It always came to me as an image, staying and never dying, until it blossomed into ideas for a novel.
I grew up in Hue, Vietnam, imbued with a culture full of magical realism. As a child, I had an indelible belief in animism. An unseen presence dwelling in an odd-looking rock by the roadside where people placed a bowl of rice grains and a stick of incense long gone cold. That child lived in Hue, the former ancient capital of Vietnam, living in its mysterious atmosphere, half real, half magic. I used to walk home under the shade of the Indian almond trees, the poon trees. At the base of these old trees, I would pass a shrine. If I went with my grandmother, she would push my head down. “Don’t stare at it,” Grandmother said. “That’s disrespect to the genies.” Those anthropomorphic images sown in a child’s mind began to morph into fertile ideas when I became a teen and wrote out those childhood memories in short stories. But I was in love with the written words when I was much younger, between eight and nine, making up stories in chapbooks. In each of them was a make-believe world. It may be a paper moon sailing over a cardboard sea, but to me it was believable.
The image could be a man wearing a cangue on the way to an execution ground. This bandit was to be beheaded for his crime while the onlookers, some being his relatives with children, watched in muted fascination and horror. Gazing at the photograph, I imagined a boy—his son—who was witnessing the decapitation of his father by the hand of the executioner. I pictured him and his mother as they collected the body without the head which the government would display at the entrance of the village his father had looted. I thought what if the boy later set out to steal the head so he could give his father an honorable burial. What if he got his hand on the executioner’s sabre and used it to kill the man who betrayed his father for a large bounty. However, it really started with a story within my family. My grandfather was one of the last mandarins of the Hue Imperial Court, circa 1930. At that time the Vietnamese communists were coming into power. They condemned any person a traitor, who worked either for the French or the Hue Imperial Court. So my grandfather was a traitor in their eye. One day news came to him that a communist gathering was to be held in one of the remote villages from Hue. He set out to that village with his bodyguards to punish the communists. Unfortunately, news leaked out about his trip. He was ambushed on the road—his bodyguards were killed—and he was beheaded. The communists threw his body into a river. My grandmother hired a sorcerer to look for his headless body. Eventually, the sorcerer found it. They were able to identify his body based on the ivory name tablet in his tunic. My grandmother hired someone to make a fake head out of a coconut shell wrapped in gilded paper and buried my grandfather on the Ngu Binh Mountain. The beheading of Grandfather surfaced again while I was looking at the decapitation photograph. That was how it became an inspiration for my debut novel “Flesh” and I wrote about the decapitation scene in its first chapter.
Sometimes it came to me in the image of a girl dressed in the school’s uniform—white shirt and knee-high navy-blue skirt—standing under a tamarind tree outside her all-girl school. I’d ride home from school every day on a motorcycle and pass by her school. We’d steal glances at each other, and every day I’d count every traffic light before I reached her school. In the sound of traffic, the noises of which we both became familiar with, one passed by with a sidelong glance, and the other was left with nothing but a smile remembered. I wrote out that adolescent memory in “The Demon Who Peddled Longing” when the boy happened to run into the girl on the white horse, and I made the romance happen for them.
In both “Flesh” and “The Demon Who Peddled Longing,” my main characters set out as young men to avenge a family member’s death. This common dark thread began with a child’s memory. My late father was the chairman of an anti-communist, anti-dictatorial political party in Vietnam. His party, Dai Viet (Viet Nation-State), was pledged to the restoration of national prestige and the unification of the two nations. He was betrayed by a party member and was imprisoned by the First Republic of Vietnam for his anti-dictatorial stance. I often wondered what he would do if one day he were to meet his traitor face to face. So I put my protagonists in both “Flesh” and “The Demon Who Peddled Longing” through this predicament.
It could be an image of a xích lô—a Vietnamese pedicab—that passed by my house in Saigon and stopped when an American passenger got out. He was big and tall and the phu xích lô—the pedicab coolie—was all bones with toothpick legs. He was taking the fare from the American and before I knew it, he started coughing up gobs of blood. He reeled like he was dancing then fell flat on his back. The American chased his bill before the wind blew it away. The police came and pulled the coolie’s body to the curbside and put a poncho over him. After that it rained—monsoon rain. Lucky for him he wasn’t washed away by the time his friends came to claim the body. The poor man had TB. I fictionalized that experience in one of my novels.
Then the war came to my hometown during the Tet Offensive.
At My Lai the American soldiers murdered the Vietnamese civilians; but during Tet in Hue, the Viet Cong massacred the Vietnamese—their own people. Here you heard only of My Lai. The American public was more interested in a war crime committed by one American infantry platoon than in the Hue massacre.
