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Hannah Cao on growing up between cultures, mental blocks, and writing

By Celina Tran

Hannah Cao is a Vietnamese-German poet and novelist based in Dresden, Germany. Her pieces draw inspiration from her upbringing as a girl torn between cultures, falling in love, battling mental health, and other personal experiences.

Portrait of Hannah Cao, a young Vietnamese-German woman with dark, wavy hair and red lips. She has a pale complexion and is wearing a white shirt.
Photo: Hannah Cao

Hannah Cao calls from her low-lit living room in Dresden, Germany. She flashes a smile and gently tucks a tumbling dark wave behind her ear.

“Hello,” she flashes a bright smile, before adding, “I’m Hannah, last name Cao.”

Cao is a Vietnamese-German writer based in Dresden, but she also spent parts of her life in London. Her writing is inspired by her surroundings, her feelings, but also her upbringing as a Vietnamese girl in a Western country.

“I used to not feel heard, you know?” she says. “My parents are Vietnamese and come from a different culture, so for instance they never really understood mental health. On top of that, they were quite strict, so I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend or go to sleepovers, so a big part of the usual teenage experience was missing, and I couldn’t freely communicate my feelings. The combination of being a hormonal teenager and having Vietnamese parents meant that I had a lot of frustrations that I didn’t know where to put.”

She explains that because her parents don’t speak or read English, she eventually began to keep an English-language diary.

“Even if they found it, they wouldn't be able to understand; I could just say it was some English essay,” she laughs, before adding, “I guess writing has just always been an outlet of mine. I have generalized anxiety disorder, so it has helped me through a lot. I go to therapy now, but journaling is still a passion rather than a task. It has made expression easy, as well as writing. I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing.”

Stuck between Germany, England, and Vietnam: where’s home?

There was a shift in Cao’s writing journey when she was 13, taking her from English diary scribbles to short stories, fiction, and poetry.

“I loved writing English assignments. It turned out I liked the language and the art form, and my English teacher in school used to be really supportive. She would read my work in her spare time and push me to get better all the time. She was the one who submitted one of my short stories to an English Creative Writing Contest in my town, which I won. I’ve been writing ever since,” she says.

After graduation, Cao wanted to get out of the tiny German town, with a dream of opening up her own bookstore café. Eventually, after moving to Dresden, she wound up doing an internship in London.

“My entire paycheck went to my landlord, so I relied on German state funding for those abroad. I remember trying to save money by walking to work every day, and in the summer, it would get so hot that I was sweaty by the time I got there. I was also basically a pescatarian for two years because the meat was too expensive,” she laughs. “I love the city and now I miss it so much, but living there gave me financial anxiety, so I had to move home.”

'Cafe at 45 Old Street' by Hannah Cao

She explains that every short and long stay in the English capital has impacted her heavily, also evident in her debut novel, CAFÉ AT 46 OLD STREET, which takes place in the city. The book is about Hanh, Winston, Clementine, and Alexander, and their journey to finding their place in the world. It’s a story about “finding family, identity, expectations, and failure, and finding freedom in growth and happiness.”

These themes have all arisen in Cao’s own life, which continues to be the biggest inspiration for her work.

“Growing up between two different cultures makes it hard to know where to belong, it makes finding your own identity hard, like you're in limbo about yourself,” she explains.

“In addition, with my dad being really strict, I feel like I started life really late. I only got to really live life, go out, and party when I moved out, and I remember feeling so behind on everything. London changed me completely because I was so far away from everything I was so familiar with in Germany. There were new people, new sights, new experiences at every corner.”

The cultural differences between her Vietnamese and German background are not only a source of inspiration, but also a very real challenge Cao, and many other children “stuck in limbo” go through most of their lives.

“I think life changes when you finally learn to accept that you’ve had a different upbringing, that you are from a different culture to those around you. For me, this has meant coming to terms with my own upbringing, while also guiding my mother to become a different parent to my sister.”

