Châu Pham has stopped talking. He can’t talk. He drops his head, clenches his jaw, and seems barely able to breathe. Puddles are building in his eyes. Vivian Pham, his daughter, strokes his arm. Her hands are tiny and pretty, her fingernails long. “Take your time, it’s okay, don’t rush,” she tells him. Her voice is gentle, the accent a surprise – American barely brushed with Australian. “You don’t have to talk about it. Skip it, okay?” Vivian stands and moves closer to her father, presses tissues to his face.
“No, I want to talk,” he says. “It helps me to talk about it.” He is silent for a moment more. The effort it takes to gather his composure is so muscular it seems to ripple beneath his skin. Then he takes his mind back 40 years and remembers that the first days on the wooden boat at sea were almost like a holiday. “It was so beautiful and calm.”
Vivian has been listening to her father’s stories since she was a little girl, but each time he tells them she finds something new to see and examine. He has always seemed two people to her: the father, kind but distant, and the “deity” with a mythical, monumental survival story. “That’s the thing with migrant parents and refugee parents. Even if they don’t talk about it, there’s this sense that something huge happened to them.”
We’re sitting at the Phams’ kitchen table in south-western Sydney and I’m trying to make sense of this extraordinary young woman, who is only 19 and whose first book, The Coconut Children, is an emotional, hilarious treasure, holding the wisdom and wicked humour of a gnarled old woman. The novel, which focuses on two Australian-Vietnamese families living in 1998 in south-western Sydney’s Cabramatta, is in many ways a tribute to Vivian’s father and his story. Sonny, the book’s central teenage character, grows up in the shadow of her father’s refugee experience and thinks of him as “almost almighty”.
“It was just extraordinary to think that someone who was obviously still a youngster … had written this thing.”
Patrick Mangan, a senior editor at Penguin Random House.
Vivian wrote the first draft of the book in 2017 when she took part in a novella program at the Story Factory in Sydney, a not-for-profit organisation set up in 2012 as a creative writing centre for marginalised young people. Vivian was 16. Instead of writing short, she wrote long; a novel of 90,000 words. Patrick Mangan, a senior editor at Penguin Random House, was a volunteer on the program and was assigned to work with Vivian on her story. “As soon as I read the first page, I was completely gobsmacked,” Mangan says. “It was just extraordinary to think that someone who was obviously still a youngster … had written this thing.”
Vivian’s words soon found their way into the hands of Sydney literary agent Benython Oldfield. “I realised once I’d read it that I really needed to contact her very quickly, before anyone else did,” Oldfield says. He met with Vivian and her father at the Story Factory in Redfern, where he told them that, such was the manuscript’s potential, it could probably go to auction. Every publishing house that saw it bid for it, and in early 2018, Vivian signed a contract with Penguin Random House.
Mangan picked up the manuscript where he’d left it when the novella program ended. Over the next two years, he and Vivian engaged in the editor-writer dialogue. He pushed a little, she listened, was open to his suggestions but more often than not chose to reject them. “She was extremely self-assured,” he says.
The Coconut Children, which is out on March 3, is without doubt Vivian’s book. And Sonny, the singular heroine she has created, is, with some variations, Vivian: a gentle, unusual and exquisitely funny young woman filled with desire, struggling to find a place in the world and to preserve in words some of the landscape of the life she’s seen and the stories she knows. Her older sister, Kim, says the book is deeply personal. “She has so much hidden in it. She’s invested so much into it. It’s not just a part of her life but mine as well.”
Vivian paints a picture of Cabramatta, as it was for the generation of Vietnamese people who arrived in Sydney from the late 1970s: seedy, troubled, heroin-riddled, but also populated with vivid and complex characters. She gives us Sonny’s gentle father and volatile mother, and also Vince, her love interest, just out of “juvie” (juvenile detention), and Vince’s violent drunken father and submissive mother.
