Philip Huynh

In 2016, Philip Huynh was the co-winner of the Emerging Writers Award. Philip Huynh’s stories have been widely published in literary journals and in the Journey Prize Anthology.   As the son of immigrants, Huynh’s stories revolve around the Vietnamese diaspora and the book’s collection of stories feature a diverse array of themes and characters.  Goose Lane Editions picked up the book shortly after the announcement of the award, and developed the manuscript into The Forbidden Purple City.  

Your book speaks to the Vietnamese diaspora. Even the title is taken from the name of the walled palace of Vietnam’s Nguyen dynasty. How did you trace the experiences, the insight, and the memories of your characters back to your own roots to the diaspora growing up in Canada?

I share the roots of my characters’ experiences in my own life, and in the lives of those I grew up with. My family fled the war in Vietnam relatively early (escaping in the 1960s), and I was born in Vancouver just a few days before the Fall of Saigon in April 1975. People assumed that I was an immigrant too, because a Canadian-born Vietnamese was almost unheard of back then.

I grew up with immigrants, but I am fundamentally an outsider to them by being born here. There will always be things about their pasts that they will never share with me. I believe that this distance is useful from a creative point of view – it feeds my curiosity, forces my imagination to bridge the chasm between my life and those of whom I call my family.

And so my collection is indeed about the lives of the Vietnamese diaspora after the war, many of whom are coping with memories that occupy the strange terrain between trauma and nostalgia. The stories explore how the past haunts and even animates the characters’ present lives. Despite this focus, the characters are (hopefully) diverse and the settings are far-flung, from Vancouver and Winnipeg, to New York, to South Korea, to Vietnam. I write about the Vietnamese because that’s obviously my background, the prism through which I see the world. However, through this perspective, I do hope to touch upon matters of more universal interest – such as love, jealousy, and the ambition to make one’s way through often difficult and unfamiliar terrain. I found the short story collection to be a very effective form to explore a chorus of perspectives, allowing formal experimentation in voice and narrative structure to reflect the shape-shifting lives of these immigrants.

I liken reading your book to wandering through a dated map of Vancouver, Winnipeg, Hoi An, tracing their landscapes through each story. Do you compose each piece purely from memory, or did you need to go back and research parts or areas where you were unsure? In other words, how do you go about “fictionalizing” what is already familiar to you?

All of the stories are fictional (of course!), but some of the stories required more research. I’ve been to all the locales in my collection, but while I have lived in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and New York and know these cities quite well, I have only visited Hoi An, Hue, Ho Chi Minh City, and Jeju Island. This perhaps explains why the stories in Asian locales are told from an outsider’s perspective.

“Toad Poem”, for example, takes place in Hoi An but from the perspective of an elderly Vietnamese man who left the city in his youth for Canada. He is now back decades later and sees modern Hoi An more or less as any other tourist.

“The Forbidden Purple City” is also told from the perspective of a Vietnamese man who left Hue for Vancouver decades earlier. The Hue in the story is partly a city in this man’s distant memory, partly a complete fabrication of his imagination, and partly pieced together from what he can find through internet searches. Though the man is Vietnamese born and bred, he shares my outsider’s gaze upon his homeland.

Finally, “The Abalone Diver” is an immigrants’ tale – this time the immigrant is from rural Vietnam now living on an orange farm in Jeju Island, Korea. Again, we have a protagonist who is an outsider.

All of these stories took quite a bit of research (not only visiting the locales but reading up on various topics, such as abalone diving, the history of the Hue palaces, the art of historical restoration, etc.). But the point of the research was not simply to create an immersive read, but also to make vivid the strangeness of places that were once familiar to the characters. A number of them are struck by a sort of vertigo when they return to a foreign place they once called home. There is an abyss between what they see versus what they had in mind, and it is sometimes difficult to tell if it is their warped memories or a changed reality that is to blame.

