Thang Dac Luong came to Australia as a child in 1975, fleeing the Vietnam War. He has a BA in Communications and Masters in Creative Writing from UTS, as well as a law degree from UNSW. Refugee Wolf is his first published work of fiction. Thang sat down with TOM LODEWYKE to chat about his experiences growing up and how this has influenced his writing.
There’s a lot going on in Refugee Wolf. You say on your blog that it is an “allegorical satire”, combining elements of the fairytale and science fiction genres. Could you tell us a bit about the book, and how it addresses some of the issues facing refugees and asylum seekers?
I was reading a fairytale to my little daughter a few years ago, and we were reading the three little pigs. If you recall what happens towards the end of that story, the wolf comes down the chimney and burns his bottom on some boiling water. And my daughter laughed, and that’s when I realised that fairytales still have that place in the world, in the sense of telling a moral tale about society.
At the time, when I was doing my Masters of Creative Writing, my lecturer encouraged us to do something different. So I thought, ‘I’ll try to write a fairytale’.
The story of Refugee Wolf is very strange. It’s set in the future, and [the wolf] is forced to go on the run, if you like, from the humans. He becomes a refugee, and he tries to get to the Planet of Straw, the Planet of Sticks and the Planet of McSpacemansions. The proposition of the story is: if someone knocks on your door, and they want to get in, well if they look like a wolf, they’re never getting in, are they? So, in terms of the allegory, that’s the surface.
What was it like growing up in Australia, as someone who came here as a refugee?
We settled in the inner west, in Stanmore. [My father] effectively had a mental breakdown in 1977 and my parents divorced. When my father got better, I stayed with him, because he was so traumatised still that he broke all family connections. I didn’t see my mother for a long time.
So emotionally, I just went into survival mode. You just shut down, you don’t want to show people your emotions. But by the time of my teens I started to play a lot of sport, I got involved in drama, and I made a lot of friends.
I realised yes, family life was troublesome, yes, we were poor, but at the same time my sister and I, we did well enough at school, and we went on to university.
The 80s was a fascinating time for the Vietnamese, because that’s when a lot of the original ‘boat people’ came to Australia. My uncle had a business out at Cabramatta, and we used to help him make salami. So I got to see another side of where I was living, and I saw how the people were struggling, but at the same time they were getting on.
I’m still trying to reconcile the past all the time. The war has a big legacy, and it still resonates with the Vietnamese community. For a lot of refugee communities, those things just haunt you all the time. Even though you want to let go, you actually can’t.
You say in the acknowledgements of Refugee Wolf that your late father inspired you to write everything you have written in the last few years. Can you tell us a bit about his life and his impact on your writing?
My father was a journalist for most of his life, and he’d gotten into trouble with not only the Communists but also the French secret police. Had he stayed [in Vietnam], the likelihood of him being thrown in jail was very high. [Leaving] wasn’t an easy decision for him to make.
When my father died back in 2006 I started to unravel some of these historical factors and some of the stories that influenced his life. What I’ve realised is that growing up, I didn’t know a lot of these stories because he kept them to himself.
I couldn’t have written anything until he died. Everything I’ve learned about him, in a lot of ways, has come after his death.
And some of the emotional stuff, his past life that I didn’t know about, now that it’s coming to the surface I’m more sympathetic towards my mother, and other members of my community. I didn’t realise their stories.
How about the book on the Vietnam War you’re working on? It seems like it will be quite different from Refugee Wolf.
This novel is inspired by my father, and it’s quite a serious and emotional book. It looks at the effects of colonialism in relation to my father’s character and a few other characters I’m working on. Under colonialism, when someone comes to you and says ‘I’m the one in charge, therefore I’m going to make a decision and it’s going to impact you in this way’, you also have to make a decision. You either support the system, you compromise, or you go against the system.
My father, at some point, had to go against the system, and I’m really conscious of all the people who made big commitments to whatever politics there were at that time. I’m interested in why people made those commitments in the first place. If you yourself were in that situation, if someone had impressed their power upon you, how would you respond?
It’s really not about being a refugee at all. It’s really the story before becoming a refugee, which is a bit more of an interesting story for me because then I start to realise there are big historical forces at play and they actually repeat themselves today.
That’s why Vietnam as a concept still resonates, and that’s why this book that I’m doing is a big challenge for me. I’ve basically bitten off more than I can chew but, you know, I’m hoping to finish it.
You can buy Refugee Wolf on Amazon for the low, low price of $1.05 (digital) or $5.50 (paperback).