She presents for consideration Vince’s friends, Alex, Tam and Danny, “the type of kids that carry knives in their back pockets”. She moves these louche, dispossessed adolescents from “Cabra’s” pho restaurants to billiard halls and game arcades and tattoo parlours, and, ultimately, into darker places. Then she takes us into a girls’ school grounds where, from a seat beside a basketball court, Sonny and her friend Najma commentate on the procession of other senior girls and discuss life and pubic hair and the “durability of hymens”.
They also tentatively disclose their desires, the movies they play in their heads when they’re alone in their bedrooms. Sonny tells Najma that she directs hers, that she makes sure the lighting and the angles are right. And she says it’s not actually her she’s imagining when she’s building pleasure in her mind, it’s a “hot actress”, usually Cameron Diaz.
Imagination and desire drove Châu Pham towards his journey out of Vietnam. Before the fall of Saigon, “the puppet government had painted a very beautiful picture of the US”. His dreams were full of America, of going there to live and study.
His dream became an urgent need after the Communist People’s Army of Vietnam captured Saigon on April 30, 1975, ending the Vietnam War. The story Châu tells is cinematic in its scope and drama. In a terrifying raid, armed government forces evicted Châu’s family from their home near Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City) and carried out an inventory of their possessions. Châu was just a teenager. He remembers taunting the officers: “Why don’t you count the number of chopsticks as well.” An officer reached for his revolver. Châu fled.
They returned to the family village, Long Tan, which back in 1966 had been the site of one of the war’s most infamous battles. The area was still traumatised, yet Châu’s family was just a little better off than other villagers: they had rice paddies, which also yielded frogs and freshwater fish. From the family’s thatched hut, his mother sold oil by the spoonful. Châu chokes back emotion as he recalls helping her. He would give people too much oil or let them have it for nothing. “You see, the little boys, the little girls, without clothes, they were so poor, they run up to you and they give you a container and sometimes they don’t even have money.”
At night by candlelight, villagers huddled around a radio, trying to pick up the Voice of America signal as someone held a makeshift antenna. The broadcasts told of the number of boat people who were making their way to Indonesia, Hong Kong or Thailand, and how many had perished trying to do so, but for Châu, America remained a powerful beacon. Now there was another reason he had to flee: he was 16 and had been drafted to fight the Khmer Rouge in the Cambodian-Vietnamese War.
“There was no way for me or for my parents to see me go in fighting, because a lot of people didn’t make it, they couldn’t come back, or some of them came back with missing limbs and eyes,” Châu says. At 59, he is very handsome, compact of frame, his skin tanned and unlined. He wears pale, beige chinos and a polo shirt and his accent is more American than his daughter’s. “I was very scared,” he says, “but the hope of seeing something better way overshadowed my fear.”
Within a few days, pirates had raided their boat. The pirates told them they would chop off the hands of anyone who refused. No one did.
A family member introduced Châu to a boat builder. Bribes were paid to the local police so they would aim their AK-47s at the river rather than the vessel. He farewelled his parents and siblings. In the early hours one morning in 1978, as rounds of shots popcorned the water, the boat carrying Châu and 200 others slipped down the river and into the sea. As the distance grew between land and boat, the refugees became cheerful and chattered. Stories were exchanged, encouragement given. “That’s when I felt so good, finally.”
But within a few days, pirates had raided their boat. They were Thai, dark and skinny, carrying guns and machetes. They passed around a bucket and told the refugees to hand over any jewellery or gold they had. The pirates told them they would chop off the hands of anyone who refused. No one did. Châu struggles again to get his words out. “They would take the women over to their boat, the good-looking women.” An hour or two later, the women would be returned. Nothing was the same after that. There was no chatter. Pirates attacked the boat two or three more times in the days that followed. Monsoon storms whipped up the seas and, at night, Châu tied his hands to a railing so if he dozed he would not fall overboard.
