Questions and Topics for Discussion
Mai and her father, Minh, are Vietnamese immigrants living in suburban Virginia. Unlike many of their compatriots, they were fortunate enough to escape Saigon just before it fell to Communist forces in 1975. Yet, while more than thirty years have passed since Mai and Minh began their journey West, neither has healed from the war that tore both their country and their family apart.
Mai, a law school graduate, works as a librarian at a prestigious law firm. Childless and unmarried, she is content to live modestly with her father in “Sleepy Hollow Manor, a small complex housing an amalgam of transplants dislocated and displaced from the world over” (p. 19). There, Mrs. An, a fellow Vietnamese immigrant, helps Mai care for her ailing father.
Nearing the end of his life and ravaged by decades of combat and hardship, Minh struggles to make sense of the past. When he first fell in love with Mai’s mother, Quy, Minh was a young man ready to make his fortunes in the world and soon became an officer with the South Vietnamese army. He was loyal to the Catholic President Ngo Dinh Diem, but “the South was a loose archipelago . . . seething with its particular desires, fractious babble, and fierce passion” (p. 26).
After a military coup financed by the American government ousts President Diem in 1963, Minh would have faced certain death had his old friend Phong, a powerful supporter of the new regime, not intervened to save him. Quy is grateful to Phong, but Minh feels uneasy about being indebted to a man he no longer trusts.
Minh’s new duties force him to work closely with American forces and he is often away from the family home in Cholon. Fortunately for Mai and her sister, Khanh, their elegant and beautiful mother is also a hard-nosed businesswoman. Aided by the girls’ beloved Chinese nanny, Quy runs their household in Minh’s absence.
Minh adores Quy, but wishes she valued allegiance to the South over loyalty to her family. Quy’s youngest brother, Uncle Number Five, is Vietcong, and therefore the enemy. He visits in secret, yet Minh disapproves of his presence, especially since Phong and John Clifford, a high-ranking American military advisor, are also frequent visitors.
In the early days of the conflict, Mai has a child’s limited awareness of the wider world. She and Khanh become friends with an American serviceman named James Baker. He brings the two girls rock and roll and Wrigley’s gum, and they, in turn, teach James to speak Vietnamese. But when the unimaginable happens, Mai’s world is split as profoundly as her war-torn nation.
The Lotus and the Storm, Lan Cao’s long-awaited follow-up to her acclaimed debut novel, alternates between Mai and Minh’s past and present to illuminate the irremediable human cost of the conflict in Vietnam. With power and eloquence, Cao reminds us all that wartime tragedies continue to haunt the hearts and minds of its victims long after armistice has been declared.ABOUT LAN CAO
Lan Cao is a novelist and a renowned expert in international law, trade, and economic development. A professor of law at the Dale E. Fowler School of Law at Chapman University in Orange, CA. She lives in southern California.A CONVERSATION WITH LAN CAO1. The chapter that opens the novel is titled “The Tale of Kieu.” Is The Lotus and the Storm intended to be a modern retelling of Kieu’s story?
Yes. There are common themes in both stories—personal morality, female chastity, fidelity and personal obligations, for example. Interestingly, The Tale of Kieu was written by Nguyen Du during a time when Vietnam was also divided into two parts. Since the early seventeenth century, Vietnam was controlled in the North by the Trinh feudal family and the South by the Nguyen. In the midst of social and political turmoil, many questions arose concerning the obligations of nationalists—for example, whether nationalists generally (or in a more gendered context, women in particular) should “prostitute” themselves for a higher cause, however defined. Both The Tale of Kieu and The Lotus and the Storm grapple with these complications.2. The female protagonists of both The Lotus and the Storm and Monkey Bridge are both named Mai. What is the connection between the two women?
I had two best friends in Vietnam. One was a boy from India named Jubeer. Another was a girl named Mai. In addition, Mai is a common Vietnamese name. It is also the name of a precious yellow flower that blooms during Tet, the Vietnamese lunar new year. As such, it is associated with hope, optimism, and renewal.
3. Like Mai, you graduated from law school, but do not practice. Why did you opt to teach instead? How do your wartime experiences inform your law career?
