Lancaster graduate wins prestigious fellowship for novel

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai © Vũ Thị Vân Anh
Image: Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

A Lancaster graduate has been awarded a literary fellowship for the novel she wrote during her time at the University.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, who has achieved both a Master’s and PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster, won the 2020 Lannan Literary Fellowship for Fiction for her work The Mountains Sing. The prestigious fellowships recognise writers of distinctive literary merit who demonstrate potential for continued outstanding work.

Quế Mai wrote The Mountains Sing, her first book in English, as part of her MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster, and completed it during her PhD. The novel tells of Vietnam’s 20th century history via the lives of four generations of a Vietnamese family.

The book has received critical acclaim around the world. It has been named a New York Times Editors' Choice, a Best Book of 2020 by NPR, the Buzz Magazine, the NB Literary Magazine, Real Simple and the Washington Independent Review of Books. It has won BookBrowse’s Best Debut Award for 2020 and has also been listed as a SHE READS' best historical fiction book of 2020 and a Book Riot’s best book for book clubs.

Quế Mai, who has now achieved her PhD with a complete manuscript of her second novel, which fictionalises the real-life experiences of 100,000 children who were born during the Vietnam War as the result of relationships between American soldiers and Vietnamese women, said studying at Lancaster had been instrumental for her writing career:

"My studies at Lancaster University changed my life and helped me to become a novelist in English. Not only did I learn creative writing knowledge and skills, but I also gained a clearer vision from which I was able to write against colonialism, write to honour history and memory, write ethically, and write to preserve the Vietnamese literary traditions.

“I am grateful to my MA supervisor Sara Maitland, my PhD supervisor Dr Zoe Lambert, Professor Graham Mort, Professor Jenn Ashworth, Dr George Green and Dr Eoghan Walls for their guidance and encouragement. I am indebted to many professors, lecturers, administrative staff and students at Lancaster who showed me how kind, generous, helpful and inspiring the Lancaster community is."

Dr Zoe Lambert said: “It has been an honour to supervise Quế Mai's PhD and work with her on her journey as a writer. I've learnt a lot from Quế Mai too, especially from seeing her courage, tenacity and hard work.”

Quế Mai was born in a small village in North Vietnam and grew up in the Mekong Delta, South Vietnam. She worked as a street seller and rice farmer before winning a scholarship from the Australian government to study in Australia. On returning to Vietnam, she worked to foster the country’s sustainable development via her positions with international organisations including UN agencies.

She dedicated her PhD to her parents and said: "My parents never had a chance to attend university and this is for them. For the many extra hours they laboured on our rice field so I could continue school. For the countless times they told me girls needed education as much as boys. For the books they bought from the little money they had. But most importantly, for their love."

She added: “I am deeply grateful for the generous support of the Lannan Foundation. The fellowship will open a new door in the literary world for me, and I am determined to open doors for others and to make sure that more voices from inside Vietnam are heard.”

Quế Mai is the author of eleven books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction in Vietnamese and English. Her writing has won some of Vietnam’s top literary awards including the 2010 Poetry of the Year Award from the Hanoi Writers Association, the the Capital’s Literature & Arts Award, First Prize - the Poetry Competition About 1,000 Years Hanoi. In her role as a literary translator, Quế Mai received the Vietnam Writers Association’s Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Advancement of Vietnamese Literature Overseas.

Quế Mai is currently based in Jakarta where she is passing on her creative writing knowledge to her students who are Afghan refugees. She has been working with them to produce an anthology of their own writing to help raise funds to support their further education.

She has discussed her debut novel and the role of Lancaster University in a short film.

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