He thinks it was on the fifth day that a girl, maybe seven years old, died, probably from a combination of malnutrition and dehydration. Her body was lowered into the sea. Around the same time, as the boat drifted in the Gulf of Thailand, out of gasoline and nearly empty of food, another smaller boat carrying maybe 30 people pulled alongside. “They were telling us that they had been floating around for more than 30 days. They had run out of everything, they were begging us, they were on their knees and begging but we couldn’t do anything. We ended up pushing them away. They got closer to our boat; we got a stick and we pushed them away.” Châu lowers his head. His eyes fill. He can’t find more words. Close beside him, Vivian soothes him.
After 10 days at sea, the boat hit a reef. It had drifted into Indonesian waters and to the shores of a remote, deserted island. In her book, Vivian describes Sonny’s father carrying “a 70-kilo bag of rice from the boat on his shoulders, trudging through the ocean of corals and broken glass, finally feeling the ground with bloodied feet”.
Perhaps, given her father’s stories, it should not be a surprise that running through Vivian’s prose is a swirling current of intense feeling. She sees beauty and ugliness and pain, sketches emotion in perfect little sentences, then laces them with sensuality. Sonny sees rainbow lorikeets in a grevillea hedge drinking nectar from pink flowers and revels in her displaced parents’ garden, their fruit trees, lime, dragon fruit and mango, their “bathtubs of fish mint, coriander and sawtooth herbs and draped luscious winter melons on hardwood arbours”.
It is clear that Vivian has been watching the world with a penetrating gaze forever. In The Coconut Children, she is an astute observer of people with complex and difficult lives, emotions and behaviours. She notes the grocer’s silver fillings and wonders “what had his face looked like before all those liver spots …”, thinks of the public swimming pool and the “old Band-Aids still drifting at the bottom”, observes how the ash falls from a cigarette, grey and “like a feather”.
Back in south-western Sydney, Châu takes me into his garden. He shows me his banana palms and vigorous, climbing dragon fruit plants and an arbour hanging heavy with hairy melons. He explains that it’s important to divide and separate lemongrass each year before replanting it, so it has room to move and grow. He points out the recycling system he’s built to carry grey water from the washing machine to the garden. It’s a 38-degree day and beads of perspiration are shiny on his forehead. This home was a long time coming.
After three months on the Indonesian island, surviving on coconuts and fish, Indonesian officials rescued Châu and his compatriots. They were taken to a refugee camp where, as a minor, his paperwork was prioritised. Australia offered him asylum but Châu could not shake the image of America from his mind. He knew, too, that his older brother, who had left Vietnam some years earlier, was somewhere in California. He wanted to find him. So in late 1978, aged 17, Chau boarded a Boeing 747, destination Los Angeles.
There was no one at the airport to meet him. He did not speak English. He stood by a phone booth, waiting. He had no one to call. “I was scared. I was very dark; I looked more like a jungle man. I got long hair, I didn’t belong there.” Well-dressed people rushed past him. “I was wearing slippers like this.” He points to his plastic, Crocs-style shoes. After four hours, someone took pity on him, another recently arrived Vietnamese man. He took Châu home with him.
Châu’s story from this point on lacks the drama of his escape from Vietnam, but the difficulty and loneliness of it cannot be underestimated. The stranger cared for him for three weeks and helped him connect with support services and trace his brother, who was living in Simi Valley, about 50 minutes north of downtown LA. Châu moved in with him, started high school and embarked on the immense job of learning English. The jocks shunned him, but in a group of kids with learning disabilities he found kindness, patience and humour. When he graduated from high school, he had the English and the grades to go to California State University to study computer science. That led to a job with the film technology and equipment company, Panavision, and later to work in Tokyo for US investment bank Morgan Stanley.
In 1989, Châu became one of the first refugees to return to Vietnam. He flew in with $US3000. His parents had no idea he was coming.
In 1989, Châu became one of the first refugees to return to Vietnam. He flew into Ho Chi Minh City on a Russian military jet, carrying $US3000 in crisp, new American hundred-dollar bills, and caught a cab – a relic of the French colonial era that required cranking to get started – from the airport to Long Tan. His parents had no idea he was coming, and when he arrived late at night, initially they were too afraid to open the door to this stranger. In the days that followed he visited the multiple families he still knew in the village, caught up on news, distributed greenbacks. On a subsequent visit, he reconnected with a woman he’d known when he was younger. Her name was Hân.
