Video Interview

Nhung Dam: "Nobody else can make my dreams come true"

30-5-2017
Nhung Dam Seo

Actress and theatre maker Nhung Dam is of Vietnamese origin. Her debut "Thousand Fathers" is a fascinating report of how her parents experienced their entry into the Netherlands as boat refugees. In conversation with Janneke Siebelink, chief editor of online magazine lees.bol.com, she talks about her desire to write a book, what identity means to her and the power of art.

When I was in the library, I could really lose myself in all those stories

When you were a child you promised yourself you would write at least one book.
Yes, I have been keeping diaries my whole life. In the mean time I became an actress and went to Theatre School, but a while ago I reread them and year after year it said that one day it would become reality. If I want to make my dreams come true, I have to do that myself, because nobody else can. It stated clearly: I really hope that one day I will write a book.

Why a book? What is so magical about a book?
I grew up in a suburb of Groningen and there was a small local library. I did not understand much of what was going on around me, not at home nor in my surroundings, but when I was in the library, I could really lose myself in all those stories. That helped me understand the people and the world a bit better. It started with those stories and at one point I was reading and thought: "But those stories are created by someone." Wow, if you can create that yourself, you can make your own truth, you can make up your own mum and dad, create everything just for you. I think something happened there, something like: "If I can do that one day, something with language..."It seemed to be the most powerful thing of all.

You wrote a beautiful book, with lots of elements of your own life. The main character is also called Nhung, daughter of two Vietnamese boat refugees. Where does the auto biographic element end?
When I went to sign at the Bezige Bij, I told Susanne Holten, my editor: "I am not interested in writing an auto biography." It would have been a completely different book. But I did want to use elements of my life to tell the story in the best way possible. I thought: "How far can I go to find that boundary?" That is why I named the main character Nhong, my own name. How far can I go in using autobiographic elements to create an optimally fictionalized story?

Was it not difficult to let go of the reality, because you were afraid you would not honour your parents?
My parents are Buddhists. I thought a very long time about which God I believe in and how everything works, but recently I thought: "If I believe in anything, art is my religion." I can be very helpful in my day-to-day life, very sweet and forget myself completely, but when it comes to art everything else has to yield. If this is the best road for the plot to follow, then I have to follow that road. I think you shouldn't compromise. You have to write the story optimally, otherwise it is not worth being published. I have no room to consider what others think about it.

Books 2

I feel an enormous pressure to make something of my life.

Do you hope your parents will read the book?
Even better, if the story were to be translated into Vietnamese. That would make it complete, it would be wonderful. You try to discover who you are through art. My mother does not speak Dutch and it is very difficult to sustain yourself in society if you don't speak the language. Since I was young, I had to translate letters and make doctor's appointments. So I thought: "If I make sure I speak the language, I can do anything." I have just written a book which makes me understand my parents better, but I have developed myself in art in such a way that I created something my parents cannot understand. It is a weird paradox which I don't yet know how to handle.

Have you got any idea how your parents experienced arriving in Groningen as boat refugees?
My parents never talked much about it. I have always tried to find out and had to reconstruct it myself from fragments. In middle school we had the subject of the Vietnam war and only then, for the first time, I saw the pictures of what the teacher was talking about. I thought: "Wow, my parents went through that." My mum can panic suddenly when she sees water or a small boat. Those kind of things told me that they went through something really severe.

You will be in theatres with Ha Ha Happiness soon. You spoke to many people, asking whether a certain choice can decide the rest of your life. Can you name a choice that was your tipping point?
It is something I think about a lot. A big theme in my show is where the happiness is in us. So often you hear: "If I win a million, I will do this or that", or: "If I retire, I will start doing what I want to do." It makes you think: "Where is happiness in your life?" On the one hand I have seen the hardship and the struggle for survival, on the other hand, I live in Amsterdam. Everybody is looking for happiness, but what is it to you? Before you know it, you keep looking outside of yourself all the time and it has to be bigger and more and more. I have not yet decided what it is, but I do know that I always was a strange child and felt lonely. It said so in my diary. From the moment I started working in art, it all came together. I thought: "This is where it is right." When I act, it is power instead of strange. That is my happiness. I would never have thought my colleagues would be my family and my strange twists would suddenly belong to me and that they are okay.

Do you feel you have to compensate for your parents?
Subconsciously very much. They wanted me to choose a career that was safer than art, but that is not connected with culture. The same goes for people from Texel or Twente or anywhere. But I do feel they had to sacrifice much so I could have a good life. I feel an enormous pressure to make something of my life. I feel I do not only need to find happiness for myself, but also for the generations before. I think that accounts for my hard work. I hope to learn that I am allowed to be a bit lazier, do nothing for a while or just enjoy.

Shadow

My imagination made it possible for me to be here today.

Does Thousand Fathers have anything to do with the fact that everybody has a father in them of with the quote from John F. Kennedy: “Success had a thousand fathers, failure is an orphan.”?
The first. My parents escaped Vietnam in a dinghy. It was a coincidence that a Dutch freighter was there and I was consequently born in the Netherlands. Imagine it would have been an American or French ship. Identity has fascinated me hugely ever since I was a child. Who is your father, who is your mother and what is the land you belong to and who decides who you are? I don't have those borders. I look Vietnamese, I feel a hundred percent Dutch, but I could have been American or French. The character in the book is looking for what a father is. At one point she befriends a bird and thinks: "Could friendship be a father?" She meets a stranger. Could he be a father? He teaches her everything a father should teach her. What if there are no borders between countries, who is your father then and to what soil do you belong? The fact that I was born on this soil, does that make me Dutch? It is a question that fascinates me enormously and I tried to put that in the book and take it up a level, to the thousand fathers. What is it, who decides who your father is?

In your book there are a lot of elements about identity, heroes and courage, but it is also about refugees, a very current theme. I believe the world belongs to everybody, but there has to be a line somewhere.
I think it is more about how you define it. The words 'us' and 'them' appear a lot in the book. Before you know it, you draw the line there. In the village where the story takes place, the sea takes large chunks of ground, making the inhabitants to have to define themselves again: who has the right to stay here? Is it the people who have been living here for centuries, do they have the most rights to that piece of land? Is it last in, first out? That idea of us and them is what I tried to highlight. That is the seed of where the policy for aliens can derail. It is us and them, but if you turn it around and we Dutch have to escape one day, then the us and them is completely mirrored. It is relative, but we see it as a static something. If you let go of that, you might find solutions we don't find now, because we hang on to something that we appropriate.

Is art more powerful than politics?
Art is now considered to be luxury, with the withdrawal of subsidies for theatres, but I always try to imagine a land where there is no literature and no theatre and where the government only accepts one type of art. How scary is that? Then you see what the power of art and imagination is. In this book, excess of imagination is punished, but that is sometimes the only thing we have to get closer to love or the solution of things. At least, that's what saved me. My imagination made it possible for me to be here today. It was the only thing I could hang on to as a child.

Have you ever been to Vietnam?
Yes, as a child. And as adult I travelled through the country once. That was very strange. I speak the language, I was raised with the norms and values, I eat the food, but you can spot from a mile that I do not have the build of a Vietnamese woman. The funny thing is, I walked there and thought: "This is not my country." I get it, I speak the language, but this is not where I come from.