Writing From the Heart
Author Mai Elliott's epic book spans four generations of a Vietnamese family.
The 1960s—it was a time to experiment, a time of war, a time of wild Jackie-O bouffant hairstyles and American boys singing folk songs in the street. For author Mai Elliott, a Vietnamese expatriate attending school in Washington, D.C., it was a time to find herself. She would later record these events, acknowledging that “I had left as an unformed and unsophisticated teenager and now came back as a more mature and cosmopolitan woman.”
Now in her 60s, Elliott doesn’t plan on slowing down her life. The Claremont resident, who looks surprisingly younger than her age, enjoys access to the surrounding college campuses and its communities. When she’s not attending university lectures, she’s out visiting museums, attending L.A. Philharmonic concerts, listening to classical music, gardening or reading.
It has been eight years since Elliott’s book, “The Sacred Willow, Four Generations in the life of a Vietnamese Family,” was published. The book is autobiographical, telling the story of her ancestors and of their honors and struggles while living in Vietnam. To most Americans, Vietnam was a time of war and unrest in a country where fighting foreign influence was frequent. But the history of Vietnam begins much earlier than the time of the Viet Cong and the communists. Elliott’s story begins in the 1860s, during a time when Vietnam was invaded by the French.
“Vietnam is not a war, it’s a country,” Elliott said. “(It’s) more than the war. Because the war went on after the American troops came home.”
“The Sacred Willow” has been Elliott’s baby since 1993, when she quit her job at a local bank and made her family’s history her focus. Elliott wanted to write about the personal history of Vietnam, beginning with the French invasion. She notes that almost all of the recent literature on the subject of Vietnam has been about the war when the American troops were stationed there.
“I thought this book would tell a complete story,” Elliott said. “It took me a few years. I remember telling people if the book had been a child, it would be walking by the time I was done.”
Family background and ancestors are the most important aspects of a Vietnamese family. Her research began when she traveled back home to Vietnam in 1993. The book was something she had wanted to do for a long time; it was after the death of her father in 1979 that she felt compelled to write about her family’s history. After 20 years of being away from her homeland, she would return to find an evolved nation.
“The change was pretty drastic,” Elliott said. “The whole political regime had changed.”
After the war, most of the middle class had fled or been destroyed economically and politically by the Communist regime. Vietnam had plunged into a dark period. Elliott anticipated returning to the state that was in such an uproar when she left. The last time Elliott was in the city of Hanoi, it was at war. The whole country had changed. When Elliott arrived at Tan Son Nhut Airport, located in Ho Chi Minh City, she saw a different nation than the one she left. There were no bombs exploding and no bullets flying.
“When I went back in 1993, the communists had opened up the country, political control had loosened,” Elliott said. The “country was open enough to discuss things.”
The most important and emotionally rewarding part of her return was seeing relatives who had lost contact since the family split ways in the 1970s.
Elliott saw some of her relatives for the first time in nearly 40 years.
“When I went back, it was very moving to see the country at peace and the scars of the country beginning to heal.”
Elliott wanted to share the history of the Vietnam War with those Vietnamese growing up in America so they could begin to understand their culture and learn about the country, its history and the war. She completed her manuscript in 1995. She also wanted Americans to understand Vietnamese history, culture and society better. She was in America when the war in Vietnam ended. Like most Americans, Elliott saw the ending on television.
“They think of the end of the war with panic and people trying to flee. Vietnam is more than that,”
Elliott had wanted to pursue an education after high school and make a career as a diplomat. In 1960, she applied for a scholarship to attend college in America. She was one of 15 students to win, and after an intense three-month course in English, she was off to study at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. While her family argued it would better to receive an education in France, she insisted on attending school in America.
The following December, Elliott met her future husband, David Elliott. It was at a Christmas party thrown for expatriate Vietnamese (such as herself) living in Washington. She had been standing in a hallway waiting for her turn to appear in the fashion show featured at the party, “When this tall, gaunt, bespectacled American walked up to me (and) introduced himself as David Elliott.”