But even the stories that took place in Vancouver or Winnipeg – cities that I have lived in for many years – took quite a bit of research. For “Mayfly”, which takes place in Vancouver, I had to do some extensive research on grow-ops and grow-rips. The Vancouver scenes in “The Forbidden Purple City” (such as the Tet concert) required almost as much research as the scenes that took place in Hue. Although I wrote “The Tale of Jude” without too much research initially, I remember my editor at Prairie Fire taking me to task on how the characters couldn’t really get around Winnipeg because the streets weren’t actually laid out the way I described them. So much for trying to work from memory!

 Has your background as Asian ever become a barrier to your writing? At the same time, has your Asian background/identity ever given you opportunities that you might not otherwise have had as a writer?

I’m relatively new to the publishing world, so at this point I have less to say about whatever barriers there may be in publishing. The barriers that I have noticed are perhaps inherent in any immigrant culture, and stand in the way of getting the writing done in the first place. For the immigrant, fanciful dreams of art take a back seat to the daily business of survival. And there is the age old question that parents pose to their children – “Did I risk my life to cross an ocean to spend my days breaking my back, so that you could starve and write poems?” Even though my parents never asked me that question, perhaps I asked it of myself. After all, I did become a lawyer, a very filial choice for an occupation. I only started writing in earnest well after I established myself in the law, when I no longer felt that I needed to choose between art and food.

Otherwise, when it comes to writing, being Asian has been a gift. Things that cause suffering in day to day life – being an outsider; having a double perspective; never feeling truly comfortable in one’s skin – all these things are succor for one’s writing.

And now, having been able to get some of the writing done, I find so far that I have publishing opportunities as an Asian that I would not otherwise have. Winning the ACWW Emerging Writers Award is just one example. There is also a serious audience for Asian Canadian literature, and I count the readers and contributors to Ricepaper among them. While perhaps not large, the audience is devoted, and they will find you. The trick is to get the writing done.

Did you ever have doubt that your Asian characters or themes would not be accepted by audiences/editors/publishers?

I don’t worry about that. I wouldn’t be writing short stories in the first place if my ambition was to be embraced by a vast audience!

But seriously, I believe in writing to one’s pre-occupations, whatever they may be. I also think that readers can see through a writer’s transparent attempt to write to certain themes simply to chase a market.

I do believe though, that if the writing is sincere and hard-fought for, it will find an audience no matter what colour the characters are or how weird the food is. Beyond the ethnic veneer of the characters in my book is, I hope, a depiction of urgent human concerns with universal resonance.

I remember picking up your manuscript and discussing it with Jim Wong-Chu. We were excited about the confidence and tone of writing, how the entanglement of stories and characters speak to our complicated hybridity of being both Asian and Canadian. What’s your advice to a writer who wants to write and but is unsure about how to address uncertainties of his or her identity? What can they learn from you and your experiences?

My first piece of advice with writing is that there are no rules. Everyone has their own way that works for them to get the words on the page.

That said, pay heed to your own obsessions. I believe that, to a certain extent, the subject that you were meant to write about chooses you. So if you want to write about a space station in Mars, do that. If you want to write about your ancestors, do that.

I am writing at a time when the pioneers of Asian Canadian writing have already blazed a path. Call me a second generation, maybe even third generation Asian Canadian writer. There are benefits but also challenges with this. I feel that writers of my generation do not have the same burden of bearing witness or being the voice of a people the way that the earlier generations may have felt. This can be quite liberating. This means that you can write about anything you want. This means that as a writer, you might choose to ignore being Asian Canadian. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course.

For those like me who have a hard time ignoring their Asian Canadian identity, I have this advice from Confucius: respect your ancestors. It would be disrespectful to write a pale imitation of what your ancestors wrote and to avoid doing so, you first must know the precedents, what stakes have already been planted. Be familiar with their words, be it those of Joy Kogawa, Madeleine Thien, Kim Thuy, or Michael Ondaatje. Give the words of your predecessors the proper respect, know what they’ve done, use their wisdom, then forge your own path.