My name is Tuyet Nguyen. However, I use the pen name CieCie Tuyet Nguyen. It is always tricky to tell a Vietnamese name to an English-speaking person as the pronunciation is strange. Vietnamese names are so different and I am used to being mispronounced. That’s why I chose the pen name CieCie (pronounced See See) It’s supposed to be easy to pronounce and remember.
I am illiterate to social media. Apart from a few email and Facebook accounts, I have nothing else. Believe it or not, I only had my first email account in late 2006! I am in the process of learning how to start a blog and hopefully it will be ready and running soon.
- Other than writing, what is your favorite hobby or thing you enjoy for fun?
My hobbies are changing over time, there are too many to count! At the moment, I am enjoying gardening most because it is now spring time in Australia. The weather is quite weird lately as the temperature fluctuates a great deal from one day to the next, but it is spring nevertheless. I love being in the garden first thing in the morning to catch that fresh air and see those first few rays of sunshine, or to observe the leaves, the flowers waking up and full of life after the dark night. Sipping my cup of coffee and slowly walking round the pots and plants, inspecting for sights of insect infestation in the vegetable patch, picking dead leaves off the roses, admiring the pleasant daisies or sorting over the disputes with the caterpillars and snails in my rows of herbs and spices are the highlights of my day.
I also love being in my garden sipping a glass of wine, munching a few nuts, some chips or a bit of cheese after work. To put it a bit more poetically, the fragrance at night has a different texture than the morning one. It is less translucent and more mystified. If being in my garden give me a joire de vivre to start a day, then being in the garden at night give me a feeling of calmness, letting go of my weariness, and a sense of curiosity of how my next morning is going to be.
Walking in the park in the morning is another hobby. I was enchanted the first time I heard the sound of bellbird chirpings from somewhere up in the tip of the trees. Birds, butterflies, dragonflies, fish, blue sky, nature, etc. are fascinating.
I play a musical keyboard as well. Music is a miracle to me. It helped me a great deal during my first few years after the divorce. I started to learn music in 2008 but failed miserably as I did not practice regularly after each lesson. My mind was a mess at that time. For two years, I went on absentmindedly without much progress. Then one day the teacher said, “I think you better quit. It’s a waste of both our time and your money for you to come and achieve nothing in return for the last two years!” He was a friend as well as a teacher, but I guess he was frustrated at my lack of trying, as I could not get past the first song. However, whatever musical theory he had taught me, I got them well. It was only the practical part that I did not succeed. In truth, it was not because of my not attempting. Every night I returned home from work, eagerly turned on the digital Korg keyboard and thought I might try to practice my lesson. However, thoughts remained thoughts. I skirted around it, looked at it now and then when walking past it but eventually turned off the machine without touching a key. I would go to bed promising myself that I would try again tomorrow. It went on and on night after night.
After his historical statement, I went home and thought, “It couldn’t be possible! I was dismissed because I failed!” Then I changed my attitude. I could not stand being a failure and determined to teach myself. Lucky for me that the theories stayed and by applying them into practice, I somehow got over the humps. I was over the moon the day I leapt from being unable to read music, unfamiliar with the digital keyboard to be able to play freely. I still have not returned to my teacher, but I am sure he probably will be very surprised at my ability now, considering that I was a D minus student before.
I also enjoy singing. I started as a tune deaf singer. Terrible! During my music keyboard lessons, I was so proud thinking that I had some ‘talent’ now and I could sing even better than before. One day at a party, with that thought in mind, I put my name down for a particular song that I had been learning to play for the last two years. I thought, “Here I am, I am going to sing!” Mama mia! How awful I must have sounded as I was totally off key and tune deaf!
In hindsight, I now know that a singer must choose a key to start with, a C major or an A minor for example. Horribly, I started with a wrong key and switched from C major to A minor up and down the track, thinking that I was doing great all the time! During those times I was teased by many, half lovingly, half jokingly and half cruelly. Again, the sheer determination came back on to me, much like the willingness to tackle on my musical keyboard. I began to search the internet to get singing CD lessons for beginners.
That was year 2010.
I trained my voice diligently during my walks with Cadbury, my border collie, in the park every morning and every evening without fail. Mah meh mee mo mu, ah eh ee oh u…loudly and unrestrainedly in the empty natural reserve near my place. Then one day, a person came up to me from behind and asked, “Excuse me, is that the language for your dog and you?”
Still, I think I can sing in tune now and my tone is much clearer. At least I know how to start a song with a correct key note.
Cooking, baking, crocheting, knitting and entertaining are other hobbies when I have time to spare! I have not knitted for twenty years but I had a few jumpers and cardigans for my children, mother, sisters and myself that I was so proud of! I self taught knitting and crocheting as well from books and patterns. There were times I finished an intricate patterned cardigan for my mother, or a colourful jumper for my son. Not a stitch went wrong in two weeks. It must be passion. I am sure.
- How long have you been writing? What genres have you written? They don’t have to be published.
