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Writer Aimee Phan on purpose, her passion, and others' pasts.
Aimee Phan, with her small stature and innocent, earnest face, seems much younger than a woman in her late '20s. However, her debut book, We Should Never Meet, reveals the mind of a writer who possesses the insight of a wise, insightful soul.
Raised in Orange County in the most concentrated population of Vietnamese immigrants, Aimee Phan was exposed to these orphans through her mother. As a social worker, her mother worked closely with these latchkeys, who were dislocated to a foreign country and cast into the darkened corners of neglect. Something deep and unremitting was harnessed inside Aimee, and her observations of these orphans provided the groundwork and inspiration for We Should Never Meet.
As an undergraduate at UCLA, she started on the pre-med path. However, it soon became apparent that this was a diversion into the wrong track for her. Aimee was failing her classes--making it apparent that her true passion was crafting words into stories. She wrote for the UCLA Daily Bruin, participated in creative writing workshops, and began anew as an English major. Although showing great promise as a journalist during college, landing a highly competitive slot of intern at USA Today, Phan was aware her passions were fiercer as a fiction writer.
After graduation she was accepted into the prestigious University of Iowa Creative Writing Workshop, where she was awarded the Maytag Fellowship. It was while acquiring her MFA that she began writing what culminated into We Should Never Meet, a compilation of eight interwoven stories revolving around several orphans who came during the Vietnam War due to “Operation Babylift.” This book has received nothing but praise and critical acclaim. Phan currently teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Nevada and is at work on her second book, which will also be her first novel. With her ability to trek into the depths of previously unexamined territory and her ambitious scope, Aimee Phan is a writer to watch out for. --Jackie Lam
Interview with Aimee Phan
October 25, 2004
Interviewed by Jackie Lam
Transcribed by Ada Tseng
APA: What was your inspiration for We Should Never Meet?
Aimee Phan: My mom was a social worker in Orange County, and she worked with a lot of Vietnamese foster children. And she always reminded my brother and I how lucky we were that we had opportunities and that we had family to help us and support us, because she worked with a lot of
children that didn't have family, who lived in foster homes, who didn't
have the opportunities to go to college. And it got me thinking about her
work and what she was doing. These Vietnamese foster children ended up
coming over on the boat refugee exodus where a lot of Vietnamese
were fleeing the country. What happened was, a lot of Vietnamese parents
were putting these children on the boats because they thought they
would have a better future in America. The problem was that when they got
here, they didn't have family, they didn't have anybody to take care of
them, so a lot of these kids fell by the wayside. A lot of them
joined gangs, they didn't go to college, and they ended up languishing in
I thought it was really interesting, so I wanted to write about them. At the same time, I learned about Operation Babylift, which was the evacuation of 2600 orphans from Saigon a few weeks before the fall. And it was interesting having these two events happen, these children who didn't have homes, and these 2600 orphans who ended up getting adopted in America. What happened was that even though Operation Babylift was this amazing humanitarian effort, there were a lot of kids arriving afterwards who weren't getting adopted. They were older, they weren't as adoptable as younger children were.
So I thought I wanted to write a story from the point of view of a social worker, but while I was writing it, I realized that this wasn't the social worker's story, this was the orphan's story, so I wanted to write a story from the point of view of the orphan. And then I thought, wouldn't it be neat if I could write two stories, one from the baby's perspective, taking place in 1975 and another one about 25 years later, showing the effects of it, the
effects of kids surviving in America. And while I was doing that, I became
really interested in the characters I was writing in that one story, so
I wanted to write stories from the other characters' points of view, so
it kind of ballooned. It went from two stories, to five, to eight, because I
wanted to explore different perspectives. So four of the stories take place
in Vietnam leading up to the events in Operation Babylift, and the
other four take place in present day with orphans grown up in California and living with the after-effects of what happened in the Vietnam War and Operation Babylift.
APA: When did you start writing it?
AP: I started writing it in my second year at the University of Iowa
Writer's workshop. It was my MFA thesis, and so from then, it grew into a
manuscript that I could submit to publishers.
APA: How was the University of Iowa?
