Thursday 25 May 2023

Elaine Chiew Interviews Khanh Ha, author of prize-winning short story collection All The Rivers Flow Into The Sea.

About the Book:

From Vietnam to America, All the Rivers Flow into the Sea is a short story collection, jewel- like, evocative, and layered, brings to readers a unique sense of love and passion alongside tragedy and darker themes of peril. The titular story features a love affair between an unlikely duo pushing against barely surmountable cultural barriers. In “The Yin-Yang Market,” magical realism and the beauty of innocence abounds in deep dark places, teeming with life and danger. “A Mute Girl’s Yarn” tells a magical coming- of-age story like sketches in a child’s fairy book.

Bringing together the damned, the unfit, the brave who succumb to the call of fate, this collection is a great journey where redemption and human goodness arise out of violence and beauty to become part of an essential mercy. It was selected as a winner of the 2021 EastOver Prize for Fiction and received much advanced praise.

About the Author:

Award winning author Khanh Ha is a nine-time Pushcart nominee, finalist for The Ohio State University Fiction Collection Prize, Mary McCarthy Prize, Many Voices Project, Prairie Schooner Book Prize, The University of New Orleans Press Lab Prize, Prize Americana, and The Santa Fe Writers Project. He is the recipient of the Sand Hills Prize for Best Fiction, The Robert Watson Literary Prize in Fiction, The Orison Anthology Award for Fiction, The James Knudsen Prize for Fiction, The C&R Press Fiction Prize, The EastOver Fiction Prize, The Blackwater Press Fiction Prize, The Gival Press Novel Award, and The Red Hen Press Fiction Award. 


EC: This collection was a finalist for several prizes and a winner of the EastOver Prize, and your stories have been nominated for the Pushcart nine times:  how did you select the particular ones to include in this collection amongst so many others you’ve written? 

KH: The short stories in this collection go back as far as ten years. In that span I had written and published about thirty stories, several of them having won fiction awards, e.g., The Woman-Child; Night, This River; and A Mute Girl’s Yarn. Then a few years ago I had thought of putting them together in a collection. That thought entertained me for a while and I left it there for my busy schedule of writing a novel. After the novel was finished, I revisited the idea of the short-story collection. I asked myself, what stories should I pick? I took time to review the stories and found a number of them sharing something in common—a motif. Love and its heartbreaking loss. I decided to use those stories as the mainstay of the collection for their common thread. Then I was faced with another question: What other stories should I bring in to round it up? In the end I chose three stories, namely, The Dream CatcherThe Devil’s Mask, and A Mute Girl’s Yarn. In them you have the nostalgia for one’s beloved country now lost; love and compassion for someone deprived of his human dignity; and love and sympathy for someone physically handicapped. And that’s the genesis of this collection.


EC: The history of the Vietnam War figures heavily in many of the stories. Are there insights with representing the burden of this history that you’d like to share?

KH: I researched most of my stories until I felt confident that I could write them. The rest came from a novelist’s imagination, and this is where you must separate your journalist’s self from your novelist’s self: you research to write fiction—not non-fiction.

I’m a perfectionist and the harshest critic of myself. I have to know everything about what I’m going to write before I ever pen the first word. For these stories, I took time to research the locales I was writing about. All I needed was time to absorb all the details from my research and let them crystalize into an image full of shades and colors and ambiance, which sets up the mood for the stories.


EC: One story strategy I’ve noticed you employ was in the titular story, All the Rivers Flow into the Sea, where the burden of representing war history was sifted through the lens of a love story. This story embeds the lesser-known violent history often inflicted on American officers working with the USAID pacification programme in the skirmishes with the Viet Cong. Would you like to say a few things about the juxtaposition of war history with love stories?

KH: The human touch manifest in a man-woman relationship exists in all of my novels, i.e., Flesh, The Demon Who Peddled Longing, Mrs. Rossi’s Dream—and in the forthcoming award-winning novel HER: The Flame Tree. Much as good versus evil is juxtaposed with the violence of war stories, I can’t resist bringing in the tender side of a love story in all the various shades of human love. Perhaps I’m more attracted to the man-woman love relationship in the complex spectrum of human love. Call me a romantic. In the back of my mind always percolates the love story in A Farewell to Arms and Love in the Time of Cholera.


