Interviewer: Nigel Featherstone
In Destination Saigon you write with such love for Vietnam, though it is a love that’s not uncritical. What was the original motivation for the book?
I had wanted to write a book about Vietnam since I was 26 years old, but fortunately I waited some years. The original motivation was my gorgeous partner Thang Ngo, who I have been with since I was nineteen. We kind of discovered Vietnam together, because he had left as a young child, and so going back was quite a foreign experience for him, too. Ultimately I was the one who became obsessed with the place, and it pretty much became my life. I learned Vietnamese, became a very serious student of Vietnamese Buddhism and just spent lots of time there, going back year after year, making real friends and establishing close relationships with his family and other people I met along the way – especially Buddhist monks and nuns. I’m not such a good Buddhist anymore – a backslider! – but I get better when I am in Vietnam. I’ve gotten a bit too tubby for all that bowing, though. Twice a month we are meant to do a repentance ceremony which involves 108 full prostrations – man, that takes it out of you! Especially if it’s 35 degrees out. So yeah, it was good old-fashioned love that took me to Vietnam. And once I was there I could never forget it.
But the book was originally going to be an account of Buddhism in modern Vietnam. My publisher at Allen & Unwin – the wonderful, now retired, Maggie Hamilton – thought that was a tough sell, and asked me to sketch out a more general book about the place which still incorporated my major passions. She loved what I presented, and so did everyone else there and a book was born. I think they thought it was going to be a spiritual travelogue, but when I finally submitted it they were shocked to discover it was kind of naughty and wide-ranging. They liked it more, then.
Can you explain what you mean by ‘naughty and wide-ranging’?
Well, naughtiness and spiritual transcendence are the two poles between which I wander. So I can spend a month in retreat, waking at 4am to meditate for hours, subsisting on one daily meal and spending my entire time in prayer. And then, the day the retreat ends, I will go out to celebrate with a bottomless jug of Kamikaze (a lethal and mysterious iced cocktail popular in South East Asia) at a drag bar, getting home at 5 am with a half-dozen brand-new friends. I am a reprobate and a saint simultaneously. It’s exhausting work.
My publisher was shocked to see that, having just read a chapter about my genuinely moving communion with the Bodhisattva of Compassion at a serene mountain nunnery, I go on to describe a drunken rampage with a gang of fishermen at a karaoke bar that night. I wake in the morning with a shirtless, tattooed tough staring down at me, and my Great-Aunt told me the scene made her uncomfortable when she read it. There’s no hope for me, I’m afraid. I always say my twin passions are monasteries and gay bars. I am also completely fascinated with other people’s lives – always have been. It takes me about 24 hours in a brand-new place before I am intimately involved with someone’s life drama.
I think it’s because I grew up in a small town, where a healthy interest in the affairs of everyone is a necessity. I have never been able to cultivate that big city sangfroid. I knock on doors and ask dumb questions and am willing to sit and watch and listen where others might wander off embarrassedly. I am also easily led and tend to say yes when people ask me to do things. There is an element of gaucherie, I suppose, but I think it stands me in good stead as a writer. It is not a cultivated skill or a clever talent, though. A pure accident of temperament.
I want to ask you about how you approached the writing of your two books. The stories seem to work as vignettes; they are almost tiles – when they are all put together they start to reveal the nations you’re investigating. Is that how you see it?
Yes, precisely. Each story is meant to be an essay that works all on its own, but that builds toward a greater understanding and a fuller picture – of the place, its culture and history, of my friends there and also, I must admit, me. It is very intentionally memoir. Someone told me that reading my books is like spending a drunken night out with me. The voice I use when writing is very much my own, real voice. I dread didacticism, and want people to have fun more than to ‘learn something’. I do think that people absorb more when they are having a good time, and that is what I hope happens in my writing. That said, one reviewer said that my books were ‘gently moral’. Perhaps I can’t escape my Methodist upbringing.
When I first wrote Destination Saigon it was organised in a much more conventional way – long chapters with beginnings, middle and ends. Maggie Hamilton saw through my dull old ruse and said, ‘There are fabulous stories hidden in here every couple of pages. Let’s just throw out the stuff connecting them.’ So we did – we went through and cut out tens of thousands of words, making it many small chapters. And then even I thought it was quite good. There is a sense of speed, of excitement and, occasionally, bizarreness, which matches my style perfectly. Suddenly it was recognisably me, and not just me copying the literary forms of everybody else. That’s where a good publisher comes in handy – they can see the other options and they are willing to take risks.
You mentioned memoir, which is interesting because both Destination Saigon and Destination Cambodia certainly have their memoir aspects, sometimes in ways that are quite emotionally explicit. Primarily do you see yourself as a memoirist or a travel writer?
