“They have gone through so much and this is a way to honour them. They know this is a long love letter that I wrote for them, so they feel very proud.”
While most people write a memoir for themselves, for Australian writer and lawyer Cat Thao Nguyen it was acknowledging the strength and determination of her parents which motivated her.
Her memoir, We are Here, is an evocative and at times confronting insight into her family’s exodus from post-war Vietnam on foot, through the treacherous jungles of Khmer Rouge Cambodia, to a refugee camp in Thailand where Cat Thao was born, and finally boarding a plane to Australia.
For Cat Thao growing up in suburban Bankstown, Western Sydney, however, provided its own challenges for a young refugee trying to find her place. Ahead of her memoir’s launch in Melbourne she spoke to Peril about the journey of writing the book, a process which took seven years.
“I wanted to honour my parents and what they have gone through in order to get to Australia. Even though our story is an uncommon one, it’s a story of persecution, of flight, of desperation, of poverty. These stories help us connect with people different to us,” she said.
Cat Thao found the writing process to be painful, noting how at times she would be “sitting on the computer bawling [her] eyes out.” Despite this, she said that ‘re-living’ such turbulent events through her book was a cathartic experience.
“It has been a really good healing process. It has been important for me and my family to have something documented and this has manifested in the book.”
Piecing together her family history was difficult, especially for her father who had suffered through a harrowing re-education camp after the Fall of Saigon in 1975.
“When I moved to Vietnam in 2008, I decided to go through that journey myself and there were people who were reunited with lost family members, 35 years later. So I actually went to see if I could find my uncle, who had gone missing when we fled.”
“At that point, I asked my dad to write down all the points on the journey, all the towns he went through. He wrote me this letter and I could just feel the anguish from the words he wrote. He said it was the first time since they left that he put it down in words and looked at it and re-lived it,” she said.
“I talked to my mum and rechecked with her a lot of details. I also found letters they had sent to relatives in Vietnam who kept these letters. My parents forgot a lot of things deliberately. I was piecing it all together. It was very painful, especially for my dad, because they had just sort of buried it together for so long.”
For Cat Thao, the full extent of her parent’s plight did not hit her until she was a teenager. When she did become fully aware of their bravery, it only made her more determined to succeed.
“I remember being 15 or 16 and telling my teachers at school about it and how horrific it was and also crying to them and telling them what my family has gone through. All the pressure I felt to redeem them in some way, to overachieve was astronomical. I remember that so distinctly.”
This redemption materialised back home in Bankstown, where she launched the book recently. She said that Bankstown holds a special place in her heart and being surrounded by family and friends at the launch validated her tireless work crafting the book.
“There were people there who had known my parents for decades. They invited these people. It was a sign that they were proud of the book. And publically I invited them on the stage with my whole family and I spoke to them in Vietnamese and I told them I wanted to thank them for everything they had given me and my brothers and teaching us the values of integrity, persistence, work ethic and also a life of purpose, which is one of social justice and impact. The public acknowledgment for my parents in front of their friends and family and also the book itself, it really took our relationship to another level.”
Writing We Are Here also allowed Cat Thao to learn more about her parents and their traits which have been imbued in her.
“I think that it’s really important to discover your own story, your family story, the generations before you, because undoubtedly it has an impact on who you are and what you become. There is some imprint there and I definitely see clear traits in me from my dad and from my mum.”
She also believes her book can help change the somewhat negative and apathetic attitude to refugees, exemplified by the government’s tough policy on asylum seekers.
“I really hope that through my book we can actually look at the generational consequences of what is happening in Australia right now. In my work as a lawyer in international business, I see that one of the core things required for people to traverse different scenarios and cultures and challenging circumstances is empathy.”
She added that she sees Australia as a country that has “become a very unkind nation and lost our sense of empathy”.
“I think the children of asylum seekers and refugees, like myself, possess a number of different skillsets. Skillset about open mindedness, being able to work through all the difficult circumstances and scenarios in society. I feel that because of my family and the diversity present in Bankstown growing up, I can relate to people on all sorts of levels and that is actually the foundation of creativity and innovation which is a foundational skill that Australians need to have in the 21st century,” she said.
We Are Here’s Melbourne book launch is at Readings in Hawthorn on Thursday the 9th of July with proceeds going to RISE: Refugees Survivors and Ex-Detainees. More information can be found here.