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Q&A with Room to Read Author Advocate Dr. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

March 27, 2023

Community Vietnam

This month, we are excited to share a special Q&A with Room to Read Author Advocate Dr. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai. As the author of 12 books of poetry, fiction and nonfiction published in both Vietnamese and English, Quế Mai brings a wealth of knowledge, experience and passion to the table.   

Born and raised in Việt Nam, Quế Mai is the author of the international bestseller “The Mountains Sing,” which won multiple literary awards including the 2021 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, the 2020 BookBrowse Best Debut Award and runner-up for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Her writing has been translated into 20 languages and has appeared in major publications including The New York Times.  

Quế Mai’s newest novel, "Dust Child," which released this month, has been selected as a best book of 2023 by Reader's Digest, a best Book of March/Spring 2023 by the Los Angeles Times, Amazon, Library Journal, the Chicago Review of Books, Ms. Magazine, BookPage and Apple Books. It has also been voted by booksellers around the United States as an Indie Next Great Read. She is an executive producer of "Intersections," a documentary series about Amerasians, directed by Kirk Kellerhals, which recently won Best Inspirational Film Award at the 2022 Cannes World Film Festival.  

Quế Mai has a Ph.D. in creative writing from Lancaster University. She was named by Forbes Vietnam as one of 20 inspiring women of 2021. 



Your parents worked as teachers and rice farmers in the Mekong Delta and never had the chance to attend university. What drove you to pursue higher education?  

The thirst for learning so that I could live my parents’ dreams. My parents showed me at a very early age how education could empower me and open the door to the world. Since we couldn’t afford university fees, I worked hard to obtain scholarships and I am glad I did, as higher education has changed my life.

In 2016, you chose to pursue your childhood dream of becoming a writer after many years spent contributing to the sustainable development of Vietnam. Who or what originally inspired you to become a writer?  

My love for reading and the stories which made me sleepless and demanded me to tell them. My latest books, "The Mountains Sing" and "Dust Child," deal with difficult periods of Vietnamese history. I wrote these books because I am determined to shine light onto untold stories and stories that have been silenced so that their lessons will not be forgotten.  

Congratulations on the publication of "Dust Child"! What is this novel about? What was your writing process like?  

My novel is centered on mixed-race children born in the Việt Nam War who experienced discrimination but who show us that they deserve love and respect. The novel is a call for peace and for humans to love humans more. It is also my fight against racism and sexism. The idea for this book started in my childhood, and the idea grew during the years I assisted people in their search for family members. I detailed my writing process in my recent essay on USA Today. 

Dust Child book cover.


Over the course of writing and publishing 12 books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction, can you share one of the most important lessons you’ve learned? 

The higher goals I set for myself, the more I can achieve. I should not fear the difficult tasks, since they bring the most learning. 

We know you are passionate about empowering others, and so are we! Our Girls’ Education Program ensures that girls build the skills to succeed in school and make key life decisions. What life skills have been most valuable in shaping your own life path? 

I have been admiring the life-changing work of Room to Read for many years and I am truly honored to be one of your Author Advocates and to work with you in empowering girls and erasing illiteracy. With the introduction of Room to Read, I recently got the chance to contribute to "Dear Rebel," an upcoming book by Rebel Girls that features advice, inspiration and sisterhood from more than 125 women. In my contribution, I talk about some of the life skills that are important in shaping my own life path: finding the strength within myself, sharing that strength with others, embracing other people’s stories and not fearing to speak up. 


To discover more about our Author Advocates, check out Room to Read's Book Creator Collective, a network of authors and illustrators around the world who have a shared passion for the power of storytelling to bring diverse experiences to life.