Saturday, November 21, 2015

Fairy post #15 - Interview with T.D. Luong


Next year, The Australian Fairy Tale Society holds its annual national conference in Victoria!
When: 26th June 2016
Where: Glen Eira Town Hall, Caulfield

A free online course on Hans Christian Andersen is underway at FutureLearn
presented by The Hans Christian Andersen Centre, University of Southern Denmark
It is ok to begin the course late, and move at your own pace.

Storytelling Australia Victoria invites you to celebrate the year’s culmination & launch of monthly ‘Fabled Nights’:
When: 24th November 2015, 6:30pm
Where: Bull and Bear Tavern, 347 Flinders St, Melbourne

Reminder to Vic Fairy Tale Ring of a visit to historic home of Anne Atkins,
Wonderwings Fairy Queen
When: Sunday 22nd Nov 2pm
Where: Fitzroy, Melbourne; for address, contact me or visit Open Gardens
Part 1 of Wonderwings history here

Recommended reading:

“The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales”, edited by Jack Zipes,
Oxford University Press. 
To quote The Folio Society: “A fantastic guide to the world of make-believe. Essential for anyone researching the subject, and fascinating for those with an amateur interest” (Johanna, F.S.)

Available at The Folio Society
“The Wild Girl”, a novel by Kate Forsyth
One of Australia’s leading fantasy authors, with several internationally acclaimed novels under her silken sash.

Available at Booktopia


with Thang Dac Luongauthor of "Refugee Wolf"

Vintage Art


T.D. Luong, an Australian writer with a Vietnamese background, is also a Sydney lawyer, father and member of The Australian Fairy Tale Society. So named because of the controversial Vietnam War that still haunts him, Thang emigrated to Australia after that war ended; ‘Thang’ means ‘Victory’, while ‘Dac’ means to be proud. I was fortunate to meet him at the 2015 Australian Fairy Tale Society conference in the NSW Writers’ Centre, and to receive a copy of his savvy novella, Refugee Wolf

This interview grew from that conversation and subsequent communication.

Thang Dac Luong


L: How do I pronounce your name correctly?

T: Phonetically in English you can say “tongue”, but that is for convenience and is an approximation. 

My late dad who died in 2006 was, above all, a nationalist and gave me my first and middle names because he was proud of the victory against the French in 1954 at the final big battle at Dien Bien Phu. He always said to me, “understand and learn your history”.

There are tone marks on all of my names which means, in Vietnamese, you have to pronounce each word in a certain way. This makes life fun to say the least. As a result, I have many nicknames.

L: You are writing a novel about your late father, Hai Ngoc Luong, a persecuted journalist who fled Vietnam after the end of the Vietnam War in April 1975. Can you tell us more?

T: Dad was born in a village, just outside Hanoi, in 1914. When my parents married, in 1970, dad and mum were 56 and 26 years of age respectively. Dad left me with a bunch of his working papers; some were notes, many were articles written in Vietnamese. He wrote an outline of his life and it is from this source document that I am piecing together that story. The draft book is about loss of homeland and war. It is not a “refugee” story per se because I have set it largely in the pre April 30 1975 period, that is, from 1930-1975. This period of colonialism, insurrection, revolution and war involved most of his political struggles. (30th of April is when South Vietnam fell to the Communists and the war ended).

Dad was a rebel who didn’t get on at all well with various authorities during Vietnam’s long war for independence against the French and Americans, thus spent time in prison in South Vietnam. He had problems with the French, the Vietnamese Communists and eventually, the Southern regime which the Americans supported. He moved in and out, up and down Vietnam because he was being chased by authorities for his political opinions.

He was man of his generation, many of whom studied French during the colonial period. Many of these people were inspired by the French Revolution. French ideas of liberte, egalite and fraternite caused them to ask themselves and the colonialists whether these principles applied to the colonized. Sometimes it did for some, most of the time it didn’t for the majority. The struggle for freedom manifested in his becoming an activist journalist.

