My guest today is former U.S. diplomat Sarah-Ann Smith, author of Trang Sen—a love story that puts a human face to the Vietnam War and historical novel capturing the painful suffering of the Vietnamese. I will upload my review of this book at the end of this post, for now I will briefly quote the book blurb to introduce the subject matter.
Trang Sen is the Vietnamese heroine and title character (her name means “White Lotus”) of Sarah-Ann Smith’s acclaimed new novel. War and loss dog the heels of her family, yet Trang Sen is defiant. Rebellious and headstrong even as a child, she struggles to make more of her life than seems possible. As she moves from her parents’ rice farm to the streets and alleys of Saigon, her world opens up. But as new paths become visible, others are shut off.
As much as she loves her brother, Trang Long, she also loves an American diplomat stationed in Saigon. Caught between her own dreams and the needs of her family, between her love for learning and the excitement of war-time Saigon, Trang Sen embarks on a memorable journey that requires heartbreaking choices.
South Carolina native Sarah-Ann Smith’s passion for Asia led to a degree in international relations and Asian studies and to a career in the U.S. diplomatic corps. Her tours of duty took her to Taiwan to study Mandarin Chinese and to the American Consulate in Hong Kong, as well as within the Foggy Bottom headquarters of the U.S. State Department. Smith’s interest in Southeast Asia was originally piqued by encounters with a number of Asian students and their critiques of U.S. policy at the height of the Vietnam War. Her professional and personal focus on Asian political and cultural life led her to write about it in fictional form in this, her first novel.
Smith’s life after the Foreign Service has focused on writing and teaching. In addition to Trang Sen, she has published numerous op-ed pieces and has taught China- and Southeast Asia-related courses at universities in Maryland and North and South Carolina. After leaving the State Department she moved to Asheville, N.C. for fourteen years, and now lives in Spartanburg, S.C.
And now, on to our interview.
Hello Sarah-Ann . I could relate so much to what you have written in this book. I feel humbled and it was a pleasure and an honour to review your beautiful work. Thank you for agreeing to this interview.
Would you be so kind to give readers a one-sentence synopsis of Trang Sen?
Trang Sen is the story of a young Vietnamese woman seeking her own identity and destiny amidst the terrible circumstances of the Vietnam War.
Several of your deftly drawn characters fit the people I knew. How real are these characters?
None of the characters are based on actual people, though the circumstances of their lives are drawn from reality.
“Years of professional and personal focus on Asian political and cultural life impelled you to write Trang Sen”. Who or what inspired you to write this book? When did you first know you just had to write Trang Sen?
My first assignment as a diplomat was in the State Department’s Indochina section during the final two years of the Vietnam War, 1973—1975. In that capacity, I watched almost firsthand the unwinding of that war and the lives — Vietnamese and American — which were uprooted in that conflict and its aftermath. It was several years later, in the early 1980s, that I often watched the comings and goings of Vietnamese immigrants in an area outside Washington, D.C., where many had settled, and knew I was going to write a story about them.
It is very detailed and meticulously written. How long did it take you to write the book?
I began the first draft in the mid-1980s, and worked on it periodically. Many things intervened, mostly personal issues such as the final illness and death of my parents. About six years ago, the book was complete, and Andrew Reed, editor-in-chief of Pisgah Press, helped me polish it into final form.
How did you come up with the title?
I’m not very good at titles, slogans, catch words. I struggled to find a good phrase that could be used as a title, among other things scanning The Tale of Kieu in hopes something would appeal. Nothing did, and finally I decided simply to go with the name of the main character.
What is your favorite line in the book? (or paragraph)
My goodness, this is difficult. I find myself torn between rather amusing lines, such as the one in chapter 12 when the manager of the Roy Rogers fast-food restaurant instructs Trang Sen to say “Howdy, partner” and “Happy trails” to the customers, the meaning of which she of course has no clue. On the other hand, I still find this sentence from chapter 6 quite beautiful – “Unaccountably, a bougainvillea still bloomed there, its dark branches etched in shadow on a broken wall.”
Yes! I like those parts too. There are many poignant moments as in chapter 6 is very moving. And that chapter 12 is really funny. Word choices can be funny too. I’ll tell you what happened once when I took my children back to Indonesia, and they could only speak English. After a week travelling, our 10-year-old son boasted, “I know the word for ‘toilet’: it’s ‘wanita’!” I had to laugh, “You’ve been using the wrong washroom!”— because ‘wanita’ actually means ‘ladies’ 🙂
Back to you. Who would you say have been the most influential authors in your life? What is it that really strikes you about their work?
