Vietnamese writer shares love of homeland in award-winning English-language book

Vietnamese writer Nguyen Phan Que Mai.


A dream

Mai, originally from Ninh Binh Province in northern Vietnam, wrote “The Mountains Sing” as a way to spread Vietnamese literature and culture by recounting the story of a Vietnamese family’s journey through the twentieth century, including their trials and tribulations during the French Colonial period, the separation of the North and the South, the Vietnam War, and the present day. Her inspiration for the novel was a deep frustration that language barriers were a major obstacle for international readers who wished to access Vietnamese literature. The books on Vietnam that English-language readers did have access to were primarily about the Vietnam War and written by Western writers who gave their Vietnamese characters little-to-no voice, using them mostly as background characters. Mai also felt that Hollywood movies often depicted Vietnamese women as victims or “blank characters,” without the ability to make their own decisions.

For many years, Mai and various American poets such as Bruce Weigl, Jennifer Fossenbell, Hilary Watts, and Kwame Dawes have worked in tandem to translate Vietnamese poetry but their efforts picked up little traction, earning publications mostly in magazines and by small publishers with no budget for large promotion.

Don’t give up

The lack of English-language literature which gave Vietnamese characters a voice pushed Mai to write her stories in English as a means of promoting Vietnamese literature to Westerners in the true spirit of a Vietnamese national. During the seven years Mai spent working on “The Mountains Sing,” she was forced to overcome several hurdles.  First, she felt her English language proficiency was not up to par. She only started learning English in eighth grade and did not consider herself to be fully fluent. She also needed to find a literary agent that could connect her with reputable publishers that would actually take the time to read her work. She wound up sending her manu of “The Mountains Sing” to hundreds of literary agents, with many rejecting her using the line “we can’t find readers for your novel.” Still, the urge to give Vietnam a voice on the global literary stage pushed her to continue her mission.  


<em>Nguyen Phan Que Mai talks with students of Wellspring International Bilingual School in Ho Chi Minh City, April 25, 2022. Photo:</em> Nguyen Phan Que Mai / Tuoi Tre
Nguyen Phan Que Mai talks with students of Wellspring International Bilingual School in Ho Chi Minh City, April 25, 2022. Photo: Nguyen Phan Que Mai / Tuoi Tre


Patience pays off

Taking advice from other international writers, Mai spent considerable time honing her writing skills while she patiently waited for a good publisher with a large distribution network and the budget and resources needed to promote her novel. She enrolled in an online master’s program for creative writing and then a doctoral level in creative writing program at Lancaster University in the UK. While Mai had published 12 books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, and had received some of the top literary prizes in Vietnam, she had never actually taken a writing course. She also began reading novels from all over the word. To Mai, writing became a full-time with a ten-hour daily commitment. 

She would spend this time writing in Vietnamese and allowing her feelings to grow and blossom before switching to English and, overtime, found that it helped her to revise her manu to become considerably more poetic. She also became determined to find a traditional commercial publisher who was convinced by the story itself and was ready to invest seriously in its release. Her patience and hard work paid off on March 7, 2017, when she received an email from Julie Stevenson, a literary agent with medium-sized literary agency Massie & McQuilkin in New York. Stevenson said in the email that she had the opportunity to read Mai’s novel and was deeply moved. “The story covers many historical events in Vietnam and was written with a strong yet poetic voice and unforgettable characters,” Stevenson wrote in her email to Mai. 

“I don’t want to put it down for a second even though many of the details hurt me. “This novel is a remarkable achievement.” Stevenson closed the email by agreeing to be Mai’s agent. Stevenson then helped Mai create a list of more than 20 publishers to whom they could pitch “The Mountains Sing.” Those publishers that showed interest were then sent the manu. After dozens of rejections, Mai eventually received a message from Algonquin Books asking to negotiate a publishing deal.  


<em>Nguyen Phan Que Mai (C) meets her readers in Copenhagen, Denmark, October 27, 2022. Photo:</em> Facebook Nguyen Phan Que Mai
Nguyen Phan Que Mai (C) meets her readers in Copenhagen, Denmark, October 27, 2022. Photo: Facebook Nguyen Phan Que Mai


Disrupted plan

Mai still remembers that it was 5:30 am on June 1, 2017 when she woke up in Brussels, Belgium to an email from Stevenson telling her that Algonquin Books had offered to publish “The Mountains Sing” in the U.S. and purchase the copyright for worldwide distribution. After discussing the deal, Mai and Stevenson agreed to sign a publishing contract with Algonquin Books that same year. Mai spent the next several months preparing for the book’s 2020 release. However, the book launch trip to 14 cities prepared by Algonquin Books for nearly a year was canceled due to COVID-19. Bookstores were closed and many readers complained that they ordered the book on Amazon but it was never delivered.

Around the world

Just when Mai began to feel that her writing career was being put on hold, articles about “The Mountains Sing” began appearing all over the media. It turned out that Algonquin Books had printed and sent hundreds of proofreads to the press, critics, and close readers about six months earlier. “The Mountains Sing” was introduced in major newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post, and important publications of the publishing industry such as Library Journal and Publishers Weekly. Hundreds of reader reviews also shared their feelings about the book on social networks and reading sites. Though the pandemic was battering the world with full force, Mai focused on remote advertising activities, such as writing articles about Agent Orange for the New York Times, speaking about writing skills on the Poets & Writers podcast, and discussing her motherland on the Literary Hub. She also gave interviews, spoke about the book on many radio programs, and promoted the novel online and through talks with schools, book clubs, and libraries. When the pandemic finally died down, “The Mountains Sing” earned its first international recognition - the 2021 Nonfiction Runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize in the fiction category.


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Nguyen Phan Que Mai (R, 2nd) meets her readers in Copenhagen, Denmark, October 27, 2022. Photo: Facebook Nguyen Phan Que Mai


After attending the Dayton Literary Peace Prize award ceremony in Ohio in November 2021, Mai toured through 13 cities in the U.S. to promote the book. It also won the 2020 BookBrowse Best Debut Award, the 2021 International Book Awards, the 2021 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, and the 2020 Lannan Literary Award Fellowship for Fiction. It has since been translated into 14 languages and allowed Mai to tour the UK, Italy, France, Belgium, Denmark, Pakistan, and Vietnam.  These trips not only allowed Mai to promote her book, but also to understand how international readers yearned for stories rich in national identity.

New English book

In addition to being an author, Mai’s advocacy for the rights of disadvantaged groups in Vietnam and her founding of several scholarship programs helped land her name amongst Forbes Vietnam’s 2021 list of 20 inspiring women. Mai is preparing to release her second English novel “Dust Child,” which she has spent the past seven years to create since originally publishing the article Finding abandoned children in Vietnam in Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper on September 6, 2015. The article helped an American veteran find his loved ones and helped Mai realize that stories related to young mixed people and their families need more attention. Stevenson and Algonquin Books will continue to accompany “Dust Child,” which is scheduled to be published in the U.S. on March 14 and has been copyrighted by Algonquin Books to 10 countries. From March to May, Mai will visit more than 20 cities in the U.S., Canada, the UK, New Zealand, and Australia to meet her readers.