'(I need to know I'm not losing my language)' by Hannah Cao

Cao’s relationship with her mother is a sweet one. She explains that her father is no longer in her life, but that her mother is one of the most supportive and proud people in her life, despite not having the language to understand her daughter’s writing.

“I wrote her a poem that went viral on TikTok, and a stranger online translated it for her. That’s the only poem she’s ever read in its entire form. She even wrote me a response poem and sent it to me out of nowhere. Because I haven’t read much in Vietnamese, it took me a while to figure out what it said, but let’s just say I cried on the bus,” she says.

“The complex relationships in life, whether with family or friends or romantic partners, interpersonal connections, and intense emotions are all experiences that I’ll probably always continue to write about,” Cao adds.

On writing: inspiration, creativity, and mental blocks

Some may say that writers and creatives require a natural curiosity, which is certainly the case of Cao, who giggles when she’s asked about how inspiration takes form.

“I used to do a lot of people-watching,” she admits with a bright smile, before correcting herself. “Well, I guess I still do a lot of people-watching. I’d sit in any café in London and let my curiosity get the best of me, watching and listening to people’s stories. That’s how Café at 46 Old Street was born – it’s essentially just a melting pot of different characters meeting each other, as well as a love letter to London.”

Portrait of Hannah Cao. She's resting her chin in her hand, wearing a black shirt and white pants. She has long, dark, waby hair, rosy lips and is gazing at the camera with relaxed, brown eyes. The sun casts a light across her face.
Photo: Hannah Cao

Along with other writers, musicians and TV shows, she credits Sally Rooney, Fleabag, Phoebe Bridgers and Taylor Swift’s Folklore for sparking inspiration.

“Some people read fantasy to escape the dooming reality. I enjoy the raw, honest, realistic characters and stories. Sometimes, I also really like the out-of-pocket short stories, silly things, and devastating stuff. Things that make me feel – the real shit, I guess,” she smiles, her cheeks growing rosy.

Seashore by Hannah Cao is a poetry collection. The cover portrays a woman in water, her face tipped to the sky and her neck extended. She has dark hair and is wearing a white shirt, soaked by the dark water.
'Seashore' (poetry) by Hannah Cao

As a writer, Hannah’s goal is to draw out emotions in her readers, much like her own favourite writers and artists do. To get the headspace where she can do this, she starts the writing when the world is silent, either early in the morning or late at night.

“I used to not be a planner, but now I am. It helps me know where the story is going, and it allows me to finish it. Sometimes, I stop writing one piece and return to it when it’s calling for me to finish it. In the end, I try to tie everything together,” she says.

“It often helps to find inspiration in other forms of media, movies, books, etc. I also like to pretend I’m writing scenes from a movie that I’ve already cast in my head using real people. It helps me write dialogue and reactions better. My friends also read through and give me good feedback, which is very helpful.”

- Do you ever get mental blocks?

“Oh god, yes. Sometimes, when I’m burnt out from work and get home, I just want to sleep. It can be hard to write when I’m mentally drained but it's even harder to do if I go a long time without writing. The best way to get out of it is by simply doing it one step at a time, even if it's one sentence, forcing my brain to unblock itself by pushing through the wall, perhaps by writing a different scenario or a different outcome. Most writing blocks I experience when there's something in the story that is not meant to be, and figuring out what it is breaks me out of it.”

Cao’s favourite piece that she’s ever written is the poem about her mother that went viral on TikTok because it made her feel more connected to other people.

“The poem was just me putting myself on paper, which in itself can be a very isolating thing. Then people reacted to it and reminded me that I’m not alone, but also that I’ve helped them feel less lonely, which makes me so proud,” she says.

“I’ve been accepted by strangers for a truth that feels so ugly to me. I suppose it has made me realize that everybody’s truth is just the same, which doesn’t make it ugly, it just makes us human. I imagine this is what artists and musicians feel when people cry about their art and music.”

Cao is currently working on a dark fantasy inspired by Asian mythology, called Persona, as well as a collection of prose poems called The Evening Party, which is set on a rooftop event in London.


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