‘The Coconut Children’ by Vivian Pham: Reimagining the Vietnamese diaspora in Australia
Emerging Vietnamese-Australian writer Vivian Pham reimagines 1998 Cabramatta in her debut novel ‘The Coconut Children.’
Set in summer, before Vivian was born, ‘The Coconut Children’ captures a unique sense of nostalgia that Vivian says came from her experiences in Cabramatta as a child.
“I always felt like Cabramatta was already a memory, even though I was living through it and it was still there,” she says, “I felt like the whole suburb was based on people’s memories of what their home country was like.”
Vivian says the Cabramatta of her novel may not be accurate to reality, but reflects how she experienced it growing up, and has become her own romanticised manifestation of that time.
Photo courtesy of Secret Book Stuff
The novel sensitively blends humour with the trauma associated with being a child of Vietnamese immigrants, creating an authentic coming-of-age story which Vivian hopes will be relevant to other Vietnamese Australians.
Vivian notes that much of the Vietnamese media identity revolves around trauma and painful historical events and that she wanted to emphasise the importance of laughter and community.
Vivian commented that much of her own humour has been shaped by movies she watched with her family growing up and from competing with her sister to be the funniest person in Vietnamese.
“[Watching films with your family] substitutes the silence that you feel a lot growing up with migrant parents, the things that they say and the things that they don’t say,” Vivian says, “…and making jokes in another language makes you feel closer to the people who speak it… it makes [you] feel incredibly proud and part of something big.”
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‘The Coconut Children’ is inspired by Vivian’s father and his epic journey as a Vietnamese refugee. Vivian says that unlike her novella in 2017, ‘The Coconut Children’ tells her father’s story from the child’s perspective, which is something that was incredibly freeing for her.
“I had more freedom to rewrite the story in my own words and what his journey meant to me,” Vivian says, “I had the freedom to fictionalise it… [which was important because] as children of refugees, you feel that there’s so much you have to remember and if you don’t remember these stories might disappear.”
Vivian says that the depth of description in her novel also stems from fears she had being a child of refugees, and in trying to remember everything that happened before she was born so that it would not be forgotten.
She says it was important for her characters to “be released from the burden of remembering… and to experience a moment of peace.”
‘The Coconut Children’ is essential reading for those apart of or interested in the Vietnamese diaspora in Australia and is a captivating and refreshing narrative from a talented and thoughtful young author.
“The reason it was important for me to get the story down on a page was because I wanted to think of the generational experiences of refugee families… [to look at] what separates us and what brings us together,” Vivian says.