What would you risk to save your children?
That is the question that publisher Tidewater Press asks of the reader on the book jacket of Three Funerals for My Father: Love, Loss and Escape from Vietnam.
Written by Fonthill-based author Jolie Phuong Hoang, the book is described on the Tidewater Press website as a “poignant story of love, grief, and resilience that spans three countries and 50 years....a testament to the collective experience of the ‘boat people’ who escaped communist Vietnam, and a plea on behalf of millions of refugees currently seeking asylum across the globe.”
The story, which details the life and death of Hoang’s father and his role in orchestrating her family’s escape from Vietnam, is her second published work.
Recently the book has been shortlisted for the Hamilton Literary Awards in the Non-Fiction Category, among four other works by Ontario-based authors.
“It’s a dream come true, and I am honoured,” said Hoang, fresh from an author event at the Hamilton Public Library, where an announcement of the shortlisting had also taken place.
The event, organized by Community Youth Librarian Patrick Fazari, was titled, “In Conversation with Jolie Phuong Hoang.” Attended by friends, family, and journalists, the event also included an interview with Hoang conducted by motivational speaker Thanh Campbell, author of the book Orphan 32.
As a teenager, Hoang escaped from post-war communist Vietnam with her siblings, then lived in a refugee camp before arriving in Canada in 1984. In 1987, she took a job at the Hamilton Public Library to help pay for university. There, she nurtured her love for words and made a secret promise to herself that one day she would return to the library as a published author.
Hoang would eventually become a mathematics professor and settle in Fonthill. Eventually she published her first memoir, Anchorless, in 2019. The book was meant to help her process the grief of losing her father and youngest sister during the family’s final attempt at escaping Vietnam.
“I also wrote Anchorless for the next generation of the family to hear the voice of their grandfather, to experience his story,” she said.
The book would go on to become a surprise success, winning international awards, including the North Street Book Prize for literary fiction.
Soon after its publication, Hoang received what she described as a “writer’s dream”: a phone call from traditional publisher Tidewater Press, with the offer of a formal writing contract to write Three Funerals for my Father, an expanded version of Anchorless that includes more historical detail, and more scenes about the family’s experience in the refugee camp before coming to Canada.
Living in Canada, specifically Fonthill, has given Hoang “a sense of stability. It is a town where I nurtured my family and raised my children. Life here gives me a sense of peace. It reminds me that I can slow down, and concentrate on both my career and writing.”
Hoang describes a feeling of “disbelief, and impostor syndrome” in regards to being shortlisted for Three Funerals for my Father, but also a sense of pride.
“I think my father’s spirit is within the book,” she said. “He is alive in it. While living, he was ambitious man. The writer has the power to bring loved ones to live among us again, for us to feel as if they are alive and sharing the joy in the story.”
Two readers, Deb and Jan, drove to the author event from Kitchener to have their books signed personally.
They read Three Funerals for my Father as part of their personal book club, and had chosen the title because they wanted to “read a Vietnamese perspective on the war, having only seen the American perspective.”
They described the book as enlightening and expressed interest in visiting Vietnam in person.
When asked about how she felt about being approached by fans, Hoang said she was grateful.
“It touches my heart knowing that readers felt the connection to the book. Perhaps, the book related to their own life experiences, or stories of grief, of loved ones. To be heard and felt by readers, that is truly the greatest award for an author.”
The ceremony for the 29th Hamilton Literary Awards will be held on December 12, at 7:00 PM, in Theatre Aquarius, 190 King William St., Hamilton.