THE NOVEL


The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multigenerational tale of the Trần family, set against the backdrop of the Việt Nam War. Trần Diệu Lan, who was born in 1920, was forced to flee her family farm with her six children during the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the North. Years later in Hà Nội, her young granddaughter, Hương, comes of age as her parents and uncles head off down the Hồ Chí Minh Trail to fight in a conflict - the Vietnam War - that tore not just her beloved country, but her family apart.

The Mountains Sing brings to life the human costs of this conflict from the point of view of the Vietnamese people themselves, while showing us the true power of kindness and hope.

The Mountains Sing is Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s first novel in English.

 

Quế Mai and her mother in the garden of their home in Bạc Liêu where she grew up.
Quế Mai and her mother in the garden of their home in Bạc Liêu where she grew up.

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Quế Mai’s inspiration for The Mountains Sing

In 1983, when I was ten years old, I secretly went to the post office of Bạc Liêu to post a letter to Hà Nội: my essay for a writing competition. When a notice arrived, informing me that I had won a prize, my parents were shocked. They had told me not to become a writer.

Eventually, I had to put aside my writing dreams to do all types of jobs to earn a living and to support my family. But the writer in me always listened to other people in secret, asked what they had gone through and memorized their stories. In my teenage years, I began to travel to the villages of my parents to talk to the elderly, to be able to imagine how life had been for my grandparents, who had either died or been killed. Gradually, thanks to my understanding of Việt Nam’s painful past, my parents and their friends started to share with me the events of their lives.  

Unknown to me, I was carrying out my real-life research for The Mountains Sing, a historical novel which I began to write many years later. It was only by then that I had comprehended the complexity of Việt Nam’s history and its relations to other nations, thanks to my academic research as part of my Masters in Creative Writing at the UK’s Lancaster University. My understanding of our history is further consolidated by my ongoing PhD research, extensive exchanges with Vietnamese and American combat veterans, as well as voluntary work with victims of the war. 

The Mountains Sing begins with the American bombing of Hà Nội in 1972. The force of such bombings pushes the reader back to the root cause of the war via the eyes of Grandma Diệu Lan and Hương, who tell us what happened to them and their family members as Việt Nam experiences the French occupation, the Japanese invasion, and political terror. The novel unearths many atrocities which have rarely been documented in fiction, such as Việt Nam’s Great Hunger and Land Reform, which, together, killed millions of people. But more than wars and terror, The Mountains Sing is about human kindness, compassion, the power of hope, forgiveness, and the value of peace.

The Mountains Sing is my attempt to write back to those Hollywood movies and novels that present our country as a war and Vietnamese people as those who don’t need to speak, and when we do, we appear very simple, naïve, cruel, or opportunistic. With The Mountains Sing, I would like to assert a voice from Việt Nam into the canon of Vietnam War and post-war literature. And instead of having a typical male character, it is time to pay tribute to women and children, who often suffer the most from the consequences of wars, but who must hide their sorrow, to become pillars for returning soldiers.