Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith: Writing Stories of Vietnam for His America and Beyond

Genaro Ky Ly Smith

Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith. Photo courtesy of the author.

In 2007, Genaro Kỳ Lý Smith took second place in the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards Program for his short story, “Dailies.”

Since then, he has published two books, the first of which, The Land Baron’s Sun: The Story of Lý Loc and His Seven Wives, was inspired by his grandfather. “Had I not learned about him, his story of being an aristocrat and an officer for the South Vietnamese Army and having seven wives would have been lost,” Smith says. “I had to ask myself, how can someone, anyone, allow that story to die?”

The collection of interconnected poems that resulted tells the story of a once prosperous Vietnamese landowner who falls captive to the Viet Cong and the suffering that ensues for him and his family. Pulitzer-prize winning author Robert Olen Butler wrote of the book, “It deals with the most timely and yet most universal of themes: the yearning for an identity in a world of war and strife and cultural dislocation.”

Last fall, Smith released a companion piece to his first book, the novel The Land South of the Clouds, this time focusing on characters navigating post-Vietnam War America during the same year the film Apocalypse Now was released. In it, he also “bravely tackles the tribulations of being biracial,” writes author Neil Connelly.

Themes of personal history, identity, and race have motivated his writing from the beginning. “James Baldwin was my earliest influence, and Toni Morrison is my goddess,” he says. “Her novels are my books from the ‘literary Bible.’”

I had to ask myself, how can someone, anyone, allow that story to die?

Born in Nha Trang, Vietnam, in 1968, Smith says what inspires his writing most are his daughters: “I want them to know their history, and to do so means I must ‘resurrect’ their Vietnamese heritage/ancestry.”

In addition to his full-length works, Smith has published poems and fiction in numerous journals and magazines, including Blue Lyra Review, Mocking Heart Review, Crab Orchard Review, Pembroke, Gumbo: An Anthology of African American Writing, Xavier Review, Northridge Review, Amerasia Journal, turnrow, Scene Magazine, dis-Orient, Christmas Stories from Louisiana, Kartika Review, and Asian American Literary Review. His work has also been recognized with several grants and awards, including first place in the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Fellowship competition.

Currently, Smith is working on editing a collection of short stories and a novella entitled The Beautiful Ones are Not Yet Born, in which each story is told from a different Vietnamese character’s point of view, whether in Vietnam or America, and from a different decade ranging from the 1960s to 2010s.

Smith earned a BA in English from California State University, Northridge, and an MA and MFA in creative writing from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA. He settled in Ruston, LA, where he lives with his wife and children and teaches literature, composition, and creative writing at Louisiana Tech University.

When asked what advice gives to writers, Smith said bluntly, “That there are thousands of writers better than you, and you have to accept that fact. I tell my students that I get rejected for a story or poem on average twenty times before it is picked up. The reward, of course, is getting it published or even being paid for it. But to become good at it you must write every day, even if it’s just for thirty minutes. Part of writing or any art form is all about discipline.”

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