Dust Child


By Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

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From the internationally bestselling author of The Mountains Sing, a suspenseful and moving saga about family secrets, hidden trauma, and the overriding power of forgiveness, set during the war and in present-day Việt Nam. 
In 1969, sisters Trang and Quỳnh, desperate to help their parents pay off debts, leave their rural village and become “bar girls” in Sài Gòn, drinking, flirting (and more) with American GIs in return for money. As the war moves closer to the city, the once-innocent Trang gets swept up in an irresistible romance with a young and charming American helicopter pilot. Decades later, an American veteran, Dan, returns to Việt Nam with his wife, Linda, hoping to find a way to heal from his PTSD and, unbeknownst to her, reckon with secrets from his past. 

At the same time, Phong—the son of a Black American soldier and a Vietnamese woman—embarks on a search to find both his parents and a way out of Việt Nam. Abandoned in front of an orphanage, Phong grew up being called “the dust of life,” “Black American imperialist,” and “child of the enemy,” and he dreams of a better life for himself and his family in the U.S. 

Past and present converge as these characters come together to confront decisions made during a time of war—decisions that force them to look deep within and find common ground across race, generation, culture, and language. Suspenseful, poetic, and perfect for readers of Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko or Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, Dust Child tells an unforgettable and immersive story of how those who inherited tragedy can redefine their destinies through love, hard-earned wisdom, compassion, courage, and joy. 


Child of the Enemy

Hồ Chí Minh City, 2016

“Life is a boat,” Sister Nhã, the Catholic nun who had raised Phong, once told him. “When you depart from your first anchor—your mother’s womb—you will be pulled away by unexpected currents. If you can fill your boat with enough hope, enough self-belief, enough compassion, and enough curiosity, you will be ready to weather all the storms of life.”

As Phong sat waiting at the American Consulate, he felt the weight of hope in his hands—his visa application, and those of his wife Bình, his son Tài, and his daughter Diễm.

Around him, many Vietnamese were waiting in chairs or in lines for their turn to speak with one of the visa officers who sat at counters behind glass windows. Some Vietnamese cast curious glances toward Phong and he felt the heat of their eyes. “Half-breed,” he imagined them whispering. Throughout his life, he had been called the dust of life, bastard, Black American imperialist, child of the enemy. These labels had been flung at him when he was younger with such ferocity that they had burrowed deep within him, refusing to let go. When he was a child living in the Lâm Đồng New Economic Zone with Sister Nhã, he once filled a large bucket with water and soap, climbed inside, and rubbed his skin with a sponge gourd to scrub the black off it. He was bleeding by the time Sister Nhã found him. He wondered why he had to be born an Amerasian.

“Don’t worry, be confident and you’ll do well, anh,” Bình whispered, reaching for him, the calluses on her palm brushing against his arm. Phong nodded, smiled nervously, and took his wife’s hand into his. This hand had cooked for him, washed his clothes, and helped to mend the broken patches of his life. This hand had held him and his children, danced with them, yielded new seasons on their rice field. He loved this hand and its calluses, as he did every part of Bình. He had to fulfill his promise to bring Bình to America. Away from the rubbish dumps where she worked, collecting plastic, paper, and metals.

Sitting next to Bình, Tài and Diễm waved at him. At fourteen and twelve years old, they were nearly as tall as their mother. They’d both inherited Bình’s large eyes and her radiant smile. Their skin color and curly hair had come from him. “Remember that you are beautiful,” he’d told them as they got ready for the five-hour bus ride here. He’d often said that to them, knowing how they were often looked at with disdain by the Vietnamese, who almost always preferred fair skin.

Tài returned to his book, his crooked glasses sliding down the bridge of his nose, the metal frame held together by pieces of tape. Phong reminded himself to talk with his neighbors again and offer a higher price to rent their paddy field. He would grow mung beans for the New Year, the harvest of which would enable him to buy new glasses for Tài and a dress for Diễm. Diễm was wearing Tài’s old clothes; the pants were too short, revealing her ankles.

At a counter in front of Phong, an American visa officer was giving a young woman a blue sheet of paper. Phong knew the color well. Blue meant non-approval. As the woman left the counter, something like panic rose up in Phong.

