Peter Cornish talks turkey with Jill-of-all-trades Dana McNairn about her new book. Photos by Romain Garrigue.
Dana McNairn used to work in advertising, writing copy for advertising agencies, before branching out into the world of journalism. Her writing took her to Africa where she researched women and the impact of war, an experience that would change her life direction.
She spent the last 12 years working in the development sector, in Canada volunteering for human rights and gender-based organisations, before arriving in Vietnam in 2009. Based in Ho Chi Minh City, Dana continued this path, immersing herself in the exciting dynamics of working with organisations who are developing the country, building communities, observing the environment and finding opportunities for the many challenges and needs the country faces.
As a senior level developer, Dana’s roles included working on shelter, water and sanitation programmes for international non-governmental organisations, designing disaster emergency response initiatives and analysing micro-finance and literacy programmes for organisations operating countrywide.
More recently, Dana was a member of the Senior Country Leadership Team for KOTO, the first organisation to be awarded social enterprise status by the Vietnamese government, before taking the role of CEO and providing strategic direction, planning and financial management. The organisation provides training and job opportunities for at risk and marginalised youth, with more than 150 youths participating in the programme at any given time, Dana said.
Throughout her career in the social development sector, Dana has worked on gender based projects, advocating inclusiveness for all and consulting on gender transformative programmes in both the public and private sectors. Working hand-in-hand with local authorities, disenfranchised communities and organisational staff, she told me of the creativity and opportunity to affect positive change through addressing gaps in regulations and responding to happenings in gender-based environments.
Dana has once again turned her attention to writing, touching on some of Vietnam’s developmental issues she encountered in her previous roles. Her short book, A Vietnam Salmagundi, shares some of her early observations of her time here, vignettes of life in Vietnam and interactions with the locals through the eyes of an outsider.
Dana explained the book is neither a travel guide nor a memoir, and is careful to point out there is no reference to politics or local and cultural affairs. It’s simply a communication tool to record the rapid change she’s witnessed while living and working in the country, a tinge of things that seem to have gone but without painting a nostalgic trip to the past. Leafing through the pages we dip into the excitement of seeing Saigon through fresh eyes once again. Trips to tranquil, green oases hidden off the beaten path, the robust and inviting food and drink on offer at roadside stalls, and everywhere the wrangling dangling of overhead cables, swaying gently like oversized black hammocks.
Through the book we experience warm interactions with complete strangers. The sweet hospitality of a shared sugar cane juice, a shrimp welcoming the dragon as an honoured guest, children’s laughter as they skip happily to school, and the momentary spells broken by the pandemonium of Ho Chi Minh’s traffic.
Fireworks explode overhead as dancing dragons weave through the crowds, banishing ghosts and evil spirits as a Lunar New Year is welcomed. The book explores alleyways teeming with life, and introduces us to some of the characters that live and work in them. The book is an analogy, a celebration of the spirit of Vietnam’s men, women and children, to be freely interpreted as we would any other artist or musician’s work.
Printed in Vietnamese and English, the book is a home-made, hand-made project. Volumes two and three will follow in the coming year as Dana continues to compile a mountain of experience with the help of friends and colleagues. A great stocking filler for Christmas.