Anne Morris, ‘The necessity for building bridges’; Lan Cao reveals Vietnam, Austin American-Statesman

Feb 17, 2020 by Lan Cao, in Monkey Bridge

Lan Cao’s clear, crisp, poetic prose tells the story of a mother and daughter who left Vietnam to make a new life in America. Immediately, you want to know how much is true; how much is fiction.

Lan Cao was watching World Cup soccer on TV when we stopped by her room at the downtown Austin Omni Hotel. Her publisher, Penguin Books, sent her to Texas on tour with the paperback version of “The Monkey Bridge,” in part because Texas has a significant Vietnamese population.

The author in many ways resembles Mai, the girl who tells the story. “The broad strokes are true,” Lan Cao said. “Like the narrator, I also came from Saigon in 1975, a few months before the end of the war, and I also stayed with an American family in Connecticut; I then also moved to Virginia, and I also went to Mount Holyoke. The rest is pretty much fictional, except for the sensibility and the mood — which are mine.”

She tells a compelling story, strengthened by realistic detail. Much of the book — which she dedicates to her late mother — has to do with the role reversal that often takes place in immigrant families in which the child learns the new language readily in school and is able to adapt more quickly than the parents.

“It’s sad, particularly for a culture like Vietnam that is so founded on parental authority,” Lan Cao said. “It erodes the traditional way of parent and child relating to each other.

“Yet, it’s also a bit freeing, and it opens the door to making fun,” she said, referring to a chapter in the book in which Mai and her best friend talk about the mother without her realizing it. They nicknamed her B-o-b for Bag of Bones. “Bob can be difficult to be around sometimes,” Mai says to her friend, and the mother never catches on.

The Monkey Bridge that supplies the title to the novel is real, though Lan Cao never saw one until she visited the delta two years ago. “I was born in Saigon at the height of the war. For me, the Mekong Delta is like the frontier. It’s a repository for everything I can imagine the countryside to be. I never saw it when I lived there. It was extremely dangerous to leave the capital. . . . I know that there were these monkey bridges that were gorgeous. It’s almost like it came out of the landscape, just bamboo and rope. . . . I use it as a metaphor for the necessity for building bridges and making connections. For me in the book, the crossing is the crossing from war to peace and from one physical border to another.”

Such crossings have become more common as the last few years have produced an outpouring of books about Vietnam, a place that for a long time everybody seemed to want to forget.

“It’s like something that’s been suppressed, and then there’s an explosion,” said Lan Cao. “It (the avalanche of books) started with the vets telling their stories. Then the women serving in Vietnam began to tell theirs. It’s like an onion layer. For a long time, no one got to