He tried to recall the interview practice sessions he’d had with his family. He had carved the right answers into his memory the way carpenters carved birds and flowers into wood, but now his mind was blank.

“Number forty-five, counter three,” the loudspeaker called.

“That’s us,” Bình said. As Phong made his way toward the counter together with his wife and children, he told himself to be calm. As long as he had his family, he would not let himself be intimidated. He would fight for the chance to give Bình, Tài, and Diễm a better life.

Phong nodded his greeting at the visa officer, who looked just like the American women in movies he’d seen: blonde hair, white skin, high-bridged nose. The woman didn’t acknowledge him, her eyes on the computer. Phong studied the machine, wondering what mysteries it held. When he got to America, he would work hard and buy a computer for Tài and Diễm. His children had taken him to town, to an Internet café, to show him how computers worked. They said perhaps one day he could send words to his parents via the Internet. But would he ever have that chance? He didn’t even know if his parents were dead or alive.

The visa officer turned to him.

“Gút mó-ninh,” Phong said, hoping he’d pronounced “good morning” correctly. Years ago, he’d learned some basic English but his knowledge of the language had disappeared like droplets of rain evaporating during a drought. “Chào bà,” he added, not wanting the American to think that he was fluent in her language.

“Cho xem hộ chiếu,” she said.

Her Vietnamese was good, but her Northern accent bothered Phong. It reminded him of the Communist officers who had beaten him at the reeducation camps in the mountains almost thirty years ago.

He carefully took their passports from a folder and eased them into the box under the glass window. He and his wife had given Quang, the visa agent, all their savings to get these passports made and their visa applications completed and submitted. Quang had convinced them that in America, they wouldn’t have to worry about money: a monthly allowance from the government would help them survive.

The woman went through the documents, typing on the computer. She turned away and called someone. A young Vietnamese woman appeared, talking to her in English. Phong cocked his head but the sounds were slippery fish that darted away so quickly, he couldn’t catch a single one.

“What’s going on?” Bình whispered. Phong placed his palm on his wife’s back, knowing it would help calm her. Bình had been so nervous about missing this interview, she’d insisted that they catch the bus from their hometown, Bạc Liêu, the day before and wait outside the consulate at four o’clock this morning.

The Vietnamese woman looked at him. “Uncle Nguyễn Tấn Phong, you’re applying for a visa under the Amerasian Homecoming Act?”

How nice that she’d addressed him with a respectful title and given him hope by stating the name of the program he was applying for. Homecoming! The word was sacred, the sound of it fluttering in his heart. He was entitled to go home, to his fatherland. Heat gathered at the back of his eyes. And how nice the woman referred to “Amerasian” as “trẻ lai.” Phong had never felt comfortable when people called him “con lai,” since con means “children,” “small,” or “animal.” He was no animal.

“Yes, Miss,” he said.

“You’ll be interviewed by another officer. In the room over there.” She pointed toward his right. “The rest of your family should take a seat and wait outside.”

Bình leaned forward. “My husband can’t read. Can I please accompany him?”

“I’ll be there to help,” the woman said as she walked away.

The room was spacious, lit by fluorescent lights. It had no window and Phong felt sorry for anyone who had to work here. His home wasn’t much, but it was rich with fresh air. Air that rushed through open windows all year round, bringing with it the scent of flowers and bird songs.

The person he felt sorry for happened to be a plump, white man who sat behind a square brown desk, dressed in a blue shirt with matching blue tie.

The woman stood next to the desk, and Phong sat down on a chair opposite it. On the wall to his right was a large picture of Mr. Obama. A few years ago, Phong’s children had rushed home, calling him to come along. They ran toward their neighbors’ house, stood outside the fence, and peered through the open window to watch the TV reporting about Mr. Obama becoming the first Black president of the United States. “America is the nation of immigrants,” Mr. Obama was saying as people around him cheered.

For years Phong had wanted to go to America, but at that moment getting there became his life’s mission. A country that voted for a Black president had to be better than here, where Black people were sometimes called mọi—“uncivilized” or “savage.” Once, an owner of a food stall had laughed at him when he applied for a job as a dishwasher. “Look at your skin,” she sneered. “My customers would run away because they’d think you make the dishes dirtier.”

