A Mount Holyoke Senior Sharpens Her Craft in Viet Nam

Miralva and host

Miralva and her Hanoian host, journalist Thao Nguyen, at a green-tea farm in central Vietnam

Miralva Gusmao was looking to hone her writing skills through an internship someplace altogether different from her Brazilian upbringing and her life in the U.S.

Due to graduate from Mount Holyoke College in 2018, Miralva is 50, older than most of her classmates, and knows what she wants to do with the rest of her life. Although a psychology major and language student, Miralva is first and foremost a writer.

Combing through the diverse internship opportunities available offered via the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives International Internship Program, Miralva spotted the ideal situation: to work as an English-language copyeditor of travel news and features at Thế Giới, a foreign language publishing house in Hanoi. Its mission—to make Viet Nam accessible to thế giới (“the world”).

The internship was originally brokered by Mount Holyoke alumna and luminary Lady Borton (‘64), a writer and historian known best for her book, After Sorrow, a memoir of her life among Vietnamese families rebuilding their communities after the “American war”. The internship was also held by MHC alumna Violet Kupersmith (‘11), author of the critically acclaimed The Frangipani Hotel.

“I wanted this internship badly because editing is a challenge for me,” Miralva said, “At Thế Giới, I could spend all day thinking ‘how can I make this sound better or make sense of this paragraph.’”

“I have wanted to be a writer since I was a child. In fact, I learned how to write so that I could get all of the stories in my head onto paper.” Miralva’s eyes are dark and earnest, and she speaks with impassioned undertones. “For many years I would not even say out loud, ‘I want to be a writer.’ I imagined the mockery: ‘Who do you think you are?’ Because for me saying that I wanted to be a writer was like saying I wanted to be a queen, the very best thing someone could be.”

Hanoi immersed her in the company of writers, not only at Thế Giới. Lady Borton provided support and mentoring and an award-winning Vietnamese journalist rented Miralva a room in her home. There the inner workings of Hanoi society began to reveal itself. Miralva recorded her observations on her Tumblr blog, “Look at the Dawn”, which is the meaning of her name.

“The houses themselves follow the ‘Hanoian’ architecture known as ‘tube house’, which has a very narrow façade...this type of Vietnamese architecture was developed as a way to deal with property taxes.  Since the government taxed properties based on frontage width…people built these very narrow houses – some of them less than 2 meters wide! – to circumvent the problem. This is, actually, how the Vietnamese deal with many social problems…people wiggle through social problems the same way they do in transit with their motorcycles, finding ways they can accomplish what they want, without confronting The Powers That Be. This requires attention and flexibility, a catlike ability to get out of sticky situations and land on their feet.”

“In Viet Nam, there is little direct interaction with the government, not like we have in the U.S.,” Miralva reports, “If we have a problem here, we take to the streets, we protest, we write articles; this is a democracy, we talk about it.”

She is painfully aware that her colleagues, including her journalist host has no such freedom. Viet Nam’s criminal code prohibits speech that is critical of the government; writers and reporters risk harassment, intimidation, and harsh punishment if they openly question the state.

Miralva also saw that no single law or action define a people and their culture; Hanoi’s environment is an open, supportive one in many respects.

Hoan Kiem Lake is the scenic focus of public life. Miralva writes, “there are hundreds of people exercising around the lake at five-thirty in the morning…about thirty people stand together and take full breaths at the same time…I stop and watch. After a few more exercises they break into loud laughter. A gentleman, probably in his seventies, leaves the group and approaches me. In broken English, he explains that they are practicing Laughing Yoga. ‘Come!’, he says, taking me by the arm. The others welcome me with smiles and high-fives. Soon I too am taking turns between deep breaths and loud laughter.”

Meanwhile, each weekday, Miralva sharpened her editing skills on stories and articles that have been translated from Vietnamese into a clunky, unreadable English. She revised them for the publisher’s large English-speaking tourist audience. “I was so happy to be editing without a personal connection to the text,” she says, “That objectivity has made me a stronger writer.”

“International internships like Thế Giới serve as powerful learning laboratories,” says Eva Paus, founding Director of the McCulloch Center, “Miralva gained a deeply human and nuanced appreciation of another culture while perfecting skills that will support her career in a world that increasingly values global experience.”

“I always thought you had to have a special talent to be a writer, and that I was not talented enough,” Miralva says. “Now I see writing as a craft I can do, as can anybody else.”

Her experience in Hanoi and Thế Giới left an imprint she will carry for life.