L: So how did this situation play into your family's emigration to Australia? Please tell us about your father's choices at that time, and how he reached his decision...

T: There could’ve been less violent courses of action towards independence, but the reality was that Vietnam had many internal civil wars throughout its history. The Cold War largely shaped the direction of the Vietnam War. By the end of it, he realized there was no future for him and us (my mum and two kids). He made up his mind in the last few days of the war to escape by a large cargo boat from Vietnam to Hong Kong, where he claimed political asylum. 

L: Have you been back to visit Vietnam, Thang?

T: Yes, I made a military tour of Vietnam last year. Because my dad never returned to Vietnam, I took his journalist ID card with me everywhere so that his spirit could experience the trip. Dad was a journalist and senior editor of a Saigon newspaper called Saigon Moi (Saigon News).

Thang Dac Luong revisiting Vietnam 2014

Above: Thang Dac Luong at the Hai Van Pass, a road on the way to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) in central Vietnam. He is holding the ID card of his father, journalist Hai Ngoc Luong.

ID card of T.D. Luong's father, Hai Ngoc Luong

Above: Bridge at the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) in central Vietnam, crossing the Ben Hai river, 17th parallel, which in commemoration of the war is painted in two colours: yellow for the Southblue for the North. In the foreground is an ID card picturing Thang's father, Hai Ngoc Luong.

Below: The blue section of the aforementioned bridge. Thang suggests that the colours of the bridge attempt to reconcile the past - not perfectly, but helping to facilitate discussion and understanding about what happened... 

Bridge over the Ben Hai River

L: For how long was your dad imprisoned?

T: Dad never spoke much about his life when I was growing up. My uncle, however, told me my dad spent about 2-3 three years in jail. Dad repeated to me that he was beaten and tortured whilst in his “tiger cage” style prison on Con Dao Island (in South Vietnam), a former French prison where they housed Vietnamese nationalists. I have to do more research on this and hope to visit this prison in that capacity... There were various forms of tiger cages. Some were small, made from bamboo, some were larger holding cells. He was in jail from 1961 to late 1963. 

This was a critical part of Vietnamese history because many were jailed under the regime of South Vietnam’s first president, Ngo Dinh Diem. President Diem was seen by his critics as too authoritarian. The U.S had supported him up to a point in time, then indirectly caused his assassination in a coup in November 1963. U.S President JFK had mismanaged the situation. It was one of America’s worst mistakes.

Upon reflection, Dad could’ve easily died in jail. Many of his activist journalist friends died there. When I was growing up, he suffered terrible nightmares and whimpered during his sleep.

L: That was surely terrible for him to endure - and for you to witness. How old were you when your family arrived here, Thang? 

T: I was four years of age, but still have clear memories of the war. 

Photo courtesy of Jack Setton

L: I’ve read that you were part of the first wave of ‘Boat People’ from Vietnam to Australia. If you recall that perilous journey - or if your parents imparted it to you - can you tell us about it?

T:  I recall being on the back of my uncle’s motor bike and scooting off to the Saigon River to our boat. I remember walking up a steep gang plank and feeling so scared when we boarded the cargo boat – it had over 1000 people on board. I saw dad arguing with a naval officer who had drawn a gun on him. My fiery dad got into a blue with a South Vietnamese naval officer who inspected our boat; the officer drew a gun on him. Days before the city of Saigon fell, I heard the sputtering sound of helicopter blades (the Americans were evacuating). 

Years later, I asked my mum about this. She confirmed my defiant dad was (unbelievably)  arguing with authorities right up to the point of our escape. He could’ve gotten himself killed but luckily as mum said, “Buddha was taking care of all of us”. Ironically, my dad was not a religious person yet he survived war, jail, bombs, terrorism, famine, destitution. My mum is religious and thankful, always. Both had tough lives, so it is a miracle I am alive! I feel very fortunate and remind my kids to think of her grandparents and less fortunate people. I try to give back to the community in my role as a lawyer and support the NSW Cancer Council.

