PTSD. Shell shock. Society has terms to recognize wartime trauma in soldiers and the same terms apply to the long-term effects felt by civilians who are caught in battle.
Author Lan Cao was one of those people. She was a child in Vietnam during the war, and she has vivid memories of what she witnessed during those years, including the Tet Offensive in 1968.
Cao fled to the U.S. in her early teens, but the trauma did not dissipate. It continued under the surface during her education and her successful career as an attorney and author.
Those early experiences in Vietnam are still a part of Cao’s life, and they have filtered into her relationship with her daughter. “Family in Six Tones” is a vehicle that allows each of them to tell their perspective of their experiences. In the process, the pair educates readers on the effects of trauma and the therapy of empathy.
Lan Cao On Her First Return to Vietnam
“I went back in ’91, and I went under the auspices of a Ford Foundation grant … to study emerging economies. At that time, the Soviet Union had collapsed, and there were a lot of questions as to whether or not communist countries would stay communist. I realized the minute I got there that all the Vietnamese I came in contact with could tell that I did not grow up in Vietnam. By the way I moved, even before I spoke Vietnamese, they could tell that I had been one of the ones that left and was returning. So it was bittersweet because it made me realize that I wasn’t really from there anymore. And a lot of times when I’m in the U.S., even if I assimilated, I don’t fully feel like I’m from here either.”
Harlan Van Cao On Her Mother’s Mental Health
“That part that was most awkward for readers is the part that was so awkward for me in the moment, but the part leading up to it was very soothing. I’m talking to my mom, I feel that we’re the same age, and then suddenly she kind of turned. I wrote the first part to show that it’s not a bad thing. I don’t want there to be any stigma about trauma. It was clear there was a lot of anger built up inside of her. It was clear that my dad knew about it. I think I would have more issues growing up from it if he hadn’t been there. It was never – I didn’t see it as a burden.”
Lan Cao On Inspiring Her Daughter
“My mission in writing is to present – not ideas, because ideas are too abstract – but to tell a story that is emotionally touching. When I want to talk to Harlan about something, I usually tell her stories. I don’t just tell her, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that’ But I feel that if I put it in a story, she relates to it the way I would tell a story if it were in a novel. So rather than just say, ‘This is what you should be, or this is what you shouldn’t be,’ as she was growing up I was always telling her stories. And I found, in my own way, that stories saved my life. One of my favorite stories is ‘1001 Arabian Nights,’ and it is literally about a woman who told stories so she wouldn’t be decapitated by the king. So stories have always been very powerful to me, and I think stories make you relate to the characters and to the ideas, because ideas are embodied in people.”
Lan Cao On Her Daughter’s Revelations
“I didn’t want the writing to be about constraints for her. I want writing to be about freedom, which is what it’s been for me, as a means of expression, where nobody can tell you what you can write and what you cannot write. If you were in a tyrannical country, the government would tell you what you can and cannot write, so I didn’t want to be the parent who acts as the government. Also, she convinced me that it’s probably a good thing to deal with some of the mental health issues, and to put it out there so that it could be de-stigmatized.”