Festival Finds: Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Posted: 04 September 2018 Author: sikuska

With over 180 speakers from 30 countries, this year’s UWRF lineup is a literary treasure trove of discoveries. Each week in the lead up to the Festival, we’ll speak to a writer whose work you may not have encountered yet, but who could well turn out to be your Festival favorite. This week we hear from award-winning Vietnamese poet and writer Nguyen Phan Que Mai, author of eight books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. 

What issues and ideas are you hoping to explore during your UWRF18 sessions?

As a writer of both fiction and poetry, I would like to explore how poetry and fiction come together in presenting human experiences. I would also like to reflect on the ideas of freedom when writing in both my native tongue and in a second language (English). During my sessions, I plan to build links between Vietnam, my homeland, and Indonesia, the country that has been my home for the last year.

Who do you hope will be in the audience? 

Anyone who loves literary adventures and is curious about Vietnam. Anyone who is in for a good time and a memorable experience.

What’s the most extraordinary place your career has taken you? 

I have performed my work and taught creative writing classes in Vietnam, the Philippines, the United States, Colombia, India, Belgium, China, Venezuela, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia.

I must admit though, that the most extraordinary place I have read my work was at a displaced centre at La Cruz, Colombia. Those who were in my audience had lost their homes to the civil war. As I listened to their stories, I knew I was meeting the most incredible human beings who taught me about courage and compassion. I shared with them that as a small child, I, too, had to flee my village together with my parents, and we didn’t know when we would be able to come back. There were many tears, and afterwards, I wrote this poem:


For the displaced people at La Cruz, Colombia

The children surrounded themselves with chatter

that smelled like salsa, rising up from their homes

that clung like bare bones to mountain slopes.


Their parents and grandparents stood

under a makeshift roof, telling me

how they had escaped bullets

that sprayed like rain

from helicopters twirling above their heads;

the children came to me, first as timid as cats,

and then they laughed,

rubbing their hands against the rough

silk of my Vietnamese dress.


My ears were still blurred by

explosions from the stories I’d just heard,

and my eyes still burned with tears

when the children reached up and took my hands.


They pulled me out to the sun,

And into the game of my faraway childhood hopscotch.

I jumped, bent, picked up

the pearls of laughter that giggled

out from their sun-roasted mouths,

and felt I belong here

to this land

torn by the civil war

and the evils of drugs.


As we sprung up

together, our footsteps light with hope

I knew the dead were watching over us,

and I saw how the color of peace

turned into color of laughter,

sung by the children of Colombia.


What’s the best piece of creative advice you’ve received, and what’s the best you can give? 

I love this advice from the bestselling author Neil Gaiman: “Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.”

My advice: write what you believe in, read widely, work hard, and never give up.

Which of your works do you recommend readers begin with? 

My book of poetry The Secret of Hoa Sen, published in Vietnamese and English. Reading it, you’ll get to know my family and my country’s journey through war and conflicts and our arrival into peace.

What are you most looking forward to at UWRF18? 

I have heard extraordinary things about the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival. I look very much forward to learning about Indonesian literature as part of the experience. I am also excited to be meeting my readers as well as other writers who bring with them stories from all corners of the globe.

Nguyen Phan Que Mai is part of the Main Program panel What Indonesia Taught Me, and will also be performing her poetry at Live Music & Arts: From Bali to West Africa.

nguyenphanquemai.com/en/ | Facebook

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