Behind the table, the visa officer picked up a passport. “Nguyen Tan Phong,” he called. He’d left out all the rising and falling tones in Phong’s full name and when he said it, the name meant “a dissolved gust of wind,” and not “strength from thousands of gusts of wind,” as Sister Nhã had intended it to be when she’d named him.

Phong rose to his feet. The man started to tell him something. Phong tried to catch the sounds but once again, they wafted away from him.

“Raise your hand and swear that you are a mixed race person of American descent and that you won’t lie,” the Vietnamese woman interpreted.

Quang, the agent, had prepared Phong for this. He raised his hands. “I swear that I’m a trẻ lai. I swear that I don’t lie and that everything I say today is the truth.”

“How do you know for sure that you are an Amerasian?” the man asked via the woman’s translation.

“Sir, the color of my skin . . . Since I was little, I was called Black American.”

“But you could also be of Khmer decent?”

“No, Sir. Khmer mothers had no reason to abandon their children. I was . . . I grew up in an orphanage.”

“You have proof that you are the child of a U.S. serviceman, then?”

“I don’t know who my parents are, Sir. I’m an Amerasian, Sir. Khmer people are short. I’m one meter eighty. And my beard . . . Sir . . . Khmer men don’t have beards like this.” He touched his thick hair, which ran from his ears to his chin, covering most of his cheeks. Even though the itching was sometimes unbearable, Quang had insisted that he let his beard grow for at least two weeks before the interview.

“Did you previously apply for an immigrant visa with our consulate?”

Phong blinked. Damn it. Quang had told him they wouldn’t dig it up.

“Did you previously apply for an immigration visa to the United States?” the officer repeated.

“I . . . I can’t remember.” Phong gripped the folder of documents. Sweat dampened his palms.

“You can’t?” The white man shook his head. “Then let me refresh your memory. Your visa form says this is your first time applying, but . . . I have here your previous application.” He held up a paper.

A cold feeling slithered down Phong’s spine. The paper had turned yellow, but he recognized the young man in the photo attached to it. It was him, back when he thought he’d found himself a good family. It was him, looking eager and full of hope. Just before Mr. Khuất had snapped that picture, he’d wiped away a tear of happiness from his face.

“This is your former visa application, isn’t it?” the white man asked.

Phong rubbed his sweaty palms against his pants. “Yes, Sir . . . It was many years ago.”

“More than twenty years. Tell me, why weren’t you granted a visa at that time?”

Phong studied the desk’s surface. Smooth and shiny like a mirror. The person who made it did a fine job. If Phong could go to America, he’d learn to perfect his craft as a carpenter. He’d use his monthly allowance to buy the wood needed to build all types of furniture, to be able to send his children to the best schools. He loved the smell of cut lumber and the feeling of accomplishing something. He’d heard that in America people could achieve whatever dreams they had.

If he revealed the truth, he’d never get to go to his dreamland. “I don’t know why I didn’t get a visa, Sir. I guess . . . I didn’t have all the papers.”

The man shook his head. “We didn’t ask for a lot of papers at that time. Immigrant visas were granted for Amerasians based on their looks. Your facial features alone could have gotten you a visa. Tell me the real reason.”

Phong’s throat was dry. He wished he could snatch the yellowish paper out of the man’s hand and tear it up. Tear up the crook Khuất’s writing on it.

The man frowned. “You might think that we don’t know . . . but according to our records, you tried to bring other people along last time. You claimed strangers as your family members.”

The words nailed Phong to the ground. He couldn’t move. Couldn’t lift his head.

“Uncle Phong, you need to say something. Explain yourself,” the Vietnamese woman said.

Phong clutched the folder of documents against his chest. The ache for his wife and children throbbed inside of him. He had to fight for his right to bring them to America. “Sir . . . I’m illiterate. The Khuấts prepared those documents. They promised to help me in America if I brought them along. I was young and foolish, Sir, but at that time, many Amerasians were doing the same thing.”

A lump welled up in his throat.

