Tag Archives: Writing

Speaking about Sudan novel at Vancouver Public Library

By Alison Bate

Hi! I’ll be joining four other authors at the Vancouver Public Library this Sunday to talk about my upcoming debut novel.

The novel’s set in Sudan, where I taught English for a while, and tells the story of three very different women confronting their individual fears. Fatima, the second of three wives, faces poverty; her cousin Nadia fears for the health of her Down’s baby; and Jodi, a travel-loving westerner, fears a conventional life.

I write about the Muslim way of life in the tri-cities of Omdurman, Khartoum and Khartoum North (Bahri), a capital region dealing with the aftermath of civil wars, blazing desert heat, power cuts and constant traffic jams.

I’ll be reading from my novel and answering any questions at the New Voices event, along with four other authors: Suzanne Chiasson, Roxanne Barbour, AK White and Joan B Flood.


Date: Sunday, April 30, 2017 from 2 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Venue: Vancouver Public Library, 350 W. Georgia St., Vancouver. B.C. Alma VanDusen Room, Lower Level.
Price: Free!

Section of Muoi Trong Nguyen's "War" painting (2015)

War, peace and the artist: Muoi Trong Nguyen

By Alison Bate

The corpses filled the river valley, their hands stretched toward the sky.

It was 1979 and Hanoi artist Muoi Trong Nguyen had been sent north to the border with China to record the war scenes for historical purposes. The fighting between China and Vietnam lasted less than a month, but in that short time, more than 30,000 soldiers died in the conflict, also known as the Third Indochina War.

He spent months after the battle ended, sketching and painting watercolors on site, but it’s this image of the hands of the corpses stretched toward the sky that stays with him. Sadly, he says the paintings no longer exist or are in the hands of the military.

Pix Muoi Trong Nguyen and Thang Tran

Artist Muoi Trong Nguyen (left) with translator Thang Tran at Writing Across Generations in Hanoi, April 2016

Western visitors to Vietnam often focus on the aftermath of the “American War”, as it is known here, or perhaps the colonial period, when France colonized the country. But to most Vietnamese nowadays, these wars are events from the past. Any current fears or threats are focussed on its neighbor China, based on its past invasions, current maritime ambitions and, of course, tempered by a booming trade between the two countries.

Nguyen, who writes in Vietnamese under the name Nguyen Trong Thap*, has brought out a new memoir “Noi Chim” that gives a fascinating glimpse of personal life in north Vietnam during the land reforms, the American War, and his time in the military and as an artist. He read excerpts from “Noi Chim” (Sinking and Swimming) and answered questions at a special reading at Hanoi Cooking Centre in April. At the event “Across the Generations”, he was joined by poet Nguyen Thi Hong Van and blogger and copywriter Yuki Phan, with Thang Tran translating.

He told us that he grew up poor in a farming family in the My Hao district of Hung Yen province, east of Hanoi, the youngest of 10 children. He always wanted to be an artist, but life did not turn out as he planned. At the age of 16, he enrolled in art school in Hanoi but less than six months in, was unceremoniously expelled – caught between a rock and a hard place.  In his memoir, he describes how the art school told him he needed to be on the Hanoi resident register to stay, but the district police would grant it only if he handed in the school’s acceptance letter.

“I had to pack up everything and leave, in tears and to the ridicule of friends. Perhaps they would be happy after all, even without my presence. Only I swallowed the pain that would last until my death,” he writes.

“Angry and lonesome, I limped away from class across the school yard, my eyes swollen up, taking a last look at the trees, the chairs, the garden’s statues. I entered the dormitory to pack up. It was empty and quiet. Seeing my dear bed, I flushed away the tears. Everything long gone, no more dreams, no more future and career. Bitter and humiliated.”

Back home in the countryside, he gradually pulled his self-esteem together. Opening his piggy bank, he counted 10 dong and took some to buy paper and art supplies. He began drawing for Lunar New year and for weddings. His father now ran a tailor shop in Hanoi and Nguyen hung his paintings on the wall, in front of the house.  Sometimes he drew from dusk to dawn, and his business began to flourish.

Section of Muoi Trong Nguyen's

Section of Muoi Trong Nguyen’s “War” painting (2015), showing after-effects of bombing during the American War, now hanging in a museum in Nghe An province, Vietnam.

But military events punctuated his life. He was only 20 when he joined the North Vietnamese Army in the 1970s. During the American War, Nguyen spent three years in the Truong Son Mountains, working behind the front lines, tasked with ensuring smooth radio communications.

At one time he caught malaria and was lost in the jungle for five days. To cross one particularly heavy river, he blew up a plastic bag and floated across. He eventually emerged in an area where naked female revolutionaries were bathing, he told the audience. They gave him short shrift, furious that he’d invaded their privacy.

Now officially retired, Nguyen still meets with former army colleagues once a year, and his painting work continues. Late last year, he finished two enormous “War and Peace” paintings for a museum in Nghe An province in north Central Vietnam. One shows the peaceful pastoral scene before the American bombing and the other, the wrecked post-war landscape.

* Vietnamese names use the surname first.

[Notes: Muoi Trong Nguyen has been my friend since 2014. Noi Chim was published by Nha Xuat Ban Hoi Nha Van in December 2015]

Muoi Trong Nguyen with his

Muoi Trong Nguyen with his “Peace” painting (2015), one of a pair now hanging in a museum in Nghe An province, Vietnam

Pix Alison Bate

Writing in Hanoi

Author and writing instructor Julie Ferguson asked me to write a guest blog about my experience writing a novel while living overseas. Here’s the article in full:

Hanoi is a surprisingly good place to write a book.

