When I saw the CALD mentorships advertised at Writers Victoria I jumped at the chance to work with Maria Tumarkin whose work I admired. I did not have to think twice about why I would want a CALD mentorship. My writing journey had already been characterised by Anglophile publishers. I had one publisher say they would consider my work if I deleted all the Australian section and just had beautiful scenes set in ancient Vietnam. Another publisher said she was uncomfortable with the (Buddhist) spiritual aspect to my work and then published an American fundamentalist Christian work. Orientalism had already blighted my writing journey and I knew that Maria with her non mainstream cultural background would understand my resistance to conforming to these Australian expectations.
Maria was an inspiration, forthright and honest in her approach. My dilemma was balancing young adult commercial requirements with staying true to the Buddhist influences and content of my novel The Other Shore. I had already been asked to delete temple scenes, and I wondered whether the young adult genre expectations of what a young Vietnamese girl might think about was Anglo-culture talking.
Maria told me that she did not want to read another young adult book about a girl thinking about boys. She quickly identified the crux of my story, reuniting the war dead with their descendants and encouraged me to focus on that. We talked about the psychology of young adults, and the Western orientation of the publishing industry.
The two group workshops with the other mentees at either end of the mentorship delighted me in talking with other like minded writers. We had much to talk about more than the three hours allocated each time.
Writers Victoria is to be commended for this initiative and I thank Maria and the other writers for inspiration and guidance.
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(an excerpt from The Other Shore)
My name is Kim Nguyen. I’m 16 years old and my secret middle name is from a poem that means “good heart” in Vietnamese.
I have kept many things I see and hear to myself. This protects me, being a plain
ordinary school girl in uniform, a white ao dai that is impossible to keep clean. I do not show off at school, because the pressure of the student competition and the ritual picking on the weakest students by the teachers was too much for me. I learnt about competition on the first day of high school from my best friend Lien, who told me not to get angry at the teachers’ jibes about me being the ugly sister. They will be silent after they receive a gift, she told me. This was my first encounter with corruption- a corruption everyone expected.
In our house many people died, but all of Vietnam bleeds ghosts from the wars. When I was growing up I would see other ghosts, like Americans, and would practice my English with them. Sometimes they would be wary, other times not. I have gradually learnt not to be afraid of strangers.
To most people I am no one. To Ba, my grandmother, I was someone special that kept her secrets. Ba maintained the ancestral shrine at home, even when the practices were banned by the government back in the eighties. She told me that honouring our ancestral spirits were more important than the rules of men. She hid the family shrine under the stairs so no casual observer could see it. When I saw in a dream the moped accident that killed her, I did not tell her because I did not want it to come true.
#Editor’s note: More of Hoa’s writing can be seen on Writers Victoria’s CALD mentorship ‘tasters’ webpage