An interview with Chris Galvin Nguyen – author of the forthcoming memoir non-fiction book Breakfast Under the Boddhi Tree.
You can read her work here:
Seasons of the Lake in The Winnipeg Review.
The City We Share by Shoreline Press.
Crows’ Flight in Room Magazine’s summer 2011 issue #34.2.
1: You’re currently working on a book about your experiences in Viet Nam and also have creative non-fiction articles published about Viet Nam and the area of Montreal where you live. Certain places as well as people and animals really stand out in your writing.
I’m curious about the book, your relationship with Viet Nam and your home city. Did you grow up in Montreal?
Yes, in and around Montreal.
2: What would you say are the best and worst things about Montreal?
The things I like best are the sense of history, and the international flavour, culturally, gastronomically and even architecturally.
The worst thing, hands down, is the winter. It can get down to -30° C or so. For me, it’s already too cold when the mercury falls below 20° C, which is most of the year.
3: Can you tell us what your current book is about?
It’s a mix of memoir, travel, cultural and culinary essays about Viet Nam. (More about the book below.)
4: What made you move to Viet Nam?
A combination of things. It was time for a change. I love to travel and learn new things. I had spent three months there as a traveler, and loved the landscapes, the food, and the history. I made a lot of connections, too. I had to go back.
5: What was the best and what was the most difficult about living outside of your own country?
Do I have to name just one best thing?. Perhaps, the ongoing exposure to other ways of thinking and doing things.
Most difficult? I suppose if I’d had a medical emergency, I would have picked that. Luckily, it was never an issue. My personal most difficult thing about living in Hue is the cold, rainy winter weather, with no heating. If I’d known ahead of time, I might have settled in one of the southern provinces. All the same, Hue is my second home, and I love it.
6: What made you write a book about Viet Nam?
I always keep a journal, and when I first went to Viet Nam, I regularly sent out email updates to close friends and family, often using my journal entries as outlines for the emails. I started getting requests from friends of friends to add their names to my mailing list. When I realized that people were actually enjoying and sharing what I wrote, I put more effort into what I was producing.
The biggest challenge at the time was the internet system in Viet Nam. Even trying to save a draft could be risky. I quickly learned to forget about editing, try to copy the text every few minutes, and apologize for the typos. Even clicking “send” could result in losing what I’d been working on, so I’d re-open my email, paste in what I had copied, and try again.
When I returned to Viet Nam the second time, I picked up writing where I’d left off. The result was a series of related essays, all badly in need of editing, and I started to think that I should try to put them all together. There were also some factual errors and misconceptions to correct; as a traveler, I sometimes thought I had understood some event, or something someone said or did, and wrote about it, only to later discover that I had been completely wrong.
The idea of the book continued to develop, but passively. Then I was asked to write an essay in Vietnamese for Dac San Van Lang, a publication celebrating the ten year anniversary of a Vietnamese cultural organization in Boston. After it appeared in print, I thought it would be the perfect introductory essay for my book, and got to work translating it into English, which was much more difficult than I expected. That essay has since morphed and grown, as have most of the others.
8: Why were the notes so difficult to translate to English?
When I wrote the requested essay for the Vietnamese magazine, I wrote it from scratch, in Vietnamese. It wasn’t based on any of my notes in my journals. I chose to write it in Vietnamese because I figured that if I wrote in English first, I’d have trouble translating it, so better to do all the thinking and work in the target language in the first place.
Then, later, I decided to translate it into English so I could share it with others, include it in the book, and submit it to travel and lit mags. I thought it would be easy to translate from what I wrote in Vietnamese, because I was the author; I knew exactly what I meant when I wrote each word, and English is my mother tongue. I was surprised at how challenging it was. There were terms and concepts that had not needed any explanation in Vietnamese, and even the style of writing had to be altered somewhat, to sound good in English.
9: What is the background for the title, Breakfast Under the Boddhi Tree?
A few years ago, I had just finished eating my breakfast in my favourite spot, and was in the middle of an email to a friend. I wrote that I was returning to Montreal for a few months, and that I would miss breakfast under the boddhi tree. I looked at what I had just written, and knew I had my title. It’s also the title of one of the essays in the book.
10: What are your future plans for the book? Will you self-publish it or query with a publisher?
That’s a great question, Berit! I haven’t decided yet. I’m asking other writers for their opinions and experiences on the topic. Each side has its pros and cons, and I’m still weighing them all. The book is still in the final editing stages, but I’ll have to decide soon.
11: You also write fiction. Would you say that’s strictly realistic fiction or are you also moving into speculative or surreal territory? What are some of the subjects you have covered in your fiction writing?
I write what comes to me. When it’s fiction, it most often (though not always) seems to have speculative or surreal aspects, and I’d say it’s always been that way. I write poetry too, but it tends to be more realistic, probably because it’s mostly non-fiction, growing out of observations of what’s happening around me in the moment.
12: You’re also a foodie and cook advanced dishes from several different cultures, as well as classical French cuisine. How did the interest in cooking start? How does this knowledge influence your writing?
Well, I’m not so sure how advanced the dishes I cook are! I was born loving food. When I was little, my parents told everyone my first word was “hungy” (not a typo). They always enjoyed trying out new foods, recipes and restaurants, and I was a willing laboratory mouse for all their experimentation. I still have fond childhood memories of specific menu items and events at specific restaurants.
Food is one of my favourite topics, so it’s easy for me to write about it, and it’s also a great medium through which to learn about other cultures. Food has played a major role in my experience of Viet Nam, so it has quite naturally worked its way into many of the essays in my book. It shows up less in my fictional writing, but it’s there.
13: What is the next country you would like to visit?
So many countries, so little time! My answer to this question changes according to what I am reading, what I’m eating, and with whom I’m chatting. If I could leave tomorrow, I’d be choosing between Laos (to see the country), and France, Germany or Ghana (to visit friends).
14: If you could be one character in world literature, who would that be?
I’d like to be Winnie the Pooh in Benjamin Hoff’s The Tao of Pooh. I’d like to have his talent for wei wu wei (action without action, or effortless action). He is in harmony with his surroundings; he acts and reacts effortlessly without getting mired in thought and indecision.
The result of wu wei is getting out of your own way. I want to live and to write in a state of wu wei, but I often get in my own way. Better to go with the flow.