The capital of Vietnam boasts good coffee shops with Wifi, teaching jobs where you don’t have to work too hard to cover rent, and the jostle of 3.5 million other motorbikes that stimulates creativity.

It’s a total contrast to my home on Bowen Island in western Canada, where deer roam the yard and only the whining of chainsaws breaks the peace.

Writing in two very different settings, I’ve realised that wherever I live there are other writers around to help during the long, lonely journey of working on a first draft.

My roommate Tom introduced me to the Hanoi Writers Collective in April 2012, and throughout the next 12 months, the expat group became the lifeline that kept my novel moving along.

We were a mixed bunch, coming from different countries and writing in very different genres. Andy Engelson was writing an epic novel based in the U.S. Pacific Northwest; Diederik Prakke, about Buddhists in love; Mary Croy and Liz Burgess, sci-fi for young adults; Charlotte Adams, poetry; and Linda Mazur, a nonfiction study of the early Vietnamese architects in Hanoi.

And I was (and still am!) writing a novel set in modern Sudan, where I taught in 2007 and re-visited in 2011. Our members also attended Noi Ha Noi, where Vietnamese and English-speaking poets, writers, and storytellers read their work in their native language. The Vietnamese poetry was then translated into English and vice versa. A tough challenge for the translators!

Our main writing group met every two weeks and we took it in turns to bring in a writing prompt, free-write for 20 minutes or so, then read our poetry or prose out loud. Afterward, we critiqued each other’s work, emailed to others in advance. (Ed: not all groups follow this format.)

From these sessions, I learned:

* Even if colleagues write in a very different genre, you can still help each other. Poets helped me appreciate the sounds of words and creative writers encouraged me to use my imagination.

* If at least two people make the same suggestion, it’s a good idea to explore it. For example, my novel was originally written  in third person from one point of view, but is now told from three points of view. It’s much stronger, as a result.

* Meeting regularly encouraged me to write a new chapter each time, and actually finish it – instead of lazily writing “snappy ending goes here”.

* If there isn’t a writing group where you live, you can always start one. I’ve spent the summer back on Bowen Island and a small group of us are now sharing our writing.

I’m heading back to Hanoi shortly, and look forward to reconnecting with the other writers – and keeping the novel moving toward the finish line.

Online tips at Bowen Island writing festival

By Alison Bate

I learned about Freemiums and Long Tails on Saturday while moderating a panel at the Write on Bowen festival on Bowen Island, near Vancouver, B.C.

WriteBowen logo2As traditional media outlets struggle to make money on the web, panelist Lisa Manfield said Freemium was one way for companies to adapt. Freemium involves promoting services by offering basic features for free, but charging a premium for extra features.

Manfield, managing editor at Orato.com, also gave a great workshop on Writing for the Web on Sunday. She teaches web writing for Simon Fraser University’s Writing and Publishing Program, and managed to pack an incredible amount of useful information into a short time. Continue reading

Bowen Island’s festival kicks off

“I’m one of those people who embellishes everything,” Vancouver Poet Laureate George McWhirter told the first-ever festival for the written arts on Bowen Island this weekend.

“I can’t leave anything alone,” he said, before launching into a series of poems on opening night at Cates Hill Chapel.

McWhirter’s memories as a small boy, seeing oranges for the first time washed up on a beach, set the scene for his poem “Overboard”. While being bitten by a lady bug (“Twice!” he noted indignantly) morphed into “The Rouge and the Black.”

Arts council executive director Jacqueline Massey, making the introductions, quoted one of McWhirter’s previous observations: “A poem is anything you look at twice.”

The Write on Bowen! Festival was the brainchild of Carol Cram and showcased a mixture of island poets, writers, and songwriters.

After a full day of workshops and panels on Saturday, festival goers gathered on Sunday to walk in the Lieben Lands, a legendary writers’ retreat where notables such as Malcolm Lowry, Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, and Eric Nicol worked and played.

Opening night was MC’d by the multitalented 17-year-old Calder Stewart. First up was author James Glave, who read an excerpt from his newly published book “Almost Green: How I Built an Eco-Shed, Ditched my SUV, Alienated the In-Laws, and Changed my Life Forever”.

In one section, six terrified males – The Green Team Extreme – try to move The Tankosaurus”, a behemoth rainwater storage tank, into position.

As a last resort, he’s forced to back his golden-pearl premium edition Lexus RX-300 into position to help move the tank and save the day. It seemed serendipitous that the SUV he was trying to ditch should play a leading role, he said. “It was as if the Lexus and I had made our peace.”

Lisa Shatsky read six poems, including “On Not Reading Newspapers” and “Tell Us Something Nice”, dedicating them to Bowen’s beloved Ross Carter, who died June 29 at the age of 79.

Songwriter Julie Vik performed two of her songs, closing with “Shudder”, as an alder tree grasps for life.

Perhaps the spirit of the festival could best be summed up by one of Bernice Lever’s poems, “Going For the Gold”, which she performed Friday night. It notes that sports and science set their benchmarks. . .

    “yet in the arts
    world-class achievement glows forever:
    a shine to spur others
    to their own excellence
    not to better or to bury others
    but to achieve their own brightness”