“By trying to bring nonfamily members along, you took advantage of our government’s goodwill. You broke the law.” The man looked him in the eye. “For us to reconsider your visa application, you need to show us solid proof. Facial features are no longer enough.”

“Proof . . . Sir, what kind of proof?”

“Proof that you are in fact the child of an American serviceman. The military service records of your American father, for example, and matching DNA results of you and him.”

“DNA?” Phong asked. The word didn’t sound Vietnamese. Perhaps the woman hadn’t translated it correctly.

“There’s a type of test called a DNA test,” the woman said. “It can tell who your biological parents are.”

Phong had talked to many people about finding his parents but no one had ever mentioned DNA testing. He was about to ask where he could take the test when the man added, “If you have an American father, your father and you need to find each other, then you two submit the results of your DNA tests to show that you’re related.”

“You say that I need to find my father first, Sir? If you let me go to America, I can find him.” He knew America was a large country, but he’d also heard that everything was possible in America.

The foreigner reached for a blue sheet of paper.

“Sir . . . my children don’t have friends at school. Kids in our neighborhood don’t talk to them. They have no chance here. Please . . .” Phong showed the man a photo of his children, taken in front of their home. Tài and Diễm were smiling shyly, their heads tilted toward each other. It wasn’t completely true that they didn’t have friends, but Phong had to make his plea more convincing.

The man ignored the photo. He signed the blue paper and gave it to Phong. As Phong stared at the many printed words, he winced and turned away. Sister Nhã had tried to teach him to read, but written words only brought him fear. He closed his eyes, shook his head and gave the woman the paper. “Please, what does this say?”

She cleared her throat. “The U.S. Consulate in Hồ Chí Minh City regretfully informs you that, after a personal interview, your application for admission to the Amerasian program has not met the criteria identified in Section 584 of Public Law 100-202, amended by Public Law 101-167, Public Law 101-513, and Public Law 101-649, the Amerasian Homecoming Act. If at any stage in the future, you are able to submit new evidence to support your claim to Amerasian status, your case will be reviewed. To qualify for an Amerasian visa, you must prove to the Consular Officer that your father was in fact a U.S. soldier. Being of mixed ancestry in itself does not automatically make you qualified.”

The woman returned the paper to Phong.

“The fact that you falsified your application might disqualify you for any future application,” the man said. “I’m not sure about your chances . . . but in the case that you have proof, send it to us. Goodbye.”

Goodbye? No, not yet. Phong stepped forward. “Sir, I’m sorry I made a mistake, but I’m a different person now—”

The man held up his hand. “Once you have proof, send it to us. Goodbye.”

Returning to the Land of Fear

Hồ Chí Minh City, 2016

“Ladies and gentlemen, as we start our descent, please make sure your seat belt is securely fastened and all carry-on luggage is stowed underneath the seat in front of you or in the overhead compartments.”

Dan took a deep breath and pressed his nose against the cold window, looking down.

“See anything?” Linda asked, leaning over.

“Too cloudy,” Dan sat back to give his wife a better view.

“We’ll be there before you know it.” She smiled, squeezing his hand.

Dan nodded and kissed Linda’s hair. Its peach scent gave him comfort. He couldn’t have done this without her. He had sworn he would never return to this place.

The plane rumbled through a thick bed of clouds. Linda flipped through the glossy pages of the Việt Nam Airlines Heritage in-flight magazine, scrutinizing photos of lavish villas built on top of lush hills, surrounded by white sandy beaches and rolling blue oceans. They’d both grown up in small, cramped homes, and he understood her obsession with beautiful houses, a mindset that had led her to become a real estate agent. Instead of just chasing money, though, Linda often searched out people or projects who’d help veterans with down payments on new homes. Or affordable places for vets to rent. Việt Nam vets. Afghan vets. Iraq vets. “Too many are homeless,” she’d told him. He loved her for that.

Outside, clouds still surrounded the plane, closing in. Their darkness stirred something deep inside of Dan. The old fear. His body tensed. He eyed the emergency exit. Two steps away. One step if he leapt.

At the airport, he had approached the check-in supervisor. “Please, I need to sit by the emergency exit.”

“Excuse me, Sir?”

