This poem from my first book Up in the Air was written a few years ago. I think it’s pertinent to our current coronavirus crisis, where once again we find ourselves reliant on brave and selfless public workers. It’s my first – and only – prose poem and I wrote it after watching a TV programme about the Marriott World Trade Centre hotel, which stood beside the Twin Towers. As you can imagine, the hotel was damaged beyond repair, and there was one guest who spoke in tears and amazement about how a firefighter saved his life. I can’t remember much more than that, but it showed how there’s something more important to us than money and power and status. It’s the ability to feel widely, to be open to everything and have empathy. We’re not talking about being wishy-washy, but about sensing the ‘drunkeness of things being various’, as the Northern Irish poet Louis MacNeice would put it. The world is amazing. What makes us special is the fact that we are able to sense and feel it, in all its fathomless complexity.
I first connected with Hoang Chi Truong, the author of Tigerfish, on social media. We quickly built up a rapport. I read Tigerfish and thought it was a beautifully told, often harrowing, memoir of Chi’s escape with her family from the Vietnam war to America. You can read my full review here. Chi interviewed me in the summer on her website and now I’m very pleased to return the favour. In this interview Chi tells me about her life as a refugee and how she came to write and independently publish Tigerfish. She speaks about her mission to promote her timely message of compassion for refugees.
Hi Chi, first can you tell us about why you decided to write your memoir Tigerfish?
Hello Steve, thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my author journey as a Vietnamese refugee in America on your blog. I’ll retrace my steps to publishing Tigerfish for your readers and perhaps afterwards they might consider sharing their own stories of struggle so others won’t feel they’re alone.
I wrote Tigerfish for my children in 1992, with the sole purpose of preserving our family history. I never intended it for public consumption. However, the Syrian refugee crisis in 2011 changed my mind. I published Tigerfish in 2017 as I felt I had a moral obligation to speak up for the Syrians from the perspective of a former refugee.
I felt that, as I’d received my US legal status as a teenager to achieve my American Dream, I now had to use my voice to raise awareness of what it means to be a refugee. I wanted to appeal to readers to have compassion for the plight of refugees, like others did for my family. With this new mission, I dusted off my manuscript and decided to self-publish TigerFish.
Recently, I received a request for an electronic file of TigerFish on behalf of a student with a print-disability at Santiago Canyon Community College, California. My book is going to be converted to an accessible, unencrypted format for his History class! I reread this request several times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Two years ago I would never have imagined this as a remote possibility for a first-time, independent author like myself.
Can you tell us what it was like to be a refugee?
I was born in Vietnam to a high ranking military officer and lived a protected and privileged life, but all that disappeared when we fled from political persecution. As refugees, we were conflicted between our overwhelming gratitude to be in America and our struggle with our suppressed and delayed grief, anxieties, and survivor’s guilt. We didn’t have the luxury of grieving for the siblings, relatives, friends, country, and culture we left behind. Instead, we forged on stoically to learn the language, excel in school, and better ourselves economically. Our family suffered discrimination, racism, and assaults but we persisted, convincing ourselves it was the cost of freedom.
Thank you for sharing that Chi, it’s very insightful and moving. Can you tell us about how you became an Indie Author?
I had a steep learning curve going from Chief of Emergency Response Mapping to being an independently published author. I was now a team of one, assembling editors, cover designers, formatters, beta and advanced readers, proofreaders, and a launch team. I relied on online resources as I designed a website and created a social media platform to share my story with my modest following. In the end, my debt is to the online indie author community and my social media followers who made my publishing dream come true. I can’t pay it forward enough to all the generous friends and writers for their support.
After publication how did you let the world know about Tigerfish and its key messages?
I used a number of ways to connect with readers and promoters including:
Press Release: Before I launched Tigerfish I crafted emails, ready to send them to local radio stations, TV stations, newspapers, schools, libraries and bookstores. I persisted with the Sacramento Bee until Stephen Magagnini featured my story Vietnam’ documentary opens old wounds, offers new lessons for Sacramento author when my book became timely and relevant to the U.S. Administration’s Travel Bans in 2017 and the Vietnam War Series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novak. My recommendation when contacting the press is to emphasize how relevant your book is and why it’s important to feature your story.
