The Coconut Children by Vivian Pham
The Coconut Children is the story of two teenagers, Sonny and Vince, growing up in Cabramatta, south-western Sydney in the late 90s. Both are first generation Australians from refugee Vietnamese families. Sonny is quiet and lives with her family, including her perpetually inebriated grandmother and her volatile mother. Vince became a bit of a legend around Cabramatta after he was hauled off to juvenile detention when he was 14.
Sonny and Vince are neighbours and as children, they were very close. Now that Vince is back from his two year stint in juvie, Sonny watches on with interest as he steps back into life in the ‘burbs.
‘Since he had been taken away, it seemed a mist had settled over Cabramatta and their suburb had gone to sleep. The world was only awake when Vince was there to see it.’Sonny (page 4)
In The Coconut Children, I loved the way author Vivian Pham portrays life for migrant and refugee families who arrived in Sydney from the late 70s. Trying to establish a new life in neighbourhoods troubled with gangs, violence, drugs and socio-economic hardship. But this is just the backdrop to the story. The Coconut Children is a moving, funny and sharp observation on community, family, love and loyalty.
I also loved the nods to Vietnamese culture throughout the book – Sonny’s mother always in the kitchen, cooking; her father tending to their garden filled with Vietnamese herbs, fruits and vegetables; the untranslated Vietnamese language filtered throughout the book. Most of all, I loved the way in which the author nails the balance between emotion and humour throughout the story. For her to achieve this at just 19 years of age, as a debut novelist is extraordinary.
Like Sonny, author Vivian Pham is a first generation Australian from a refugee Vietnamese family.
Her father fled Vietnam at age 17 and made the dangerous journey by boat when, after 10 days at sea, it had run out of gasoline and was drifting with barely any food on board. The boat finally hit a coral reef and all passengers were forced to flee to safety on a nearby deserted Indonesian island. During the journey, their small boat was raided by pirates several times, leaving dark physical and emotional scars on the men, women and children on board. They lived on coconuts and fish for three months before finally being rescued by Indonesian officials and being taken to a refugee camp where he spent the next 12 months before finally being granted entry to the United States. You can read more on Vivian Pham’s family story here.
The stories her father shared with his daughter from this time is largely what inspired her writing. As Pham notes about her father in the back of the book, “…she grew up writing stories because she knew there was one stuck inside of him.” So, whilst The Coconut Children isn’t biographical, it is very much inspired by both her own upbringing in Sefton, Western Sydney and her father’s stories as a refugee.
When Vivian was 16, she joined a novella writing program run by a not-for-profit creative writing centre for marginalized young people in Redfern. Instead of writing short, she handed in 90,000 words – the first draft of The Coconut Children. A senior editor at Penguin Random House was a volunteer on the program and was assigned to work with Vivian on her story. He read the first page and was stunned. Her draft soon found it’s way to a Sydney literary agent who quickly realized it’s potential and took the manuscript to auction. Every publishing house that saw it, bid for it and in 2018, when she was just 17 years of age, Vivian signed a contract with Penguin Random House.
Now a third-year Arts student, majoring in philosophy and minoring in creative writing, The Coconut Children is no fluke. Vivian Pham is intelligent, funny and keenly observant. You can read more about Vivian Pham’s writing journey thus far here.
The Coconut Children is warm, funny, tender, and wise. It’s about not just what it means to be an immigrant, but what it means to be the child of a refugee and the responsibility of carrying that legacy and those stories with you, even though they aren’t directly your own.
Vivian Pham has been described as a ‘voice of her generation’ (Stephanie Wood, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Feb 2020). If you do decide to read The Coconut Children, I hope, like me, you will devour it like a big, delicious bowl of Pho.
The Coconut Children scores 5 coconuts out of 5.