EC: My favourite story, The Yin-Yang Market, has a fabulist bent to conclude what’s one of the saddest stories I’d read. It gives such hope to leaven this sadness. Is the Yin-Yang Market invented or drawn from Vietnamese mythology? 

KH: As a child, I lived in Huế, 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 ancient 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.” I shared with my readers the Vietnamese folktales in The Yin-Yang Market, its essential narrative being part of the magical realism I inherited from my grandparents and my parents. I never wondered what’s real and what’s unreal when I read One Hundred Years of Solitude, because I found myself immersed in its phantasmagoria.


EC: Do you often employ mythology in your stories, and what narrative power do you think it lends?

KH: You can’t embrace this type of culture if your vision of a novel does not fit it. You can’t write it if your fictional taste is someplace else. If you are brought up in a culture full of magical realism like that of Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries, you will feel blessed and find yourself appreciating One Hundred Years of Solitude, or A Place Where the Sea Remembers, more than ever.


EC: Your prose is so clean that images rise out in sharp relief, and the first story The Woman-Child as well as the titular story, particularly remind me of Mishima’s style. Who are your literary influences? 

KH: I love books populated with characters that make me care as a reader. I read literary fiction. I might read trash here and there, but as I read them, I make mental notes of how trashy they are so I can be aware of such pitfalls. A writer must write from his heart out of love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice as William Faulkner once said. As the writer builds his make-believe world, he must write about the truth in his fabricated lies. Books that deal with truth, deal with the human heart and the individual self-realization. Those who write about them with all their soul and compassion have influenced me as another writer. I hope I can uphold such truth.

But I believe that writers have an influence on one another. Influence, not inspiration.  Maybe someday what I wrote might influence some aspiring writers. But influences change with a writer’s age. For me there were two books I read at the age of nine: Pinocchio and The Count of Monte Cristo. I always trust my childhood memory, and for many years the vivid images from those books weren’t erased— real characters, human nature, human twists of fate. As a teen, I read The Izu Dancer by Yasunari Kawabata, Rain by Somerset Maugham, and The Snows of Kilimanjaro by Hemingway. They haunt like a good long book. I read The Sound and the Fury by Faulkner and found myself envying him. All these have influenced me.


EC: I really enjoyed the sense of familiarity I got from reading about the painstaking way an opium pipe was prepared or the peddling of snake gallbladder as traditional Chinese medicine. It’s not first-hand experience; I suppose this familiarity is bequeathed through research into one’s cultural heritage. How important do you think it is to tell our own stories, and how do you see them traveling across cultural dimensions (is it bridge or gate?)

KH: Ambiance is the sheer force in a novel. Without it, a story, a novel feels barren. The mood brings fiction to life, and what flame the mood are tastes, touches, smells, sights, and sounds. All five. The practice of Eastern medicine or the surreal atmospheric setting of an opium den in the Far East will come through to reinforce one’s cultural heritage only if a writer can deliver it successfully through the five senses. If done right, he will impart his creative imagination to his readers, regardless of cultural barriers.


EC:  You’ve also written three novels, Mrs. Rossi’s Dream (The Permanent Press, 2019), The Demon Who Peddled Longing (Underground Voices, 2014) and Flesh (Black Heron Press, 2012). To your mind, how is writing a novel different from short stories? 

KH: When writing short stories, you work in a confined space; so everything should be concise and economical, much like journalism writing in that aspect. In short stories, you deal with a small cast of characters and a small number of scenes. If you start out as a short story writer then later on try your hand at writing a novel, you will carry with you those virtues that you’ve acquired previously—being concise, economical, and to the point. However, what you will learn in writing novel is patience. Do not look forward to finishing it in three days. You will also learn to be the manager of a much larger cast of characters, to get to know them, and to make them relatable to your readers. If you start out as a novelist then switch to writing short stories, you must discard the bad habits you’ve acquired from writing a novel. You can’t ramble. You can’t be redundant. There is a great adjustment you must make moving from novel to short story; but in the end you’ll come out a better writer. I must say a true writer is one who can write novels and short stories, and is equally good at both.

EC: What’s next on your project radar, Khanh?

KH: It’s a novel about the siege of Dien Bien Phu, one of the most talked-about battles of the Vietnam conflict against the French Union. And nested in it is a love story. 


* NB: All The Rivers Flow Into the Sea can be bought at the following outlets:

EastOver Press


Barnes & Noble