Three, quite different from each other, come to mind. Ursula K. LeGuin, for the way a turn of phrase paints a vivid picture. For example, “On soft sand by the sea’s edge a little boy walked leaving no footprints.” That sentence, with its simple words and lack of commas, immediately conveys to the reader that we are in another dimension. Jane Austen, for her amazing insight into the psychological sources of her characters’ actions and choices. And, finally, Yasunari Kawabata, for the utter simplicity of his style.
I loved Yasunari Kawabata! Will check out the others.
Now, after the Foreign Service you have focused on writing and teaching. What story would you like to share about the joy, challenge, or hardship of writing?
I love writing. It is a joy always to be composing something, whether fiction, political analysis, whatever. Really, the only hardship is the difficulty of finding time to do as much of it as I would like. As for the challenge, specifically in relation to Trang Sen, it was finding the good way to get it published and in front of readers, which I definitely did finally find in Pisgah Press. A lot of the difficulty for first-time, unknown authors in general has to do with the conglomerate, sharply business-oriented approach of American publishing.
Who gives you the most encouragement? Why is that important to you?
At the top of the list is Andrew Reed, my editor and publisher. Since Trang Sen has been published, the universally positive reaction of readers has been both gratifying and humbling. How could I have managed to come up with a book that is garnering so much praise?
What are you working on right now? Tell us your latest news.
Well, right now my time and energy has been taken up with publicizing Trang Sen. I do hope and plan to write a memoir in the form of reflective essays. I’ve met with a number of book clubs who have read Trang Sen, and the question of a sequel invariably comes up. I have no plans for such, but I find intriguing the comment of one reader, who found herself wondering about Laura, the wife of the attaché who becomes involved with Trang Sen. I didn’t deal with her in the book at all. I can’t imagine a sequel that fills in details of the characters I did write about, but it might be fun to write about Laura.
Or heartbreaking! You must be very strong to stand the bleeding of the writing process.
How much do you have in common with your protag?
It seems to me that any writer has something in common with all her characters. In some ways I am like each on of them. I do not identify any more with Trang Sen than with any of the others, except that I know from my own experience how important it is for any young woman to try to figure out how to make her way in the world. When I was a young woman it was much rarer for a woman to enter the diplomatic service; the hurdles Trang Sen had to overcome included the traditional assumptions of what a village girl could and should do and the difficulty of access to an education.
“Friendships with a number of Asian students piqued your interest in Southeast Asia”. Care to elaborate? What makes you so deeply empathetic towards others’ plight?
I seem always to have had an affinity with Asians — Chinese, Japanese, Southeast Asians. Despite the cultural differences across that vast region, there is something about its many peoples that resonates with me. As a graduate student and as a teacher, as well as in my diplomatic career, that affinity has often seemed to work the other way as well, so that individuals from that part of the world have gravitated toward me. More generally, whatever empathy seems to have been part of who I am from as early as I can remember. I really don’t know where that came from. Perhaps part of it was from the example of my parents, who often befriended those that others in the tradition-bound southern American society shunned.
Do you have an unforgettable experience about adjusting to living in a foreign country, learning the local culture and using the local language for the first time?
The unforgettable experience is really how easy it was, in terms of lifestyle, cultural patterns and habits. I did have difficulty becoming fluent in Chinese. The first few months of living in Taiwan were frustrating because of that. I often found myself coming out with French when I meant to be speaking Chinese. Much later, it was the other way around. Traveling in francophone Quebec, I would find myself speaking Chinese when I meant to be stumbling along in French.
Would you like to share your favorite thing from lessons learnt in the East?
I suppose the best thing I learned from my years in Asia, among Asians, was to be silent, to wait to hear what people might say to me, not to fill the lulls in conversation with my own chatter.
You wrote, “Trang Sen is not intended as a historical account of the Vietnam War.” But you show readers a vivid portrait of Saigon during the maelstrom of the war that is sure to move many hearts. I think this book should become a recommended read in high school because it has the potential to encourage diplomatic solutions and prevent more wars. In your opinion, what is the best solution to international conflict?
First, I want to say that the feedback from readers has demonstrated that whatever I intended, Trang Sen is to many of them a book that illuminates for them that time and place that was wartime Saigon. The best solution to international conflict? Negotiation, negotiation, negotiation. Listening, listening, listening, trying to understand the other’s point of view. With very rare exceptions, war solves nothing. Certainly, the most recent wars, from Vietnam to Afghanistan, have caused much suffering, upheaval and death, with little, if anything, accomplished by them.
Tell us a bit about who or/and what matters to you.
Justice, reconciliation among peoples, living in harmony with others and with our physical world, equal sharing of resources across ethnic, economic, geographical lines.
What one thing is important for your readers/audience to know about you? Why?
I taught several courses about China during and just after the cultural revolution, using Chinese films and fiction of the 1980s for insight into how those events impacted individuals in China. I also used fiction and films in courses I taught on Southeast Asia. I think fiction and film often are the best ways to understand a culture different from one’s own.