My father wasn’t home with us. The VC executed people like him. My mother kept the joss sticks burning on the altar every day and thanked the Buddha for sparing my father’s life. The VC came into Hue with the names of those they wanted to kill. Few were spared. They executed government officials, political party officials, block leaders, intellectuals, teachers, even priests, and monks. But they killed a lot of people out of personal hate and vendetta.
Every night we heard gunshots. Much later we found out that those were fired by the communists during their execution, and the playground of our high school was used as a mass grave. They massacred at least a few thousand people. It took people months to search, to dig the mass graves. Mass graves in the schoolyards, in the parks of the inner city. Mass graves in the jungle creek beds, in the coastal salt flats. People shot to death, clubbed to death with pick handles, buried alive with elbows tied behind them. The communists said they executed only the reactionaries, those who worked for the South Vietnam government. But I saw many bodies of women and children. Shot in the head, bashed in the head. Did they deserve to die?
After the VC withdrew from Hue, graves were identified, and folks came to dig for bodies. The odor from the rotten bodies hung for days over the neighborhood. Smelled like dead rats but with a fish stink. My mother burned incense in the house to kill that odor. Like many people who lived inside the Citadel, we had fled, seeking refuge somewhere else.
When we came back to our house inside the Citadel, one side of the house had caved in. It must have been hit by artillery shells or helicopter gunships. Ammunition shells were all over the yard. Do you know what I saw on one side of our chest of drawers? An inscription: Miami, FLA. Mom, Dad, and apple pie. The American troops had boarded down in our house during the house-to-house combat against the VC.
But it’s always an image.
An image I came upon in an old Vietnamese magazine article written about a centenarian eunuch of the Imperial Court of Hue. He had died in 1968. The writer had interviewed the eunuch’s adopted daughter. At the end of the article was a small halftone photograph of her. The story had lodged deep in my brain. Months later I realized that it wasn’t the story that was haunting me―it was the face in the photograph. I pictured her. Dawn or dusk, you could see mottled-brown sandpipers running along the seashore, legs twinkling, looking for food. Twilight falling. I followed their tracks, like twiggy skeletons strewn across the marbled sand until they ended under the frothing waves. One delicate bird stood at the water’s edge and gave out a cry. I often think of her as that sandpiper standing at the edge of the sea, its cry lost in the sound of waves. Then her image grew and I wrote a novel about her.
It could be something else that would light up an image. Like a canal languidly flowing through the thick china fir grove that, from such a distance, was a mass of smoky green. In the grove’s dark shade, the air reeked of the pine cones’ scent and red squirrels and fox squirrels leaped from tree to tree. I remembered all that. Even the tiny chirps of crickets in the grass, the red wild strawberries like drops of blood in their patches, the late January wind damp to the bones coming from the sea.
Or when you are going down the foredune and there’s a tang of fish odor, a damp smell of kelp in the air. Fishing nets are piled up above the high-tide mark and beneath them lie the ocean litter of seaweed, soggy sticks, bits of crabs’ claws. High tide is coming in, tinkling softly through the orphaned seashells studding the sand. You stop when something scurries out from under the mass of wet nets. A rat. You follow its trail and see that the bad rat is out looking for birds’ eggs, those that nested above the high-tide line. A buoy clangs. A desolate sound guiding fishermen ashore.
Those images never go away and I wrote out short stories and brought them together into a novel. But the image that eventually blossomed into “Mrs. Rossi’s Dream” came from a film in which a woman spirit medium in her trance-induced walk led an American woman to a grave where she found her son’s remains. By then I have lived in the United States for many years and in me lived on that image for many years more before I felt ready to put them down in words. While writing it, I felt like a baby trying to learn my way on this planet Earth, its fascinating habitats, its people who are a puzzling race full of vice, greed, violence and yet full of love and forgiveness.
On the morning I finished the first draft, I walked outside and stood on the doorstep and saw our flame tree covered in red. Then the cicadas began to sing.
Khanh Ha is the author of the highly acclaimed novel Mrs. Rossi's Dream, which The Permanent Press is excited to release this April. He also is the author of Flesh and The Demon Who Peddled Longing. He is a seven-time Pushcart nominee, a Best Indie Lit New England nominee, a twice finalist of THE WILLIAM FAULKNER-WISDOM CREATIVE WRITING AWARD, the recipient of SAND HILLS PRIZE FOR BEST FICTION, and Greensboro Review's ROBERT WATSON LITERARY PRIZE IN FICTION. The Demon Who Peddled Longing was honored by Shelf Unbound as a Notable Indie Book.