Luke Rolfes: We at Laurel Review have been fans of Phong Nguyen’s work for a while. His newest novel, Bronze Drum, brings to life the historical legend of the Trưng sisters (Trưng Trắc and Trưng Nhị), who, centuries ago, rallied the women of Vietnam to fight against the oppressive Han Chinese. Bronze Drum is an encompassing story of defiance and community strength through sisterhood. I can’t say enough about the large tapestry of this stunning book and the quality of its writing. Phong, I’d love to know about the genesis of this project, and, in particular, your methods of research to get Bronze Drum off the ground.
Phong Nguyen: When I first decided that I was going to write about the Trưng sisters, and about the bronze age in ancient Viet Nam, I went to the library and what I encountered there was endless shelves with books about the American War in Viet Nam. This was both daunting and motivating. It suggested that the research would not be easy, but it also suggested that this book was necessary. Luckily, during the time I was writing and researching Bronze Drum, a handful of books about ancient Viet Nam appeared, including Nam C. Kim’s The Origins of Ancient Vietnam. After reading this books, I contacted the authors, and struck up a regular correspondence with Dr. Kim, who is an anthropological archeologist specializing in this era. That would be my greatest resource in conducting the research for Bronze Drum going forward.
LR: One thing that struck me about the craft of this book was your hand in narration. Bronze Drum’s narrator is all knowing, yet it does not linger in one character’s mind for long. I might describe this narrator as “passively omniscient”---one who gives us peeks into characters’ consciousnesses, but rarely lets us spend much time there. It’s an interesting technique, and I wonder if you might give us a sense as to your thought process in selecting this particular style of narration.
PN: The first draft contained very little interiority. As you can tell, there is a fairytale-like quality to the narration, and the first draft maintained this distance from the characters. In the process of editing the book, I realized how important it was to access the interior lives of the two principal characters in order to convey the emotional truth of the story. At first, I relied upon external cues to deliver that emotional weight, but upon revision it gradually became clear that I would need to give readers those insights. Yet I did not want to lose the fairytale quality that is gained with that kind of narrative distance. The resulting style is a light interiority as you are describing; similar to the way that modernists realized that they did not need to describe the parlor in great detail in order to convey a feeling of place, I tried to communicate the perspectives of the sisters by offering the reader a compass rather than detailed GPS directions.
LR: Another craft question: I’m curious about your thoughts on dialogue in historical fiction. How does one balance authenticity versus accessibility? I thought the way you handled dialogue in Bronze Drum was a strong marriage of the two. How challenging was it to write dialogue for characters set in another century?
PN: I was speaking to an historian recently (Minsoo Kang, who is also a translator and fiction-writer) who pointed out that, if I had tried and succeeded in representing the authentic content of characters’ speech from bronze age Viet Nam, the dialogue would have been incomprehensible to the modern reader. Their era and region and milieu are fundamentally different from ours, and it became clear early on that some “translation” would be necessary. Ultimately, even though I know some readers are going to go to Bronze Drum to learn about ancient history, the book is saying more about the current historical moment than about events two thousand years ago a half a world away.
LR: The book shifts, in my eyes, after the execution of the beggar named Duy. It was a difficult scene to read, and even more difficult to navigate for the characters involved. As well, this event seemed to shape our understanding of the novel’s players in complicated ways. Many seem to lose their innocence and harbor at least some level of guilt over Duy’s fate. Can you talk a bit about this scene and the choices you made when presenting it to the reader?
PN: I think the loss of innocence is a productive lens with which to look at the scene. In general, the lords and aristocrats were comfortably removed from the oppressions faced by the Viet people, especially when it came to the draconian laws of the Han. Introducing Duy the beggar and having the aristocrats be complicit in his death was one way of showing how the Trưngs could not remain forever protected from Han oppression.
LR: There is bloodshed throughout this book. Some is horrific, like Duy’s execution. Some offers a poignant sense of justice. I’m trying not to give spoilers, but this novel is chock-full of badass women warriors doing, at times, badass things. One character in particular, a pregnant Phùng Thị Chính, slays an enemy general and then, moments later, gives birth to a daughter on the battlefield. She cuts the umbilical cord, places the newborn in her quiver, and then staggers back into the fight. It’s a powerful scene that one could imagine cinematically in the heat of an action movie. Was it a priority for you to give these badass women, for lack of a better word, “epic” battle scenes? More broadly, how did you approach writing violence/war in this book?
