How much of the story is historically accurate?
Many of the characters are fictional, and some are based on real people. For instance, Viet was and is a rebellious character who was arrested in the black market as a young teenager. The brainwashing, labor and torture in the reeducation camp were confirmed many times by the refugees I interviewed, and also by human rights organizations. I tried to confirm dates, street names, locations and events with historical documents and maps, but some details may not be completely accurate. Many of the stories Viet told me, such as the account of the abduction of his priest, were confirmed in the reports of human rights organizations.
Tell us about the writing process.
The bulk of the writing was done from 1989-1992. This is when I wove all the stories into a structure that was readable and made sense. Writing in the first person as a Vietnamese teenager was the greatest challenge and the greatest reward. Each chapter would start with a theme like The Wastelands or The Arrest, and there would be several stories within the themes. I would outline the story, and then I would have to become Viet to gain his perspective within the story. The best parts of the novel are when I became Viet in my dreams at night and would wake up abruptly to write it down.
What do you think about communism?
I am against anyone with power who intentionally suppresses other people. It should be our mission as humans to elevate the existence of all life. We should all be working to advance the goodness of our collective spirit.
I think Karl Marx, the most prominent author of communist ideology, wanted a positive outcome for people. But I believe much of his thinking was flawed, and his philosophy was incomplete. As has happened to many big thinkers and great leaders, his ideology was captured by criminals and used to create power for themselves. When this kind of ideological power is centralized and omnipotent leadership is created, the masses suffer: millions are persecuted, tortured and killed. I’m an optimist, and for the most part, I think people are good. Could it be that bad people try harder to control the good? Are the good ones too optimistic, or complacent, until it’s too late? It has been fascinating to consider how this phenomenon played out with Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and several less well-known examples—including some current leaders, corporations and religions.