After her fabulous review of Daughters of the River Huong, Sandra felt there was more to the story of author Uyen Nicole Duong.
Uyen Nicole Duong, author of Daughters of the River Huonginterviewed by Sandra Shwayder Sanchez
"As an attorney and fiction writer myself I am very interested to know how your legal practice has influenced your writing."
From reading about you, I see that we have a lot in common. I admire you for having successfully combined law and art, especially when you started your law career late in life. The law practice has affected my creative writing in two concrete ways: 1) It keeps me from writing fiction full force (I don’t even have the time to seriously look for a literary agent, so I have never had one); and 2) My protagonists are female lawyers because that's what I know best. There is usually a “law setting” for my novels. In "Daughters of the River Huong," the description of the international practice in a developing nation is authentic. In "Mimi and Her Mirror," the facts imported from the big-firm practice are also authentic, and the legal and ethical dilemma faced by the protagonist are grounded in real law. I think that life experience coming from the law can become a rich texture of factual background for fiction writing. But, as a fiction writer, I subscribe to the theory of creative writing advocated and taught by Pulitzer-winner Robert Olen Butler, who opines that great creative writing must be subconsciously driven. Yet, in a law practice and in persuasive legal writing, nothing can be subconsciously driven. Everything must be planned and carefully gauged. So in my fiction writing, I have to watch against the tendency of the legal mind to rationalize and plan. I think that in so many ways, the two fields are incompatible. I wrote about this incompatibility in an essay titled "Law is Law and Art is Art and shall the two ever meet?" published by the University of California. If I had not been an immigrant, I might not have chosen law as a career, but since I did, I seek beauty in the pursuit of justice the same way I pursue art.
"Your writing is filled with beautiful visual imagery so, even if I didn't know, I'd guess you were also a painter. What was your inspiration to begin painting? Who are some of your favorite artists?"
I have never studied art or art history, although I read a lot, and I am completely self-taught. My visual art has never been "cooked" through the art schools or the galleries.
My favorite is Henry Matisse. Initially, he studied law. I construe his art to be both a rational depiction of life and a subconscious pursuit of beauty. Matisse’s world was spontaneous, bright, and animated. He was also bold and vivid with colors. Matisse brought the decorative style of the East to European art, and he also broke traditions in making drawing and painting on a flat surface accepted in Europe. Painting on a flat surface (i.e., no multi-dimensional perspective or depth) has traditionally been "the way" for Eastern art. I think that without Matisse breaking down conventions, all of the experiments such as my self-taught style would have been thrown in the trash by the visual art establishment.
I never imagined myself as a painter growing up. In contrast, writing has always been there since childhood. But painting came naturally because I have always liked colors and shapes. In 1975, fresh to America from the fall of Saigon, I considered a career as a fashion designer and then changed my mind because I did not want to study the sewing machine (first lesson for a freshman in fashion design then.) I started painting more seriously in the late 1990s, when I took a break from law in order to write full time for a year (a luxury!). My "Vietnam" trilogy of novels was written during this period of time. The huge novel of more than a thousand pages was then broken down into 3 books during my LLM residence at Harvard Law School and the year after (when I was senior counsel for Locke Liddell LLP in Houston). In writing, once I have an impulse to follow a plot, I see images, colors, and shapes in my head as well as hearing sounds. I then write what I see and hear in my head. So I am not sure which started first: writing or painting, during the period of time when I wrote the trilogy.
As an untrained visual artist, I just do it and never worry about the results. In the beginning, I used watercolor, and that was natural. I also avoided dilution of watercolor in order to achieve the texture similar to oil or acrylic. That means I used watercolor coming straight from the tube. Yet, I diluted acrylic with so much water and did acrylic on paper, such that the color and the lack of thickness feels and looks like silk painting. In the early 2000s, I attended a private lecture on "L'art Brut" ("Raw Art” or “Art of the Untrained") and realized that this form of outsiders' art seemed to be what I had been doing. Since then, I have come up with something called "Art in Frugality."
