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Q&A with Cecile Pin – Wandering Souls

Wandering Souls

By Leah Wingenroth.

We are thrilled to welcome Cecile Pin to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release Wandering Souls, out on the 2nd of March 2023.

One night, not long after the last American troops leave Vietnam, siblings Anh, Thanh and Minh flee their village and embark on a perilous boat journey to Hong Kong. Their parents and four younger siblings make the crossing in another vessel but as weeks go by it becomes clear that only one party has survived the voyage.

Anh, Thanh and Minh suddenly find themselves alone in the world, without family or home. They travel on, navigating refugee camps and resettlement centres until, by a twist of fate, they arrive in Thatcher’s Britain. Here they must somehow build new lives with only each other to turn to, but will that be enough in a place that doesn’t seem to want them?

In this piercing debut, the siblings’ faltering journey is deftly interwoven with the voice of their lost younger brother, Dao, following them from a place between the living and the dead, and the records of an unknown researcher intent on gathering the strands of their story. Revelatory and inventive, Wandering Souls paints a heart-wrenching portrait of a family in unimaginable adversity while exploring the healing power of stories.

Wandering Souls

Thank you so much for joining me, Cecile, and congratulations on a truly stunning novel! I truly read this in one sitting. I think it’s a text that will stay with me for a long time.

Thank you so much!

So many stories of diaspora are told through the language of food, and this seems applicable to Wandering Souls, too. How did food culture inform your story as well as your personal journey?

For second-generation immigrants, food is an easy, accessible gateway to our heritage, which is sometimes obscured to us. Eating and learning to cook Vietnamese food was a way for me to connect with this side of me, and my ancestry.

Food is a very sensory experience, evoking smell, taste, touch, sight… In the book, it is a way for Anh, Thanh and Minh to reminisce about their family and village in Vung Tham; to bring back memories of their lives there. And once they arrive in the UK, it was also a way for them to connect with fellow refugees: Food can be a way to bond, both by cooking and sharing meals together, and Vietnamese food was a link they shared.

We have so many texts about the war in Vietnam from the perspective of American soldiers. Less often, we’re given these stories of the refugees and the Vietnamese citizens who bore their own brunt of the violence, fear, chaos, and displacement. How do you see this text fitting into a school curriculum? I remember reading books like The Things They Carried in high school. Do you see Wandering Souls as a paradigm shift compared to those kinds of war stories?

It’s true that oftentimes, when you hear about Vietnam, you hear about the Vietnam war and the US soldiers – especially in film. That being said, in the US, a lot of Vietnamese writers have written wonderful tales about refugees, such as Ocean Vuong, Lan Cao and Viet Thanh Nguyen, to name a few. In the book, I wanted to give a voice to the boat people who settled in the UK because that part of British history has, for the most part, been in the shadows. So I think, if it ever made it onto school curriculum (which would be an incredible thing!), it would provide an stirring, alternate point of view to the Vietnam War and its aftermath, and to Britain in the 80’s.

Some of my favorite moments were the short bits of narration from Dao. Do you consider Wandering Souls to be a ghost story?

I haven’t really thought of it that way, but why not! My hope for Wandering Souls was that all the different, fragmented parts, when read together, would create a whole bigger than the sums of their parts. There is a ghost narrator, and the novel explores a little how ghosts are seen in different cultures, but these are just elements of the story.

Towards the end of the novel, you discuss through your characters briefly something called “prolonged grief disorder.” How do you see this manifesting in your characters? Is prolonged grief disorder another term for generational trauma in this context?

I left some things left unsaid in the novel on purpose, as I wanted to give readers the breathing space to make up their own mind about certain elements in the book, including the characters. This is one of those times, so I will leave it up to readers to decide how grief manifests in each character.

I’m no doctor, but I think prolonged grief disorder and generational trauma are distinct things though with some overlap on how they manifest in individuals.

The story starts and ends with a trio of siblings. From Anh, Thanh, and Minh to Jane, Will, and Lily, how do you see the reality of being an immigrant transform?

I think the immigrant/refugee reality is not something you can really generalise: there’s not just one refugee experience. Throughout the years, politics and public perception have evolved, not always for the better (as is evident with what’s happening in the UK at the moment).

In the book, there’s a scene in which Anh goes food shopping but struggles to find any ingredients she’s familiar with – but by the present-day, that is no longer the case: London contains an array of Vietnamese ingredients and supermarkets and restaurants. So I think that’s something that’s changed for the better: we live in a more multicultural world.

Of all the characters, I feel that Jane and Dao have the most narrative presence. They seem to preside over the story. Do you see yourself in them, or more in a different character?

Though all characters are fictional, they all contain elements I relate to. That being said, I think I see myself the most in Jane.

There is so much to grapple with in your novel in a profoundly thought-provoking way. What inspired you to tell this story? And how much of it (if any) was autofiction?

The novel is partly based on my maternal family’s story, who were Vietnamese Boat People who immigrated to France in the late 70’s. I set the book in the UK as it’s been my home for almost ten years, and I noticed that there were very few stories exploring the Vietnamese and East/Southeast Asian British diaspora.

Changing the setting also made it easier for me to divert from the personal and have the story take a life of own. I really wanted the characters to come from me, and not my family. I always saw the book as a work of fiction rather than auto-fiction, and would encourage readers to see it as so, too.

The description of the tapes from Operation Wandering Soul was haunting. What were your thoughts behind including those brief narrative moments from the American soldiers’ experience?

I thought it was such a fascinating, odd Operation, ill-rooted in Vietnamese culture. It played on the Vietnamese belief that if you do not bury your loved ones properly, in their hometown, then they would not be able to find peace, and be left to wander Earth for eternity, as ghosts or ‘wandering souls’. Including it in my book was a way for me to link this notion to the Dao character, and also to the idea that there are different ways to be a wandering soul. I think all of the characters in the book, in their own way, are wanderers: whether because they are ghosts, or directionless, or troubled.

Do you consider Anh, Thanh, and Minh’s family to be victims of the Vietnam War? Victims of a pirate attack? Victims of colonialism in general?

Near the beginning of the book, I touch upon this question a little. I think that there are a lot of factors that contributed to the sibling’s hardships, but it’s not easy to point fingers at one thing in particular. Rather, their circumstances came from a medley of causes, rooted in politics and history, war and socio-economics amongst an array of other elements.

Last but not least, where and when can readers get their hands on your beautiful new novel?

I always like to encourage people to buy or order it from their local bookshop! If that’s not a possibility, it’s available from most online book retailers, including and which support independent shops with each purchase.

Cecile Pin

Cecile Pin grew up in Paris and New York City. She moved to London at eighteen to study Philosophy at University College London, followed by an MA at King’s College London. She previously worked in publishing. She writes for Bad Form Review and is a London Writers Awards 2021 winner. Wandering Souls is her first novel and is longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. It is being published in eleven territories in 2023.

Cecile’s Instagram: @cecilekvpin


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