Title: The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Book Beginnings quote:
My grandmother used to tell me that when our ancestors die, they don't just disappear, they continue to watch over us.
As Grandma turned into a professional con buôn (trafficker), the Old Quarter became the maze of her secret operations.
The Mountains Sing tells an enveloping, multi-generational 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 that tore apart not just her beloved country, but also her family.
Vivid, gripping, and steeped in the language and traditions of Việt Nam, 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. (Publisher)
Review: The Mountains Sing was one of five audiobooks my husband and I listened to on our recent road trip and it's a book club selection for next month. After digesting five recorded books in two weeks it was natural for us to compare and rank them. Both Don and I claimed The Mountains Sing as our favorite of the bunch. Why? Don said he not only enjoyed the family saga in its historical context but he also learned so much about the Vietnamese culture and its tragic 20th Century history of occupation by the Japanese, the French, and finally by the USA. I appreciated how the story sheds a light on the Vietnam War from the vantage point of Vietnamese females rather than from an American point of view. How conceited of us to think the Vietnam War was about us.
Don also commented about how important it is for us to read about other cultures and languages without expecting English-sounding names and places. You notice in the quotes above that the grandmother was a 'con buôn' but I had to look up that the phrase means a 'trafficker' in Vietnamese. She dealt in black market items and would trade and barter to make a living. The Mountains Sing is a story of three women in the Trần family: the grandmother, Diệu Lan; her eldest daughter, Ngọc; and the granddaughter, Hương. Notice a few things here -- the surname comes first in Vietnamese and the extra notations on the letters assist with pronunciation which is very important with a tonal language. I think American readers (listeners) need to sit with their discomfort in not knowing exactly how to pronounce names of people in other countries rather than dismiss them out of hand or expect writers to undo aspects of their language due to colonization. One reader described her reading experience with The Mountains Sing as "learning about Vietnam's history was a side effect of living it through the book."
Hương lives with her grandmother when the rest of the family goes off to support the war effort. Her grandmother is able to buy/barter for books so Hương can read something other than the propaganda students get at school. Through these books she starts to learn about the world beyond her borders and eventually comes to understand that not all Americans are the monsters who are killing her people and fighting against them.
I love this quote: "Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other and see the light of cultures, there would be no war on earth."
This captures the overarching goal of the book -- to make sure we
have opportunities to read about each other, to see the goodness in other
cultures, to stop thinking we are the best. Through this book we are
able to see that all cultures, though different than our own, have value
and beauty and are worthy of being appreciated without changing to fit within our comfort zone.
Author, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, earned Masters and PhD degrees so she could write The Mountains Sing in English. She wanted to fully present an inside-out view of her country and culture. Quế Mai had already published eight books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction in Vietnamese. It was time to share what she knew with the rest of the world. Quế Mai took seven years to write The Mountains Sing and she interviewed over 100 people collecting their stories. She wanted to write in English to decolonize literature about Vietnam and also correct misrepresentations of Vietnamese women in existing literature. The Mountains Sing won numerous literary prizes including being runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in 2021, recognized for its excellence as an anti-war novel. Another aspect the author wanted to share with the world is the way Vietnamese proverbs are incorporated into daily life. For example, when Hương is frustrated by some aspect of life, her grandmother shares a proverb, "Good luck hides inside bad luck." In an interview Quế Mai shared that translating these proverbs was very difficult and time-consuming because she not only wanted to convey the correct message, but also the beauty of the language, the poetry within them.
When asked what kind of response she has received from readers, Quế Mai said that once a book is published it is never really finished. It is like planting a tree but the readers are the ones who plant the garden around the tree and tend it and make it into something beautiful. She is gratified by what these readers have shared with her. Among the respondents are Americans who fought in the Vietnam war who said they never got the chance to know the Vietnamese people at all, they were just the faceless enemy. These former soldiers appreciated knowing the truth about the Vietnamese people and their culture.
Another reviewer summed up her review of The Mountains Sing with these words -- "Wow. Wow. Just wow!" I think that sums up how I feel about the book and I hope these three "wows" are enough to encourage you to read it as well.
As I said in my introduction, my husband and I listened to the audio version of The Mountains Sing. It was expertly narrated by Quyen Gno. Hearing her narration brought the language alive for our ears and I would recommend this format to you also. In order to learn a bit more about the author, I visited her webpage which has a pronunciation guide for her name and a 45-minute interview with the author. The portion I listened to was very enlightening and helpful. Here is a link to her website. Even if you listen to the first ten minutes of the interview you will be richly rewarded.