I see myself primarily as a memoirist, but travel memoir is a growing area and the two mix perfectly. I really believe that the ‘journey’ aspect of travel writing is less interesting these days. People want to know more about relationships, understandings and circumstances, and less about the relentless number of cities you managed to visit with a mangle strapped to your unicycle. I am not a fast mover, and I like to stay awhile in places. I like to drift on the edges of life, and my writing reflects that. For me the best travel writing has always been as much about the author as about the place. One of my favourites is Gontran de Poncin’s From a Chinese City, which is all about a French count in the 1950s stopping in Saigon’s Chinatown and trying to make friends. Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala is another exquisite example – a family memoir as well as a constantly fascinating travelogue. And, of course, in Australia we have Robert Dessaix’s travel memoirs, which are superb and have had a huge influence on me.
I have noticed, too, the growth of travel fiction, which is very interesting, and I often dream about writing it myself. Australia has produced some excellent examples here, too – Felicity Castagna’s Small Indiscretions and Laura Jean McKay’s Holiday in Cambodia. Australians are addicted to travel, so it’s only natural that it should invade our literary space as well.
There’s a strong sense of melancholia in both Destination Saigon and Destination Saigon, especially in the latter. Why do you think that’s so?
Oh! So interesting that you noticed – some people don’t. I grew up in a rural area and was bullied mercilessly at school from the first day of Grade 1 up until I learned how to use my mouth and my wit to defend myself, and that wasn’t till I was 12 or 13. I am always fond of quoting the old Shirley Bassey song (latterly the Kath & Kim theme song): ‘There’s always a funny man, in the game, but he’s only funny by mistake/But everyone laughs at him just the same, they don’t hear his lonely heart break.’ I think at the heart of all humour is melancholy – in fact, an immense seriousness about life and its unfairness. This is why panels about humour at writers’ festivals are so rarely funny. Start digging beneath the skin of a funny person and you stumble upon a well of sadness. Is that mixing metaphors? This is what people who don’t ‘get’ humour always fail to realise. They think the only valid reaction is a frown and a stern chastisement.
I am really interested in this because I have some very dear friends who rarely laugh and who generally disapprove of anything that might induce a smirk. And yet I was raised in an environment in which anything but a smile was considered indulgent and impolite. People in small towns laugh and chat at funerals. Interestingly, this is how people in Vietnam and Cambodia also react to serious and even painful events. If someone falls and hurts themselves people will laugh, not out of cruelty but out of a desire to defuse the pain of a situation. It can take some getting used to.
So yeah, I hone in on sadness and I recognise it in others. My melancholy is probably greater in Cambodia because it is a place that is still dealing with its own trauma, and people have some very real problems, many of which are not addressed by the various forms of aid that flood into the country. Also, in a practical and selfish way, I was more alone there because I couldn’t speak Khmer, and so I felt my existence mediated through friends who helped me function. That can be immensely frustrating and also isolating. Travelling alone is always a fraught thing that leaves you too often in your own company, reflecting on your life and circumstances. Dangerous for a closet depressive like me.
What have you learnt about yourself from being a writer?
It seems cheesy to say it, but actually giving myself the time to finish a major piece of work has changed me immeasurably. I am very much a late bloomer – I am one of those who basically wasted his 20s and 30s and never applied himself properly to anything all. I went back to university at age 35 and finishing my honours thesis (on Queer motifs in the work of Sumner Locke Elliott) taught me that I could actually do something substantial. The offer to write Destination Saigon came almost immediately after that.
How am I different? I feel like I belong to a community of people and, in a small way, to a part of Australia’s history. Even if I never write another book (and I plan on writing dozens more) there is every possibility that in 40 or 80 or 100 year’s time some earnest grad student will stumble upon my two first books and rediscover me. I guess I have acknowledged the truth of my own ego and my thirst for immortality. My grandfather was an inveterate self-publisher, and a part of me wants to do well for him (we share the same name). He instilled a love of literature in me, and was a really remarkable man. I have been given all the opportunities he never had, and I know he would have been confused but proud of me.
I hold myself to quite a strict set of personal standards about what I say and write, and I do see my work as having some kind of greater aim: the encouragement of friendship, respect between cultures, the building of global communities. It’s important to me at this stage in my life that I don’t condemn, blame or hurt other people, and I do my best to make my writing and my public work reflect that. I am absolutely in love with all of the strangeness, diversity and surprises of this life, and I want to write about them. These are quite deeply held spiritual values, and I am aware that they may cause others to giggle about me or dismiss my work. Nonetheless, that is why I am here. I am also aware that I fall short of my own expectations every day, and so I must keep trying till I draw my last breath.
I have learned that I can make people laugh but also learn something new, and that I can tell stories and make connections between people in surprising and delightful ways. It’s tremendously satisfying to know this, and to continue to practise it as often as I can.