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‘I have always known how lucky I’ve been compared to other people’

Interview with Lloyd Duong. This Story belongs to the Vietnamese Abroad Centre.

By Ginevra Avalle

Pune, 26th September 2018

Lloyd Duong is an exiled Vietnamese author and attorney.  He arrived in Canada as a refugee and devoted part of his work to Vietnamese asylum-seekers. Amongst other books, he has published The Boat People: Imprints on History, about the history of Vietnamese refugees. Since 2018, he is the President of the Vietnamese Abroad PEN Centre.

G.A. How did you first hear about PEN International and when did you join?

L.D. It was when I published my third book, The Boat People. I had been writing since university, where I was involved in the leadership of the Student Federation of Ontario. We had to write for the biannual publications. I was very active. I organised performances, summer camps, auditions, and a SOS Day to raise funds for the refugees. I was a boat refugee who was lucky to survive, and I wanted to support people when they needed it. That is also what I did while working for the Attorney General. Around 1993, I visited many refugee camps in Hong Kong, where people were locked up. I learned Cantonese. We were specialised in what was failing in refugees’ applications and we helped them appeal to the UN.

In 1997, The Boat People was selling a lot. My publisher was involved in PEN, and invited me to join the association. I was not sure about it because I was busy at the time. That is why I decided to join as a “quiet” member. It wasn’t until 2009 that I became Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) for PEN Vietnam, where my English language skills were really helpful. I was still involved in a lot of projects, like a weekly magazine I launched in 2008 called Đời (“Life” in English).

In 2011, I was asked to run for Secretary General position, but I refused. I ran for the President position in 2017, and since nobody ran against me, I won. I wanted a change of direction of the Centre; I wanted it to be more active. Immediately after becoming the president, I organised a big event in Washington (2018), to commemorate the 40th year anniversary of our Centre’s establishment. It was a huge success; we sold all the 500 tickets.

G.A. Who established the Vietnamese Abroad PEN Centre?

L.D. It was founded in 1978 by Trần Tam Tiệp. Unfortunately, he passed away. It took a long time to recognise him as the founder, something that should have been done a long time ago.  Our Centre now has over 100 members.

G.A. What kind of activities and campaigns does theVietnamese Abroad PEN Centre organise?

L.D. Our mission is to: “Promote the Voices of Conscience and the Echoes of Compassion of Vietnamese across the Globe”. Because of my background, we do a lot of human rights work, but we also do literary events, retreats for poets and writers, etc. We are conscious of how lucky we are, and I think we have to share our experience. That is what I have been doing and will keep trying to do for the next two years, until my term ends. I do not plan to be the President for another term, since I have too many projects to undertake.

I have also promoted a discussion about membership: we should not lock ourselves into books. I believe bloggers should be members of our Centre, since they have a lot of influence today. We follow the situation in Vietnam very closely. Some days ago, a blogger was sent to 14 years prison for exposing an environmental case in Vietnam. He is already in jail. I wrote about it on Facebook. His name is Đào Công Thc and he is 58 years old. Some other people got sent to jail for criticising corruption via Facebook, just two days ago. Vietnam has about 10000 troupers on the internet who go after everyone. There is nothing I can do except collecting information, launching campaigns through our PEN Centre and lobbying congressmen. Last April, Nguyễn Văn Đài, a Vietnamese attorney was sent to 14 years prison for calling for democracy. We lobbied the US State department and also the German Chancellor. He was finally released, and lives in Germany now.

G.A. How did you escape from Vietnam and when?

L.D. I escaped Vietnam on a boat when I was 14 years old, with my sister Kim, who is two years younger than me. We were together with 27 other people. We used a river boat with a flat front, not equipped for our journey. We were alone in the ocean for more than a week, during which we suffered seven pirate attacks. The first pirates came in a big fishing ship when we were just leaving the Vietnamese waters. They took everything from us: clothes, gold, etc. The last pirates didn’t find anything left, so all they could take were the engines of the ship. We were left to die, it was crazy. People were crying, especially crying for the children.

Then we saw something in the horizon that was getting bigger and bigger: it was a big ship from an international NGO called “Food for Hungry”. They rescued us, after 12 days in the boat. They took us close to the islands and gave us a little canoe to get to the beach: it was a good plan, in theory. But the flat front of the boat made it very difficult: the boat cracked and the water started to come in. A guy fell into the water… We needed to be rescued quickly. We were finally taken to a refugee camp in Thailand called Songkhla.

G.A. How did you get to Canada?

L.D. My sister Kim and I spent two months in the refugee camp, then in Bangkok and, finally, went to Canada. Most people in the camps would follow instructions from immigration officers and decide which country they found more convenient. Many people applied to Canada because it was the fastest route, but other people went to the States.

Our case was different. We were accepted by Canada even before arriving in Thailand, while we were waiting in the ship to be authorised to get to a port. I ended up in Sydney, Cape Breton, where I spent three years. I met the most beautiful people I have ever encountered. I had an amazing time in high school. I could speak little English before moving there, but of course I learned more. A friend would lend me her notes; she was very nice to me. I was involved in the Student Assembly, representing my class. I was also the president of the Ways and Means (Finance) Committee, member of the DJ club. I have to say that Lloyd Duong it is not my name, but the western adaptation of the Vietnamese Dương Thành Lợi. I had to change it when I moved to Canada.

Escaping didn’t have any impact on me from a psychological point of view. I didn’t suffer mental illnesses for the fact of being a refugee. I am aware of how lucky I’ve been compared to other people. The whole experience allowed me to learn how bad Communism is. I look at it as an experience of death and life.

G.A. What about the rest of your family?

L.D. A year later, my dad, who was a high officer, escaped. He was accepted by the Americans, and went to Boston. I got a scholarship to study in at the University of Ottawa, so I stayed in Canada. Then I went to the University of Toronto for my MBA (1988) when I was 23. After this, I worked for a natural gas company as an Ecocomic and Strategic Planning Analyst evaluating the investments. I had to fly a lot and there were a few times when I the plane could not land because of the snow. The winter in Canada is brutal. I am the only son of my family, and my dad is the only survivor of his five brothers from the war. I felt I had to carry the family name and that I was taking too much risk. Thatwas why I went back to school.

I had to choose between a PhD in Finance or going to Law School. I chose the second one, because it was a new field for me. I spent three years in Ottawa. I became a prosecutor at the Ministry of the General Attorney, from 1992 to 1994. I got married with Leanne, an engineer from University of Toronto. I then decided to quit my job and opened my own Law Firm. It was a risky move, but my wife had a job. The business grew very quickly.

G.A. What would you like to see achieved with the Centenary digital archive for your Centre? How would your Centre use it?

L.D.We are part of the minorities. I live in Canada, my family is in America., the website of our PEN Centre is a tiny recognition as our house abroad. I hope the same will happen with the Centenary Archive. If there are some words in Vietnamese about out Centre reflected in the Centenary digital archive, it will feel like home and it will be more interesting to our membership.