Set in Vietnam during the French occupation, a young boy is trapped between two cultures, travelling a world of halves with his pet tiger that he’s tamed. The tiger doesn’t eat meat, it’s vegetarian but one day someone accidentally feeds it some, potentially a French doctor, causing the tiger to go wild. The young boy is upset, longing for his old tiger but eventually realises that you can’t tame a tiger, instead you’ve got to let them go.
“This is based on a true story,” says Dai-An Le, whose story Dragon Teeth landed her the 2018 highest placed Monash Arts student for the Monash Undergraduate Prize for Creative Writing.
Dai-An explains her dad is from Vietnam and when he was a young boy, his mother (Dai-An’s grandmother) worked for a rich French doctor who liked to go hunting. One day, the doctor happened to find a tiger cub and gave it to the young boy as a pet. As they fed it vegetables, the cub increasingly became ill, forcing his temporary owners to let the cub go.
“I just really liked the juxtaposition of this wild beast and trying to tame it but being unsuccessful,” says Dai-An.
“I thought I could use that kind of metaphor and the main character’s epiphany that you can’t tame the tiger to address issues of being trapped between two cultures, of colonialism.”
“With the Vietnam war,” she says, “you kind of see it in terms of a Cold War in Western Culture but I wanted to express a Vietnamese story based on a Vietnamese person and something where a war isn’t seen through dichotomies of the Cold War but through the eyes of the actual Vietnamese people.”
Having previously submitted entries to the competition but never having been shortlisted, this year she entered a piece which she had written for one of her creative writing units, saying that this was probably key to her success this year. But it could also stem from her interest.
Currently Dai-An studies a Bachelor of Education (Honours) and Bachelor of Arts, saying her passion lies in literature, history and teaching and wanted to pursue these through her tertiary education (in fact she majors in history, minors in literature, and is taking introduction to fiction writing, the great American novel, and Chinese history).
This is why, she says, she commenced a double with arts because it gives her the flexibility to pursue her passion in writing and history as well as teaching.
“I’ve always liked writing,” she said. “But in high school you’re not really given an opportunity to do creative writing, it’s mostly essay writing and persuasive writing.”
“University was where I was given the most opportunity to explore what I really liked and that was when I chose fiction writing. I’d never done fiction writing to that extent before.”
What has drawn her towards literature over the years? The freedom of interpretation.
“You can interpret things in multiple ways and it gives you a freedom to express your ideas in your own words and explore your own ideas,” she said.
I just really like how you can have one piece of writing but there are so many different interpretations and they’re not necessarily wrong they’re just different ideas that you can play off of and perhaps help grow or take from and grow your own ideas.”
When it comes to the exploration of her own ideas, she says when she took Introduction to Fiction writing, what she liked was the symbolism that was utilised.
“What I really liked in fiction writing was the ability to study different types of symbolism, looking at how we can utilise epiphany, which was something that I’d never looked at in my writing before,” she said.
“But with the idea of epiphany I thought to show character growth and it was good to see how the foundations of fiction writing that I’d never really noticed can really enhance writing once you are made aware of them.”
She’s drawn to the writing of Mexican writer Sandra Cisneros, whose work, Dai-An says is “very poetic and clear”.
“Mine is quite similar. I like writing that is straightforward and doesn’t really require you to read too much into it to get the meaning. I like writing that is accessible to all audiences and I like writing that is subtle in pieces but comes together in the end so you get the whole picture, so revealing things slowly throughout the story and get the whole picture.”
Like other humble award winners, she didn’t expect to win, so much so that she didn’t intend to attend the EWF Opening Night where the prize winners would be announced. But her friends forced her
“[I thought] what’s the point of going if they’re not going to call my name? It was really embarrassing because my friends bought me flowers and I didn’t even know if I had won yet. Now knowing that I’ve won I really appreciate it. I don’t know if my work deserves it but I’m really grateful that I was given the opportunity and the help from the writing course I took and I’m thankful that the judges really liked what I wrote. It gave me a lot of confidence.”
What’s next for Dai-An? A career in writing would be the obvious choice, but the budding fiction writing expresses some reservations. “I always wanted to be a writer but it just seems such a faraway dream,” she said.
“That’s why I decided to stick with teaching because I still love that. But not that it seems impossible, I hope that maybe I can continue writing to take up some more opportunities. And even if I don’t make a career out of it, I’m just happy knowing that there are people who like my writing and I don’t think I’ll stop writing any time soon.”