AP: I loved it. I loved going to Iowa, I think it really challenged my writing, and inspired me to become a better writer. Not only in terms of technicalities, writing well and writing good prose, but also subject matter. I wanted to write about things that were important to me, that mattered to me, and this was something that was really important. And I think especially since it is so hard to write books, you should only write about what you're passionate about. That's the only way you can actually finish a book, I think. If you feel uninspired by the material, if you don't even know where the characters are going, then it would be really hard to finish it. I actually haven't had a problem wanting to keep writing a manuscript.
APA: You were involved in journalism before you got into fiction. Did you
always want to be a fiction writer, or did that emerge while you were a
AP: I think I decided to go into journalism in my undergraduate while I was
at UCLA because my parents were really worried about me becoming a writer. My first year at UCLA, I was actually pre-med for a quarter and it wasn't going very well. And I told my parents it wasn't working out, and they said "keep trying," and I said I really want to major in English and I can become a journalist. I was working for the Daily Bruin, and I actually had a real passion for journalism. I really liked it. But I wasn't very good at the reporting aspect. I loved the writing, but reporting made me have to go and be aggressive and do interviews and pursue the story, and I was really shy at the time and wasn't very good at that. So my sophomore year, I was applying for the creative writing workshops at UCLA, and I really liked to write, but it was such a hard thing to get into, because it's not very lucrative, and it's very competitive.
A lot of people want to be writers. So if you want to be a writer, you're in a lot of company. So, my senior year, I was faced with the question that every senior faces in college: What am I going to do? I was applying for journalism jobs, but at the same time, I was thinking about creative writing schools. If I was really serious about creative writing, I thought I should go to grad school for it. So I thought, I would apply to five schools, five schools I really wanted to go to, and if I got into one of those schools, that meant I should I should go to grad school, and if I didn't, that meant I should get a job. And I got into Iowa, so that was great news for me. And it was actually really great news for my parents too, because it was the validation they needed, that I might be O.K., that it would be alright if I tried to pursue this for a while.
APA: In regards to your book: because it's character-based, where did you get the ideas for the characters?
AP: The first character I came up with is Mai, and that's the story of “Emancipation.” She was the character that was the problem child for the social worker. Mai had a friend named Kim, who was really tough, who was a really hard girl, and I actually really admired Kim, cause Kim was nothing like me. She said what was on her mind, she was really edgy and she was very angry. And Mai was more like me, very good, very meek, a good student, and while I was writing Mai's story, I was really distracted by Kim. I thought she was such a fabulous character, and I wanted to write Kim's story. So I put my story aside to write Kim's story.
Kim has a boyfriend named Vinh, this kind of bumble-headed gang member, and I thought, wouldn't it be cool to hear Vinh's perspective, especially because it's very clear that he adores Kim. So the characters of each story intermingle with each other and so they're inspired by each other, so they were really important for me to write about from each perspective.
For the Vietnam stories, one story I remember in particular was this character named Truc, he was a duck farmer and he was engaged to this woman who was now a Catholic nun, and I actually came up with that, because initially I wanted to write about a priest who takes a bunch of babies to Saigon, but then I had a friend who wrote a story about a Vietnamese priest, and I said, "Oh, what am I going to do now? I can't turn in a story about a Vietnamese priest when my friend already did that." So I thought, well what else can I do? So that's when I came up with the idea of the duck farmer, and it was wonderful, because he actually ended up being more interesting to me than a priest, so they were really a product of me being in Iowa, reading a lot of fiction with characters that were really interesting to me.
Truc the duck farmer, his former Catholic fiancée, and Bridget is the American doctor who was in the last Vietnam story and she was this very hard-edged woman, who was really ambitious and really arrogant. And the reason why I was inspired by her was because I had read a lot of research that to be able to volunteer in a war-torn country like Vietnam, or countries now in the Middle East, you had to have kind of have this arrogance about you, to be able to do something like that. You have to be so confident that you're doing something good, that you're not going to leave, that you're actually being heroic. So I thought that was an interesting character, someone who may be really unpleasant socially, but was doing so much good in the country by helping all these orphans.
APA: Do you have a personal favorite character?