I did practice in litigation and corporate law with a large New York City law firm after graduating from law school. But when the Soviet Union disintegrated and the Berlin Wall collapsed, I was drawn to exploring issues of law and development that are more conducive to an academic career. So I made the switch. The rule of law (as opposed to the use of force) in resolving disputes and promoting development, particularly for poverty alleviation and human rights, is a topic I am very interested in. 4. Do you think you would have become a novelist if you hadn’t lived through the Vietnam War and its aftermath?
That is an intriguing question and one that is hard to answer. I feel compelled to write about loss, upheaval, hyphenated identities, and war, especially how the U.S. fought the war in Vietnam and has continued to fight its many wars in non-European countries since then. These issues are my demons precisely because I lived through one such war and its aftermath. So I’ve turned to writing because of my experience. But because I love reading, I might still have been drawn to writing fiction, though perhaps fiction with a different sensibility.
5. Quy is torn between love for her husband, Minh, a South Vietnamese army officer, and her younger brother, Uncle Number Five, who is a member of the Vietcong. Was it unusual to have such divided family loyalties during the War?
I don’t think it was uncommon. My mother had a brother who was a Vietcong. I have friends who had similar divided loyalties within the family. A friend of mine told me her family’s story, which also echoed mine. Her family was North Vietnamese, and her parents fled to the South when Vietnam was divided in 1954. Her mother’s brother remained and became a soldier in the North Vietnamese army. At the end of the war, my friend’s family, who had been living in Saigon since 1954, couldn’t escape and remained in the South (until 1978 when they were finally able to flee the country by boat). Their North Vietnamese uncle came to visit them and was astounded that the situation in South Vietnam was nothing like what he had been told by North Vietnamese propaganda. He was surprised to encounter a modern, relatively advanced country that was nothing like the broken, poverty-stricken South he was told he had to liberate. My friend’s family, particularly the mother, ended up comforting her brother because he felt betrayed by the cause he had fought for.
6. In Vietnam, are there still tensions between those who fought—or whose families fought—on opposing sides of the war?
I can speak of my own family. My uncle who was a Vietcong remained in Vietnam after 1975. I have visited him there several times. We were very close, so there was no tension. His son, my cousin, was a ranger in the South Vietnamese family. There might have been some unavoidable tension between father and son, as they were literally taking up arms against each other during the war. But even then, they agreed to put family above wartime divisions. And after the war, when my cousin visited his father in Vietnam, they agreed to avoid the topic. However, on a political level, we have a starkly different picture. Southerners were not trusted and were removed from positions of power or authority after Northern victory and conquest. Even Southern Communists or Vietcong were mistrusted and imprisoned. As I wrote in my novel, both the institution of a centrally planned economy onto the South and the desire to punish the South were ruthlessly implemented. Reforms were not instituted until the mismanaged economy collapsed. Even now, the levers of power remain in Northern hands.7. In your novel, a poster of Ho Chi Minh displayed in Los Angeles’s Little Saigon district causes a wave of protests and outrage. Are there ways in which expatriate Vietnamese communities have been slower to heal from their wartime traumas than those who remained in Vietnam?
I think the older generation of the Vietnamese diaspora understandably has a harder time healing. Some were in reeducation camps after the war for many years. Some had been refugees twice over—first when they left everything in the North to start over in the South in 1954. Some risked everything and fled Vietnam by boat after the war ended in 1975. So it was hard for them to see a poster of Ho Chi Minh in the very place they had come to for sanctuary. Those who remained in Vietnam, at least in South Vietnam, had no choice but to move on. Many of the South Vietnamese soldiers who stayed are among the poorest in Vietnam, often working many hours as cyclo drivers for very little money. Their children are pariahs. They might have tried to escape but couldn’t. I think when you have very little choice, you simply cope, as the majority of the world’s poor do every day.8. Your descriptions of food and the act of eating (e.g. Phong plucking bits of meat from his pho to give Minh; Thu eating a mangosteen) are rich with emotional undercurrents. Do you think that the Vietnamese have a different relationship with food than Americans?