Social Media: I made online friends through social media, learning by trial and error. These friends became my most ardent and enduring supporters and promoters. I didn’t consider myself an extrovert and had to put on a brave face on various platforms. I always stayed accurate and authentic with my audience.
Blogging: Before I published Tigerfish, I blogged about Minimalism to share my journey from my first day sitting down to work on my book to its launch date and thereafter. I chose Minimalism as a subject to create an online following because at the time I couldn’t focus on my author’s job working from home until I’d minimized my household tasks. I shared my tips with readers. This process gave me the inner calm to dedicate 12 hours a day to reach my goal of publishing by May 2017.
Community Engagement: The initial emails and phone calls brought immediate support from libraries, schools, and indie bookstores. Word of mouth brought more speaking engagements with colleges, rotary clubs, churches, book clubs, and nursing homes. Over the past 20 months, I’ve presented to an audience of one just as respectfully and enthusiastically as to 122 people. I’ve welcomed requests to write to me with follow-up questions.
Most of all, I’ve been grateful that readers have valued my message of empathy and compassion to refugees. I hope I’ve helped to humanize instead of demonize millions of helpless and vulnerable people fleeing violence, hunger, and persecution.
That’s very inspiring, Chi. What are you working on now?
I’m currently living in Northern California with my husband, and we’re empty nesters of two grown children. While I continue to speak at libraries and book clubs I’m working on my next book, a continuation of TigerFish with a hopeful publication date of Summer 2020.
Thank you so much for your time, Chi, and for sharing your amazing story. Lastly, where can readers find out more about you and your book?
It’s getting to that time again when we like to think back over what we’ve done in the past year. Or, in the case of us bibliophiles, what we’ve read. So, once again here’s my Top Ten Books for Grown-ups that I’ve read in 2018, each a perfect gift for the Yuletide season!
The Top Ten for Children and Young Adults will be along shortly…
Troubles, J.G. Farrell
Troubles is probably my favourite book that I’ve read this year. It’s about a traumatised British soldier (‘The Major’) who goes to Ireland to meet his apparent fiance, and ends up staying in her father’s hotel for… well, for a very long time. Like the fantastic Siege of Krishnapur, the real subject of Troubles is the decline of the British Empire. But J.G. Farrell’s supreme success is rendering this through exquisite detail and through his wonderful, vivid, and occasionally comic, characters.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
Another historical novel, this is an absorbing tale of two men who create a Comic empire in war-time New York. One of them is a Jewish migrant, striving to be a real-life hero to save members of his family left behind in Nazi Germany.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari
An astonishing book, giving an overview of the major phases of our evolution. It’s often grim in its rendering of our collective fictions, but it’s also balanced with glimmers of hope, such as the relative peacefulness of recent times, improvements in medicine, and reductions in global poverty. Most unnerving is the ending, which touches on the huge pressures we face to undertake more bioengineering, and where that might lead. Nonfiction such as a Moment on the Earth and fiction such as Hyperion, by Dan Simmons, address some of these issues. But this book wakes you up to the prospect that, in the long view, our turbulent history might just be a staging post in the evolution of intelligent design.
Inside the Wave, Helen Dunmore
The final book of poetry by the talented and versatile Helen Dunmore. I read several of her dark and atmospheric novels when I was younger, including Zennor in Darkness and A Spell of Winter. She also wrote some mermaid-inspired Young Adult novels which I’ve yet to read. But she stands out as a poet. She wrote Inside the Wave when she was terminally ill, and the writing has a clear, transcendent beauty.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson
A brilliant, creepy book that really gets inside the mind and disturbing habits of its teenage narrator – who is definitively unreliable.
The Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler
It’s taken me a long time to read this classic title. I love A.M. Homes, and Anne Tyler writes in a similar vein. Both give us stories of Americans whose lives have been fractured by trauma but who retain – or recover – a sense of perspective and transcendence. And who still have a surprising decision or two in them.
The Stranger’s Child, Alan Hollinghurst
I struggled at first to buy into this segmented novel that revisits a wealthy British family throughout the last century. But as it went on I grew to love the way it built a textured picture of the ebb and flow of legacy – particularly that of one man, a war poet. I occasionally find myself slowing down as novels progress, getting a little less interested in the set up and characters. But in The Stranger’s Child, I found my appetite and interest increasing all the time.
