title: A Grain of Rice
author: Nhung N. Tran-Davies
date: Tradewind Books; 2019
main character: Yen
middle grade; historical fiction
Nhung N. Tran-Davies and her family were refugees from the Vietnam War, fleeing to Malaysia when Nhung was 5 years olds. She fictionalizes her family’s experience into A Grain of Rice where she writes about what Yen and her mother and her four siblings chose to leave behind. Unlike most stories of immigration that are about the journey, this one is about the push factors that lead to migration.
Yen is responsible for caring for her siblings while her mother works to piece together a living for the family. Her mother is an accomplished seamstress, speaks three languages (Vietnamese, Cantonese and Mandarin) and is raising her children alone after leaving her husband some years before. Readers are not told exactly when the decision was made to leave, but it seems that the river’s flooding has been the final blow to the family.
“The front door burst open. Our furniture floated into the raging Mekong. I was certain that we too would be dragged out to sea by the mighty river. I dug my heels into the dirt floor hoping to delay the inevitable.” (p. 10)
Yen narrates in first person, giving us her perception of events through her limited knowledge. Her mother and older sibling have protected her as much as possible yet, she cannot avoid absorbing some of the country’s trauma.
One stretch of the river was so humid it was suffocating. Through the oppressive air came whispers and whimpering, I could not tell from where. Without moonlight, I could not make out any other boats or houses. My hair stood on end. Ma would not say what the noises were, but she knew.
Bác Minh had told stories about parts of the river still haunted by civilians and soldiers killed during the war. A terrible stench rose out of the stale water. Ma paddled faster. The voices were unsettling for her too. (p.116)
Yen’s older siblings return home from school after a bad dream warned them of their family’s danger cause by the flood. Traditional and Buddhist beliefs have a strong presence in the story, helping the characters to make sense of the world as well as providing a structure for survival. The older siblings eventually leave under the guise of returning to school. Actual plans cannot be discussed out loud so that traitors cannot hear and turn the family in for being disloyal to the fledgling government. The walls have ears.
Yen, at the age of 13 has the opportunity to go back to her original home with her mother. While there, she works through her incomplete memories to see her family, her parents, neighbors and even her country through more mature eyes. As her mother’s child, she has no choice about leaving but she conveys how difficult it can be to leave one’s homeland. Ma knows that her family cannot survive where they are and she chooses to leave with no destination in sight. She knows which imperial powers fought in Vietnam and the brutality they brought with them. Rather than choosing a country to call home, she was willing to let fate decide for her. Yen using the setting do describe the country’s colonial history.
“I felt a chill in the humid air. As we walked through downtown, we passed the Cathedral Notre Dame de Saigon and Saigon Central Buu Dien. Covered in the colours of our new flag, they seem to have lost their beauty and elegance.” (p. 132-3)
A Grain of Rice is a rather sparse story, void of lush descriptions and superlative emotions. It lays bare the atrocities faced by the Vietnamese and the ways families had to adapt if they were to survive. We often hear the phrase ‘show rather than tell’ in connection to writing and ‘show’ is exactly what Tran-Davies does. She shows us how the generosity that is connected to Ma’s faith might save her family and rather than spelling out how others were deceitful to their family members and neighbors, she simply let Yen reveal deceptions through her growing awareness. She shows rather than tells why ma left ba.
It’s easy to judge developing countries as traditional societies with little advancement and few modern technologies. But Yen describes a Vietnam where people constantly change and grow and learn so that they can survive. A Grain of Rice offers middle school readers a unique perspective on immigration, families and communities.
Nhung N. Tran-Davies is a medical doctor who lives in Canada. Her other books include Ten Cents a Pound and Daddy is a Conundrum!. Green Papaya is scheduled for release in 2020.