AP: It's probably Bac Nguyen from the story “Visitors.” He's this old
man, he's so kind and so sweet and he imparts a lot of wisdom to the
character Vinh, who is the gang member who is actually trying to swindle the old man for money, and I really loved his character. I think I based him on my grandfather, who at the time was dying, and just his clothes, the way he carried himself, I think it was really hard for a lot of older Vietnamese men and women to come here. They were in such privilege when they were in Vietnam, and now they came to this country, where people didn't dress up all the time, there wasn't this respect for older people so it was really hard for them to come to this country and be shoveled around and treated as afterthoughts, and I think that's why I really cared about this character.
APA: What do you think is the hardest part of the writing process?
AP: I think that finding the time to write and to focus on it. I'm trying to write my second book right now and it's really difficult because when you're teaching, when you're grading papers, when you're writing freelance work--I do some freelance non-fiction--it's really hard to focus on writing. I was lucky with this first book. I was in Iowa for two years, and I had the second year devoted to this book, where all I had to do was concentrate on this book. Now I have to split the time, and I have to be a lot more focused about getting two hours a day of writing done, and even then, in those two hours, if I can squeeze out a paragraph, then that's still good, because I didn't have that paragraph before. It's difficult, I think. Also, I think with a novel, because I haven't done a novel before. This first book is a collection of stories. A novel takes a lot of organization and a lot of advanced thought, trying to figure out what's going to happen with your characters.
APA: What's your second book about?
AP: The second book is going to be about a Vietnamese immigrant family in a Malaysian refugee camp, and they end up getting split up into different
countries, America and France. And the book is going to explore the beginning of Little Saigon in California and in other states in the country, and
also the Vietnamese communities in France.
APA: What do you hope to accomplish as a writer?
AP: I hope to keep writing things that are inspiring to me, that are
interesting to me. Vietnamese American literature is really new, and I think
it's so great that there is so much Vietnamese American literature, and Asian American literature, and the idea that the voices are so different, so I hope to keep writing what I like and hopefully present a perspective that might not have been considered before. The reason I wanted to write this book was because not many people knew about the Babylift, not many people know about these unaccompanied minors that grew up in foster homes in California. You don't really think about them when you think about the Vietnam War and its consequences, so I hope this book maybe can
shed some light on the experiences of people who were pretty marginalized.
APA: Can you pinpoint your inspirations?
AP: When I was going to UCLA, I was really inspired by the Asian American literature classes I took. That was when I realized that literature can have a profound impact on your social and cultural identity. Before I took this class, I didn't really think about the influences it could have, but considering how very little I think most Americans know about Asian American history, literature is a great medium for people to understand the experiences of Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, Filipino Americans, and that there are different Asian identities.
APA: Have you had any responses to the novel that were surprising?
AP: I don't think there were any surprises. I think I was pretty prepared. Even though I have eight stories, and they represent eight different perspectives, there are still so many other perspectives on the Vietnam War, that it would be impossible for the book to encompass all that happened with Operation Babylift, all that happened with the refugee experience. This book is not expected to represent Babylift in general at all, so I think this book maybe sheds light on certain aspects of it.
APA: Who was the intended audience?
AP: I don't think there was an intended audience. I think it was meant for
anyone interested in this aspect. Obviously when other Asian Americans, or other Vietnamese Americans, read it and really relate to it, it really means a lot to me. To have my relatives read it and realize what I'm doing means a lot to me. Having my parents be proud of it is really an accomplishment.
APA: What have your relatives said?
AP: They really like the Vietnam stories. I think that they feel very nostalgic about the country and they really like it.
APA: Have any adoptees of Operation Babylift read it, and have you gotten
any responses from them?
AP: This is actually been something that I had been worried about, because
obviously their experiences are very individual and particular to them, and considering that I'm not a Babylift orphan, I'm not a refugee orphan, I was worried about them being angry about these stories. But I hope they can understand that I wrote these stories out of respect and compassion for their experiences, and as a writer, the best you can do is research as much as you can and empathize with their experience. I know there are people who are going to be very judgmental and very critical about the fact that I'm writing their story, but the thing is this is fiction and it's not their story. That's not why I'm not calling this non-fiction, that's why I’m not claiming that this is a documentation of facts about the Babylift. This is a fictional account, this is a fictional narrative of the Babylift and the consequences of the Vietnamese
refugee experience, so I think if people read the book, they should
hopefully understand that. That this is fiction, that these characters are
fictional, but that it's inspired by real life events.
