Christina Vo

Christina Vo

Christina Vo

Christina Vo is a writer who currently works in development for Stanford University. She previously worked for international organizations in Vietnam and Switzerland and also ran a floral design business in San Francisco. She is the author of one previous memoir, The Veil Between Two Worlds (She Writes Press). Vo resides in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“The Act of Selection,” An interview with Christina Vo

This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Phoebe Nguyen. Of the process, she said, “Describing the intricacies of life in Vietnam, My Vietnam, Your Vietnam, is a remarkable dual memoir co-authored by Christina Vo and her father. Their narratives weave together, offering contrasting yet captivating perspectives on their time in a country marked by the scars of war. Through vivid storytelling, they immerse readers in their memories, painting a vibrant portrait of Vietnam's landscapes and culture. It was an honor to learn more about Vo and her writing process.” In this interview, Christina Vo talks about embracing identity, her admiration for her father, and future projects. 

Superstition Review: At the beginning of My Vietnam, Your Vietnam, you discuss your strained relationship with your Vietnamese heritage, expressing a desire to hide anything that identifies you as Vietnamese. If you could go back in time, what would you say to your younger self who struggled with embracing her cultural heritage? 

Christina Vo: If I could turn back time, I would make several changes, and although it was beyond my control, I wish my parents had emphasized the importance of our Vietnamese heritage and encouraged us to learn and appreciate our culture. In retrospect, I would have inquired more about their lives, especially with my mother who passed away when I was a teenager. I wish I had recognized the value of my unique cultural background earlier in life—and not viewed being “different” as something to hide. Moreover, during my time in Vietnam, I would have made a greater effort to study Vietnamese and fully immerse myself in the language—something I deeply regret not doing now. However, it's challenging to address these issues as a child or young adult, and I may have resented my parents' insistence as a kid, but ultimately, it would have been beneficial. Today, I feel so proud to be Vietnamese and I think I would have an even deeper connection had the culture been ingrained in me earlier.

SR: During your interview with Film Talk Radio, I loved hearing you describe how memories and stories are beautiful to you but can also be dangerous. How did this dichotomy of beauty and danger impact your approach to writing My Vietnam, Your Vietnam?

CV: Indeed, I believe there's both danger and beauty in our minds and memories, as the way we recall events can be selective. For example, when two individuals describe the same event, their perspectives often differ. I actually wrote my part of the book about a decade ago, closer to the time I lived in Vietnam. I feel that my writing was true to my experiences then, but if I were to write it now, it would likely be a little different. My viewpoint was that of a young woman in her twenties, seeking to understand and process her family's history and reconcile her identity. 

However, looking at my first book which was published last year, if I were to rewrite it, I might include different stories because our perspectives change as we grow and mature. For instance, I may have initially been upset with my parents for not sharing more stories, but now, reflecting on their lives and history, I understand they made choices to protect me and my sister from their pain. If I wrote about that experience before, it might’ve been tinged with anger but now, it is padded with understanding. In essence, writing a book based on memories inherently involves the act of selection and selective recall. As writers, we do our best to tell a story that is true to our experience and that would be meaningful to others.

SR: Reading your description of the ubiquitous sounds of motorbikes and Vietnam traffic to the concept of Vietnamese citizen’s way of “visible life,” transported me back to my own cherished memories of visiting the country. How did you prepare for capturing the essence of Vietnamese life and culture in your memoir? 

CV: I didn't take any specific steps to prepare for the essence of Vietnamese life, as it's something you fully immerse yourself in upon arrival. You can probably relate to the idea that it's meant to be embraced and experienced in its entirety: the sounds, sights, smells, food, music, and laughter. Even when I come across videos on Instagram showcasing Vietnamese street food or other aspects of life, a sense of nostalgia and longing arises. This feeling seems to resonate with many of us who share a connection to Vietnam. It was my stepmother at that time who mentioned “visible life” in Vietnam. She just kept repeating that life is so visible there and I don’t really think there’s a better way to describe it. In the early morning hours, you’ll see people walking in their pajamas. You see folks on the street drinking their coffee in the morning and throughout the day, people are eating. Life is everywhere and it is indeed so very beautiful. 

SR: In your father’s sections, he reflects on the symbolism of the lotus flower in Vietnamese and Buddhist cultures, citing how he views all Vietnamese refugees like the lotus flower, embodying, “unprecedented strength of spirit and determination.” If you had to choose a symbol that represented Việt Kiều, what would you pick and why? 

