A Singaporean writer is inspired by her Vietnamese husband’s family to pen a story on war wounds and survival.
MARRIED into a Vietnamese family whose members rarely speak about life during the Vietnam War and its aftermath, Singaporean writer Audrey Chin began work more than 15 years ago on a story that would fill in their silences.
As The Heart Bones Break follows a Vietnamese aerospace engineer who survives the strife in his country during the 1960s and 1970s, and emigrates to America, yet maintains an unsettling connection to the family and politics he left back home.
The 364-page book was published in November by Marshall Cavendish, with an initial print run of 2,000 copies for markets in Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, Cambodia and Myanmar. The book will be launched next month in Britain and Europe, says a spokesman for the publisher.
Chin’s literary agent is shopping around a revised version of the novel for the American market.
The main difference is that the version published here is told in the second person, but the author was advised by early readers in the United States to rewrite it in the first person instead.
“If you think about it, in Vietnamese, it couldn’t have been written with an (I),” says Chin, 56, perched on a wooden chair in her home in the western part of Singapore.
“In Vietnamese, a novel peppered with ‘I’ would be unbearably arrogant.”
A self-described “daughter-in-law of the Vietnamese diaspora”, Chin speaks English, Cantonese, Malay and Mandarin, thanks to her part-Cantonese, part-Peranakan heritage.
She also picked up Vietnamese during 30 years of marriage to engineer Min Hua, whom she met when she was volunteering in a Marsiling camp for boat people before he moved to the US.
They courted as she did her doctorate at the Rand Graduate School of Public Policy (she also read law at Manchester University and did a Master’s in public policy from Oxford) and now have two sons and a daughter, aged 15 to 28.
She declines to give more details about her family or whether they have read the novel, but does say she had toyed on and off with the idea of writing a book based on her husband’s life, for her children to understand more about that part of their heritage.
“I began by writing down the stories he told me of his childhood about 15 years ago. Sometime in early 2000, I thought I might turn the stories into a novel. The effort soon ran out of steam since my husband hadn’t really led a very interesting life,” she says.
In her other life, Chin is a high-profile financier, who is, among other appointments, chairman of the board of property fund management vehicle Keppel Reit and an independent director on the board of NTUC Income.
The eldest of five children born to two doctors, she studied at the Convent Of The Holy Infant Jesus in Victoria Street, Singapore, and then Raffles Institution, spending her after-school hours in a bookstore run by her aunt at Stamford Road.
She began writing short stories in 1996, to relieve the stress at work caused by the financial crisis at the time.
A friend introduced her to publisher Goh Eck Kheng of Landmark Books, who brought out her debut novel, Learning To Fly, in 1999.
A coming-of-age tale about a Singaporean girl who falls in love with an Australian professor, it was shortlisted for the Dymocks Singapore Literature Prize organised by bookseller Dymocks in 2000, but lost to the late Rex Shelley’s drama about four generations of a Eurasian family, A River Of Roses.
“Learning To Fly isn’t anything like me, but Nina is,” says Chin, referring to the wife of the protagonist Thong in As The Heart Bones Break.
It is Nina’s desire to know more about her elusive husband that propels the story forward, against Thong’s own desire to shut away his past.
It is a tendency Chin has encountered among her own relatives by marriage, who experienced the conflict between the Viet Cong and American forces, and the South Vietnamese government.
“People don’t talk about it. They won’t talk about it, you have to deduce a story from the silence.”
Research included reading books of Vietnamese fiction, history and war commentaries and, of course, “eavesdropping for 30-plus years on my in-laws, the overseas Vietnamese I live among, as well as my husband and his family in Vietnam”.
She was especially struck by something her grand-nephew said about his father, who had been in a “re-education camp”, one of the many government-run prison camps operated in Vietnam after US forces pulled out.
The purpose of these camps was to punish the officers and the elite of the former government, and to indoctrinate them in the ways of the new regime.
“My grand-nephew said of his father: ‘He’s been through all these things and he never says anything.’ What he meant was, his father didn’t let it affect him.”
Comparing Western narratives of life in 1960s and 1970s Vietnam with indigenous stories of the same time, she says: “The Americans go into all this stuff, all the trauma, but in the Vietnamese narratives, life goes on. They are very restrained.”
But, as in the case of her relative by marriage who survived the re-education camp: “It’s true, he’s a very equable man, very jovial. But you have to wonder.” – The Straits Times, Singapore/Asia News Network