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“Not Alone”: An Interview with Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai

July 27, 2021

Over the last several months, SmokeLong has had the honor of working with the students in Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai’s creative writing class at the Roshan Learning Center in Jakarta, Indonesia. Until September 1, 2021 we are channeling all funds donated through our donation button directly to Roshan. Recently, Helen Rye asked Dr. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai a few questions about Roshan and the talented writers in her class. 


You’ve been working with the students at Roshan for two years, now—how did you get involved? What drew you to work with these students in particular?

I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia where Roshan is well-known for its impactful work in empowering refugees via education. When my writer friend, Elizabeth McLean, came all the way from Canada to volunteer at Roshan, I visited her art class. I was very impressed with the students, who were refugee girls of different backgrounds who had the same wish to live a peaceful and meaningful life. The passion in their eyes followed me during the next days, so I returned to Roshan to speak with its management about offering my service as a volunteer via a series of creative writing workshops for the same group of girls. That happened more than 2 years ago and it was one of the best decisions I’ve made during my time in Indonesia.

Can you tell us about some of the issues they face, how they came to be in Indonesia, what difficulties they might face in getting an education and building a future?

My students all went through very traumatic experiences. Some were torn apart from their family members and haven’t been able to find them. Some witnessed the direct impact of wars, persecutions, and extreme discrimination against women. They had to embark on dangerous journeys to get to Indonesia, in the hope they would be accepted by a third country for resettlement. Because resettlement can take many years, sometimes more than a decade, education plays a vital role in preparing for the future of these young women.

According to the information from Roshan: “As Indonesia is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention or the 1967 Protocol, refugees in Indonesia do not have the legal right to employment and are required to find their own means of survival. Refugee children have limited access to formal education in Indonesia and there remains no country-wide established mechanism for enrolling refugees in local schools. For those who are able to attend local schools, there are many barriers preventing participation, including language and lack of funding. A significant number of refugees (nearly 2000) therefore rely on community-led education programs such as Roshan while others remain out of school.”

How did the connection with SmokeLong and the collaboration with SLQ come about?

During my first year teaching at Roshan, I used Helen Rye’s short story “One in Twenty-Three” as an example for my students to learn the skills of flash fiction. I loved the story very much and had previously translated it into Vietnamese. When the pandemic happened and my in-person classes had to take the form of virtual learning, I invited Helen to be a guest teacher at one of my workshop and she generously accepted. The students had such a great time learning from her, via many fun writing exercises. After the workshop, Helen discussed with Christopher Allen–the editor-in-chief of SmokeLong–about her experiences and they came up with the idea to run a series of free workshops for Roshan students. The Roshan-SmokeLong collaboration is a dream come true for me. It enables my students to learn writing skills, provides the platform for them to publish their work, and channels community support to Roshan and my students. I am so grateful to Helen, Christopher, as well as to Roshan’s academic principal Ariane, who have been providing this project their invaluable support.

How has your own writing journey influenced your teaching at Roshan?

Like my students, I write in English as my second language, so I encourage them to infuse their own cultures and mother tongues into their creative work. I encourage them to present their countries as more than wars and destruction and refugees as complex human beings who are entitled to human rights, to joy, to education. I am very proud of my students, whose talent and commitment to writing is a living proof that the world needs more stories from refugees. During our creative writing workshops we have explored poetry, fiction and non-fiction. I am very lucky that I have been able to invite many inspiring teachers to our virtual workshops: the amazing high school teachers Danny Nason and Teri Eves and their students–young writers–from the Island International School, Hong Kong, the well-known poet Ghayath Almadhoun (who joined us from Germany), and the award-winning  writer Helen Rye (who taught from the UK). Via the collaborations with SmokeLong, the students now benefit from the teaching skills of six talented SmokeLong editors: Sharmini Aphrodite, Farhana Khalique, Zainab Omaki, Hadiyyah Kuma, Maria Alejandra Barrios, and Shreya Vikram.

What’s next for the Roshan students; how might people’s donations help with some of the issues they are facing?

We are very grateful for the generous support of those who have donated to our project so far. As stated by the project document, 50% of the donation goes to Roshan to pay for learning materials and teachers’ stipends, 50% of the donation will be shared by the students. The money will go a long way in supporting the students with their daily need for survival and help them purchase books and learning materials. The support also fuels the students’ beliefs in human compassion and assures them that they are not alone. Read the students’ work. 

What is your plan after the workshop?

My students are very talented and have worked very hard during the last two years during my many workshops as well as outside the workshops. By the time the SmokeLong workshops come to an end, I hope to have sufficient materials to publish an anthology of the students’ writing. They have incredible stories to tell and I believe it is time we listen to them and create space for these brave women to tell their own stories.

See more at our page We Support Roshan.


Dr Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is the author of eleven books of poetry, short fiction and non-fiction in Vietnamese and English. Her writing in Vietnamese has received the 2010 Poetry of the Year Award from the Hanoi Writers Association, the Capital’s Literature & Arts Award, and First Prize in the Poetry Competition celebrating 1,000 Years of Hanoi. Her debut novel and first book in English, THE MOUNTAINS SING, is an International Bestseller, a New York Times Editors’ Choice Selection, Winner of the 2020 BookBrowse Best Debut Award, Winner of the Blogger’s Book Prize 2021, Winner of the 2021 International Book Awards, and Winner of the 2020 Lannan Literary Award Fellowship for “a work of exceptional quality” and for “contribution to peace and reconciliation”.


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