The Mountains Sing – Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

“Somehow I was sure that if people were willing to read each other, and see the light of other cultures, there would be no war on earth.”

The Mountains Sing is a wonderful novel that tells the story of the Tran family, as seen through the eyes of the matriarch and her granddaughter. It takes place in Viet Nam during the numerous occupations, starting with the French occupation and ending after America leaves the Viet Nam war. The story looks at the various losses that occur during the turmoil, what happens during Communist occupation, and what happens when the South and North come together again.

I cannot express how lovely this novel is. It is heartfelt and beautiful. The story does not shy away from family turmoil or how much a hard and difficult life can affect people in various ways. The family dynamics are complex and intricate. There is no simple answer in the pages of this novel, just the unwinding of how war can put stress on various relationships. I was impressed by the way Quế Mai used the family to show off how complicated and hypocritical families can be. There were those that were angry and loud at a family member for doing something they were guilty of. There were hurtful things said and forgiveness freely given. There were moments when they discussed family dynamics and being resentful of one another. And it all made so much sense. It was lovely to see the complexities of one family where you really lived in the novel and understood where people were coming from.

This leads me to the next, and most difficult part for me. This is a novel written by a Vietnamese person about a war that affected her people She incorporated stories from families she heard about rowing up This is a complicated story about a complicated history. And in all honesty, I wasn’t expecting it. A lot of the media we get about the Viet Nam war is put into the American history of it all, we are told about the men who refused to go to war and how many politicians knew this war could never be won. And yet we never look at it from the war of a people who were fighting each other. It’s complicated and messy. This story often takes out Americans altogether, focusing more on the strife that this brought on Vietnamese people. And reading this novel, I am a bit shocked we don’t tell more stories along these lines, to make us understand what happened in another country that does not centralize America. It was beautiful and necessary, and I am so glad I read this book. It came at a moment when I recently listened to a 99% Invisible episode on the Vietnamese flag, and how while I was listening I had a lightbulb moment that they were talking about the Viet Nam war, and that realization was shocking to me. How did I not just understand? How bad is my schooling? And the answer is, relatively bad. In reading, and in life, we are often taught to compare a book to our history, to make sure we “empathize” with the characters. But it is important to make sure that you don’t always read a story that puts the focus on your own history, but on the outside world. The quote at the beginning and quote at the end were inspiring because it points out our blind spots and our need to empathize with others and learn about their cultures and their stories.

“[I]t didn’t matter how long or short we lived. It mattered more how much light we were able to shed on those we loved and how many people we touched with our compassion.”

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