He showed his disabled veteran card. Still, the manager shook his head. “All seats next to the emergency exits have been taken.”

He moved closer to the guy, whispering through gritted teeth, “Listen, I need to be close to the exit or I can’t fly.”

He was glad he fought for it and the exit was in front of him, not behind him.

He took a deep breath, telling himself to calm down. After a few long inhales and exhales, he saw clearly how ridiculous it’d been, the whole scene he’d made about the exit. Why was he always playing the stereotypical deranged vet? What was he going to do, kick out the door and jump out of the plane mid-flight?

He was putting on his headset, wanting to listen to some soothing music, when the plane lurched. Passengers around him murmured. The chair underneath him seemed to have disappeared and he threw his head back, hands gripping the armrests. The Airbus was losing altitude. Too fast. Heat surged through his body. The plane made a thundering sound when it bucked in the turbulence. The cabin shook violently.

The captain spoke over the loudspeaker, advising passengers to fasten their seatbelts.

The plane continued its violent shaking.

Inside of Dan, the old fear twisted, a serpent coiling and uncoiling.

He closed his eyes and suddenly he was back in the cockpit of his wartime helicopter, the clouds outside replaced by Vietnamese canopy jungle. The jungle was swirling wildly around the windshield. “We’ve only got about a foot and a half tail rotor clearance on the right,” Hardesty was screaming into his headset. Flashes of AK-47 fire blazed from the forest floor. Rappa returned fire with his M-60, his shoulders shaking. AK-47 bullets were hitting the aircraft. A hole appeared in the plexiglass just above Dan’s head. “Receiving heavy fire. Nine o’clock! Heavy fire! Nine o’clock! On the north perimeter!” McNair yelled into the VHF, the copilot’s voice high and panicky and then softening. “Dan?” A hand patted his cheek. “You okay?”

He opened his eyes. Some passengers were laughing in relief. The turbulence had passed. Dan blinked, his face hot with anger and embarrassment.

He shook his head, trying to chase away the images of his crew. But they were alive in his mind: his door gunner, Ed Rappa, making the sign of the cross, kissing the ground after their every mission; his crew chief, Neil Hardesty, chewing gum with his mouth open; his copilot, Reggie McNair, checking for the lucky, hole-filled socks he always wore when flying. Dan wished he could tell them he was sorry.

Why had they died while he survived? He’d asked himself that question countless times during the last forty-seven years.

“Hey . . . you need your pills?” The lines on Linda’s forehead deepened. He had added many more years to her appearance during their forty-five years of marriage. His rages that quickly gave way to uncontrolled weeping. His blackouts. His nightmares. The ghosts of his war.

“I’m okay, thanks.” Tears welled in his eyes. He wrapped his arm around Linda, pulled her to him. She was his rock.

“Your pills are right here if you want them.” She gestured at her handbag on the floor under the seat in front of her.

He nodded, looked out of the window, yearning to see the ground. He wished for nothing more than to get off this plane. A long time ago, he’d loved the thrill of flying, the sense of immense freedom and unlimited possibility.

At nineteen, he joined the army and applied to be a pilot even though he didn’t think he had much of a chance. Many of his friends had either been drafted or had gotten their notices, so it was just a matter of time before he’d get called up anyway. And he’d figured that going into the army would give him the chance to travel, as well as the opportunity to attend college after his enlistment. When a letter arrived, telling him to get ready for eight weeks of basic training, a month of advanced infantry training, and then nine months of flight training, he’d shouted with joy so loudly that his mom dropped the colander filled with pasta she was making for dinner. She asked him what was wrong and he read the letter to her. He told her he’d taken many aptitude tests and to his surprise he’d passed. The recruitment officer had said the army urgently needed helicopter pilots in Việt Nam, but he’d thought there’d be many people applying.

When his mom said that she didn’t want him to go, that he could be killed, he told her not to worry, that God would keep him safe. Like many nineteen-year-olds he thought he was invincible. It had taken him about a month in Việt Nam to lose that illusion. He was only twenty-three when he left the army, but he felt sixty. The knowledge of death had robbed him of his youth.

