“For most of my life,” says Vietnam-born and American-raised writer Dao Strom, “the topic of Vietnam has remained clouded—either by silence, sorrow, anger or contradictions.”
Her 2003 debut novel, Grass Roof, Tin Roof (Mariner Books), mirrored Strom’s own life story and that of her family who fled to the Untied States in 1975. In 2006, she published The Gentle Order of Girls & Boys (Counterpoint), an exploration of the lives of four Vietnamese-American women that the New Yorker called “quietly beautiful.” Indeed, the words “quiet” and “beautiful” could apply to all of her work including her current project, We Were Meant to be Gentle People, a hybrid literary and musical creation that finds Strom again reflecting on Vietnam. Consisting of a chapbook and a musical EP, Gentle People combines music, prose, and images that interrelate and expand on each other.
“It wasn’t something that I was conscious of doing,” says Strom of the interdisciplinary nature of the project. “I was writing a lot of prose and then I would incorporate images. Then I just opened the door and decided to start moving things around the page including the words and fonts. I felt like it was a creative reckoning—something new and exciting that I could explore.”
Of particular relevance to Strom is a Vietnamese folktale about the origin of the Viet people that provides inspiration for Gentle People. In the tale, the Viet people are said to be descendents of 100 hundred children born of mountain goddess and the dragon king. “But they can’t stay together because they are from different realms: she is from the mountain, he’s from the sea,” she says. In the tale, the children are divided and sent to live in the mountain or the sea.
“Separation and displacement are a big theme for me. It’s a common theme in the Vietnamese psyche—that division between North and South,” she says. “I’m using it as a metaphor for the longing for two landscapes, for different geographies.”
With the Arts Commission Fellowship, Strom will release Gentle People and she is also experimenting with how to present the text and music in a web-based format.