Carina Hoang was one of hundreds of thousands who escaped the aftermath of the Vietnam War via boat. Her story can be found on her website and in the award-winning book she compiled – Boat People (2011) – to record the experiences of other boat people. In 2011, Carina was inducted into the WA Women’s Hall of Fame as one of Western Australia’s most inspiring and courageous women. I spoke with her ahead of a Meet the Author event I arranged for her to attend in November 2012.
You fled Vietnam with your siblings in 1979 on a boat. How has this experience shaped the person you are now? Do you still suffer ill-effects of your experience such as flashbacks, nightmares and so on? How have you dealt with some of the more traumatic memories?
The experience has made me stronger, determine and more compassionate. I no longer have nightmares; occasionally, I have flashbacks when I see films or images that relate to my experiences, however, they don’t make me feel sad or afraid any more.
What motivates you to “be your best”, to achieve so much despite your experiences? How are your PhD studies going and what is the topic?
My motivations were to make my parents’ sacrifices worthwhile, and because I was given the chance. The focus of my research is on grief and loss; my project is an oral history on the Vietnamese Exodus. I am enjoying my studies but not without the usual struggles that most PhD students experience; perhaps, a bit more challenging because my education background has been in science and business, not social studies.
Why did you want to put together the book Boat People? How long did this take? Was it hard for you to hear and read others’ experiences?
Initially, I wanted to put together this book for my daughter and the Vietnamese children whose parents are boat people so they can learn about their heritage. owever, as the project developed I realised that it was not just for them – other non-Vietnamese and non-refugee people should know as well. It took me and my team 18 months to finish the book. The experience has been one of mixed emotions; on the one hand, I felt privileged to learn and to share others’ experiences, on the other hand, I felt their pain as I heard some of the heart-wrenching accounts. At times, I even felt guilty for not suffering as much as they did.
Why do you think this is such an important book?
Besides the fact that it was ‘timing’ as the situation of boat people in Australia is becoming more challenging, this book is treated as a history book – the history of mankind, of Australia, of Vietnam and of many other nations. There is so much one can learn from these stories. To many people, the stories are inspiring; they help people be more informed, to become more understanding and tolerant. I’d like to share this quote from a review:
“While its primary aim is to record the stories of Vietnamese refugees, Boat People has obvious resonance with refugees from other countries in other eras, including our own. In a foreword, Malcolm Fraser expresses his hope that readers will gain an insight into refugees and that governments will act according to principle rather than supposed political expediency.” – The AGE
What has been the response to this book? Have you found that some people (non-refugees) have changed their stance on boat people after reading it?
The response to this book, from around the world, has been very positive. In fact, on 4 June 2011 in New York, my book received an award as Best Regional Non-Fiction (Australia and New Zealand) in the 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards. I have received many emails from readers telling how much they appreciate the book, and how it made them realise how little they knew about what boat people had experienced. This book certainly has made some people (non-refugees) become more sympathetic toward boat people and refugees. I find that sometimes people react negatively because they are not informed, and usually it’s the unknowns that generate fears.
The “boat people” issue continues to remain a divisive one in Australia – when you meet people who have no empathy for boat people, what do you say to them? Do you have to have a “thick skin” when it comes to talking about this issue?
I don’t think I have “thick skin”, and I don’t feel the need to have one when it comes to talking about this issue; I just need to be myself. So far, I have not met many people who have no empathy for boat people; however, occasionally, I tell people to treat the situation with humanity because we are dealing with humans.
Why do you think many Australians are so unsettled by the idea of asylum seekers? Given that so many Australians have no experience of being a refugee, having to flee their country, what do you want people to understand about refugees?
I think it’s a lack of knowledge – the information they receive is often incomplete and too objective. We hear about the number of passengers on the boat when they arrived, but we don’t hear about why they fled their homeland, about the boat journey, nor do we hear about the number of people who died during the journey. Until one is on a boat like this and crossing the ocean, one will never know how vulnerable and insignificant the ‘boat people’ feel. If given a choice, no one wants to become a ‘boat person’. Not to mention that they have to leave behind everything they ever loved and know in exchange for the unknown, they have to adapt to a new culture and learn a new language before they can have a safe and better life.
How did it feel to be inducted into WA Women’s Hall of Fame last year?
It was an incredible feeling! I was humbled by the accomplishments and contributions the other inductees have made. The recognition certainly made me more motivated; I am eager to do more and to give more.
Do you have any other writing plans?
Yes, I am planning to produce more non-fiction books that give voices to the less fortunate, and to offer a sense of justice to victims, such as the Cambodians who suffered the atrocities from Khmer Rouge.