..October 2020, INtense Publications, 210 pages, Ebook, Paperback, Hardback,
The Dragon's Song is based on Binh's true story, when he, as a young man, fled Vietnam in 1980. Though some of the characters are fictitious, the story of Binh’s journey from Ho Chi Minh City to the United States is based on true events.
Eleven-year-old Bao Dang remembers watching in horror four years earlier as Communist soldiers dragged his parents from their home. Now an orphan, he begins a journey to escape the oppressive government of South Vietnam. The owner of a small boat, paid in gold, smuggles Bao and his cousin, Binh, down the Saigon River at night to the South China Sea, where they and over one hundred other "boat people" pack into a river boat designed to hold fewer than thirty. For six days, they face danger from the police, weather, pirates, and the constant threat of capsizing as they take on water while living only on dry, rationed rice.
Bao, Binh and the others hope a refugee camp in Indonesia
accepts them, but there’s no guarantee. Word has it they may be turned away and
even towed back out to sea to starve. Eventually finding a safe haven, Bao
harnesses the power of music to heal and help him endure months of harsh and
dangerous living while he and Binh await word from relatives in the United
States, hoping they’ll obtain the ultimate gift: freedom.
I have reviewed some of R. M.'s work in the past, Dizzy Miss Lizzie,
so I was interested whenn they got in contact about another book. Unfrotunately I have tendency to get emotionally invested in what I read, which if it's a current issue in the world it gets me thinking about other examples in the world, which when it comes to refugees does upset me. That is the only reason why I'm not reviewing The Dragon Song, which both Clark and Pham kindly wrote a guest post to entice you all to read it.
I first met my co-author, Binh Pham, back in the 1990s when we were both working as computer scientists for the same defense contractor. In the 2000s, we were both switched over to Dept. of Navy jobs, working in the same building. I knew from small talk and a few conversations that Binh had come over from Vietnam as one of the “boat people” of the early 1980s. He also mentioned some other tales of life in Vietnam. I was not a writer then, so his stories, although interesting, were just, well, stories.
I began writing novels in 2007 and got my first one published in 2012, with another to follow every year for five years. By this time, refugee tales were all over the news and I knew I was ready to tell his “escape from Vietnam” story, if he’d agree.
In the summer of 2015, I approached Binh and ask if I could chronicle his adventure. Since I am primarily a children’s book author, I had to convince him to have a fictional younger cousin go along with him and narrate the story (in real life, Binh made the journey without accompaniment). It would still be Binh’s story, but seen through the eyes of an 11-year-old orphan named Bao Dang.
Thankfully, he agreed and we went to work. We met in a break room once or twice a week. I told him to start at the beginning (why he left, how he paid for it, etc.) while I took copious notes. He went into vivid detail about the covert journey down the Saigon River with 14 others packed knees-to-chin in the bow of a small boat. Then it was on to the Hyvong (Vietnamese for “Hope”), a river boat that was used to transport Binh and over 100 other packed refugees to open water and beyond to a willing refugee camp. There were so many details about the trip I could never make up, they have to be experienced.
There were often others in the break room when we did this, and they, too, were enraptured by his tale. I frequently had to remind myself to keep writing as he spoke. It took most of the summer to get from escaping Vietnam to finally making it to the US (no spoiler needed), but I finally turned those many pages of hand-written notes into a nearly 40k-word first draft manuscript called “Escape to America.”
First drafts are typically far from perfect, and this one was no exception. During editing, we removed unneeded scenes and fixed clunky dialogue. I had to make sure the “voice” sounded authentic by deleting all American-sounding phrases and mannerisms and infusing the occasional Vietnamese word or phrase for effect.
Something was still “off” with the next draft and that’s when I realized the point of view needed to be changed from third person to first person. We had to get inside Bao’s head and feel everything he was feeling and then some. To do this, I asked Binh to dig a little deeper and tell me what he was experiencing using all five senses. We needed the smell of the cramped quarters in the bow of the boat, the taste of the one cup of rice and one cup of water they were given daily as they made their way through the South China Sea. We needed the sound of the wind whooshing through the flimsy structures at the refugee camps. That version of the story was much better, but there still something missing. It read too much like a documentary. It needed more soul. That’s when it hit me. Bao, the fictional refugee, needed non-human help to get him through the hardships of camp life. He needed music. He needed to hear The Dragon’s Song.
We rewrote dozens of scenes to add the element of music into the plot. Bao is given a small, bamboo flute called a sao truc. He soon realizes that he’s a very good player and that songs can soothe his soul. The music gets him through near starvation, bullying, overcrowded conditions, and worst of all, day after day of interminable waiting.
Now we were onto something. The title changed to The Dragon’s Song and we were ready to find a literary agent. After a few months and more than the usual amount of rejections, we found an agent from Texas who loved it. If we thought getting an agent was difficult, getting an editor at a major publishing house turned out to be a near impossible task. We do give the agent credit for trying. She suggested several rewrites to add tension and humor. Unfortunately, her office was destroyed by Hurricane Harvey and she suffered some major health issues along the way, one of which forced her out of the business before she could make a sale.
We were free to shop the manuscript around on our own, so we did just that. In November of 2019, we sent the manuscript to INtense Publications in Texas and the editor, Jana Grissom, offered us a contract just four days later. The Dragon’s Song had found a home! Now, five years in the making, we present to you our story, a heartwarming tale of faith and determination and courage.
We hope you enjoy The Dragon’s Song. We also hope you appreciate what many refugees around the world consider to be the ultimate gift:
R. M. Clark