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An American on sabbatical from journalism is inspired by Vietnam to try his hand at a novel


  American Endrew Engelson is writing a novel based on "the deep levels of history inside all landscapes" that Vietnam brought home to him

Andrew Engelson is in Vietnam taking a break from his journalism career, but the country has inspired him to keep writing.

The man who was editor of Washington Trails magazine (a hiking publication) for six years is working on his first novel, which is set in the northwestern US during World War II.

His novel is a story about three friends, each with their own perspectives on and reactions to the war. It follows their lives nearly up to the present day.

He says Vietnam has not affected the book in any direct way. But "there's a fair amount in my book about the stories within a landscape, and Vietnam helps me think about the deep levels of history inside all landscapes," he tells Vietweek.

Vietnam has evoked many strange emotions in him, all of them essential for a historical novel, he says.

Visits to Hue, which was wrecked during the war, and around Hanoi provided some of the most significant inputs, he says.

Part of the trip to Hue involved visiting war sites and learning about work to clear the millions of kilograms of unexploded ordnance left over from the war, he says.

In Hanoi, "visiting the site of one of the downed B-52 bombers caused me to reflect on how terrifying it must have been, both for people in the city and for the bombers up above being shot at by anti-aircraft fire.

"I feel a kind of duty to empathize with the people who went through those things. Because I think we have a duty to remember how terrible those experiences were."

He always wanted to write a novel, but never had the time, he says.

His story "Birdsongs of North America" was published in "Strange Roots: Views of Hanoi," a collection of poems and stories by members of the Hanoi Writers' Collective.

The club was formed by Engelson in 2009 to bring together foreigners living in Hanoi who love to write and help each other with their writing. But some of its 15 members are Vietnamese, and one American member is writing a novel about contemporary life in Vietnam.

"Birdsongs of North America" is about the journey of an American girl to Vietnam, where her father was a soldier during the Vietnam War, to understand something about his life.

Engelson says the girl is a fictional character, but her feelings on arriving in Vietnam are his own.

"It was my attempt to deal with the legacy of the Vietnam War, which I think every American who lives here eventually has to confront on some level.

"It was also about the expat experience, and the sense that some young expats who grow up between cultures don't have a rooted sense of home.

"The central character is seeking to discover her relationship with Vietnam and the war, and also trying to find a sense of home or rootedness in the world."

He plans to finish his first novel before his family returns to the US next year.

It already has a name - "A Map of the Peninsula" - and will be published in the US. He hopes someone will translate it into Vietnamese.

He says he might write fiction about his Vietnam experiences, but it will probably be after he's moved elsewhere.

"Being distant from the place you're writing about has distinct advantages, forcing you to really imagine the place rather than simply looking at it and describing it," he says.

Engelson left Seattle for Hanoi in 2008 when his wife joined PATH, an international health NGO. They brought their two daughters with them.

He has been rather active on the city literary scene.

His club meets regularly to discuss works by Vietnamese authors. But he is sad that few Vietnamese works are translated into English.

He is also one of the organizers of "Noi Hanoi" (Speak Hanoi), a series of literary readings in both Vietnamese and English. More than 70 people turned up for the first session last December, including a teenage Vietnamese poet who read her work in public for the first time.

"Clearly, there's a demand for literary events in Hanoi," he says.

He says one of the things he loves most about Hanoi is its "growing" art and literature scene.

"There's still a sense of excitement and possibility and a kind of roughness in the arts here that feels like it's on the verge of new things."

He says Hanoi looks like Paris in the 1920s, where a lot of expats come to practice their arts - "a vibrant city with a long history."

Engelson also writes "Only Ok," a blog about life in general and about places in Vietnam that he has visited.

He says traveling is important. He has probably visited more places in Vietnam than the average Vietnamese. He owns a second-hand motorbike he bought for US$300, and has traveled on it from the highlands in the north to the coasts across Vietnam.

In September last year he went to Mai Chau, a mountainous area west of Hanoi, which he described as beautiful for its green terraced fields dotted with white egrets.

"Life is not easy here, but there is a grace here, a slowness," he wrote on his blog.

He has also been to Fansipan in northern Vietnam, the highest peak in Indochina at 3,143 meters, and Cuc Phuong National Park outside Hanoi, the country's oldest and largest nature reserve.

His peripatetic lifestyle took him then to the ancient town of Hoi An and My Son, a famous cluster of ruined Hindu temples built between the fourth and the 14th centuries, both of them UNESCO heritage sites.

As for Ho Chi Minh City - which he prefers to call "Saigon" on his blog since it is one of few cities in Vietnam that still "breathes" its history - much of its troubled story, especially its love/hate relationship with America, transpired in its hotels, he says in his blog.

A lot of local cuisine is featured on his blog, including the ubiquitous "pho," but he himself is especially attracted to iced coffee, or "café da" in Vietnamese.

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