We were the first few hundred Vietnamese families to be settled in Sydney, in June 1975. We were extremely lucky to survive the boat journey. It took about a week for our boat to reach Hong Kong. The original boat we were on was taking in water. The Vietnamese captain sent a Mayday message; luckily a Danish captain from the Clara Maersk cargo ship picked up our distressed call and we were saved. The Danish captain used his ship to ferry all of us to Hong Kong. There was not much food nor water and my uncle was constantly in search of whatever was available. My mum had carried only a small bag with some milk powder, few items of clothing and gold coins. Mum told me she feared for all our lives when we hopped onto the Danish boat because they placed a ladder between the boats and many people scrambled and had to finely balance themselves to get across. She thought she would drop my baby sister as she walked across. A few people lost their balance and fell into the water. A couple of them died.

A refugee boat circa 1970's approaching Australia

L: Becoming a lawyer is a remarkable achievement, even without a challenging start to life. My dad was an immigrant who rose from poverty to gain a scholarship and become a lawyer, but being Welsh he already spoke English fluently, whereas my husband, a Polish immigrant, had to learn it from scratch at the age of ten. From what age were you fluent in English, and which were your most potent sources of learning in childhood? (Books, teachers, other mentors, favourite libraries or radio / television shows, etc?) 

T: Thanks Louisa.  There’s been of a lot of slow persistence.

Sometimes, I feel a bit diminished. I started my university “career” as an architecture student. That was a big failure because I couldn’t draw. Then I studied journalism and the Recession We Had To Have kicked in the early 1990s and it was hard finding jobs after graduating. Despite that, I did work as a freelance journalist before becoming a lawyer. 

Many years later after qualifying to be a lawyer (and after dad died), I started and completed my Masters of Writing. I confess I’m a little over-educated. By the way, I still love architecture and like to balance out my degrees with my aspiration of being a trial by fire handyman! I am building some outdoor furniture…

Seriously though, the irony of my life is that I lost Vietnamese as my first language in 1977 when my parents divorced. It was chaos. I probably became fluent in English by Year 1 or 2. When my parents divorced that was traumatic. I am still piecing together what happened. My dad forbade me to see my mum. We grew up very poor. My sister and I stayed with my dad. Dad took a long time to adjust after the war ended. He did odd jobs for the first 10 years, then started writing (in Vietnamese) again.

I studied Vietnamese for about a year at university. I can write basic Vietnamese and am re-learning the language, even trying to teach it to my kids. Learning one’s language is not only about communication and culture but also identity and history.

As you know the Vietnamese are a resilient bunch. Like all migrants there is an expectation to succeed in the Vietnamese community. Many do, many fall over and get up again, some never get back up at all, a lot didn’t make the boat journey out of Vietnam. I often think of the many who didn’t, which makes me feel helpless. 

As I am writing my book about dad, I reflect on why he named me “Thang”. While it means victory, I can honestly say there have been just as many defeats as wins. I guess, despite the terrible war and many millions dead, he was hopeful that his children would have a freer, better life.

Dad was hospitalized for depression after the divorce. My sister and I spent about 6 months in foster homes. At that time, I felt as if there were a death in the family but didn’t know how to process it. While there were many negative happenings, I tended to blot them out. Emotionally, that was pure survival mode kicking in. But now, I am trying my best to come to terms with scars from the past.

Growing up, I was inspired by my English and French teachers. They were all women, who believed in my abilities and encouraged me to do acting, singing, public speaking and writing. If it weren’t for them, I am not sure what I would’ve become! I can’t blame them for my wanting to study architecture. It was my stubborn decision mainly because of a deeper yearning to realize a home (also to design homes for less fortunate people) given my tumultuous upbringing. I thank and acknowledge my teachers in Refugee Wolf.

