In a recent column on Afghanistan and a subsequent interview with NPR host Scott Simon, USA TODAY Editorial Board member Thuan Le Elston drew similarities between the fall of Kabul with the fall of Saigon in 1975 – when she was an 8-year-old Vietnamese refugee embarking on a life-changing journey. Elston posed a poignant, unanswerable question, “What’s worse? Losing everything as an adult? Or as a child not realizing your family’s about to lose everything?" Now, in her historical fiction debut coming out Tuesday, "Rendezvous at the Altar: From Vietnam to Virginia," Elston explores her transnational trajectory via the stories of four grandmothers – the author’s from Vietnam and her husband’s from America. "Rendezvous at the Altar" examines gender roles, parenting, aging and dying in a multicultural family. Elston’s novel gives us hope in showing that when one world ends, another not only begins but also multiplies. The tiny backpack that Elston carried with her out of Vietnam has flowered into a borderless and many-splendored world.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for this novel? Was there any pushback from family members?
A. I kept thinking about how much all four of our grandmothers had lived through and how I needed to record it all in one place for my children. Otherwise, I’d forget and then they’ll never know their past. But it wasn’t until the last grandmother died – my mom’s mother in 2009 – and after we had taken our kids to the huge family funeral in Arizona, that I thought it was time to explore where writing about these women would take me. Though the original version started with an anecdote at the funeral, a decade of revisions has turned it into a mother’s journal to her children, serving as a common thread connecting the grandmothers. My mother and my parents-in-law didn’t flinch when I started basically interviewing them about their mothers. My father passed away in 1991, but as the eldest of five, I had already soaked up a lot of family stories he told over the years. All the rich material was there; I just needed to mine it.
Q. Your narrator refers to a statement made by drama critic John Lahr that “personal and public history are fables agreed upon,” but it seems "Rendezvous at the Altar" is less about fables than hard truths conveyed through the lens of magical realism. For example, I find your experiment with characters’ points of view truly innovative, with one grandmother (Anne Eley) navigating different timelines while seemingly in a coma; another grandmother (Mary Simons) describes her Great Depression-era history through letters; the third grandmother (Nguyen Thi Kim) sees the ghost of her husband’s first wife at the end of her life; and the fourth grandmother (Vu Thi Ty) transitions into death and narrates her vivid impressions of the afterlife.
Fall of Kabul, fall of Saigon: Their horror was our horror. Anguished, we pray for a miracle
A. Point of view was the hardest part in writing this novel. By the time I met Anne (Nanny) – my husband’s maternal grandmother – in 1992, she was already on her death bed in California. I never got to hear her voice, her cadence, or watch her move and present herself to the world. All I had was what my husband and his parents told me. I tried to be fair to her and give her an inner voice, with her side of the story. She needed to present her case to the reader, good and bad.
With Grandma Mary, I got lucky because my father-in-law had done the work for me, interviewing his mom over letters about her life from a Depression-era childhood to her comfortable retirement at the beginning of the 21st century.
With my paternal grandmother, Madame Kim, I had to turn her into a historian to help readers who are unfamiliar with Vietnam. She’s their guide not only into our family’s past but also our larger political and economic history. Because she was my dad’s stepmother, through her I also wanted to bring in his biological mother, who died young but left a lasting impact.
And with my mom’s mother, Madame Ty, her funeral in 2009 in Arizona was a huge turning point for her 15 children and their offspring. I tried to imagine what she would have thought if she were at her own memorial service looking at all her descendants gathered in one place. From that, I knew how the novel must end – it was a matter of how I’d finish her journey.
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Q. Isn’t it ironic that Madame Kim and Madame Ty, while coming from a colonized and patriarchal country, are quite opinionated, well-educated and independent?
A. I grew up awed by my two grandmothers. The more I learned about them, the more I wanted to write about them. I have always been struck by how Vietnamese society and traditions were supposed to demand obedient, meek women, but from the Trung sister queens who resisted Chinese invaders in 40 A.D. to my grandmothers, the ideal and reality have not been fables agreed upon.
Q. Dealing with motherhood and defining "maternal" seems a common theme running through the lives of all four grandmothers.
A. Did my maternal grandmother, Madame Ty – a woman who helped run multiple family businesses – really want to be a mother of 15? In my novel, she asks my grandfather: “Do you think I liked having my body out of commission nine months out of the year, year after year? Thank Heaven our granddaughters don't have to go through what I did.”
Q. I find it intriguing that “The Hours” was the movie choice for a ladies’ night out during the narrator’s 2003 visit with grandmother Mary Simons in Colorado.
A. I love Michael Cunningham’s novel and its movie adaptation, exploring “ordinary” women and their “ordinary” hours in marriages, motherhoods. I used it to prod Grandma Mary to reflect on her life, and to convey how she might have viewed my narrator as a granddaughter-in-law. I also wanted to capture both the restlessness and invisibility that people feel as they age. You’re always the star of your life, but society values you less toward the end of it. Mary had this inner conversation after seeing the movie during the ladies’ night out: “I could tell them a thing or two, my daughter-in-law and her two daughters-in-law. … But nobody asked us anymore. Once you were old, they just assumed things about you and didn’t bother asking you anything anymore.”
Q. You raised very important questions on cultural responsibility versus free will that form the crux of your novel. “Do we really owe our ancestors as well as our descendants? Who agreed on such a system? Who agreed on such words as honor, duty, love? Can't we ever live for just ourselves?” Would you say that as hybrid Americans, we live our lives beset by a fundamental contradiction – while we’re encouraged to maintain continuity with the past, we’re also compelled by our desire or survival instinct to start anew? How do we achieve a balance between tradition and reinvention?
A. As a Vietnamese American, I see myself as a tiny stream among the multitudes of tributaries that merge into the United States of America. How we not only survive but also thrive depends on how we reinterpret or synthesize different traditions handed down to us. My children have read my novel and seem to have gotten its message. Their reaction has been the most rewarding part of this process. They came from these women; American and Vietnamese bloodlines flow through them. Because they’ve lived most of their lives not only with my husband and me but also with my mom and then my parents-in-law, they were raised in a multicultural and multigenerational household. This is the America my children have always known.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: My America: Rendezvous at the Altar – From Vietnam to Virginia