An announcement came from the plane’s loudspeaker. The female voice spoke Vietnamese. He closed his eyes, concentrating on its rise and fall. So lyrical, it sounded like a song. Like the lullabies Kim used to sing to him.

Something sounded familiar. “Xin vui lòng.” Did that mean “please”? Before this trip, he’d tried to reacquaint himself with the language, but it didn’t seem to help much.

Linda unzipped her bag, took out a jar of cream, lathered it onto her face. She put on pink lipstick. Her favorite color. She was turning sixty-six this year, but whenever he looked at her, he could still see the woman he’d fallen in love with. They’d gone to the same high school, and he’d started to notice her during his junior year. He could still picture her racing up the basketball court, her face red with determination, her tanned legs flying as she dove for a ball. He’d always been glad his younger sister Marianne was on the team. Going to Marianne’s games gave him a chance to watch Linda.

“Enough,” Linda had told him several months ago, after he’d wept watching the news about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “In fact, more than enough, baby. We went way past ‘enough’ years ago.” She showed him the commission check she’d received from selling a condo. “With this money, I want us to go and deal with your issues, once and for all.”

We went way past “enough” years ago. She didn’t need to say this trip would determine if their marriage would survive; he sensed it in her voice. He knew she deserved to be happier, yet he also knew it’d be hell to be back. All his bad memories would come alive. But he owed it to Linda to face his ghosts. They were engaged by the time he left for Việt Nam and she was waiting for him when he returned. She’d stayed with him in spite of everything. But what if she knew the truth about Việt Nam? And about Kim?

He took his passport from Linda’s handbag and went through the pages. His fingers began to tremble. “Where the hell is it?”


“The visa.”

She showed him the page with a brilliant red stamp. “See? Still here and still valid.”

He shook his head. Việt Nam unnerved him in ways he couldn’t control.


