FREMONT -- Reminders of combat were constant as Van-Anh "Vanessa" Vo grew up in Vietnam after the war.

She often walked past abandoned bunkers and studied in a school whose bell was made from leftover artillery shells.

"So many war artifacts were still around," said Vo, 39. "It was what we had the most of, so we made use of it."

Vo, a Fremont composer and musician, now makes use of those memories, channeling her fascination with the Vietnam War and its haunting consequences into her music.

Her latest composition on the topic has garnered a $40,000 grant that will fund a performance next year at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

"The Odyssey--From Vietnam to America," Vo's 45-minute composition, centers on the "boat people" who fled oppression, violence and poverty after the war.

More than a million Vietnamese refugees in a 20-year period embarked on harrowing voyages on rickety boats -- battling storms and modern-day pirates while enduring hunger and thirst.

Some died in the desperate journey and many survivors were traumatized.

Vo, a mother of two young children, said she has interviewed more than 30 Vietnamese-Americans about overcoming the difficulties of their fateful trips.

"I realized I had to write about the boat people to tell stories about the human spirit," she said.


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Her performance of the composition will fuse traditional music with a multimedia production employing sound and lighting effects, she said.

That concept will be funded with a grant from Creative Work Fund, a San Francisco foundation that has aided more than 300 Bay Area art projects since 1994.

Vo's grant proposal underscored her personal ties to the Vietnamese immigrant experience, said Frances Phillips, Creative Work Fund's program director.

"The (organization's) board was touched that she'll use Vietnamese lullabies in her piece because many of the horrific experiences of boat people involved protecting their children," Phillips said. "What came shining through in her proposal is that this is a project deeply important to the artist."

Creative Work Fund awarded 13 grants this year to artists collaborating with nonprofit groups. Vo partnered with San Jose-based Asian-Americans for Community Involvement, which helped conduct research interviews with refugees.

Vo keeps trying to transform the pain of war into something positive. She has converted exploded shell casings into a wind chime, which she will play during her performance next year, Phillips said.

She also continues finding inspiration in stories that reflect Vietnam's strength.

"I really want to share with the world how resilient we are, show our forgiveness and hope, and our spirit," she said. "Like bamboo, you can cut it and chop it, but it grows back. It's about never giving up, at all."

Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.