Harlan and Lan Cao in conversation with Isabel Allende
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Lan Cao’s dual first-person memoir, Family In Six Tones — co-authored with her American daughter Harlan Margaret Van Cao — explores their complicated relationship, culture clash and how they have grown both as individuals and as a family.
Lan is a Vietnamese American writer who left Saigon for the U.S. as a refugee in 1975. She is the author of two other novels, Monkey Bridge and The Lotus and the Storm. Both novels tell the stories of Vietnamese refugees in America, set against the Vietnam War and its traumatic aftermath for those who are left with its haunting legacy. In both novels, the war is told from a Vietnamese American perspective.
Lan is also a professor of law and has taught at Brooklyn Law School, Michigan Law School, Duke Law School, William & Mary Law School. She is currently working at Chapman Law School in Orange, CA. She has written numerous articles on public international law, international trade, and rule of law development. Her book Culture in Law and Development: Nurturing Positive Change was published by Oxford University Press in 2015.
Isabel Allende —novelist, feminist, and philanthropist—is one of the most widely-read authors in the world, having sold more than 74 million books. Born in Peru and raised in Chile, she won worldwide acclaim in 1982 with the publication of her hugely popular first novel, The House of the Spirits. In addition to her work as a writer, Allende devotes much of her time to human rights causes.
“How much, if at all, do we let go of grief, even as we proclaim the need to leave it in the past?”
– Lan Cao, The Lotus and the Storm
A personal note from Harlan and Lan Cao.
Sent following their Conversations with Authors session.
Dear Friends of Book Passage,
Thank you for joining Isabel and the two of us for our conversation about our book, Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, An American Daughter (Viking Penguin Random House). When Lan first met Isabel in 1997 at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Isabel referred to Book Passage as “my second home.” And it is clear why she would feel this way. It’s a place that Elaine has lovingly reconfigured as a virtual sanctuary for writers and readers, to enable us to connect with each other, in these strange times of displacement and disconnectedness and isolation.
Books and passages I love:
A Long Petal of the Sea, Isabel Allende. The title alone, from a Pablo Neruda poem, drew me inexorably into the epic story of love and resilience set against the savaged world of Pinochet’s war and exile. The beauty of poetry against the terror of tyranny.
The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje. Memories of pain and losses, told by four people, caught in a ghost house after World War II. I was intrigued by the fact that the titular English Patient was actually not English at all, but rather Hungarian; and that so much pain and trauma are told in such a lyrical prose.
Cereus Blooms At Night, Shani Mootoo. Part magical realism, part naked, horrifying truths. What struck me when I first read this book years ago was the storyteller, a male nurse stigmatized for his sexual orientation, who told the tender story of Mala and who bonded with her, a woman with her own history of abandonment, sexual abuse, and madness.
H. Auden, September 1, 1939 and Refugee Blues (read both of these poems freshman year in high school when my English teacher made photocopies and gave them to me)
One Art, Elizabeth Bishop (discovered this poet myself when I wandered the shelves at my public library in Virginia)
Diving into the Wreck, Adrienne Rich (read in college. WOW).
It means very much to me that everyone checked into our event with Isabel and Elaine today.
Here are some books I have loved:
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (my biggest inspiration for all of my future characters, lovable or not- and for how I write)
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austin (a classic love story, but one that isn’t as traditional as one would think)
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (the perfect representation of how terrifying human nature is)
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (this story was adapted into a screenplay and perfectly captures class and racial issues today in the most subtle but somehow also shocking way possible)
Please remember that everything- even this pandemic hell- passes, and so all we will be left with is whatever energy we put out into the world: therefore, be happy and kind to one another.
Also please be environmentally conscious (I know that’s off topic but I want to use this platform to say I really love the elephants and pandas and the ocean so let’s take care of them).