With any novel, a writer must answer the question of how true it is: if the characters are based on real people and whether the plots are inspired by actual events. Especially if said novel has a main character who appears eerily similar in age, gender and circumstances to the author. So I imagine I will get asked if this novel is based on my real family and actual events. And I will say no because that is the truth. This novel is fiction.
But look at the family tree, imaginary reader will say! You have a dad, a mom, a brother, and tons of aunts and uncles and cousins on both sides living in America and France. True, I will reply. But that is also the case for many Vietnamese immigrants. And that was why I was drawn to writing a Vietnamese family saga, because of the size of the extended cast of characters, and the opportunity to create and develop rich, complex, overlapping stories for every one of them.
I was also asked this question for my first book, though it comprised of characters related to Operation Babylift, and I pointed out back then as well, that I felt much more comfortable creating my own characters because they had to have the freedom to commit sins and mistakes without the burden of real-life counterparts shadowing me. The same goes for this novel. I knew of the betrayals and choices these characters would have to make, and to do that, I had to fully imagine their histories and motivations as wholly their own.
For me, as a fiction writer, I have a lot more fun making things up. It satisfies my need for control, something I have precious little of in my real life. Tweaking a character’s backstory for the sake of the plot, changing a setting because it is not working, or determining who will get the girl in the end are just a few of the godly powers I lord over my characters. And even better than that? The moment two hundred pages in where I finally connect a character’s secret to another’s, and realizing that had been lurking, developing, since page 67. That doesn’t happen in my nonfiction.
So while these novel’s characters are not my biological family, I still feel they are family, nonetheless. They are my babies. I ache and feel for them as much, perhaps even more, than I do for my real-life relatives, which perhaps sounds strange. But I do know them, much better, much more intimately than anyone else. And I’m okay with this. While I can invade the privacies of my own characters, I am not prepared to infringe on the histories of my real-life extended relatives.
To be honest, the secrets and tragedies that encompass my family history are too hard for me to write. They are stories that don’t belong to me. I do not know them clearly enough, and if my family ever chooses to share them with me, that is their choice, and the stories will stay theirs.
In this way, I’m actually very different from my main character, Cherry, who is hell-bent on learning the truth about her family’s skeletons. I realize that some pain and trauma from the previous generations must stay in the past for a reason. There are certain stories and experiences that should not be passed down and I respect their decision to remain silent about them.
That is not to say these stories do not feel emotionally autobiographical. I don’t think a writer can concoct emotion out of nowhere, even in fiction. So those pangs of bitterness and regret or moments of love and forgiveness within these pages are certainly inspired by my own feelings, or memories of my family’s experiences, but they’ve been gifted to my characters. In this way, my family is an emotional muse to my writing.
So family, feel safe. These are not your stories. You know that. But I hope you’ll read anyway.