There’s a story that Vivian Pham’s father would tell when she was growing up. It was about when he lived in America and worked in Hollywood. “It was either Star Trek or Star Wars, I’m not sure,” the author says with a slightly fandom-fearing laugh. “He would work on the sliding doors of the spacecraft and that’s something he’s very proud of.”
This was only one of the stories he’d tell. There were also the heavier ones – about his escape from Vietnam at the age of 17. The dangerous journey by boat. The year he spent on an Indonesian island. His time in a refugee camp before he was accepted into the United States. These were the stories that inspired his daughter. By the time she was 17, Pham had finished her first draft of The Coconut Children. Two years later, the novel is about to be released. “It felt like something coming full circle.”
The Coconut Children follows Sonny and Vince, two Vietnamese Australian teenagers living in 1990s Cabramatta. Vince has just returned from a two-year stint in juvenile detention and Sonny, his former neighbour whose refugee father escaped Vietnam by boat, watches on with interest as he tries to step back into his life. Set against a backdrop of gang violence, drugs, and socioeconomic struggle, it’s a complex story of love, loyalty, intergenerational trauma, and family.
Pham describes it as a coming of age novel, but says: “I hear the word gritty used to describe it a lot so I’ve been thinking a lot about the connotations of that word.” It makes sense that the term would chafe. It’s not biographical, but the plot weaves around pure fiction and the author’s experience. Vince is inspired by one of Pham’s older relatives. Although she didn’t grow up in Cabramatta, but nearby Sefton, like Sonny, she is also a first-generation Australian from a refugee family. There are strong echoes of her father’s stories in the book.
Gritty is a Batman movie, a Daniel Day Lewis role. It’s not a word most of us would use to describe our realities: “I guess anything to do with teenage protagonists that are growing up in less than affluent neighbourhoods is often, I think, described as gritty.”
Though at 19 her resume is already impressive, and includes praise from both Dave Eggers and Paul Kelly, Pham is very matter of fact about her accomplishments. She says she was arrogant around the ages of 15 and 16 – but it is hard to imagine. She is now in her second year of university, majoring in philosophy and minoring in creative writing.
The story in her debut novel was important for Pham to get out; it was a way to interrogate her identity and community, and its evolution mirrored hers as a writer. The first draft was written as part of a novella writing program run by the Story Factory, a non-profit centre in Redfern and Parramatta which runs free creative writing and storytelling programs in marginalised communities, and has ties to Eggers’ 826 Valencia organisation.
Pham often felt stifled in English class, she says. “But when you walked into the Story Factory it was like, even before you’d written anything, they treated you like you were a respected writer already. Everything you wrote they gave very careful consideration.”
Richard Short, who worked with her at the centre, described how shy she was at first. “She wasn’t really keen to share – and then she shared a piece that was from an early section of the novel and it was fantastic. It was just unbelievably good.”
Sydney Story Factory co-founder Cath Keenan says: “One of the things we say here is: ‘Reading is access but writing is agency.’ If you can’t write well you can never get the most out of your education, and you can’t properly articulate yourself to the world – so a lot of it is about building skills and confidence. But it’s also about showing young people that their stories matter and that they will be listened to and that they are important.”
While Pham is glad to be having a book published, for her, being heard is the most vital aspect – and always has been. “[That’s why] I used to write fan-fiction, because you would post something and then people would comment. Just knowing that your work was being read was enough.” She pauses: “I think that’s the hardest thing as a writer: to have your work be read.”
At 12 “I was writing One Direction fan-fiction a lot”, she says with a laugh. “Like, every day.” She cringes about it now but it’s valuable for the cultural insight it offers. “The protagonists were always white and I could describe in perfect detail all of their features – but I never even tried describing Asian features. I probably just put in ‘almond eyes’ or something. That’s how little I looked at the people around me. I didn’t see any beauty at that age. There’s a lot of self hate at that age – and just wanting to be white.”
That all started to shift when she was 13 and got into spoken word poetry. Pham started watching Miles Hodges’ performance videos and reading civil rights era literature, including James Baldwin. “I really did a 180 and started trying really hard to appreciate, really only appreciating Asian culture … basically minority cultures. And now I’ve found more of a balance I think. When I started writing The Coconut Children I was very much: ‘This is for my people.’ And it still is but, you know, I hope that it’s more universal than that.”
In the end, it all comes back to family; it spills out of the page and into real life. The book contains numerous untranslated Vietnamese phrases, which Pham worked closely with her father on. But “He hasn’t read the whole thing,” she says. “No one in my family has yet – I guess I keep pushing it away from them, like, ‘Please don’t read it yet! It’s not ready, it’s not ready!’ ” Pham says with a laugh.
When she started writing it, she was working through a lot of feelings and anger about racism and identity, but “that started falling away”, she says, “and I became more focused on not only what it means to be Vietnamese but what it means to be the child of a refugee – what it means to carry stories inside you that you don’t really know but have been passed down to you.”
• The Coconut Children is out 3 March through Penguin Random House