"Art in Frugality" means that, in addition to traditional media (oil, acrylic, canvas, etc.) I use whatever I can put my hands on when I have the urge to paint in the middle of the night or during breaks from my law work: I grab pen, pencil, markers, crayons, even fingernail polish (a form of enamel) left-over eyeshadows (a form of pastel chalk), or lipstick (a form of soft crayon). I use artists’ brushes, fingernail polish brushes that come with the bottle (a terrible brush), or my fingers to create images on typing paper, cardboard and sometimes magazine or newspaper pages (where the printed words become the texture for the newly created piece.) The creation is unplanned and spontaneous. I usually limit the creation to about less than an hour and often do not what what I want to paint until at least about 20 minutes into the process. Then I will use the remaining time to develop it and will stop before the hour (This is also the result of working in the law full-time--no time to paint otherwise!) I think the Italians have something analogous, called "Alla Prima" or direct painting, although it is much more elaborate and part of formal art training, not my “Art in Frugality.”
"I know you started writing at a young age. What inspired you to start? Who were your favorite authors?"
Born to Vietnamese parents who were professors of literature and languages, I had no choice but to fall in love with Vietnamese poetry as I learned how to read and write. At our house, my mother had tons of notebooks in which she copied, in her own handwriting, famous Vietnamese poems of her time (i.e., her high school and college days). My father also introduced me to French and English at the same time, around age 6. I learned "this is a table," "this is a chair," "C'est une chaise," "c'est une table," etc. And then I proceeded on to memorize lines from Alphonse Daudet’s “The goats of Mr. Seguin” because my father – my tutor – had a “flight of literature.” With that kind of upbringing, so early in life, I did not need any inspiration or a 'breaking point" into writing, although I remember I began writing “free style”at the age of 6 (i.e. writing whatever I wanted to write and not as an exercise from school).
My favorite authors are: 1) Graham Greene; 2) Albert Camus; 3) Pat Conroy; 4) Isabelle Allende; 5) Vladimir Nabokov (I adore his prose; and I kind of like the prose of Anais Nin, but I do not adore her fiction or diary; I just find Nin’s work to be almost pointless, despite her beautiful prose. I have to say John Steinbeck as well. Interestingly, from my parents, in war-torn Vietnam of the 1960s, I learned to love Mark Twain's Tom Sawyers. The adventure tales of Mark Twain fascinated me and I used to day-dream that I would go with Tom and Huckleberry Finn and that I would cook rice under the wind, on stormy water, while they did their thing. My brother was named “Tom” after Mark Twain’s character, but of course we never cruised the Mississippi river or anything like that. But, we had real-life adventures with the Vietnam War during the Tet Offensive. As children, we were not capable of understanding the danger of war. We took it as part of life like any other Vietnamese. I brought this “life adventure” experience into my novels. I grew out of Mark Twain as I grew up.
I also like a Vietnamese writer named Khai Hung (his pen name) who wrote in the 1930s and 1940s). Nobody has heard of him here,, except the Vietnamese of certain generations (such as my parents). I love Khai Hung’s romanticism and idealism and his gentle prose, which also contained ideas that could change the entire way of life of his time. In some way, Khai Hung reminds me of Beethoven – how can the tender, lyrical nature of something like “Fur Elise” be authored by the same person who wrote those dark and grand sonatas, and those heroic, majestic symphonies and choruses that could move you to tears or shake up your entire being into a frenzy of… revolution! One day, I will sit down and translate for the American public a short story and a novel by Khai Hung, although translation of literature is what I fear and dislike the most.
I read that you have some ideas about combating the global problem of human trafficking. Can you share some of those ideas & how you would implement them?"
I did not just have some ideas. I worked on the “anti-human trafficking initiative” for five years as a one-woman project. There were a few University of Denver law students who assisted me, piecemeal. During the fall of 2010, when I was researching comparative education in Europe (another one-woman project), I received an email from the student editor of the Seattle University’s Journal of Social Justice. She solicited my article – an ongoing draft about my anti-human trafficking initiative, summarized and posted on the SSRN. Unfortunately, my research boxes could not be located at my home institution, so while in Europe I ended up rewriting the draft into a different form, this time as a “speech paper” based on a seminar presentation I conducted in Washington, D.C. for law students of Franklin Pierce who took a field trip to D.C.for an overview of international criminal justice. The “speech paper” will be published this month, in the Journal’s special issue on child prostitution.
