An emerging novelist explores the impact of family secrets on her first-generation-Canadian perspective

To a Canadian kid on an annual pilgrimage to Vietnam with her mother, a morning spent at a Ho Chi Minh City street market is hardly a remarkable event. Crowds of people jostling over vibrant, aromatic displays of spices, fruit, nuts, seafood and coffee is just, well, grocery shopping. To a sharply observant young novelist, however, the same scene is fodder for storytelling, abundant with detail to lend authenticity and richness to a debut book set in her parents’ homeland.

Kathy Pham, BA’18, is a burgeoning novelist with an honours degree in English and a minor in communications. Part way through her degree, she submitted a short story based on her upbringing as the child of Vietnamese immigrants, and how secrets from the “old country” can imprint the lives of first-generation Canadians. Not surprisingly, such complex themes couldn’t be contained in short form; Pham is currently in Vietnam expanding the piece into a novel. 

“It’s an intergenerational story focused on secrets dating back to the Vietnam War, and how those stories stretch into the future,” says Pham. Her honours supervisor, English associate professor Dr. Larissa Lai, PhD’06, says such storytelling — especially in the hands of a writer with Pham’s talent and sensitivity — is crucial to keeping alive a set of common knowledge and wisdom.

When I read Kathy’s work, I thought, ‘Here’s someone who has her finger on the pulse of ways of being that our culture needs to hear about right now.’

— Dr. Larissa Lai

“Stories like Kathy's haven’t been heard yet, especially in relation to Vietnam and the Vietnam War — there hasn’t been a strong Vietnamese-Canadian presence represented in the Canadian literary universe,” says Lai. “When I read Kathy’s work, I thought, ‘Here’s someone who has her finger on the pulse of ways of being that our culture needs to hear about right now.’”

Pham’s year abroad is fueled, in part, by a UCalgary bursary that covered a portion of her tuition, thus allowing her to ease up on part-time work and concentrate on her studies as well as her next strategic moves. “It was hard for my family to support me for my education,” Pham says. “I took out student loans and worked throughout my entire degree. Receiving the bursary was a breath of fresh air.”    

To be sure, that support has helped empower Pham to follow her dream. But, even as she explores the nebulous effect of family history on her identity, she is well aware of her parents’ influence in shaping her pragmatic side. “Children of immigrants need a backup plan,” she says with a smile. “I hope to have a career in advertising — at least until I eventually go back for my MFA and become a full-time novelist or an academic.” Meanwhile, we’ll look forward to her debut book.

The LCL Bursary in Arts was created by Lawrence Lai, BA’96, and Celeste Lai, BA’95, “in gratitude for the immense knowledge, skills and opportunities granted to us through our education in the Arts faculty at the University of Calgary.” 

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With support from the Calgary Counselling Centre, the Calgary Food Bank, Carya Society of Calgary, Catholic Family Services, CUPS, Momentum, United Way, Vibrant Communities of Calgary, Women’s Centre of Calgary, YWCA Calgary and the Max Bell Foundation, UCalgary’s School of Public Policy is pursuing a three-year research program to reduce poverty in Calgary.

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UCalgary’s Emeritus Association raised more than $25,000 to create an endowment to fund awards that will elevate student experiences for Indigenous students. Its gift was recognized by UCalgary’s growing Campus Giving program that acknowledges staff, faculty and emeriti who support the Energize campaign.