Podcast of interview on “Ask a Leader,” KUCI 88.9 FM, Irvine, California (Dennis Dunivan’s interview is the second in the podcast)
San Diego Union Tribune
A Novel Look at Freedom
By John Wilkens NOON OCT. 12, 2013
“Escape From Communist Heaven” is a young-adult novel by Dennis Dunivan, a former San Diegan who lives in Colorado. The book is based on the life of Viet Nguyen, who fled a prison camp in Vietnam as a teenager and made it to England.
Dunivan will be speaking to history classes at Morse High on Tuesday and at The Yellow Brick Road bookstore at Liberty Station Wednesday at 7 p.m.
Q: Where did you meet Viet Nguyen?
A: We met in London in about 1988. I was there on a work permit after journalism school. I worked in a bar for about six months, just bartending and doing the backpack thing around Europe. My work permit expired and Viet took my job. I was training him and he started telling me stories about his life and escaping from a communist prison camp and I thought, wow, this would be a great story to write.
Q: What was it about the story that resonated with you?
A: I think at that time in my life I was very interested in freedom and the differences between America and other countries. The fact that he was 14 or 15 years old and put in a prison camp and basically didn’t have any freedoms was a pretty strong contrast to my life growing up in the U.S. and the Midwest. Just really interesting.
Q: Did you start writing the story then?
A: I was going to travel around Europe. I was in Greece, hanging out at the beach, and I was bored with the early 20s party scene in Greece and thought about something meaningful to do. I called Viet and said, “Are you serious that you want me to write this story?” And he said, “Yeah, come back.” So I went back and I lived with him and his family for several months and started writing down all of the stories he could tell me. I also interviewed 25 or 30 other refugees and wove the story together.
Q: This book is geared for the young-adult (age 14 and up) audience. What questions do you want it to raise in the reader’s mind?
A: On this book tour, I’m meeting with several high school classrooms from San Diego to Orange County to San Jose. What we’re doing is, we’ll review the Bill of Rights and the freedoms that we have in this country. We’re going to contrast these not only with Vietnam, but also with what’s going on today in Syria and North Korea and hopefully help people understand that we have rights in this country that other people don’t have. I think we’ve lost our appreciation of that a little bit.
The second thing I hope is that people will take the next step of thinking about how we can help those in other parts of the world with human rights in general.
Q: Why do you think we’ve lost some of our appreciation for our rights?
A: Some of it has to do with social media. I’ll probably sound old here, but we’re willing to give up our right to privacy by just kind of putting everything out there. And look at issues that came up after 9/11. Are we now willing to trade our freedom and our liberty for security? I’m not taking a side on this issue, but it’s something we are definitely dealing with.
Q: The Vietnam War was not popular here when it was fought, and it’s not something people like to talk about even now. Do you think we have a responsibility as Americans to hear stories like the ones you share in your book?
A: I think we’re getting there and I think that’s why the novel was not published earlier. We wanted to forget about the war. It’s also interesting that the Vietnamese refugees who came over here, they are a proud people. They didn’t want to ask for a handout from America. So they don’t tell the story to their kids. Now the grandkids are asking the questions. What happened? Why are we here? We’re getting over the pain a bit and it’s becoming more about the history.
Q: What are you saying about communism in the title?
A: Viet actually titled the book, and in the story of his life it came up several times. The re-education camps, there was a lot of brainwashing to get people to believe in communism. Their dream was for the whole world to become socialists. So one of the things they would say is, “When we’ve conquered the world, we will have reached communist heaven.” And he had to escape from that.
Q: It’s an interesting play on words. Why would you want to escape from heaven?
A: Right. It can be a little touchy. I was talking to some Vietnamese who were offended by the title. They heard the “Communist Heaven” part, not the “Escape From” part. They were taken aback. “What are you, some kind of communist?”
Q: They thought you were promoting communism.
Q: Is Viet touring with you?
A: He’s not. That was the original plan and we’re both very disappointed. His visa, it’s harder to get into our country right now. His visa is held up and he’s not going to make it in time. We considered delaying but we had so many things set up we decided to continue. Hopefully he can come in the spring.
Q: So much for his freedom, huh?
A: (Laughter) I don’t want to go there, but obviously I had those thoughts. It’s really an irony that the whole thing is about freedom. But the interesting thing is, after thinking through this, we have freedom in our country as Americans, but other people in the world do not. They aren’t under the same constitution and they don’t have the same rights. So it’s an interesting thing to think about and what it comes back to is we’re pretty lucky folks to be here.
Dennis W. Dunivan Talks About Writing the Book and Some of its Major Themes
What inspired you to write Escape from Communist Heaven?
I met Viet in London when we were both in our early twenties. He was the most interesting character I had ever met. We became friends and learned we both had strong tendencies to rebel against authority. He told me how he had escaped from a communist prison camp in Vietnam, and narrowly averted death at the age of fourteen. Compared to my upbringing in rural America, this was an incredible story. The timing was great because I had just graduated from journalism school, and I was looking for something to write about. At first, I wasn’t interested in the philosophical differences between capitalism and communism, but as I learned how his captors used ideology to justify suppression and torture, it made me want to gain a better understanding of this practice. What I soon realized is this type of thing occurs all over the world at different levels. The interesting question is where our societies draw the line in terms of personal freedom.
Why should someone read this book?
Because it’s entertaining. The book’s number one goal is to entertain. If it fails at this, the reader will stop paying attention to the story. Viet is a strong character, and the situations he finds himself in are dangerous, uncertain and outside what most of us could ever imagine. If the reader is inspired to think more about personal freedom and human rights, if discussions happen around questions the story raises, and if these discussions turn into positive action, maybe we can move beyond the greed and desire for power that causes people to suffer.
What kind of research did you need to do?
I lived with Viet and several other Vietnamese refugees in a government housing project on London’s East End. Most of the story comes from the events and descriptions of life in post-war Saigon that Viet told me about. I also interviewed other Vietnamese refugees and wove many of their stories into the novel. Because there was so little public information about what happened in Vietnam after the war, I relied mostly on Viet and his friends. Years were also spent in the library learning about socialism and communism and finding reports from human rights organizations that were doing work in Vietnam. After more than a decade of rejection letters from publishers, I travelled to Vietnam and did the best I could to retrace Viet’s footsteps through Saigon. I also hired a fishing boat and floated through the Mekong Delta and into the South China Sea. This experience inspired me to revise the manuscript with more feel for the people and the landscape of the country.