He teaches creative writing in public schools. He's a dad. And most recently, a novelist. Author Mark Pomeroy joins us to share how a kid from northeast Portland, Ore. found vivid and lasting impressions in the forests of Vietnam and shadows of Mount Hood. His debut novel, The Brightwood Stillness, is available now.
I was raised partly by a Vietnam veteran stepfather whose anger and silences over the war both terrified and intrigued me. What had happened to him in that mysterious far-off land? What had he done? What was so difficult for him to talk about?
Later, I started reading about the war. Watching documentaries. Then, toward the end of high school, I began tutoring Vietnamese refugees, whole families in some cases, often going into their apartments or houses and hearing stories about their lives in Vietnam, their escapes, and their adjustments to the United States. Here were actual Vietnamese people, offering me cashews and tea, sitting across from me, trying to sound out strange vocabulary words.
After college, I put on a backpack and traveled for six months with a friend through Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, India, and Nepal. I kept a journal, and nearly every evening I would record what I’d seen, smelled, tasted, or heard that day. Scabby dogs nosing through trash alongside a Balinese rice paddy. Papayas, barking deer, and raw meat in a Bangkok open-air market. The soot-covered awnings along Calcutta’s avenues.
When I was thirty-two, I journeyed with my wife to Vietnam. I had to see it with my own eyes, finally. Had to smell it. Here were the places I’d read about, seen on TV, heard about from Vietnamese students and from veterans willing to share their stories. Hanoi’s old quarter. The seared wasteland of the former DMZ. Saigon, where hundreds of blank-faced people on motorbikes were stopped at each red light, jammed in, awaiting the surge.
My wife and I went to the mountains for a walk through one of the few remaining forests. At one point, I took a couple of minutes to myself, wandering off into a dim thicket. This was the land, and yes, this was the heat. Sweat in the eyes, sweat trickling into the mouth, streaming down the back. Insects alighting on my neck. A chaos of native hopea trees, imported acacia, bamboo, and shadows.
Everything could become an enemy in this forest, fast. Yes it could. And yet, of course, for other human beings it was home.
Meanwhile, back in Oregon, my grandparents went on living in Brightwood, a village at Mount Hood’s western base, where they’d bought a cabin in 1972. My grandfather, a World War II veteran, had adored that green, mossy, shadow-strewn land ever since he was a boy; after a long career at the phone company in Portland, he managed to convince my grandmother to move up to Brightwood. My mother and I would drive up there often to visit, and from the time I was three years old, that mountain land began to seep into me. The moist woods, the Salmon River, the small dark cabins built at the turn of the twentieth century. The shadows.
Many years later, Brightwood would feature in my first novel, one written over the course of 17 years, The Brightwood Stillness. As would certain journal entries from that 1992 backpack journey through Asia. As would classroom stories that I’d heard from other schoolteachers. And as would the experience of Vietnam—both the place itself and the war—for American soldiers and their families, and for the Vietnamese and theirs.
We are all walking wounded. Yet so often, of course, walking helps the wounds. At least a little. Walking, traveling, facing old enemies now and then. To say nothing of reading and writing, those ever-daring acts of imagination in a beautiful scarred world.
Mark Pomeroy lives with his family in Portland, Ore. A recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship for fiction, he earned his MA in English Education from Columbia University, where he was a Fellow in Teaching. The Brightwood Stillness is his first novel.