Fascinating lives captured impeccably in print forever
When my father passed away in 2010, he was about halfway through writing a memoir. I found the fragments on his old, failing PC hard drive, which miraculously survived just long enough for me to copy the files before it too blinked out of existence. Ironically, the documents concerned his attempts to deal with the death of his own father in the early 70s, and told the story of a trip he’d made to the Greek islands to claim a small plot of land that Granddad had left behind.
I decided to do him one last favor, so I cleaned up the text and sent what he’d written to a print-on-demand publishing service, intending to give a few copies away to family members. It wasn’t until I had the physical book in my hands that it really struck home—that memoir was all I really had left of my father. He didn’t leave behind many photos; his personal possessions didn’t say much about who he was or how he lived. When I thought back on what I knew about his life, I realized I wasn’t particularly clear about the details; I had a handful of anecdotes that I might be able to pass on to my own children, and that was it. Without a book, Dad’s life story would have eventually vanished. Now, at least, I have something to pass on down to future generations,
It’s this sentiment that I find quite compelling when it comes to biography as a form of writing. If you consider the billions of lives that were lived before ours—the lives of our people, of our ancestors, each of them unique, each of them the story of one human soul set against the backdrop of a certain time and a certain place—each of those men and women once looked out at the world just as we do now; they breathed as we do, thought as we do, hoped as we do. They died, just as we will. The things they did with their lives still influence us today, but in most cases we simply don’t know who they were. Of all those hundreds of millions of stories, the vast majority were never written down, and so almost all of them are now completely gone.
Creating a legacy, of course, isn’t the only reason why people put their life story on paper. A biography can be a game-changer for someone trying to boost their credibility in a certain field – political candidates have them written before an election campaign, while entrepreneurs find them invaluable self-promotional tools to secure speaking engagements, fresh business, and media interviews. For celebrities, biographies are immediate best-sellers in almost every case, for the simple reason that the nature of fame itself is to have an admiring audience at the ready, eager to know more. The marketing work for a celebrity book as merchandise is largely already done.
Different approaches to book marketing in Vietnam do have an impact on the concept of what a biography is for – few local persons-of-interest see a biography as a merchandising opportunity, and presume that life stories are only ever written at the denouement of a successful career, perhaps as a form of eulogy. A recent counterexample of this trend has been the idol book written for the Vietnamese boyband 365, as discussed in Oi Vietnam last month—even since that review, the book has gone on to make unprecedented sales and prove that the biography-as-bestseller format is just as viable in Vietnam as it is elsewhere.
Next month, Metro Writers (Oi Vietnam’s sister company) will release two of our first volumes for general publication. The first is the biography of local celebrity chef and regular contributor to our magazine, Chef Jack Lee – whose life story traces a series of remarkable (and often comedic) twists in fortune that saw him become a television personality both here and in the US. Jack’s story touches on themes of racial inequality and the disillusionment of Viet Kieu in America, as well as opening a window into Hollywood through the stories of the countless A-listers Jack cooked for in his career in celebrity catering. Chef to the Stars will be published in Vietnamese shortly as Dau Bep Cua Nhung Ngoi Sao; the English version will be available online in following weeks.
The second book produced by our team is a translation of wartime correspondence between two journalists who became important national literary figures, Vu Tu Nam and Thanh Huong. Written between 1950 and 1968, Letters in Love and War is a quotidian account of life north of the 17th parallel in the form of love letters tracing the couple’s courtship and marriage, which served to sustain a love that was perpetually overshadowed by warfare. The book will be available in print in limited numbers, as well as online both here and internationally.
Those interested in having their story set to the printed page, biography writers, and publishing speculators seeking to invest and work with local celebrity figures are always welcome to contact us via our website at www.metrowriters.com.
Excerpt from Chef to the Stars – the Rise of Jack Lee by NPD Khanh
In those days, Three’s Company was the only bright spot of his life, a fantasy realm where he could escape from the harshness of reality. He found its simplicity appealing in a world suddenly made complicated. Jack Tripper was everything Meatball wanted to be. He was white and accepted, while Meatball was yellow and existing on the fringe of American society. He was flamboyant and larger than life, while Meatball was a meek Asian boy who couldn’t draw too much attention to his family. He was honest and cheerful and while he got into trouble frequently, he got out none the worse for wear just as often. Meatball also liked the fact that Jack worked as a chef—underpaid and underappreciated, yes, but a chef nonetheless. The scenes of Jack Tripper cooking up a storm to impress his lady friends brought forth memories of Meatball’s mother and the pre-1975 charm of French restaurants. It was a happy and much less complicated time than his life was at that moment.
When the going got too tough, sometimes Meatball would think: I wish I were Jack. Jack was big and tall and white and happy and privileged and accepted, and most importantly, he had a say on where his life was going to. He said he wanted to be a chef, and that was what he was. No one could tell him otherwise. Little Meatball, on the other hand, was everything Jack was not. Meatball didn’t look like he would survive in America for a whole lot longer, but Jack wouldn’t have a problem. Sometimes, when things became too much, Meatball wished he could crawl inside Jack Tripper’s skin and be big and strong and bold and happy in a world that loved the color he now wore. He imagined it would be like wearing magic armor—safe, warm, protected.
So one day, when their paperwork for the green card arrived, and his auntie called him over to ask what English name he wanted to be called by from then on, Meatball didn’t waste a second to reply. He already knew who he wanted to be.
“Jack. I’m going to be Jack.”
Excerpt from Letters in Love and War, Vu Tu Nam & Thanh Huong
“I’m sitting here alone, the night is quiet, the soldiers are all on their way to some activity somewhere, the clock is frozen. It is supposed that at this time, I have the right to have you by my side… our ‘sacrifice’, as you say, has no meaning to compare with the extreme suffering of our people caused by the enemy. For the whole afternoon, I spoke with the old woman, my hands are still full of words…”
“Hanoi these days has been under terrible bombings, you may be worried about me a lot. Actually, it’s a bit tense; yesterday afternoon they were launching bombs for two hours. Hang Chuoi—in front of our agency—was hit by a rocket, four houses were destroyed. We all ran to the basement and stayed there for two hours. The whole basement vibrated. The embassy area was under rocket fire too (you may have worried a lot when reading the news of the embassy nearby our house).”
“I already read your article on Van Nghe magazine. I was really moved, the images of the children looking for the bird’s nest, the young men under the menace of the enemy’s planes, still processing rice while reading Hugo’s books… these ‘peaceful images during wartime’ make people feel both moved and full of hatred for the Americans. Let me know your working agenda.”
For 18 years, journalists Vu Tu Nam and Thanh Huong composed inspiring propaganda for their comrades in the Vietnamese north—while in private, exchanging letters to sustain a love that was perpetually overshadowed by warfare. Their correspondence—never originally intended for public release—remains an untarnished record of life to the north of the 17th parallel, an untold story of the Vietnam War that attests to the universal human experience of life and love in every age.