I remember writing my first article about the nostalgic effect of rain to my state of mind in Vietnamese for a local magazine in 1982. I then followed that with a few short stories during my university years. All were published by the local Vietnamese weekly newspapers or monthly magazines. The first short story was based on my deceased sister’s tragic life with glamour, betrayal, heartache and a premature death when she was a year short of turning forty. Reading back now, I was surprised at my ability to transcribe emotions of a matured woman into words with feelings so close and vivid for a 20 years old girl. My ability to write literature Vietnamese is gifted, I believe. I left my country when I was only a girl of sixteen, still a child. Many would be too young to be able to express complicated feelings and emotions in words as an adult.
There were a few more short stories or fictions and memoirs, but mostly in Vietnamese. Unfortunately, I ceased writing completely when I got married in 1985. My ex-husband had an inferiority complex and he disliked my public status in the community.
I came back to my writing with gusto in 2006 when my marriage was at stake. Writing has been an analytical tool to me. I put myself into the characters and gained strength from them. It helped me a great deal during those troubled times. Within a few months I wrote twelve new short stories and memoirs and together with the previous ones, I self published my collection in 2008. With the total of approximately $11,000 AUD raised from my first book’s launch and two paintings (I painted them!), as well as generous donations from friends and supporters, I went back to Vietnam with my family in Christmas 2008 and we organised a few field trips. We donated the total equally to four orphanages in the rural areas.
I have another self-published book in Vietnamese last year, a second collection of short stories and memoirs. Unfortunately, I have not tried to launch it yet, as I have been too busy with Shock Peace!
Strangely, I only started to write and communicate in English after my divorce in 2007. Only when I re-entered the community, I then began using my English to write emails and converse socially between my colleagues. It was very much clinical pharmacist English pre-2007 era!
- What has been the greatest influence to your writing? Other authors, life experiences, etc…
I am not sure where my influences are. Shock Peace is my first English fictional memoir. Perhaps I have to wait for the readers to come back with their critics to know. However, I loved reading Elizabeth George, Ruth Rendell, Patricia Cornwell, to name a few female writers. I create some characters from interactions with my customers in the pharmacy, or with friends and family; listening to their life stories, then mixing or portraying some part of them into my book. Other times, I use my own experiences.
I am not writing anything major currently because Shock Peace is taking a large portion of my free time. Working full time, being a president of a health professional association, having so many hobbies and interests do not help either. But I am planning to translate Shock Peace into Vietnamese for my mother and at the same time for the Vietnamese in Vietnam, for the younger Vietnamese generation who cannot find the truth anywhere but fabricated lies from the communist government.
- How do you typically begin your projects? Do you create outlines and character profiles or jump in head first with the initial idea? And do you focus on just one at a time?
This is a hard question! I don’t think I am conventional in anything, especially in writing. Some might have added, even with singing! Emotions do play an important role as I usually start a story with what I have seen or how I have felt. Images and descriptions from memories, desperation and hopelessness from experience, comical scenario, odd statement, etc. are also my inspirations.
I do not create outlines or character profiles at first but I always try to give that character a likeness to a true person that I have encountered in my life, whether a stranger, a closed friend or family.
Shock Peace is my first novel and I had to focus entirely on it to be able to finish. Short stories are easier. However, I think I would like to concentrate on one at a time. I believe writers tend to start various projects at once because of ‘writer’s block,’ a few chapters here and there.
- What aspect of your writing do you consider your strength? Your weakness?
My strength is my emotions and descriptions, I believe. I am passionate with life and nature and I apply that passion into my sentences. With a peculiar memory, scenes and descriptions come back to me vividly either through a fictional story or a memoir.
My weakness is my untrained English. I failed English in my higher school certificate, a mere 21 percent! From then to university then to enter the workforce without further learning in literature English, my ability to write is a hit or miss experience, I think. My skill in Vietnamese literature writing might have helped a fair bit in the process of thinking, creating characters, plots, etc… but to write in a language very different to my mother’s tongue is a giant effort.
- After publishing, the next trouble facing writers is marketing. What do you typically do when marketing your novel? Do you have tips you’d like to share?
I started to talk about Shock Peace a year before I had launched it within my community. Networking within my community to get attentions from radio stations, newspapers and magazines before the launching date did help.
However, I did not try to publicise Shock Peace in the United States until recently.
I am afraid I have limited experience in the marketing side of the book to be able to give any worthwhile tips except that if writers believe in their work then they have to push to the best of their ability to get it to readers. Once they have reached their maximum capacity in trying then they can say satisfactorily that, “I have tried my hardest and done my damnedest!”
- What advice would you give a writer who is starting out?
I think everyone has a story to tell. Inspirations sparkle in front of our eyes every day and it is usually easier to start than to finish. I believe that if writers have discipline and give themselves a deadline then the chance of reaching the end is higher. Moreover, I think writers have to be honest with their writing, to put themselves into their characters’ situations and feelings rather than their own.
CieCie Tuyet Nguyen was born in Saigon and witnessed its fall in 1975 when she was 13-years-old. After continuing to live there for three years under the communist regime, she escaped with her family by boat to Malaysia in 1978. After staying in a Pulau Besar Refugee camp for three months, she resettled in Sydney, Australia, where she has remained ever since. She graduated with a bachelor of pharmacy in 1985 from Sydney University and has operated her own pharmacy since 1989. Nguyen has self- published two short stories and memoirs in Vietnamese, one in 2011 and one in 2016. Shock Peace: The Search for Freedom is her first novel.