The couple faced many obstacles when trying to apply for marriage. Since they decided to be wed in Saigon, David need approval from the United States Army and Embassy. Mai was subject to a strict interview. She would also have to face the shame she would bring to her family for marrying not only a foreigner, but an American foreigner. At this time it was only scandalous and disreputable women who got involved with American men.
Nevertheless, the two had a civil ceremony at the office of the Chief of Police and later that day held a wedding banquet at a Chinese restaurant. She married David Elliott in 1964. She is the first in her family to marry a foreigner and not enter into an arranged marriage.
After Elliott finished her education at Georgetown and went back to Vietnam, she began working for the RAND (Research and Development) Corporation. The RAND Corporation is a think tank that had a contract with the Defense Department to do research in Vietnam. Since Elliott was bilingual, she was part of a group of people who interviewed the North Vietnamese in order to answer some basic questions about the insurgents.
"A group (of) social scientists were asked to talk to prisoners of war, just to understand who the enemies were,” Elliott said.
Elliott faced more challenges living in Vietnam. In 1968, Elliott and her husband were in Saigon when the Tet Offensive took place. In 1975, her family was forced to flee and evacuate the country at the last minute, just as the communists were taking control. The family was flown by helicopter to the USS Hancock and finally arrived at Camp Pendleton in San Clemente, Calif.
“From there they decided where they wanted to settle,” Elliott said.
Today she has relatives in America, France, Canada and Australia. Since all her siblings attended French schools, those who felt more comfortable with their French went to France. Others came to California much later, but her mother still lives in Paris. Many of her family members maintain a feeling of distrust for the communists and have no longing to return their homeland.
By the time the war ended she was in Ithaca, New York, with her husband. David was studying at Cornell University. Elliott’s first visit to Vietnam was in 1973. She returned in 1993. Elliott and her husband last visited Vietnam around Christmas of 2006. They lived for more than a month in Hanoi.
“It was just filled with tourists; there were no rooms,” Elliott said. “From a war-time capital to a boomtown city.”
Retired USC professor Roger Dingman has used Elliott’s book in conjunction with teaching his history course, “The Vietnam War,” for three semesters. Students were assigned to read the book and write a report on it and then answer a question about it on the final.
“The book is unique in that it gives an account of the wars in Vietnam and shows how politics in Vietnam divided the family,” Dingman said. “It’s very good in showing how the arrival of the French and colonialism affected the perspective of families living in different generations”
Dingman found out about the book through a former graduate student who attended Pomona College. The student knew the Elliotts. He had also seen the book advertised and was very much interested in it. Elliott came to speak for his class one semester about her book.
“It’s a thick book, but it’s a great read,” Dingman said. “The human story is so compelling even if you’re not interested in the Vietnam War or politics.”
Kamol Somvichian, professor of political science, has known Elliott and her husband for about eight years. He also teaches at Pomona College with David.
“Mai is a very fine scholar. We have dinner together many times,” he said.
Somvichian believes that in 20-25 years the East Asian economies may be greater than the United States.
“I don’t believe the government today has a clue about that part of the world,” Somvichian said.
Elliott agrees that Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies.
After Elliott’s book was published, she went on a national speaking tour. Her publishing company, Oxford University Press, nominated her book for a Pulitzer Prize in 1999.
Elliott has also completed a second manuscript, this one about her time spent at the RAND Corporation. She has spent months reviewing reports of interviews conducted with Viet Cong members during the Vietnam War.
“The president of RAND asked me to write a book about the research at RAND to capture the history of that eventful period,” Elliott said. “My ambition is to write a novel. I started it, but put it aside.”
Elliott and her husband, David, have lived in the Claremont community since 1977. David currently teaches courses in international relations and U.S. foreign policy. Her son, Bryan, has moved out and left his parents his cat, named Tupac.
In addition to writing, Elliott enjoys attending events at the Claremont colleges and exploring fine arts.
“I go to a lot of Philharmonic concerts, art galleries, museums, antique stores and the street fair,” Elliott said. “One of the nice things about living in the area, you’d find there’s not enough time in the day to do the things you want.”