The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai

Program recording  on Facebook Live :

Reviewed by: Nehika Agarwal, HR Professional & Passionate Reader

Report by: Anna Dragonette

Prelude: 50 years ago on July 4, 1971 John Lennon completed the recording of his
iconic masterpiece “Imagine”.

( note  in the above video recording the song “Imagine” is not available due to copy right issue ) you can see it at  youtube link :

The song went on to become the anthem of a generation scarred by World War 2
and horrified by the protracted merciless war in Vietnam.
The book under review at this meeting is a portrait painted on the canvas of that war.
In a fitting commemoration, the song was played and all of us were renewed by the
power of those lyrics.
…… Nothing to kill or die for…….
……no need for greed or hunger…….
Imagine all the people living life in peace…..
The mood being suitably set, Nehika began her presentation.
In her introduction, she gave us a short background of the author.
Born in 1973, Nguyen is a ‘war baby’, a child born to a country ravaged by 20 long
years of war, nine of which included agressive intervention by the world’s most
powerful country, the United States of America, who coincidentally pulled out of
Vietnam that same year.
As she launched into her presentation, Nehika informed her listeners that she would
not be giving us a synopsis of the plot, but would focus instead on the unique form,
content and style, as well as the uncommon perspective and idelogy, that elevate
this novel to the ‘must read’ category.
The book is an account of the life and times of a large Vietnamese family, as told by
an ageing grandmother to her 12 year old grand daughter.
The orphaned child is captivated by her grandmother’s stories, told primarily as
diversion from the horrors and deprivations caused by this seemingly interminable
The stories also serve to enlighten the child on the historical events leading up to the
current situation, and the diverse responses of family members.
Nehika showed us the family tree. The six children, including the girl’s father grew up
in the midst of 3 events of great import in modern Vietnamese history.
1. The Great Famine
2. Land Redistribution
3. The War
Each of the above is a consequence of the preceeding event.
The War evolves into a battle between diametrically opposed ideologies that scatter
family members on either side, making enemies of blood relatives.
While no rage or anger at the incessant pounding of Vietnam by the USA, or the
inexplicable cruelty of its chemical assault on the innocent villagers, has been
expressed, the author presents a distinctly North Vietnamese perspective. This,
says Nehika is a refreshing and rarely heard voice
Nehika also touched upon another endearing aspect of the book, the overarching
interweaving of the Vietnamese language and culture into the narrative.
Another interesting aspect that Nehika pointed out was the author’s depiction of the
role of women in times of war. Too often have tales been told glorifying women as
warriors, spies or invaluable adjuncts to patriarchial objectives. Nehika brought our
attention to Nguyen’s focus on the female narrative, ordinary women employing
extraordinary survival skills to keep their loved ones fed clothed and as safe as
At the end of the presentation, Mohini invited the listeners to share their thoughts
ideas and opinions.
All who had attended expressed praise for the skillful presentation and thanked
Nehika for the choice of book.
The issues raised included:
1. Many Asian authors have been criticised for the humiliating flaw of writing for
Western audiences. Does this book suffer from the same malaise?

Selling of American contraband was done simply to ward off starvation
Reading American books to a child is viewed globally as imparting a life skill.
Helping an injured enemy is a basic decent human response with no idealogical
implications whatsoever.
Nehika also pointed out that some family members fought for South Vietnam, but the
girl and her grandmother are firmly on the North Vietnamese side.
3. Does the focus on the Vietnamese culture, traditions and terminology, coupled
with the unfamiliar names, impede the smooth flow of the narrative?
No, said Nehika. The names are short and easy to remember and the cultural
references enhance rather than confuse.
The only confusing element lies in keeping track of the twists and turns in the lives of
the six siblings scattered on both sides of the 17th parallel. However, the family tree
is very helpful in ironing out this wrinkle.
4. Finally a member asked a question of the men present….
The book depicts the strength of female bonding, as in the relationship between the
grandmother and the young girl. Contemporary art forms tend to highlight feminine
integrity, endurance and quiet power.Do men feel threatened or belittled by this trend?
Satish chose to answer this:
Women have been historially trampled upon by all cultures and traditions. It will take
much more than a handful of books to shift the balance…but the shift is much
needed and he personally sees greater power sharing between the sexes as the
next step in human evolution.
On this cheerful note the discussion ended
Thereafter Mohini once again thanked Nehika and outlined the plans for remaining
Sundays in July

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