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My Lockdown Life – Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

19th June, 2020

We asked some of our authors what they’ve been up to during lockdown these last few months. Here, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, author of The Mountains Sing, answers our questions about the books, films and hobbies that have kept her busy. 



1. Where have you spent lockdown?

I have been living from my suitcase since March 2020. I had one day to pack before my evacuation flight which took me from Jakarta (where I am normally based) to Munich (where I united with my daughter). I have had to move accommodation five times during these two months, and I have had virtual events for the US edition of The Mountains Sing.

The most used items from my suitcase have been my áo dài (Vietnamese traditional dresses), which I had brought with me, thinking that I could come to the UK for my book launch there. The lockdown also means that instead of having my book tour in the US, I have been having virtual events. These events and conversations with booksellers, writers, and readers have sustained me and given me hope.


2. Books. What books have you been reading? Has lockdown affected your choices? Fiction or non-fiction? Or have you gone back to your comfort reads? 

I once told an interviewer: ‘Reading and listening to books keeps me alive; it is an act of living.’ For me, being able to read and having access to literature is the greatest gift. As a child, I grew up with little money to buy books and no access to any library so I was always hungry for books.

I need to read to make up for lost time. There are just so many good books out there that my reading list just gets longer and longer. The more I read, the more I realise that I know so little, and I need to read ever more. There are so many good authors out there that if I don’t read their work, I feel like I am missing out. 

I have been reading books that help to educate me on the topic of racism, such as Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging by Tessa McWatt or So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo, or Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid.

I also read to support authors whose books have been launched into the pandemic, including When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy, or Latitudes of Longing by Shubhangi Swarup.

And finally, I have been re-reading my favorites, including Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones and The Girl with The Louding Voice by Abi Daré. 

This lockdown has motivated me to read more, because instead of meeting people and talking to them, I am having conversations with these amazing authors from all over the world. Given the world’s situation now, I am more curious about how authors handle difficult topics and explore how, in these stories, humans can come out of challenging circumstances.

3. Are there any films that you have been watching, or rewatching?

I watched College Behind Bars (a documentary film directed by award-winning filmmaker Lynn Novick, produced by Sarah Botstein, and executive produced by Ken Burns) and found it both interesting and very important.

I am looking forward to watching Da 5 Bloods scheduled to be released on June 12, 2020 by Netflix. I am interested to see Hollywood’s take on the Vietnam War.


4.  Has the lockdown made a difference to the kinds of things you’ve wanted to watch or read? 

I have experienced war, its aftermath and hunger, so this has not been the toughest of times for me. Books are my comfort and I don’t avoid difficult topics.


5. It would seem on the surface that lockdown is good for writers. There’s no excuse not to write when you’re stuck indoors! Was it like that for you?

I have fought my whole life for a chance to become a writer, so there have always been challenges, even greater than this. The only way I know how to overcome challenges is to keep writing and reading. And these are the two things that I have done most, as usual.

The world is always noisy, and the noisier and scarier it is, the more we need to keep ourselves calm. Writing and reading is my way of practising calmness, but also is my way of raising my voice. In writing and reading, I can join force with others, for example, in the fight against racism, for equality and for enhanced access to health and education.

6. Are there things that you’ve discovered that have given you pleasure during lockdown? Many people seem to have taken up breadmaking for instance. What was it for you?

I have been cooking a lot more. My daily conversations with my family as we share the food or as we take our daily walks give me tremendous pleasure.


7. Do you have a local bookshop? Have you been using them during lockdown?

I have been doing virtual events in support of independent bookstores in different parts of the world, from the US to Singapore, to Hong Kong and soon the UK. I am so thankful to booksellers who have been braving the pandemic to continue delivering books into readers’ hands. They are my heroes!

8. And finally – do you think there are positives we can all take away from this experience?

For those who have not lost their jobs, still have an income, have a safe shelter, and can be with their families, this lockdown can bring some blessings as it helps slow us down and reminds us of what’s important in life: our health, emotional well-being, our family, our friends…

For those who have lost a family member, who have been struggling to have enough to eat, who are homeless or live in refugee camps, whose future is uncertain because of this lockdown, I am not sure if there are many positive things. My heart goes out to them.

 May we do more for others during these difficult times.


The Mountains Sing is published on the 20th August. Find out more here


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