PN: It was a challenging balance to maintain. On the one hand, I know that war was (and is) brutal and I did not want to shy away from that. On the other hand, it is possible for art to reify violence as an abstract concept into something that feels like a perpetration of that violence upon the reader. I had just published (in 2021) a book called Best Peace Fiction: A Social Justice Anthology, and I was very sensitive to the way that we handle depictions of violence in art. Ultimately, the most important thing to me was that the book could not be interpreted to relish in depictions of violence, especially against women. Therefore the lens, the perspective-taking, became even more key here: the tragedies that befall the women have to do with the death of the men whom they love. The final scene depicts, not a tragedy, but a heroic act, and it does so without gruesomeness. That was my hope for the novel.
LR: The Trưng sisters, when raising their army, only seek women fighters. Among the sisters and their generals, there is a deep mistrust of men and their barbary/treachery. Later in the novel, the Han dynasty sends a storied general (Ma Yuan) to quell the Trưng sisters’ rebellion. He seems to embody, in his methods, the coldness and inhumanity that the women in the novel are fighting. I’m perplexed in my reading of this adversary. I’m trying to figure out if I read him as a microcosm of the empire they fight against, or if he is, more, a personification of the privilege that men who serve the Han dynasty (and other oppressors like them) carry. Is it a victory that Ma Yuan sees the Trưng sisters as a legitimate threat, or is it more of an inevitability---a sign that men in power will push harder to keep their status quo? In short: What does Ma Yuan versus the Trưng sisters mean to you?
PN: As the victor, Ma Yuan wrote about his conquest and his account remains the primary contemporaneous account of the Trưng sisters’ revolution. As such, he could not be dismissed as a caricature of a villain. His story is subtler than that of the wicked governor, who dehumanized the Viet people in order to subjugate them. Ma Yuan had no personal animosity towards the Trưng sisters. He was performing his duty as a general, which he excelled at, at the behest of the Emperor. In the first draft, I wrote a scene in which Ma Yuan goes down to the banks of the river to fetch the bodies of the sisters and beheads them as trophies for the emperor. But before he does so, he delivers a speech over the fallen in which he expresses a regret that he did not have the opportunity to face them with the full force of their armies, among other things. Ultimately, Ma Yuan does not need to possess a metaphorical thrust that I artificially impose on the story. The events are historical, so the meanings contained within it are fluid and negotiable. To me, Ma Yuan represents on the one hand the sheer vastness of the Han empire when compared to this small colony, and on the other hand the promise of what-could-have-been had the sisters been supported by all the regional lords: a motivated and disciplined Viet army against the legions of invading Han led by their most fearsome general.
LR: The Trưng sisters’ story is nearly 2000 years old, and I’m imagining that historical records were somewhat shrouded in myth. Were there aspects of their history you felt unsatisfying/incomplete or that you had trouble researching? Was there more you wish you knew?
PN: It took me a long time to get started because of how little is known about this era and region. My writer-friends kept telling me that this ought to be a liberating fact, that there is so much room for invention, but I tend to thrive on research so it took me a while to come around to this understanding. Of course I wish more was known about ancient Viet Nam, not just for the purposes of my book but for the benefit of posterity. Often, I was working with “prevailing theories” rather than “established fact,” and at other times I was choosing between the Chinese historical account and the national myth of Viet Nam. But as a storyteller, my allegiance is to a good tale, and in every case I let the gravity of storytelling pull me in the direction of what yielded the greatest dramatic effect.
LR: This is a wonderful book, Phong---likely my favorite of yours (so far!). What is next for you and your writing? Are there other historical tales you’d like to tell?
PN: I’m starting a new project, or multiple projects, about family history. Right now I am envisioning two books—one fiction and one nonfiction—about my father’s family’s tragedies, his journey to the United States, and the legacy of trauma on subsequent generations. It’s early enough in the process that I can’t say for sure what it will look like, but right now I am thinking of focusing primarily on my paternal grandmother, who is the subject of the dedication of Bronze Drum, who died at the age of 27 due to a French air strike on a civilian estate.
LR: Thanks so much for your time!
Bio: Phong Nguyen is the author of three novels, The Bronze Drum (Grand Central Publishing, 2022), Roundabout: An Improvisational Fiction (Moon City Press, 2020) and The Adventures of Joe Harper (Outpost19, 2016), winner of the Prairie Heritage Book Award; and two story collections: Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History (C&R Press, 2019) and Memory Sickness and Other Stories (Elixir Press, 2011), winner of the Elixir Press Fiction Prize. He is co-editor, with Dan Chaon and Norah Lind, of the book Nancy Hale: On the Life & Work of a Lost American Master (Pleiades Press/LSU Press, 2012), part of the Unsung Masters Series. He is series editor for the Best Peace Fiction anthology (University of New Mexico Press).