Vivian’s dedication at the front of The Coconut Children starts with the tribute: “To Ba and Me, the reasons I wrote this … ” Ba and Me are her father and mother, Hân. The relationship with her mother is difficult to see clearly; on the day of my visit, Hân, who speaks little English, is in Vietnam. Vivian describes her as a meticulous housekeeper and a fantastic cook who is always in the kitchen, but says she’s strict.
What’s clear is that Vivian is particularly close to both her father and her sister Kim, or “Na”, as the family calls her (Vivian is called “Wii” at home). Kim finished her master’s degree in French literature in 2018 and has written two screenplays, one of which has attracted the interest of one of Vietnam’s big film directors. “Growing up, my sister was, and still is, like, my moral standard,” says Vivian. “I put her on a pedestal as much as I put my dad and his stories on a pedestal.” Kim is six years older and has, says Vivian, “been through a lot”. She says that when they were younger, they were embarrassed by their poor circumstances, but Kim always had the conviction that she would do something incredible. “And that’s how she moulded me, because I’ve never thought that I wouldn’t do this book. And I’ve never thought that I wouldn’t one day change the world in some way.”
Kim was born in Ho Chi Minh City in 1994, and it was two years after this that Châu moved back to the US with his new wife and toddler. Four years later, in 2000, Vivian was born in Orange County, California. Châu, who’d had such dreams of America as a teenager, began to hate America’s gun culture. “It’s too violent,” he says. Vivian adds: “When you’ve escaped one war zone, you don’t want to live in another.” It distressed Châu, too, that people had to work two or three jobs to qualify for healthcare. So on September 7, 2001, he moved his family to Sydney. “It’s just a safer place to raise children.”
Family memories hold that young Vivian was stubborn, self-contained and, according to Kim, “super-precocious”. Perhaps she was thinking about herself when Vivian wrote of Sonny: “She could be like this sometimes; so far inside her own head that she forgot other people had thoughts, too.”
Kim remembers her little sister writing stories and making little illustrated books from an early age. She wrote letters, too – to American activist academic Noam Chomsky and to Mike Cannon-Brookes, the billionaire co-founder of Australian software company Atlassian. Cannon-Brookes in reply sent her two books, including Daniel H. Pink’s Drive (The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us), one of his favourites. “Hey Vivian, I hope the future brings you much amazement,” he inscribed in the front of it. In The Coconut Children, Sonny writes to Prince William the moment she hears of Princess Diana’s death, “urging him to not be afraid to cry, that she would donate her shoulder for him to rest upon if he would be so kind as to invite her to Buckingham Palace”.
Now, sitting at the family’s suburban kitchen table, the new author wears denim shorts, a white T-shirt with the red Levi’s logo, a jade pendant on a chain around her neck, and a jade bangle. Her hair is neckline-short and she is tiny, so tiny. She has delicate tattoos on the inside of each wrist – Chinese seal characters. Her accent is a combination of her father’s, the movies they’ve watched together since she was a child, and the frequent visits to relatives in the US. She calls California “Cali”.
She checks her phone every so often because she’s waiting to hear from a guy on Gumtree who’s selling a skateboard. No, she doesn’t know how to skateboard but she wants to learn, then she’ll go to Japan with her riend Alaa and skate the streets of Tokyo. I ask her what subculture she feels she most belongs to. “If I knew who I was, I wouldn’t be so desperate to start skateboarding!” she says. “I’m just going to look at that skateboard and be like, ‘Who am I, tell me!’ ”
She has not, so far, made great friends at Western Sydney University, where she’s studying philosophy and creative writing in the second year of an arts degree. “It’s such bad luck because my sister met Daniel the first society she joined. She joined an atheist group and he was there. And then that’s it, the love of her life, it’s over.” She discusses philosophy with Nottinghamshire-raised Daniel Carrington. He introduced her to Franz Kafka and Nietzsche, to Monty Python, the English stand-up comedian Stewart Lee, and author P.G. Wodehouse.