What are your hobbies?
Cooking, especially Chinese; films, especially foreign; figure skating as an observer.
Thank you so much for the chat Sarah-Ann. Best wishes for Trang Sen!
Readers, I hope you have enjoyed the interview with Sarah-Ann. Grab your copy of her book, highly recommended. Check out my review here:
Why War Is Never The Right Path Towards Problem Solving
TRANG SEN, Reviewed by Ia Uaro
of http://www.sydneyssong.net/ and BookPleasures.com
This is the story of Trang Sen, or “white lotus”, a brave and brilliant Vietnamese girl who had to grow up during the Vietnam War. Masterfully written by a diplomat who has extensive experience and knowledge of the cultures, the settings and human psychology, the book follows Trang Sen’s journey from her first encounter with an American when she was a child in a Vietnamese village in 1957, her teen years in the alleys of Saigon as the war raged, her coming-of-age and love life as the war worsened, to her life in the late 70s after the U.S. army pullout from Vietnam.
Trinh Trang Sen is different from all other children in her village. She dreams to be allowed to work the fields with the buffalo like the boys do instead of doing a girl’s chores. She dreams to read books and get proper education like amazing Eldest Brother who is away in a university in France. She dreams to ride an elephant and lead her people like her country’s proud queens of old.
Before she knows it, her first dream is granted. Not as she wished it though, but because Second Brother and Third Brother must go to the war, and help her parents she must. She toils in the fields in great hardship in the following years, miserable despite being a successful plough-woman.
When refined Eldest Brother comes home from France, Trang Sen’s dream to study is granted too and she moves to a convent school in Saigon. She still studies even when the war eventually necessitates that she look after her remaining family members. Trang Sen is so smart that she wins further scholarship—they are making plans for her to attend a university in France when love happens.
U.S. officer Arthur Billings cannot forget the very beautiful girl he once met deep in a humble Saigon market where local refugees dwell. When they meet again, he is determined not to let her go. Alas, unlike the tea-girls who live at the beck and call of the foreigners, Trang Sen is not your average peasant girl. She is respectable, principled, proud and has set her sight for higher education. What can he offer her in the war-torn Saigon, to change her mind about going to France?
Trinh Van Long has returned home from his beloved Paris to do his duties to his family and his country. The war has torn the land, destroyed villages, displaced families and divided his people. While the American army in Vietnam is guaranteed supplies for their living, the hapless Vietnamese suffer abject poverty and being ruled by foreigners who don’t understand them. Long has secrets and blood in his hands, and if in the middle of all this chaos and heartaches one good thing could be salvaged, it is First Sister, the beautiful and intelligent Trang Sen who has worked so hard for her studies while looking after the family. Long contrives to get her to Paris, because only there can she be safe and indulge in her dream of intellectual pursuit. He owes her that.
Caught in the maelstrom of the war in fears and hopes, what choices will Trang Sen make? She alone will have to live with the consequences.
Trang Sen is the kind of those very rare books that grab your attention from the first paragraphs, take you on a journey to where you knew not, entertain you, educate you, make you care about the people and the topics visited, and then leave you reeling, stunned, and you emerge at the other end thinking, looking back, and thinking again—because the author has changed your understanding forever. The characters are very human and the events flow naturally that reading this book I found myself looking at the cover again and again, staring at the words “A Novel”, because the author has the skills to connect readers to her characters and make the story feels very real.
Sarah-Ann Smith opens Trang Sen with the legend of the brave queens of Vietnam and proceeds to show us the portrait of a beautiful land teeming with lives, in vivid colours that we can see, sounds that we can hear, along with scents, tastes and texture. Not only does she introduce us to the exotic culture and habits of the attractive locals, she delves deep into their fascinating minds with intriguing insights —expertly with the skills that reminds me of the long ago Pulitzer award winner Pearl S. Buck, whose work once upon a time I read when, as a charity case, I learned the English language in a Catholic high school eerily similar to the one Trang Sen attended.
That is before Sarah-Ann empathically touches the issue of the war, which scenes remind me of Sartre. She opens our eyes to what it was really like out there. I had followed the Vietnam War as it was all over my mother’s newspaper when I was learning to read, and I followed their plight in the aftermath when thousands of refugees were stranded in the islands off Sumatra where they had to wait for so many years in limbo before finding new homes. I remember they were viewed as burdens and treated with hostility. I don’t remember anyone writing anything close to Trang Sen then, but I wish there had been because this book certainly opens eyes and powerfully evokes compassion.
That war is over but others are still raging. I would like people to read this book. Trang Sen is an excellent read for high school students, all other young people, and all adults who have the power to make a difference, because this book clearly shows why a war is never the right path towards problem solving, achieving peace, or preserving human dignity. Love for all, hatred for none.