An Interview with Viet Nguyen
How much of the novel would you say is about you?
Nearly all of it, but what happened to me happened to a lot of other people too, including people who weren’t in prison. Part of who I am is my mum and dad, who both grew up in the North and escaped to the South when the country divided after the Second World War. My mum lost everything then. We lived in a society that was very open to other people—we all lived a lot of the time outside, everyone knew what was going on in everyone else’s family, and you couldn’t have secrets.
I grew up listening to my father tell the story of his life under communism in North Vietnam before he escaped to the South in 1954. If they wanted to cook chicken, which they could only get on the black market, they had to wait until night and could only boil it because if they fried or roasted it the neighbors would smell it and tell the authorities. That story stayed with me and I grew up with that view of communism. But the community where I grew up in the South didn’t know what communism was like until 1975. My mum and dad were a threat to communism, but the authorities couldn’t do anything so they used me as an example, as a guarantor, so if my parents stepped out of line they would kill me. So the novel is also about my parents and about anyone who lives under a suppressive regime.
What happened after you were picked up in the South China Sea?
My understanding is the tanker that picked us up was British and had a British captain, but was registered in Bermuda. They took us to Singapore, where we stayed for four months. The rule was that boat people went to the country where the boat was registered, but Bermuda did not want seven single men. So Bermuda made a deal with England that a family of seven that should have gone to England would go to Bermuda and the seven of us went to England instead. The rest of the people on the boat I escaped on all had relatives in other countries like Australia, US or Germany, so they went where their relatives lived.
I and three others who escaped with me still meet up with the captain and his wife from time to time. Not only did he rescue the four of us, but we all have families and children of our own now who wouldn’t exist if he didn’t help us.