APA: Have you gotten any emails or responses from the adoptees?
AP: Yeah, I have gotten some emails, and there have been people that have
been really positive, and there are people who still have some mixed
feelings about it.
APA: I read that you visited Vietnam. What was your own reaction or feeling
when you visited Vietnam?
AP: It was a really overwhelming experience emotionally. I think I realized
it was going to be very emotional. I think I was able to understand my
parents' perspective of Vietnam a lot more when I was there. The
Vietnamese community, especially in Orange County, is still so rigidly anti-Communist and when I went back, I could understand more of why they were. It was still a very polarizing topic still in Vietnam, even though people are trying to get past it, it's been almost 30 years since the war ended, but the fact is, this is a very emotional issue for people. It was something that consumed so many years of their lives. It was great to be there. It was wonderful to see parts of the country that my parents talked about. It was also hard to see so many people in poverty, and so many people suffering. That was difficult. So I'm glad I went, and I'd love to go back again, even though it was so hard at times to be there and see some of the things that I did.
APA: What was your opinion of the Vietnam War growing up?
AP: I really didn't have one. I wasn't very informed at all. I didn't really learn anything about the Vietnam War in school. I would ask my parents questions, but it was really hard for them to talk about, because it had just happened. It wasn't until I went to UCLA and started reading myself that I was able to have an opinion. Obviously, this is a war that's still very controversial, still a very difficult subject for Americans and the Vietnamese. I think that ultimately the biggest victims were their own people, the Vietnamese people and the only ones to blame were the ones in high power in government who weren't able probably to make the best decisions.
APA: Do you think this novel will reach overseas?
AP: I don't know what the reaction would be. Hopefully. I mean the book is
not an anti-Vietnam book, it's not anti-Communist. It talks about the biggest victims of the war which were the children who were born from it.
APA: As you mentioned earlier, Vietnamese American fiction is new. As a Viet-American woman, did you find it difficult to publish or get support for
AP: No, I think when a genre like this is growing, I think people do have an
interest. I think it was to my benefit that I was Vietnamese American
and I was writing about a specific topic and one that people might be
interested in, so there wasn't many problems with finding a publisher.
APA: Do you know of any Vietnamese Americans who are writing fiction that isn't related to Vietnamese issues?
AP: I know there are writers who won't directly deal with the war or with
difficult subjects like I do, but I don't know of any specific Vietnamese writer who would shy away from their own ethnicity. They might not write about the issue of being a Vietnamese American. I think they'll just have Vietnamese American characters and not really talk about the whole identity crisis, they'll just have their characters. Which I think is good. It's not always the single driving thing--who am I as an Asian American? Who am I as a Vietnamese American? It doesn't need to be dealt with in every piece of fiction. So they'll be dealing with other life issues, like relationships, family, jobs, things like that.
APA: What advice would you give to aspiring young writers?
AP: I think you need to write. I think you need to go to writing workshops, you need to go out there and have other people read it. It's really important to have other people read your writing. Read a lot. I think young new writers don't read as much as they should and understand what works in fiction and poetry and what doesn't. Take classes in literature. Take classes in creative writing and learn the craft. It takes a lot of work. It took a lot of work for me to write this book. It took two years in Iowa, a year after that, and then three years at UCLA, so this book has been a long time coming, in terms of learning how to write, and learning what to write about.
APA: What are your students writing?
AP: I teach a creative writing class in Las Vegas. I think when you're a young writer, you like to write about things you don't know about, because you're naturally curious about it. I think when I was going to UCLA, I didn't write about Los Angeles, I didn't write about Orange County and maybe that's what's naturally supposed to happen. But I think people should write about what they know, and what interests them about that and then research what you are interested in writing about, and go onto that. But you get a healthy dose of science fiction and fantasy stories when you're teaching a creative writing class, because people are intrigued by mysterious things they don't know.
APA: Thank you.
Date Posted: 11/17/2004