In a country full of stories, expat writers are trying to bring contemporary Vietnam to a wider audience. By Dana Filek-Gibson. Photo by Vinh Dao.
Sit down at a local coffee stand and you can hear a thousand stories in the space of an afternoon. From coffee vendors to xe om drivers, businesswomen to students to the old man invariably chain-smoking in the corner of every cafe, Vietnam is a country of stories. Readers in search of literary proof need look no further than Graham Greene and the canon of war-era fiction that floods most backpacker bookshops today.
But while Vietnam has long been a wellspring of inspiration for local and expat writers alike, today’s stories are seldom found on bookshelves or in literary journals. Works of contemporary fiction rarely, if ever, make it to the printed page and for those who write about Vietnam, convincing publishers of the value in these stories can be an uphill battle.
For David Joiner, author of
the forthcoming Lotusland, it
took years to convince someone that his was a story worth reading. An on-and-off resident since the mid-90s, Joiner completed his novel in 2005 after several stays in Vietnam. Though he’d had literary representation in the past and, at one point, nearly landed a book deal on a previous story set along the Mekong, persuading a North American publisher to take on his novel was no easy feat. By Joiner’s estimate, he contacted over 60 literary agents and queried roughly 30 independent publishers before receiving a ‘yes’ from Canadian outfit Guernica Editions. When his book finally hits shelves in March 2015, there will be a decade between the time Joiner began his original manuscript and the novel’s actual release date.
“It’s a really weird time in publishing,” Joiner says. “I consider myself very fortunate, but I really think that the most important thing for just about any writer is to persevere. Perseverance is more than 90 percent of the whole thing.”
In Joiner’s case, enduring the wait was a large part of the road to publication. However for Erik Johnson, an American expat, seeking out a traditional publisher seemed futile, given North America’s oversaturated market. Part-time teacher, part-time magazine editor, Johnson penned his first novel, Empty Orchestra, shortly before coming to Vietnam. Using Amazon’s online platform, he released the e-book in 2012. Though it’s only sold a few copies, Johnson feels as though his move to Vietnam was a fortuitous one, as it may provide him with new outlets for his work.
“There’s kind of a myth in publishing circles that if your material is good then you will get published and that’s not necessarily true,” Johnson says. “[American] publishers are looking for the next Harry Potter, the next 50 Shades of Grey. [Vietnam] is kind of like the Wild West but without guns. It’s undeveloped. You have to get in early and so I might just be at the right place at the right time.”
While Joiner spent years finding a publisher abroad, Johnson has partnered up with local author Kim Ngan, who has two books under her belt, in order to translate Empty Orchestra into Vietnamese. The book, which Johnson describes as a story about love, karaoke and the American Dream, just might be of interest to Vietnamese readers. When the entire novel is translated, the two plan on shopping it around to Vietnamese publishers, who Johnson hopes will be more receptive to new and different material.
Indeed, finding a way in can be the hardest part. While breaking into the publishing industry is a challenge for any author, expat writers – particularly expats writing about contemporary Vietnam – face the added obstacle of overcoming the Western world’s sometimes narrow definition of the country. When it comes to stories about Vietnam, North American publishers are hesitant to print anything that moves beyond the war.
“Publishers seem to be interested in books about the Vietnam War still,” says Joiner. “If you’re Vietnamese-American or if you’re a veteran, there’s still a market for memoirs, but novels that are set in contemporary Vietnam? People don’t know how to market them. There hasn’t been a really successful book out there that’s had nothing to do with the war.”
It doesn’t help that, while there is a small group of enthusiastic writers seeking to bring attention to Vietnam-related stories around the world, expat authors in Vietnam are hard to track down. Once a month at District 1’s Geisha Cafe, members of the Saigon Writers Group get together to read, discuss and workshop their writing. However, even at the best of times, founder John Helden says that the turnout is not as big as he’d like it to be.
“I’m not really sure what that’s about, to be quite honest,” says Helden, who began the group in 2010. Though he’s had a small contingent of dedicated regulars, many people come once or twice and then disappear. Newcomers are always welcome, but Helden worries that perhaps the thought of offering up your own work for public critique keeps people away.
Still, while Saigon’s expat literary scene remains very much in its infancy, the general consensus is that the city provides plenty of raw material. Johnson, who is currently working on a science fiction novel, has found a wealth of creative energy he didn’t know he had.
“Since I’ve gotten here, I’ve just exploded,” Johnson says. “I’ll write 500 words a day for 40 days and I’ll take 40 days off. I’m working on a science fiction novel right now and it’s great because I can look out my window and I can see the future. It’s very inspirational.”