I don’t know if the Vietnamese have a culturally distinct relationship to food, one that is different from the Americans. But I do know the Vietnamese eat constantly. They don’t just go to the food. The food comes to them, to their very doorstep. It is very common in Vietnam to have itinerant food peddlers hawk delicious food door-to-door, even elaborate dishes that are made fresh on a clay stove right outside one’s house. Most Vietnamese food takes care, time, and effort to prepare and cook. There is a time-consuming ritual of chopping and simmering. So the act of making the food (at least at home) is often a tender loving act. Very intense. And tropical fruits, such as the durian or the mangosteen, are themselves intense fruits, pungent and deeply flavorful. In many countries in Southeast Asia, it is forbidden to carry the durian inside a taxi, subway, or bus. The smell of most Vietnamese fruits and Vietnamese cooked food (such as the pho that Phong fed his friend) sticks to the air after the food is eaten.9. Like Mai and Minh, you left Saigon in 1975. How old were you then? When you return to visit, do you feel more like Mai, an assimilated American, or like Bao, a Vietnamese who considers herself home?
A few months before the fall of Saigon, I left with an American officer, a dear family friend, who adopted me and took me out of the country. I was thirteen years old. I lived with his family in Avon, Connecticut, until my parents arrived in the U.S. later. I wish that when I go to Vietnam, I would feel more like Bao, but alas, I feel more like Mai.10. Do you think that the American government will handle its withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq better than it did from Vietnam?
No. It is difficult for the U.S. to identify with and relate to the people of poor, non-European countries. Ultimately, countries act out of self-interest, and geopolitical power dynamics are paramount. I don’t have a problem with this reality. To me, it is “better” for a powerful country to be up front and to, let’s say, intervene when it serves its interests to do so, and to leave, when it serves its interests to do so (although of course, even when one leaves, how one leaves matters). But to use the language of human rights to justify the intervention, and then to disparage a country and its people in order to wash your hands of them is wrong.11. It’s been seventeen years since the publication of your first novel, Monkey Bridge. Are you planning to write another?
After Monkey Bridge, I was busy focusing on getting tenure. And then I was focused on being a mother and raising my child, who was born in 2002. I do feel inspired to write another novel and will start on one, hopefully, any time now.DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
- How familiar were you with the history of Vietnam before reading The Lotus and the Storm? Did Lan Cao’s novel change your perceptions about the war?
- Do you feel that there was a clear choice between the Communists and the Nationalists in 1955? If you had been a citizen of Vietnam, to whom do you think you might have pledged your allegiance?
- Why does Minh choose not to see that it was Quy rather than Phong who acted to save his life during the coup? Would Phong have let him die?
- Why does Minh deliberately turn a blind eye to Quy’s affair with Cliff? Does she love Cliff? On a different level, how does Minh’s relationship with Cliff represent Vietnam’s relationship with the U.S.?
- Despite her infidelities, does Quy ever truly love anyone beside Minh? Would Quy ever have willingly left Vietnam for any other man?
- Quy frequently wears purple clothing and Cao frequently describes the landscape of Vietnam as purple. What does the color symbolize?
- James’s attachment to Mai and Khanh changes his life, and Cliff becomes deeply involved with both Minh and Quy. Do you think that their experiences as Americans in Vietnam were unusual? Has the American government done enough to help veterans cope with the aftermath of the war?
- Why does Minh seek Cliff’s help for Mrs. An when he has rejected his former friend’s overtures for so many years? Why does he keep his contact with Cliff a secret from Mai?
- Why does Minh come to accept and even love Bao? If Bao is the storm of the title, then who is the lotus? Who or what does Cecile represent?
- After Thu’s suicide, Phong confesses everything to Minh. Is he hoping for forgiveness, or does he simply need to unburden himself?
- When Mai returns to Saigon to deposit her father’s ashes, she learns that James is still alive and living in the city. What does their time together mean to Mai? Would it be possible for them to have a future together?
- How—if at all—will Mai’s life be different when she returns to America?
- Cao suggests that the war in Iraq is the Vietnam War all over again. How similar are these conflicts? Is America or any nation capable of learning from its history?
- What is the significance of The Tale of Kieu in the novel? Are there parallels between this story, considered Vietnam’s national epic, and the famed Puccini opera Tosca that Quy loves?
- As a South Vietnamese soldier, how is Minh’s perception of America’s role and conduct in the war different from the many other perceptions of the war in the U.S.?
- The novel is narrated by Minh and by Mai. Why does the author choose not to have the mother tell her own story in her own words?
- If different characters can be understood both literally and metaphorically, what do you think Cliff, James Baker, and the parents represent? If the parents symbolize Vietnam, what do you think the father and the mother represent?