By Dave Feren, Language & Literature Teacher
HKA’s Grade 11 IB Literature students were fortunate to have best-selling Vietnamese author and poet Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai visit their class last Thursday, 3 March for a 40-minute question-and-answer session via Google Meet. Students had read Quế Mai’s novel The Mountains Sing earlier this year and were excited about the possibility of asking questions they had been wondering about for several months. Quế Mai was very gracious, and with every question asked, she spoke for several minutes, offering additional background and anecdotes.
The students particularly enjoyed Quế Mai’s enthusiasm for writing and the power of stories. Grade 11 student Noelle said, “Because of how passionate she was about her book, it was really refreshing to hear her talk.” This sentiment was echoed by fellow student, Sydney: “The manner in which she talked about her book, with such passion, was very enthralling and had you listening closely. I really liked how she described poetry, along the lines of ‘simplify until it is the essence of the language’. It was a really fascinating perception and got me to look at poetry in a new manner and recognise the power of poetry.”
This focus on poetry was a recurring motif of the session. At one point, Quế Mai joked that she wrote the novel with lots of poetic language so “more people would read [her] poetry.” Grade 11 student Arin appreciated this discussion of poetry: “One of my favourite aspects of her book is how poetic the descriptions are and I’m really glad I got to speak with her about it.”
Students also enjoyed hearing about some of the choices Quế Mai made in the process of writing the novel. Grade 11 student Calvin was interested in “her thought process behind the extent of including the Vietnamese language” in the novel, and how she “used Vietnamese as dialogue and traditional Vietnamese proverbs” to “decolonize” Vietnamese history. And classmate Minnie liked hearing how Quế Mai “does not plan out her stories, she creates her characters and sees where they go, having a fluid plot so the characters don’t have to bend to meet it.”
Before concluding our session, Quế Mai repeatedly promoted the power of literature, and encouraged the students to recognize (and use) the power of literature to break stereotypes, challenge assumptions, and inspire positive change. Overall this time with Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai gave students a profound glimpse at the intersection of literature and life.