In my teens, and despite a chaotic home life, I watched a lot of comedy, even if  – in the 1980s – some it was crass and may not be acceptable today. Comedy has a large palette and can cross the line and can be offensive. The use of the larrikin voice in Refugee Wolf comes from watching programs like The Paul Hogan Show and listening to Rodney Rude, the comedian.

Book-wise, I emotionally connected to The Catcher in Rye during my teenage years. While it is a story of lost innocence, I perhaps thought about it too earnestly. In my late teens, I read John Pilger’s Heroes. That book began to open my eyes about the Vietnam War.

L: Your mum, Linda Dang, must be a strong woman and deserves a lot of credit…Did your mum meet your dad before or after he went to prison in Vietnam? Would you tell us a little about her - and your siblings?

T: I am more appreciative now of my parent’s stories and lives since my dad died in 2006. I am thankful they persisted together under very trying circumstances. My dad wasn’t a saint and not perfect. He was tough, fiery, stubborn but bossy. There was domestic violence, too. There was a long period of time when my dad didn’t allow us to see her. I feel sorry for her. She sacrificed her own life’s ambitions. Had she sought custody of us, my dad would’ve lost the plot and could’ve inflicted terrible violence. I think all the violence he saw made him terribly temperamental and unpredictable. But also there’s the Vietnamese patriarchy, which didn’t always allow women (as it was then) the opportunities that have opened up today.

My mum was and is psychologically strong. She survived and remarried. But there probably isn’t a day when she doesn’t reflect and meditate on her past and the forces that shaped her.

She is the eldest of her siblings. When she was 12 her mum, my grand mum, died from disease. She was a nurse. That had a big impact on her because being a woman in that patriarchal society was hard. There were less opportunities for her. When we escaped Vietnam she was studying law but never finished her studies and didn’t attain any legal qualifications in Australia. But she became a TAFE librarian. When she was 12, she had to be a mum to her younger siblings. Fortunately, a distant relative decided to take care of her and they migrated from North Vietnam to the South in about 1956. At that time, many Vietnamese Catholics migrated to the South, fearing persecution from the Communists. She is a Buddhist and her family moved to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). My dad had migrated from the North as well. My parents met in Saigon after he came out of prison. I’m 44 years old and have a slightly younger sister.

L: What advice do you have for other newcomers growing up in Australia?

T: Aim high. Never give up. Back yourself. Study and work hard. Give back to society. Learn and listen to people’s stories. Be kind to yourself and others. It is okay having more than one identity. Love Australia.

Australian coastal forest, photo by Louisa

L: How do you envisage your forthcoming novel (about your dad) might differ in style from your novella Refugee Wolf?

T: Good question Louisa! I have been researching the Vietnam War and have travelled to Vietnam and undertaken some military history tours. I have spoken to Vietnamese refugees and people with military backgrounds. The book is being re-written; its structure is very different from what I first imagined it to be. I have read books like The Quiet American, The Sorrow of War, Last Night I Dreamed Of Peace, Dispatches, A Street Without Joy, The Sacred Willow, The Village, Revolution In The Village, Triumph Forsaken, The Birth Of Vietnamese Political Journalism, The Lover, There To The Bitter End, Ghosts Of War in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, Even The Women Must Fight, Vietnam, An Australian War. I am constantly double checking details.

While the draft story was originally biographical, its pendulum swung to fiction. But the story’s pendulum is now swinging toward the middle, thus will combine elements of biography and fiction. I can’t away give too much about the physical structure, but can say it is tighter. I don’t want it to be epic. I’m aiming  to give the story a unique, compelling structure. I will refer to Vietnamese folktales or possibly segue into a Vietnamese version of “Hansel and Gretel” because the French were constantly ambushed in the deep Vietnamese northern jungles.

I forgot to mention other great books I’ve read like All Quiet On The Western Front and Gone With The Wind, and a lesser known but brilliant verse novella, Memory For Forgetfulness. And I forgot to mention – not a war book – but a novel by Kien Nguyen called The Tapestries, a story about a tapestry maker in the imperial court. Of course you’re asking, what about War and Peace? Well, I will get to it! I actually got sick whilst reading Gone With The Wind because I read half of it (about 700 words) in one day during a cold winter. But it was worth it. Scarlett O’Hara is a character in conflict and that’s why she’s so compelling.