CV: I share a deep appreciation for the pink lotus and its symbolism. Reflecting on my own life, I've found wisdom in my father's choice to name his first book The Pink Lotus. For four years of my life, I ran a floral business so I learned a lot about flowers then, and I also learned a lot by watching them blossom. The lotus flower is so unique in that it does indeed grow through the muddy waters and the flower itself is so beautiful, but also when it dries, the lotus pod is equally as mesmerizing, so I view it as a flower that’s precious in all of its various stages—very much like life itself.

Instead of a single image, two symbols come to mind for me: a bamboo shoot, representing flexibility, growth, and determination, and a basket of flowers sold by a street vendor in Vietnam. The vibrant colors and variety within the basket remind me that Viet Kieu, like the Vietnamese community as a whole, is not homogeneous but rather a collection of unique individuals.

SR:  Throughout the memoir, you often reflect on the silence that characterized your communication and distant connection with your father while growing up. However, through, “combing through his story,” you developed, “a profound understanding and love” for your father. What has been the most surprising revelation you’ve discovered about your father during the process of reading his story? Additionally, what do you admire most about him? 

CV: I believe that my father, due to his reserved nature, has often been misunderstood throughout his life, likely starting in childhood. When one doesn't frequently express themselves or their opinions, others may form their own assumptions without hearing their voice. 

Working closely with his text and editing his work for the book deepened my appreciation for him. In a section about his childhood, he shares a story of being sent to Vung Tau, where a woman renting his grandmother's townhome took him to the beach, bought him toys, and reminded him of his longing for his mother. This anecdote alone gave me a greater understanding and appreciation of my father. Imagining him as a child missing his mother evoked empathy within me.

I admire my father's strength and independence above all else. Few people have experienced as much adversity as he has, from losing his country, first son, and first wife, to enduring a divorce with his second wife, among other challenges. My father instilled resilience and determination in me, qualities that have shaped me into the writer I am today. Without his strength and fortitude, I wouldn't have pursued this path.

SR: How have other writers influenced your creative journey? What is some specific advice another writer has given to you that has changed the way you look at writing? 

CV: I immerse myself in a wide range of literary works. Currently, I am reading a book by J. Krishnamurti on quieting the mind and frequently find myself skimming through "A Course in Miracles." My reading choices vary, often reflecting my current life events and introspection. Since my early 20s, I have been fortunate to be surrounded by talented writers, many of whom have shared valuable advice. One emphasized the importance of perseverance, while another Vietnamese writer suggested not to start with a Vietnam-themed book, advice which I took to heart. Although I believe my second book may garner more attention than the first, I have many more stories to share beyond my experiences in Vietnam, so I certainly did not want to be pigeonholed as someone who could only write about Vietnam. However, the most common and significant piece of wisdom I've received is to keep writing. You must truly have a passion for writing to persevere, as I believe it should be an integral part of your life. In hindsight, I wish I had dedicated myself to writing earlier, but I am also grateful for the journey that has led me to where I am today.

SR: You spoke to Book Notions about your current project, which focuses on “women and the various reflections of ourselves that we see in women around us.” Can you elaborate on some of the challenges you’ve encountered while transitioning from memoir to fiction?

CV: Interestingly, I've decided to put that project on hold for the time being. While working on it, I was also attempting to build a community in my new home of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I found myself surrounded by fascinating women who mirrored various aspects of my own life. However, I found myself too close to the subject matter to write about it objectively. Additionally, about a year ago, I had started a memoir about life in Santa Fe but considered fictionalizing it due to the town's small size. This project would have complemented the women's book which was also set in Santa Fe. As you can see from my answer, I am not really clear about the project(s) right now, and I also need to feel passionately engaged in a project to fully invest in it. At the moment, my focus has shifted and I am more interested in building a collection of essays. I believe I'll return to the women's book—perhaps combining it with the Santa Fe book—but I'm not certain when. I'm really in love with the idea of a collection of essays, so after MVYV, the launch, etc., I believe I’ll focus on the essays.

SR: Having lived in multiple countries, including Vietnam, Switzerland, and the United States, and embracing a life of travel, how do you personally define the concept of “home?” 

CV: Through my various travels and experiences living in different places, I've come to realize that while we may find comfort in numerous locations around the world, the most important home lies within ourselves. We connect with different places in unique ways; I cherish both Hanoi and Saigon for distinct reasons, just as I hold deep affection for San Francisco, where I resided for a decade, and Santa Fe, my current home. Each place speaks to various aspects of our beings, yet it's the inner peace we cultivate that truly allows us to find happiness wherever we go. As the saying goes, "Wherever you go, there you are." Nurturing this inner sanctuary is one of the most valuable endeavors we can undertake in our lives.