Dark Entries, Rober Aickman
The second horror entry in my top ten. These morbid, unresolved tales by Robert Aickman are as usual masterfully told. A poet of the tomb, he plants a dark seed in your mind and let’s you grow it however you will. Check out my review of The Wine-Dark Seahere.
Solstice, Joyce Carol Oates
I’d been meaning to read some Joyce Carol Oates for a long time. I wasn’t disappointed with this, a dark and gripping tale of a claustrophobic friendship between a charismatic artist and a dowdy lecturer.
Ten Poems about Birds, intro Jenni Murray
A beautifully produced present given to me by my wife on our tenth wedding anniversary. Only when I put together my first poetry book, Up in the Air, did I realise quite how obsessed I am by birds and flight. So this was a truly magical present. The poems are wondrous and fragile, perfect little songs. I especially liked Skylark, which I had never read before, and Owl, which I had, but had forgotten.
Am an owl, am an owl…
Want to know more about what I’ve been reading? Check out my favourite books in 2017 and 2016!
“Do you see how beautifully this hardship has shaped and formed the stretching branches and foliage, like long slender fingers pointing toward the sea?”
Hoang Chi Truong’s autobiography of her experience as a young girl fleeing the Vietnam war is fascinating on many levels: as an insight into Vietnamese culture, both before and after the war; as a harrowing tale of the upheaval and existential terror of having to flee your own country to save your life; of the nuanced and changing feelings towards the culture and people that take you in as a refugee.
I found the story gripping from start to finish. The language is precise and evocative, with moments of poetic beauty, such as the quote above. I recommend you read the story of TigerFish, not only for its own many merits, but as a stark reminder of the need for countries to be bigger and wiser and kinder towards refugees.
In The Secret of the Tirthas, the demons and their followers are desperately seeking to capture the Artefacts of Power. These magical items have gained their power from the devotion of worshippers over the centuries.
Each Artefact in the story is based on a real life sacred object, from a different religious tradition. Here’s a list of them, with the culture or religion they came from:
Nkisi statue – a wooden figure from African shamanistic religion. People drove iron nails in to release the power of the ancestor spirit residing in it.
Hilili Kachina – a raindance doll with a snake hanging out of his mouth, from Native American culture.
The Holy Grail – a chalice containing the blood of Christ from the Last Supper, much pursued by medieval knights.
The Damsel of the Sanct Grael, Rossetti
Easter Island statue(maoi) – over 1,000 of these mysterious statues were constructed by the inhabitants of a remote island in the Pacific Ocean. All the statues look inland, away from the sea. It is thought they represented ancestors, guarding over the islanders.
Easter Island sculptures from the original Garden of Rooms in Herefordshire
Venus– the statue is based on the famous Venus of Hohle Fels, found in Germany and believed to be 40,000 years old. She was carved from mammoth tusk.
Venus of Hohle Fels (Image: Thilo Parg / Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0)
Green Man – a figure from Western paganism, symbolising the regenerative, mysterious powers of Nature.
Green Man from a Herefordshire church
Other Artefacts in The Secret of the Tirthas:
Yingarna– a goddess of creation, who carried children from different Aboriginal tribes in her many bags.
Shiva Lingam – a holy symbol of Lord Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, carved from stone.
Buddha’s Tooth – there are several teeth relics of the Buddha, including a very famous one in Sri Lanka.
Just received a very nice review of The City of Light from Maureen, a Massachusetts book reviewer, on her Hands Full Mama blog. Here’s an excerpt:
“This was a lovely book. I loved the way that Indian culture, religion, and mythology was incorporated into the plot. Griffin’s descriptions of Kashi are vivid and realistic. I also liked the mystery element; Lizzie begins to suspect that someone else is using the portal – for sinister reasons. She isn’t sure who she can trust – and who she should suspect… This is an exciting story, and even readers who have moved on to ‘Young Adult’ books might enjoy this book. I am looking forward to Lizzie’s next adventure!”
Like getting another Christmas present…
If you want to read the full review – and perhaps subscribe to Maureen’s excellent blog – you can do so here: