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Uyen Nicole Duong and Her Novel, Daughters of the River Huong

Vietnam-born Uyen Nicole Duong has been a journalist, public education administrator, attorney, law professor, and a self-taught painter, in addition to being the author of the new historical novel, Daughters of the River Huong. Read on to learn more about Duong, her writing, and her art.   

Question: What was your vision in writing Daughters of the River Huong? 

Uyen Nicole Duong: I wanted to capture the beauty of my home culture, and the sorrow of its women in the form of literary fiction. 

Question: How did you come to write the book? 

Uyen Nicole Duong: I’m not sure anyone--even the writer--can fully understand all the sources for a writer’s creative energy, but in the case of this book I know that several themes at work for me were the city of Hue, the River Huong, and the native people from Champa.

My mother, who is from Hue, has played an important part in my creative life since childhood. All Vietnam veterans who served in Vietnam, I imagine, would remember Hue and the battle there during the TET offensive in 1968. Hue was an imperial city, and represented the past glory of the independent Vietnam before French colonialism. Control of Hue was very important and one of the reasons why the battle in 1968 was so intense. I know many American veterans of the Vietnam War remember Hue. One time at a social gathering at a filmmaker’s home in California, I was introduced to a Vietnam vet and when he found out my mother came from Hue, all he wanted to talk about was the battle for the imperial city. In a way, this made me sad that my mother's hometown was associated only with the bloodshed of war in the minds of the American public. For that reason, I want to bring Hue and its motif into my novel.

The River Huong, commonly known among tourists as the Perfume River, is the landmark of Hue. It is associated with the beautiful and romantic women of Vietnam. It also has historic significance independent from the famous battle. One of the last Vietnamese monarchs, together with two mandarin strategists, plotted a revolt against the French protectorate government during his boat trips on the Perfume River. Of course, it was unsuccessful and the young king was exiled. Hue and its River Huong are also associated with the past kingdom of Champa, annexed into Vietnam as of the 15th century. I have always been interested in the indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia, including the Champa heritage. In 1991, a Vietnamese friend of mine, a psychologist who had studied Carl Jung, told me I looked more like a Cham woman than a Vietnamese. This gave me the idea to pursue a creative urge. I conceived the novel during the same year.

Initially, the epic novel was called The Queen of Champa. Later, I also wrote a short story called "The Young Woman Who Practiced Singing," and a non-fiction piece called "The Coffins of Cinnamon." I then combined all three themes into one body of work, which I called the "Fall of South Vietnam series," consisting of 3 independent yet related novels. Daughters of the River Huong is the first of the three novels in this series. The other two novels, Mimi and Her Mirror, and Postcards from Nam will be published by AmazonEncore later this year.

Question: How much of the story is autobiographical?

Duong: My story is a work of literary fiction. It is not an autobiographical novel. However, the voice of each protagonist in this family saga is authentic. The things I wrote about were based on what some acting teachers call my own sense-memory recollection, a stage acting method pioneered by the actress Uta Hagen. I learned about this sense-memory recollection when I attended acting school. I learned how to tap into my private feelings in order to render true sentiments to my creative work. It came very naturally to me and I brought the sense-memory recollection acting method into my fiction writing. Many critics and writing teachers would say an author's early work is quite often thinly disguised autobiography. But remember writers also learn the number one principle: write what you know. River Huong is what I know.

Question: Is your work political?

Duong: I have no political statement to make except to note the events and settings in some parts of this novel were dark chapters of Vietnamese colonial history. The history of Vietnam is being reevaluated all the time by the writers of Vietnam, and by Vietnamese-American writers like me. I believe literary fiction has a great deal to add to the voices describing Vietnamese history. I hope my writing is of the humanity of this history. I don't wish to write about politics per se, and I don't want to use the literary art to crusade for any particular cause. I think that would kill the literary art.

Question: How and when did you come to the U.S.?

Duong: Via the U.S. airlift, five days before the fall of Saigon. I was 16.

Question: Tell us about your family and their influences.

