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Viet Book Fest spotlights Vietnamese American children’s literature

Author Minh Lê talks about "The Green Lantern: Legacy” during the second week of the Viet Book Fest.
Author Minh Lê talks about “The Green Lantern: Legacy” during the second week of the Viet Book Fest.
(Courtesy of Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Assn.)

The Vietnamese American Arts & Letters Assn. (VAALA) wanted to put an emphasis on the letters portion of the organization’s name, and they’re taking it to the beginning with a spotlight on children’s literature.

Viet Book Fest kicked off on Oct. 3 and will continue from 3 to 4 p.m. every Saturday this month. The ticketed virtual book festival, moderated by third-grade teacher and children’s book storyteller, Maya Lê Espiritu, features authors and illustrators in a Zoom-style setting encouraging kids in the audience to participate.

By choosing to focus on children’s literature, VAALA wanted to emphasize a generational transfer of storytelling in the Vietnamese American community.

“Our community is relatively new in terms of being Vietnamese American. It’s only just over 45 years old,” Thuy Vo Dang, VAALA board member and curator for UC Irvine’s Southeast Asian Archive, said. “Because there is this shift away from that first generation with the elders who are passing away, we were looking towards what the future of the Vietnamese American community could look like.”

“Even a decade ago, we did not have enough children’s books with Vietnamese stories to warrant a whole festival. For us, the timing seemed really appropriate because there’s enough material to work with.”

The event was planned as an in-person, one-day festival at the Garden Grove public library. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, VAALA pivoted to virtual programming with the help of Anat Schwartz-Meron, a doctoral student at UC Irvine. They also partnered with LibroMobile, the Bowers Museum and UCI Humanities Center.

Despite a presence of nearly half a century in the U.S., Cambodian and Vietnamese Americans continue to struggle with social inequities, including access to culturally sensitive physical and mental healthcare.

Past guests this month included author Tran Thi Minh Phuoc, illustrators Nguyen Dong and Nguyen Thi Hop, who focused on their book “Vietnamese Children’s Favorite Stories,” and Minh Lê, who wrote “The Green Lantern: Legacy.”

Dang said the festival was strategically curated to highlight diverse stories along with recognizable names in the community.

On Oct. 17, poet and spoken word artist Bao Phi did a live reading of “My Footprints” and a Q&A. The award-winning book follows Thuy, a Vietnamese American girl who has two moms.

Phi said the story was inspired by his daughter. They went on a trip together and she started chanting “my footprints” while marching in the snow to amuse herself. The moment stuck in Phi’s mind.

A few pages from author Bao Phi's "My Footprint" book featuring Thuy, a Vietnamese American girl.
A few pages from author Bao Phi’s “My Footprint” book featuring Thuy, a Vietnamese American girl.
(Courtesy of VAALA)

He started writing children’s books after he noticed there weren’t many books about Asian Americans to share with his daughter. He published “A Different Pond” in 2017 followed by “My Footprints” in 2019.

His third children’s book “Hello, Mandarin Duck!” is set to be published in spring 2021. It’s about a duck who finds itself in a new neighborhood. Friends from different cultures in the neighborhood rally around the duck to welcome it and protect it from authorities who want to take it away because it doesn’t belong there. A fourth children’s book is in the works as well. It’s based on a poem he wrote titled, “You are Not a Virus,” in response to anti-Asian discrimination and racism during the pandemic.

Phi is also working on a Vietnamese American zombie revolutionary novel and a new manuscript combining essays, poetry and memoir elements.

During the Saturday session, Phi read a short excerpt from “You Bring Out the Vietnamese in Me” and set up a fill-in-the-blank mini poem template for the audience.

He wrote the poem in his 20s influenced by Sandra Cisneros’ “You Bring Out the Mexican in Me.”

“I didn’t want it to be a respectability politics poem,” Phi said. “I wanted it to be celebratory but celebrate the complexity, contradictions and nuances of what it means to be a Vietnamese person.”

The fill-in-the-banks poem template elicited responses of items that reminded the audience of a Vietnamese household — a bamboo tree, a flower made of fiber optic cables in a glass case, red envelopes, raw rice in a garbage can, fish sauce in a mayo jar, Son Mai paintings.

Author Bao Phi explains the mini poem template based on his poem "You Bring Out the Vietnamese in Me."
Author Bao Phi explains the mini poem template based on his poem “You Bring Out the Vietnamese in Me.”
(Courtesy of VAALA)

About 30 families have attended each session, and Facebook live engagement reached 800 to 1,000 people.

Christine Tran, newly hired VAALA managing director, said they planned the events thinking of the local Orange County community, but audience engagement turned out to be international.

“It was really surprising to see all these folks signing into the Zoom from across the country and outside of the U.S.,” Tran said. “There was somebody from Vietnam, South Korea, Canada.”

Dang added, “In some ways, those folks who are living in areas where they don’t have a high concentration of Vietnamese Americans like we do here, they tend to crave that interaction and that kind of cultural resource even more. Having the ability to do this on Zoom or broadcasted on Facebook live will allow for those folks to introduce some of these ideas.”

The upcoming event on Oct. 24 will feature Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, who will read “Chicken of the Sea” with his son and co-author Ellison Nguyen along with illustrator Thi Bui and her son Hien Bui-Stafford.

The last festival session on Oct. 31 is scheduled as a Halloween celebration with authors and illustrators. The event will include a DJ, scavenger hunt and other activities. VAALA is fundraising with items like autographed books featured in the festival. Proceeds will go toward their future community arts programming.

The next festival event highlights "Chicken of the Sea" by Viet Thanh Nguyen and his son and co-author Ellison Nguyen.
The next festival event highlights “Chicken of the Sea” by Viet Thanh Nguyen and his son and co-author Ellison Nguyen.
(Courtesy of VAALA)

If you go

What: Viet Book Fest

Where: Virtual

When: Oct. 24 and Oct. 31, 3 to 4 p.m.

Cost: $5 donation for individual festival sessions; Oct. 31 doesn’t have a set donation cost. VAALA asks attendees to donate as they see fit.

Information: vaala.org

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