Lancaster graduate wins prestigious fellowship for novel

A Lancaster graduate has been awarded a literary fellowship for the novel she wrote during her time at the University.

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, who has achieved both a Master’s and PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster, won the 2020 Lannan Literary Fellowship for Fiction for her work The Mountains Sing. The prestigious Fellowships recognise writers of distinctive literary merit who demonstrate potential for continued outstanding work.

Quế Mai wrote The Mountains Sing, her first book in English, as part of her MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster, and completed it during her PhD. The novel tells of Vietnam’s 20th century history via the lives of four generations of a Vietnamese family.

The book has received critical acclaim around the world. It has been named a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Best Book of 2020 by NPR, the Buzz Magazine, the NB Literary Magazine, Real Simple and the Washington Independent Review of Books. It has won BookBrowse’s Best Debut Award for 2020 and has also been listed as a SHE READS’ best historical fiction book of 2020 and a Book Riot’s best book for book clubs.

Quế Mai, who has now achieved her PhD with a complete manuscript of her second novel, which fictionalises the real-life experiences of 100,000 children who were born during the Vietnam War as the result of relationships between American soldiers and Vietnamese women, said studying at Lancaster had been instrumental for her writing career:

“My studies at Lancaster University changed my life and helped me to become a novelist in English. Not only did I learn creative writing knowledge and skills, but I also gained a clearer vision from which I was able to write against colonialism, write to honour history and memory, write ethically, and write to preserve the Vietnamese literary traditions.

“I am grateful to my M.A. supervisor Sara Maitland, my PhD supervisor Dr Zoe Lambert, Professor Graham Mort, Professor Jenn Ashworth, Dr George Green and Dr Eoghan Walls for their guidance and encouragement. I am indebted to many professors, lecturers, administrative staff and students at Lancaster who showed me how kind, generous, helpful and inspiring the Lancaster community is.”

Dr Zoe Lambert said: “It has been an honour to supervise Que Mai’s PhD and work with her on her journey as a writer. I’ve learnt a lot from Que Mai too, especially from seeing her courage, tenacity and hard work.”

Quế Mai is the author of eleven books of fiction, poetry and non-fiction in Vietnamese and English. Her writing has won some of Vietnam’s top literary awards including the 2010 Poetry of the Year Award from the Hanoi Writers Association, the the Capital’s Literature & Arts Award, First Prize – the Poetry Competition About 1,000 Years Hanoi. In her role as a literary translator, Quế Mai received the Vietnam Writers Association’s Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Advancement of Vietnamese Literature Overseas.

Quế Mai is currently based in Jakarta where she is passing on her creative writing knowledge to her students who are Afghan refugees. She has been working with her students to produce an anthology of their own writing to help raise funds to support their further education.