“I wanted to universalise my experience, and not just write about what it means to be Vietnamese.”
In the dedication in the front of The Coconut Children, Vivian pays tribute to “Na”, “my muse, I am who I am because I want to be who you are” and also to Carrington, “the editor of my thoughts”. He says they have robust discussions about all manner of things. She sees, he says, things that other people don’t. “She’s helped me … see the privilege that’s not easy to see. She’s helped me see the little subtle things that happen in everyday life.”
Vivian and I discuss what university societies she could join, or instigate. “I was thinking of making one. I was thinking of making a Marxist group,” she says. I ask her if she’s a Marxist. “Well,” she says, “I think about it. I could make one called the Tentative Marxist Society. We’d read the manifesto together but really reluctantly.”
She has, she says, many fickle passions. This is the young woman who went looking for Asian-Australian or Asian-American writers with experiences that spoke to her, but drew a blank. She turned up post-colonialists including Frantz Fanon, and her favourite, American novelist and playwright James Baldwin, who was the voice of the American civil rights movement. In his quote, “each of us, helplessly and forever, contains the other”, she found everything.
“I wanted to universalise my experience, and not just write about what it means to be Vietnamese or to come from Cabra. Baldwin saw the grey in the black and white.” She referenced Baldwin in a speech she gave to 2000 people at the inaugural International Congress of Youth Voices in San Francisco in 2018 about the lessons to be learnt from global colonial histories.
This is the young woman who is barely over her obsessions with British boy band One Direction’s Harry Styles, several boys she sees about in Cabramatta – including one who gave an old lady his arm to help her across the street, two air-force cadets, and her school science teacher. “He was the reason my grades went up so much for science.”
Later, I drive Vivian and her friend Alaa to Cabramatta and we wander through its quiet evening streets looking for a place to eat. “Oh, I like that shop’s name,” Vivian says, pointing out a green corner awning – “Every Day Happy Shoes” – next to the fancy Chinese-style “Pai Lau” friendship arch in the Freedom Plaza pedestrian mall.
At dinner, over pho, we talk about boys. They’re strange, other-worldly creatures for these young women, both of whom went to girls’ schools and still live at home with conservative and protective parents. Beyond family, their social life is limited. Lately, they’ve been meeting at a park near Vivian’s home, hanging out and chatting. Vivian has never had a Vince.
There’s a direct line between The Coconut Children and Vivian’s greatest body of youthful work – fan fiction, or “fanfic”, the post-millennial phenomenon in which lusty kids write their idols (for Vivian it was Harry Styles) into raunchy love stories, then post them online. “You’d go back to it and you’d see that people were commenting, and saying like, ‘Please update, please write another chapter’. And just that sense that someone out there is reading your work is really – it’s just very cute.” She says that fan fiction influenced her characterisation of Vince; she enjoyed “exaggerating his beauty a lot”.
“I’m still not sure how Vivian Pham’s tiny frame contained such furious ambition and such wide loneliness.”
The Story Factory’s executive director, Cath Keenan.
She pauses, nibbling delicately on a piece of chicken. “How lonely is it that, like, I crafted this really ridiculously hot teenage boy and wrote all the lines of dialogue between [him and Sonny] … like, it’s the love story that I mourn for because I didn’t have it, maybe.”
The Story Factory’s executive director, Cath Keenan, recently wrote her own story about the Vivian Pham phenomenon. One line stands out: “I’m still not sure how her tiny frame contained such furious ambition and such wide loneliness.”
Later at home, I admire the fine pink dragon fruit on my kitchen counter that Châu insisted I take and remember a line in The Coconut Children about Sonny’s father. It might provide at least some of the answer to Keenan’s question. “In his eyes, Sonny saw a glimpse of who she ought to become.”
Stephanie Wood is a freelance writer.