In a recent interview with Montreal Gazette’s Ian McGillis, Caroline Vu speaks about her forthcoming novel, That Summer in Provincetown. She elaborates on the novel’s plot related details, on her life in both Vietnam and Canada, and on the impetus for her writing.
That Summer in Provincetown is forthcoming with Guernica Editions (Fall 2015).
Vu describes the significance of the novel’s setting— her native country, Vietnam.
“Most of this densely peopled, event-filled novel takes place in Vietnam, over a period encompassing the French colonial era, the civil war — called the Vietnam War by the world, it was the American War to the Vietnamese — and its aftermath.”
She explains the novel’s title, and her reason for choosing a title that didn’t sound ‘typically Vietnamese’.
“I didn’t want to choose a typically Vietnamese title. There are so many of those already. And there have been many books and movies about the war, but most of them have been by Western people, very few from a Vietnamese point of view.”
McGillis comments on the density of the characters which appear in That Summer in Provincetown, a “tangled extended family tree”— all the more thicket-like for the fact that at any given moment somebody seems to be sleeping somewhere, and with someone, that they shouldn’t.”
Furthermore, he discusses two characters in particular —Daniel, “a half-French, half-Vietnamese man dying in a Montreal hospital of AIDS”, and the grandmother— and explains their key roles in the novel.
“The aforementioned Daniel, while not the main player in the book’s large cast, is a fulcrum, occupying a key place in a family whose chaos and dysfunction reflect the chaos and dysfunction of its country of origin. For him, Provincetown was the site of a window of freedom from the constraints of tradition. That it was also the place where he contracted the disease that killed him is an apt symbol for the novel as a whole, where an unsparing ground-level view of the traumatic disruption of war is leavened by a deftly deployed acidic humour, and where the historical and the personal are virtually one and the same.”
The “formidable grandmother,” he explains, “infus[es] the book’s every page even when she’s out of the frame… [she is] an endlessly complex figure who does her level best to inculcate her children and grandchildren with superstition and racism, yet in her way provides the family with whatever unity it has.”
Vu comments on the significance of the grandmother figure in her own life:
“My mother was a doctor, so it was my grandmother who raised us…Even for those years when we were apart, she was very important in all of our lives. Her stories had become like myths to us.”
Moreover, she comments on her life after coming to North America, which was comprised of both difficulty and opportunity.
“The Vu family’s life outside Vietnam began in 1970 in small-town Connecticut, where ill-informed locals viewed these new arrivals as enemies. “There was a lot of ‘What are these Viet Cong doing here?’ ” Vu recalled. “I was bullied in school… things improved considerably when they relocated to cosmopolitan, French-speaking Montreal — although, ironically, their port of call was Westmount.”
Nevertheless, a new life in North America provided Vu with many opportunities which were not available to her in Vietnam:
“I was very lucky — I had a chance at a North American education, which opened my mind and gave me a chance to get over a lot of that backward thinking.”
Regarding her main reason for writing That Summer in Provincetown, Vu explains:
“I wanted to write something for my two daughters…Most of the time, the only thing that interests them about Vietnam is the food. I wanted them to know some of their history — not just of the country I’m from, but of their family and its secrets. I learned those secrets when I was 26, told to me by a cousin, who was told by her mother. My daughters are 16 and 21, and I didn’t want them to find out that way.”