Publishing a first book at age 73 might not be the typical writers’ trajectory, but for Vancouver author Elizabeth McLean, it’s another milestone in a bold life of travel, adventure, and creativity. Described as a “narrative in eight panels,” The Swallows Uncaged (Freehand Books) was inspired by the nearly six years McLean spent writing and teaching in Hanoi, Vietnam. Each story stands alone, but together they paint a vivid picture of life for successive generations of resilient Vietnamese daughters and wives from the 11th century through to 1986.
The Swallows Uncaged is technically McLean’s Canadian debut. In 2013, the collection was released in the U.K. as Imagining Vietnam, after the manuscript won the 2011 Impress Prize for New Writers. “God help me, I don’t know how it happened,” says McLean. “I didn’t sleep with anybody.”
After Freehand acquired Canadian English-language rights, Calgary editor Barbara Scott worked with McLean on the manuscript, but the changes are “fairly subtle,” says Anna Boyar, Freehand’s managing editor. Released in September, the collection introduces readers to the women and girls from the fictional Nguyen clan. It’s an intimate depiction of how women confronted the strict gender roles dictated by their families, and the culture at large.
McLean, a lifelong passionate reader, left her native Warsaw, Poland, in 1962, when relatives suggested she continue her English literature degree in Canada. She had a cousin who taught criminology at the University of Toronto, and when he agreed she could join him, “I came for a year and I never went back,” she says.
After finishing her BA, followed by a master’s degree from the Carleton School of International Affairs in Ottawa, McLean worked as a radio producer at the CBC International Service and as a researcher for Time. In 1970, she married and moved with her husband to Edmonton. She completed a PhD from the University of Alberta and began an as-yet unpublished biography of artist Emily Carr.
For the next several decades McLean worked in research and public policy, and held management roles for a variety of federal departments, at the Canadian International Trade Tribunal, and at the Ottawa office of U.S. investment firm Edward Jones.
Throughout her career, writing has been both a professional instrument and an off-hours preoccupation. Finishing her post-graduate certificate at the Humber School for Writers in 2005 was the push McLean needed to make a fresh start, following the death of her husband six years earlier.
One day, McLean passed the Vietnamese embassy in Ottawa and decided to ask about overseas teaching positions. Shortly after, she sold her condo, and by the end of 2005 was leading a seminar in international relations at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.
In Hanoi, McLean had the time and freedom to write for three hours every morning – a practice she continues today – and to freelance for local publications. She also became a consulting editor for the local Women’s Publishing House, where she co-ordinated an anthology of stories by 15 Canadian women writers.
As her cultural education deepened, The Swallows Uncaged began to take shape. McLean was fascinated by women’s lives – from a soup server’s blackened teeth to the stories of wives awaiting their husbands’ return from war. “I started reading about Vietnamese history and I just wanted somehow to go back to ancient times,” says McLean, “so I projected what I learned from the women around me.”
Vietnam’s pervasive gender divide also meant that McLean primarily befriended her female students. It was also women who taught her to speak Vietnamese, cut her hair, and took her to get a library card.
Those six years immersed in the culture give McLean’s work significant depth, and a special point of view, says Boyar. “It’s almost as if she couldn’t hold the writing back.”
Boyar considers the book a model of great writing – and a feminist collection. “It’s also very magical,” says Boyar, who hears echoes of Chilean-American author Isabel Allende in McLean’s blend of culture, history, and imaginative storytelling.
McLean is 400 pages into writing a novel based on the life of a first-century Vietnamese woman who led a successful uprising against the Chinese army. She would love to see Swallows published in Vietnam, but several publisher rejections appear to confirm her suspicion that the Communist government does not support depictions of wives who disobey husbands and fathers or have affairs.
McLean, however, believes that Vietnamese history is filled with women who broke the rules. It reflects her own life – and her characters have led the way. “They just appeared to me as resourceful and stubborn,” says McLean, “and from time to time, saying ‘to hell with everything, I’m going to do it my way.’”