  • Named a Best Book of March/Spring 2023 by the Los Angeles TimesCosmoReader's Digest, GMA.com, Ms. Magazine, Amazon, the Chicago Review of Books, Ms. MagazineBookPage, and BookBub
  • "Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai will win many more readers with her powerful and deeply empathetic second novel. From the horrors of war and its enduring afterlife for men and women, lovers and children, soldiers and civilians, she weaves a heartbreaking tale of lost ideals, human devotion, and hard-won redemption. Dust Child establishes Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai as one of our finest observers of the devastating consequences of war, and proves, once more, her ability to captivate readers and lure them into Viet Nam’s rich and poignant history."—Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Sympathizer and The Committed
  • "Dazzling. Sharply drawn and hauntingly beautiful."—Elif Shafak, author of The Island of Missing Trees
  • "Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai shows us the capacity we hold to confront our pasts, for the purpose of life is not to remain intact, but to break open, to let loss be a guide, to face the echoes of longing. In Dust Child, rupture leads to emotional richness and pain creates the pathways worth walking. I truly cannot wait for the rest of the world to celebrate this book."—Chanel Miller, New York Times bestselling author of Know My Name
  • "Once again, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai has written a beautiful novel that shines a light on the history of Vietnam. With a poet's grace, she writes of the legacy of war across time and place and the stories that bind us. Dust Child is simply stunning."—Eric Nguyen, author of Things We Lost To The Water
  • "Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is one of the most unique storytellers of our time. She creates plots which are Dickensian in their breadth and mastery, while bravely probing the complex emotional challenges of living in a modern world full of disruption and displacement. In Dust Child, Quế Mai displays the same tenderness and compassion for her characters, hard-earned understanding of human trauma, and poetically evocative language that made her debut novel The Mountains Sing an international bestseller beloved around the world." 
     —Natalie Jenner, internationally bestselling author of The Jane Austen Society
  • "With a poet's gift for language and a psychologist's eye for the tender, error-prone hearts of mankind, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai weaves a web of impossible choices, inescapable circumstance, and searing loss, set to the backdrop of a war that changed everything . . . A heartbreaking, beautifully told, utterly unique story of love, loss, and longing that speaks to the very heart of the human experience."—Kristin Harmel, New York Times bestselling author of The Forest of Vanishing Stars
  • "Scenes of past and present Việt Nam come alive in these pages, drawing you into the lives of a handful of characters who become like your family, and in whose stories lies the heartbreaking story of Việt Nam's complicated relationship with America. With her generous heart and unmatched ability to write across languages and cultures, Quế Mai is the perfect guide for the wounded who search for home and healing."—Thi Bui, award-winning author of The Best We Could Do
  • "Well-researched, realistic, and compassionately written, Dust Child brings to life the heartbreaking experiences of young American men and young Vietnamese women who were pulled into the vortex of the Việt Nam War and the tragedy inherited by their Amerasian children. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai's powerful novel enables us to travel deep into Việt Nam's past and present days so that we can bear witness to the courage of her Amerasian, Vietnamese, and American characters. This eye-opening and fascinating novel is a must-read!"—Le Ly Hayslip, bestselling author of When Heaven and Earth Changed Places and The Child of War, Woman of Peace
  • “The sons and daughters of American soldiers and their Vietnamese girlfriends who exhibited African American and European features were shunned by Vietnam’s monoethnic society during and after the war. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai writes of some of these "dust children" with complexity and heart. This is a powerful and moving story, brilliantly told." —Robert Mason, New York Times bestselling author of Chickenhawk
  • “Intricate and ingenious… vividly drawn.”—Washington Post
  • Dust Child takes on the difficult subject of Amerasians left behind once the American military fled its own misadventures in Southeast Asia. Look for a reception akin to Min Jin Lee’s bestselling Pachinko.”—Los Angeles Times
  • “This moving novel deals with the legacies of shame and trauma—both carried and passed on—by young women who fought in no war, but were battle-scarred just the same.”—Amazon Book Review
  • “From the author of the bestselling book The Mountains Sing comes this epic story of those who lived through the Việt Nam conflict or were otherwise deeply affected by it decades later.”—Ms. Magazine
  • “Spanning the arc of the Vietnam War and its lingering traumas, Dust Child brings together an unforgettable cast of characters… [and] deftly explores the ways we both inherit trauma and redefine our own paths forward.”—Chicago Review of Books
  • “[A] saga of a book that truly captures the desperation, grief, and pain of the war that continues to live on, decades after American military involvement. A great read for those unfamiliar with the conflict in Vietnam.”—Mochi Mag
  • “An insightful, engrossing novel.”—California Review of Books
  • “A powerful tale that examines the complex way different lives became intertwined.”—The Manual
  • “In her riveting successor to The Mountains Sing, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai has masterfully captured the toll of war and its aftermath on a Black Amerasian, an outcast in the country of his birth, on an American vet, haunted and seeking redemption, and on two Vietnamese sisters, forced by economic hardship into circumstances they could not have foreseen. Nguyễn creates, in her luminous prose, a gripping and nuanced narrative of men and women caught in the web of war and its aftermath.” —Steven DeBonis, author of Children of the Enemy: Oral Histories of Vietnamese Amerasians and Their Mothers
  • "With great compassion, with a firm conviction in the redeeming power of love and forgiveness, and with the consummate skill of a great story-teller, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai weaves us into the lives, past and present, of those called “the dust of life”—the ostracized, mixed-race children of American soldiers; their mothers, compelled by war into prostitution, and their fathers, the G.I.’s who abandoned them and yet remained haunted by them." 

