Photo by L.G. Patterson
Phong Nguyen has known for a long time that he wanted to tell the story of the Trung sisters.
Well, at least a version of it.
The story of the Trung sisters is well known in Vietnamese culture. It tells the true tale of ancient warrior sisters, Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, who in A.D. 43raised an army of women to fight against the Han Chinese and ruled as kings for two years.
In The Bronze Drum, Nguyen seeks to build on the historical account of the sisters, as well as what has grown into a national myth in Vietnam, while humanizing them through his historical fiction. “It has one foot in history and one foot in myth,” Nguyen says.
The Bronze Drum is Nguyen’s third novel. While he’s always had the idea of writing a book based on the Trung sisters, he says he also knew it couldn’t be his first book. “It’s a large canvas story and it’s an epic sweep,” Nguyen says. “In order to tackle such an ambitious project,I needed to know that I could just get to the finish line of a novel. I couldn’t have imagined writing this as my very first novel, even though I wanted to write its since I was younger.”
When he first decided it was time to tackle the tale, Nguyen struggled with research. When it comes to the sisters, there are two versions of their story: what has become the national myth of Vietnam and the contemporaneous historical account written by Ma Yuan, which is from the Chinese perspective. “So it’s the Chinese perspective, in which they’re demonized, and there’s the Vietnamese perspective, in which they’re sanctified,” Nguyen says. “I needed to have a third route where I was humanizing them, not portraying them as all good or all bad, as flawed individuals.”
Starting to research the story also presented another issue for Nguyen —the lack of material from before the mid-20th century. “I found wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling books on the Vietnam War, but only two books about the origins of Vietnam,” he says. One of those books, The Origins of Ancient Vietnam, was written by an anthropological archaeologist, Nam C. Kim, who Nguyen began to correspond with. From there, he knew he would be able to gather what he needed to write the book.
The book starts with the Trung sisters’ lives prior to the revolution, which was important for Nguyen for a couple of reasons. One was the chance to show the complexity of their lives and the depth of feeling and relationships, the chance to show each sister as a complete person outside of the legend. But the other was the chance to tell a story set in Vietnam that wasn’t about the Vietnam War. “Too often we think about Vietnam in the context of an unfortunate episode in the history of America, as opposed to a thousands-year-old culture that has its own prerogatives and its own trajectory, its own history and its own beloved figures,” Nguyen says. “It was very important to me not just to tell a story from Vietnamese history but to tell a story from Vietnamese history that only apart of which concerns a war.”
While today, it’s easy to put the story of the Trung sisters within the modern, patriarchal lens, Nguyen says those types of ideas were still being negotiated. Th eideas of Confucianism, which helped establish a patriarchal family structure, had been introduced in the area, but hadn’t taken hold among the people, he says. “The rise of the twin sisters to become kings in ancient Vietnam was not unprecedented,” he says. “But it flew in the face of what the Han Chinese had tried to introduce.”
And it goes back to another goal of Nguyen’s in taking on the story —showing that feminism is nothing new and was not born from the patriarchy itself. “I do think, by default, we tend to assume that because of the modernWestern tradition of feminism that the empowerment of women is entirely a Western innovation. But actually, throughout history, there have been examples of women leaders, women in power,” Nguyen says. “The power of women is nothing new.
The Bronze Drum can be found online and in bookstores, including SkylarkBookshop in downtown Columbia. ButNguyen wants people to know that it is also available on audiobook, which he describes as really lovely. It’s also a nice way to enjoy the book for those who maybe intimidated by trying to pronounce the Vietnamese names, he says.