Yasuko Thanh on family inspiration and choosing your destiny
In 2016, Yasuko Thanh won the 2016 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for her first novel, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains. It's about a Vietnamese doctor named Georges-Minh who is slowly coming unhinged by feelings of guilt and hatred for the French who occupy his country. So he and his four closest friends hatch a revolutionary plot to poison some French soldiers. And from there a story of colonialism, revenge and madness unfolds.
Thanh spoke with Shelagh Rogers from Victoria. This interview originally aired in January 2017.
I had grown up listening to stories about my great-grandfather so I just did the math, and figured that it was around this era that he would have been alive and doing the things my father was telling me about. The next step was to find something on which to hinge the novel, perhaps a real-life episode. My great-grandfather would leave the house for months, sometimes years at a time, gallivanting, womanizing, and when he returned my great-grandmother would just accept him back as the head of the household, and that disgusted and fascinated me.
Creating the characters
I wanted to write primarily a story about the resilience of women, whose quietness in the face of these sorts of travesties could be construed as stupidity or weakness, but the book ended up being more about Georges-Minh and less about the female characters. I have a really hard time working from outlines, I tend to work intuitively, and so when I was thinking about his character I actually used my Tiki gods. I put a bunch of little pieces of paper that suggested different directions the story could go inside a Tiki mug, shook it up and picked one at random. Some of the aspects of Georges-Minh I had already figured out, but the aspect of his sexuality that I think really causes him a great deal of angst was because of the Tiki mug.
I think that whenever a writer writes about any topic, their moral stance and world view is going to be inflected into the voice of the novel. Having lived on the outside looking at things, growing up in Victoria when I did — that set me apart a little bit. In that way I felt I could get inside the head of somebody like Georges-Minh, who feels the same way although he comes from a background of privilege. In a big way the book is about how much of yourself are you willing to put on the line to be the type of person you respect, to adhere to the philosophies you believe in. I wanted to explore all of the different ways that different personalties would wrestle with that question.
Yasuko Thanh's comments have been edited and condensed.