    Professor Wayne Karlin, author of Wandering Souls: Journeys with the Deadand the Living in Viet Nam
  • “Achingly honest and ultimately hopeful; essential reading for U.S. audiences.”—Library Journal (starred review)
  • “Rewarding… with a cinematic clarity.”—Publishers Weekly
  • “Quế Mai adeptly balances these contemporary narratives with Phong’s early experiences and the wartime story of sisters Trang and Quynh… There are no clear heroes or villains here as characters' actions and choices are shaped by their circumstances and the war’s legacy.”—Booklist
  • “Through compelling multilayered fiction, Nguyễn intimately humanizes war's victims, regardless of nationalities… Nguyễn deftly wields her own polyglot talents to reclaim lives too long overlooked.”—Shelf Awareness
  • “Poignantly written, Dust Child is a must-read.”—Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network (DVAN)
  • “Through intersecting stories of Vietnamese and American characters, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s luminous Dust Child portrays the heart-wrenching collateral damage that resulted from a fleeting love during the Vietnam War.”—BookPage
  • “A poignant and suspenseful saga marked by family secrets and generational trauma.”—BookBub
  • "Inherited trauma, intense secrets, and inside looks characterize this lyrical novel by a bold talent."—GMA.com
  • “A worthy and affecting story that is long overdue.”—San Francisco Chronicle
  • “A moving saga about family secrets, trauma, discrimination, hope and, ultimately forgiveness.”—San Diego Union Tribune
  • “An engrossing story of Amerasians born to the Vietnamese women and American GIs during the time of the Vietnam War. Told from three points of view with emotion and skill, these intersecting stories will stay with you.”—BookTrib
  • “In this sweeping, decades-spanning saga, Phong, a half-Black, half-Vietnamese man, searches for the parents who abandoned him while Dan, a war veteran, returns to Vietnam to contend with secrets from his past.”—New York Times Book Review
  • Dust Child offers fresh, compassionate lens on Vietnam… [and] encourages compassion, reconciliation and forgiveness… In addition to gracefully conveying a complex sense of history and the past, Dust Child also conveys a beautiful sense of Vietnamese culture through poetry, music, customs, and food.”—KPBS (San Diego NPR ) Midday Edition
  • “Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai works wonders taking readers deep inside this undercovered part of the war's history... Quế Mai has given these characters — and the real people they represent — a bold voice. It's well worth listening to.”—Minneapolis Star-Tribune
  • “An exquisite novel... It is one of the many pleasures of Dust Child that despite its portrayal of suffering and difficulty, the novel is also infused with joy. Whether writing of Phong’s courtship of the singer Bình, and their eventual marriage, or Kim’s love of poetry, or vibrant street scenes from the cities, Nguyễn beautifully summons the daily lives of her characters… In telling their stories over a lifetime, she gives each of the characters opportunities to inhabit their full humanity, and chances to learn and change.”—Boston Globe
  • Dust Child is at once empathetic, devastating and upbeat, burnished with Quế Mai's stunning signature prose.”—WGBH / Under the Radar
  • “If you loved Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, you’re going to want to carve out uninterrupted reading time for this historical fiction title.”—Reader's Digest
  • “In this emotionally stirring listen, Ngo captures the story's reflective mood and elevates the characters' humanity.”—AudioFile Magazine
  • “A moving, decades-long family saga.”—Boise State Public Radio / Reader's Corner
  • Dust Child is a result of years of Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s research, and a fervent attempt to acknowledge the lives and experiences of these children, all coupled with a compassion that’s unique to her alone.”—BookRiot
  • “Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s amazing gift is her ability to portray the legacy of war from a very human standpoint – she compels readers to understand the long-lasting effects of conflict on both the land and the thousands upon thousands of people impacted by war. This is a book I won’t soon forget.”—The Buzz Magazine
  • “With this heartrending, decades-spanning, page-turning saga, Que Mai has delivered a classic piece of literature whose lifespan will spread a thousand-fold.”—Isele Magazine
  • “A poetic saga that deftly examines oft-marginalized elements of war, race, trauma and healing.”—Saigoneer
  • “[M]asterful… this newest addition into the Vietnamese literary cannon should not be missed.”—US Vietnam Review

On Sale
Mar 14, 2023
Page Count
336 pages
Algonquin Books

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

About the Author

Born and raised in Việt Nam, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is the author of The Mountains Sing, runner-up for the 2021 Dayton Literary Peace Prize, winner of the 2020 BookBrowse Best Debut Award, the 2021 International Book Awards, the 2021 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, and the 2020 Lannan Literary Award Fellowship for Fiction. She has published twelve books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction and has received some of the top literary prizes in Việt Nam. Her writing has been translated into twenty languages and has appeared in major publications, including the New York Times. She has a PhD in creative writing from Lancaster University. She is an advocate for the rights of disadvantaged groups in Việt Nam and has founded several scholarship programs, and she was named by Forbes Vietnam as one of twenty inspiring women of 2021. For more information, visit: http://www.nguyenphanquemai.com

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