In the article, I propose 9 measures to help eradicate human trafficking. There are 8 legal solutions to be implemented, together with explanation of the legal theories in support thereof.) I then present a non-legal solution based on the reality that domestic and/or international non-governmental organizations (NGO/INGO) are currently shouldering the mission of fighting human trafficking. To share those proposals with you and the internet readers now would be to repeat what’s in the article, which is about 84 pages long, supported by about 180 end notes. I would rather just refer you and readers to the Journal’s summer edition. I like to use the time and space, instead, to comment on the Journal and the state of legal advocacy in academia.
I can’t say enough about the Journal. It is not your typical law review. For example, the Journal features social justice artworks on the cover, and partners with writers to bring forth articles that respond to society. The editing done by law students is quite intense like that of a peer-review journal, yet the format is flexible. It is the type of place I would want for the publication of my legal writing and advocacy, especially if the Journal will also reach non-lawyers and relief workers, because my article is about people and their plights. The project started because I cried over a TV network story showing Vietnamese children in Cambodia, known today as the “land of child prostitution.” The project, or the resulting article, is called the Southeast Asia Story as the typical manifestation of this global ill -- the sexual use of children in international tourism, which brings “consumers” to the “Third World.”
I think we need to more legal publication like this Journal to break away from what I view as the rigidity and eliticism of traditional law reviews, in order to get more readership in society. I think that overall, traditional law reviews do not have that much influence on the law and the judicial process in daily life. In busy trial courts, judges don’t always care what law professors have to say when the court takes care of the docket. I used to be a judge presiding over a very busy, very close-to-life courtroom at the lower echelon of the justice system, where real people are seen in the hundreds daily. For for the first two years right after law school, I clerked for the federal district court, the trial court of the federal system. I think I know what judges do. When a judge sends his/her law clerk out to look for authorities, if there isn’t anything else, then a law review may be used. At the Supreme Court level, I doubt if justices make decisions because of a law review.
I think it’s very easy for legal academia to turn into an “ivory tower” with many of us wanting to see only the mirror of our own image. The world of traditional law reviews may just center around that ivory tower. Many of us have not practiced law, at least not substantially. I think that law professors who teach subject matters that require practical skills and practice-oriented reasoning need to practice law before they take the podium, and that law reviews must aim to gain non-lawyer readership.
Having said that, I must say that I have met, in legal academia, some of the most wonderful activists, humanists, and dedicated teachers who step out of the “ivory tower” to stand up for what is right, who have helped me grow, and have confirmed my belief in the goodness of humankind. Without them, my law teaching career would have been much less meaningful. Just to mention a few: Among those few scholars that have helped change legal academia in the past decades is University of Denver reknowned international law scholar Ved Nanda. Among those who are never afraid to take on something unpopular is my colleague Thomas Russell, a historian as well as a lawyer-practitioner. Among those who truly train future litigators by giving them substantive skills through practice-oriented curricula like clinical or mediation programs is my senior colleague Jeff Hartje. Who else? The Denver public interest community must all know the kind-hearted professor Howard Rosenberg, who, in his 80s, is still taking care of the school’ clinical program. I must also mention the eloquent professor Julie Nice, who won teaching awards, and who supported me fully during the early stage of my career by giving me a sample of the kind of teaching style that helps law teachers connect to students with special needs and esoteric viewpoints.Among my DU former students whom I will remember for life are Don Toussaint, Lucky Vidmar (graduating first in his class), Jeremy Atencio, Nha-Tran Tran, Daniel Kim, Alexandria Yun, and Connie Wang , to mention a few. These were remarkable students who have represented, in different ways, both the strength of diversity and the success of the student population and alumni. I am proud if I have made a difference in their lives and careers.
Thank you Sandra & Uyen for this in-depth interview!