Stories of Vietnam

Vancouver-based authors Brandy Lien Worrall and Elizabeth McLean will appear at the Kensington Branch of the Vancouver Public Library on Nov. 29, 2017 to discuss their respective books What doesn’t Kill Us and The Swallows Uncaged.

These titles center on the joys and tragedies that have occurred over the course of Vietnam’s history and both authors have deep roots to the country that is evident in their stories.

Vietnam’s adventurous past

I thought that history books described the past of Vietnam too blandly and made up my mind to dramatize it by way of fiction,” says McLean in The Swallows Uncaged.

McLean grew up in Warsaw, Poland and came to Canada in 1962. Shortly after graduating from the Humber School of Writers in Toronto in 2005, she moved to Vietnam to escape what she refers to as mundane everyday life.

“I went to Vietnam in the fall of 2005 because I was sick of my job, of the 9 to 6 routine,” she says.

Although she initially only intended to stay for one year, she extended her visit by several years in order to teach international relations to students who were training to become members of the Vietnamese Foreign Service.

“A chance visit to the Vietnamese Embassy convinced me that I could be useful there,” says McLean.

She was also a consultant to the Women’s Publishing House in Hanoi where she co-authored an anthology of short stories by Canadian Women Writers in 2011.

According to McLean, the history of Vietnam is full of adventurous forays, rebellions, exotic customs and traditions and emperors who wrote poetry, but were described blandly by history books.

“[…] history books, filled as they are with dates of battles and feats of great, did not give me enough sense of how people actually lived,” she says.

McLlean wants to tell, or retell, Vietnam’s history by dramatizing it through fiction in the form of stories or narratives seen through the eyes of several different female characters over the course of 1000 years.

War wounds

Lien Worrall was the product of a union between an American man and a Vietnamese National during the Vietnam War. Both of her parents experienced the trauma of war, but eventually escaped and settled in Amish country in Pennsylvania, U.S.A. Although they may have physically removed themselves from the conflict zone, they did not necessarily escape the physical and psychic tragedies of the war.

“So I stayed home, paid attention to things everyone was trying to ignore or forget,” says Lien Worrall.

Lien Worrall suffered from epilepsy as a child and says her parents became overprotective, leading her to grow up isolated from the physical and social world. She began to turn inward and use her imagination to reduce her sense of isolation – writing became her outlet.

“One of the reasons I loved writing was because there was nothing else for me to do,” she says. “As an epileptic child of an overprotective Vietnamese mother and a substance-loving American father, I wasn’t allowed to go out of the house very much.”

One of her earliest accomplishments was a certificate she won for submitting a story for a contest advertised on a Cheerios Box.

“Kellogg’s sent me a certificate basically saying, ‘Way to go! You wrote words!’” she says.

This encouraged her to pursue writing more seriously.

She says the inspiration behind What Doesn’t Kill Us was more visceral. When diagnosed with stage III cancer she saw the parallels between her illness and the trauma her parents experienced during the war.

Lien Worrall travelled to Vietnam in 2014, after her father passed away, and she spent time with her extended family on her mother’s side. She heard stories from her aunt that helped clear away some of the confusion she had about her family’s past and her own identity.

“I heard stories on how mixed race Vietnamese are treated. But when I got there [Vietnam], I felt very much at home,” she says.

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