliefs, ancestor worship and the mysticism of Vietnam.
Author and musician
Thanh, who holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of Victoria, has successfully brought different creative forms of artistic expression to her audiences as a poet, short story writer, novelist and musician – she sings lead vocals and plays guitar with her band 12 Gauge Facial. This puts her in a unique position to draw comparisons when it comes to delivering her message.
“In the writing it’s not as overt. Writing is solitary, and you aim to ‘show, don’t tell.’ In contrast, music is more direct. A chorus, for example, is right in your face,” says Thanh.
Thanh’s reading from Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains is part of the Incite 2016 finale, and will be held on May 18, 2016 at the VPL Central Branch. For more info on The Vancouver Writers Fest events and Incite 2016, please visit www.writersfest.bc.ca.