Books·How I Wrote It

Yasuko Thanh on filling the gaps of her father's memory

Yasuko Thanh talks about writing her first novel, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains.
Yasuko Thanh is the author of the novel Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains. (Hamish Hamilton,

For her debut novel, Yasuko Thanh decided to explore a corner of history she couldn't find in literature. Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains is set in Vietnam in the early 1900s, during French colonial rule. The novel — which won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize — follows a disparate — often drunk — group of individuals who plot to assassinate French military leaders.

In her own words, Thanh describes how her family's photo album became an important historical resource in writing the book.

An unwritten history

"I couldn't really find anything either in fiction or even nonfiction that had been written about that time period, so right away that attracted me like a magpie to something shiny. There were things happening in Vietnam at the time in terms of small dissensions here and there in the mountains, but there wasn't really anything being done with that time period. So that made me go, 'Aha! I can do something with this.'

"On a more personal level, my father had told me stories about this elder in our family who was up to all kinds of stuff. He used to just leave the family for weeks or months at a time. He'd have these mistresses and go off and gamble. He would come back and my great-grandmother would receive him as the head of the family once again and allow him to collect whatever meagre money she had earned and the kids had earned. It was part of Vietnamese society. I was kind of appalled and had always wanted to do something with that. Knowing that this was happening around 1910 when they were alive, I think first and foremost what drew me to the time period."

Photographic memories

"My father did have old pictures. There was an actual villa and it did have a circular driveway. I asked him, 'So what did it look like on the inside?' His stories had some gaps. The stories didn't always match up. So it was kind of cool. Your mind puts pictures in where his words fail and I like that part of the process. I definitely used his photo albums a lot and I used pictures of my great uncle to model the Khieu character off of because I liked his suits and the wear his hair looked. I think my dad liked talking about Vietnam. It gave us something to share."

A page from a Thanh family photo album. (Courtesy of Yasuko Thanh)

Waste not, want not

"When all these little seeds plant themselves into the right person, it can be a really good thing in terms of a novel. In the case of this one, there comes this reckoning where what you've created is so far from what you wanted to achieve. It came about organically. Each time a new scene presented itself, it felt like it needed to unfold with a different point of view to create a fuller story.

"It sounds hokey to say I write intuitively, but it's what I do. It's so not practical. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. You can go 200 pages into a work, only to discover that your story doesn't start until page 201. You always tell yourself, hmmm I could do something with that later. I don't think any writing is ever wasted. You're always honing your writing skills by doing it. If that's the only way that you can write, how else are you going to do it? You had to write those 200 pages to get to the 201st page."

Yasuko Thanh's comments have been edited and condensed.