L: Now for a question that will seem simple for some readers, the internet being a broad platform: what is the difference between a “refugee” and an “asylum seeker”?

T: As I alluded to in my “Author’s Note” section of Refugee Wolf, the Refugee Convention defines who is a refugee. Generally speaking an asylum seeker is someone who has been persecuted for a certain reason but their application is in the process of being decided. Once it is approved, based on whatever legal definition or otherwise that is applicable, then they will be recognized as a refugee. There’s confusion sometimes as to people’s status.

But the definition, like any legal definition, has conditions which need to be satisfied. In a technical and legal sense if you don’t meet the conditions you may not be a refugee. Under the Convention, you must explain your persecution resulted from your race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. This is not to say that other definitions under any other legislation or government policy are excluded from this threshold test. There could be other humanitarian grounds that could affect your status. 

L: It’s great that you thank several of your teachers by name (page 33). How did they encourage your writing?

T: My year 8 and 9 English teacher, Ms (Debbie) Fennell was a disciplinarian. If your homework wasn’t done, you’d be on detention. So the stick and carrot approach can work. The carrot was high marks. It worked for me! Also, she would make all of us – regardless if we were shy or not – do impromptu speaking. It scared the hell out of me. She was also my history teacher and we used to perform historical re-enactments, e.g. the Eureka Stockade. I used to be the frantic script writer and somehow marshalled my mates to rehearse at lunch times. It was fun. My French teacher Mrs (Hilary) Dixon made us write out our dialogues and then perform them. She would always encourage me by saying, “bon courage”. That helped me with my confidence. I realized the act of writing, public speaking and performance were all facets of the same creative process. I did a lot of that by instinct. I was a terrible, melodramatic actor! Lastly, my year 11 and 12 English teacher Mrs (Rhonda) Morgan always supported my writing – whatever form it took. I didn’t do a lot of creative writing but I wrote quite a lot of essays and she said things like, “I can imagine you being a writer or someone like that one day”. 

Despite being inspired by them, I decided to become, instead, an architect!

L: How does your satirical novella address the theme of belonging?

T: Refugee Wolf, as you acknowledged, is about inclusion and exclusion. Sometimes we have to give up a part of ourselves to belong. We shouldn’t always have to, but many of us do for different yet conflicted reasons. You may not have picked up on this, but the farting in Refugee Wolf symbolizes the heat of the continual debate on refugees. The heat of the debate rises and falls and comes again and again but without resolution. In addition, the fangs of the wolf being potentially pulled out by the pigs represent him losing his larrikin spirt and identity which is what migrants struggle with. In terms of the power balance in Refugee Wolf, the story is inverted because the larrikin “Aussie” wolf is being hunted down and his refugee application is denied by the pigs. The larrikin wolf represents those in the real world who are a part of the dominant class but in the story he is now an outsider.

Wolf in Bestiary, England circa 1200-1210

My lecturer said the story is a savage critique of society. I tend to agree, the worldview in it is bleak but the suggestion is that if we overconsume, then we can’t possibly be thinking about anyone other than ourselves, let alone asylum seekers.

L: Anything else you’d like to share here? 

T: I don’t know when the re-written manuscript will be finished. I was inspired by Richard Flanagan’s Booker Prize win last year for The Narrow Road To The Deep North, another great war book to read. More importantly, I saw him at the Sydney Writer’s Festival and he talked about the essence of his book being about love - the love and the redeeming qualities of a father figure who was flawed but nevertheless was a father. Since 2006 when he died, that’s how I’ve always approached my dad’s story. 

Review of Refugee Wolf by Louisa John-Krol

More info about the writing of Thang Dac Luong here

Video of T.D. Luong reading from his book

"Refugee Wolf" by T.D. Luong

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