Duong: My father was a professor of linguistics at the University of Saigon, Faculty of Letters. He continued his teaching career in the U.S. but in a different discipline. My mother was a teacher of Vietnamese literature, who left her family in order to teach at Faifo, a port town adjacent to a war zone. She saw her students pulled into the war and various sides of the ideological battle. The port town of Faifo was a meeting place between east and west, where international traders and the missionaries first set foot in that part of the world, on their voyage from India to China. I consider my mother's action quite feministic for her time: leaving home to teach and rejecting a pre-arranged marriage in the name of love. She married my father in Faifo for love. But despite this independent spirit, she has remained a very traditional woman faithful to Confucian values all her life. I was born in Faifo. I also should point out that both of my grandmothers were influential in every endeavor I have undertaken in my life, including my creative writing, even though neither could read or write even their native tongue, Vietnamese. This was not unusual for their generation -- the generation of Vietnamese women coming from the villages of Vietnam, born at the turn of the century. Yet, this was the generation that survived and bore the bloodshed of continuous warfare. My paternal grandmother died in California. My maternal grandmother died in Saigon, only a few years after the communist takeover.

Question: How has your profession as a lawyer affected your work as a writer?

Duong: Currently, I am a law professor. I have been making a living and maintaining my professional standing in the law for 20 years, at all times maintaining my commitment to excellence in the law. It has been a hard struggle to combine law and art, and the combination at times has been exhausting. But I never compromised excellent performance in the law. This is very important to me because, although I did not choose this role, it happened that I was the first Vietnamese American female in various places within the law. This distinguishes me from other lawyer-cum-writers.

To me, law is a beautiful end in itself – containing notions of freedom, liberty, and justice for all. I will never give up working with the law. It is not just a day job. If I had wanted just a regular job to earn a living, I could have done something far less demanding and concentrated on my writing at night.

I do not want to do that. Other writers may think of law as a day job, in which they plug themselves to wait for that commercial break with their novel. That's not how I want to live my life. When I say I can do both law and art, I will do both.

I have found it is possible to combine both. It all depends on the writer's level of determination and sacrifice. It turned out that all my professional life I have dealt with the conflicting demands of both the law and art, internally and externally. In my various law jobs, for example, I have had to fight a bias that as an artist I did not take my law job seriously. Wrong. This bias was enhanced because I was a Southeast Asian woman living with those cultural stereotypes. Further, the law is restrictive, and art is free, and the creative processes are different. I wrote about this conflict between law and art in my scholarly research work on law and literature. Yet, in many ways I have found that for me the worlds of law and art compliment each other.

The Art of Uyen Nicole Duong

I call my L’Art Brut, "Subconscious Painting," because quite often, I start out not knowing what kind of images I want to create. I usually spend the first 20 minutes experimenting freely with strokes and colors, with no elaborate preparation or concentration. Quite often, after about 20 minutes of exploration, I begin to see a theme or an object emerge on the surface--it could be something that I have seen before, maybe just a vague recollection. I then focus on refining and developing that object or theme, or use my imagination to sketch a scene. Hence, many of my paintings are totally unplanned.

After I finished my first novel, Daughters of the River Huong, I found myself being drawn toward images that seemed to match the scenes I had imagined for my novel, but this recognition only came either after I had finished the artworks, or half way through the creative process. So, I decided to name these pieces after the motifs and characters of my novel--that was conscious. The beginning of the painting process was still very much subconscious.

In the subconscious process, I often found that when the images finally emerged, many times, very strangely, the line between East and West became blurred or the images of East and West were combined in my artworks, yet I could not explain why or how. I have to conclude that the subconscious mind works in incomprehensible ways. For example, in "the two faces of Eve the Vietnamese dancer," the image of a Vietnamese woman emerged, but somehow I could not resist the urge to have her wear a flamenco skirt, and no longer the traditional Vietnamese ao dai. --Uyen Nicole Duong

Click on thumbnails for larger images

The two faces of Eve the Vietnamese dancer Couturier woman and dresses


The mystique concubine


Three magnolias, two sisters, and one onlooker Three-magnolias, two sisters and one onlooker The two sisters of the River Huong, turning toward the future and reminiscing the past


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