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World-Renowned Vietnamese Author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai Shares the Power of Stories with SSIS Students

Tanya Olander

Captivated by her every word, students sat breathlessly in our auditorium while author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai read aloud from her book, shared stories of her process, and implored them to not forget their heritage.

When SSIS high school English teacher Tuan Phan recently learned that the author of the critically-acclaimed book “The Mountains Sing,” Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai would be in Vietnam, he knew he had to find a way for our students to hear her.

Poet Ms. Nguyễn’s first novel in English, “The Mountains Sing,” gained widespread international recognition when it was published in 2020. The poignant story is an intimate tale of one family’s struggle through generations of war.

High school students in the auditorium listen to Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai reading from The Mountains Sing

Students listen as Ms. Nguyễn reads an excerpt from her book.

As many of us grapple to make sense of the world, Ms. Nguyễn’s personal account of how writing helped her to find forgiveness, connect to and celebrate her home country and give agency to the forgotten voices, instilled the audience with a powerful message. 

Teachers Mr. Phan and Ms. Coquillard flank Ms. Nguyen as she answers students questions.

Ms. Nguyễn, flanked by Mr. Phan and Ms. Amy Coquillard, SSIS teachers who arranged the event, answers students’ questions after her reading.

“My pages are filled not just with the ink of my pen, but the tears of the hundreds of women who told me their life stories,” she told students. Not until we humanize their experiences from their point of view, can we fully understand the toll that war exacts on society, she added, emphasizing the importance of sharing her people’s stories in their own voices.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai signs her book for a student in the high school library

Ms. Nguyễn signing books for students in the high school library.

Although “The Mountains Sing,” is Ms. Nguyễn’s first novel in English, she has authored several books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction in Vietnamese and received the 2010 Poetry of the Year Award from the Hanoi Writers Association, the Capital’s Literature & Arts Award, and First Prize in the Poetry Competition celebrating 1,000 Years of Hanoi. 

“The Mountains Sing” earned Ms. Nguyễn widespread international recognition. Named the most anticipated novel of the year by the New York Times and the Washington Post, it also won several prestigious awards including the 2021 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award and the 2021 International Book Awards (Literary Fiction and Multicultural Fiction categories). 

“I want them to see a model of an artist who lives to write and to think in language, who hopes to share her perspective on the world, who has been engaged with the world around her with her message of peace and sharing of cultures and understanding,” Mr. Phan explained.

Toward the end of her talk, Ms. Nguyễn left students with a simple yet powerful message about the importance of using their voices to preserve their heritage and culture: “I hope that you, students at this amazing school, will use your language to tell your stories.”

Thank you to Tuan Phan who contributed to this story!

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