In 1999, author Quan Huynh shot and killed another man in a gang-related shootout in Hollywood, California. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison and the circumstances made it unclear that he would ever get out. After a decade inside, Quan reached a turning point where he realized prison could be an opportunity to heal himself and reconcile with his past. This is the story he tells in his memoir, Sparrow in the Razor Wire: Finding Freedom from Within While Serving a Life Sentence.

I got so much out of our conversation and I know Quan’s insights on redemption and self-reflection can be transformative for you too.

Emily Gindlesparger: Today, I’m sitting down with Quan Huynh who has written the book, Sparrow in the Razor Wire. Before I actually launch into a summary, I would love for you to give a little run down of what the story is that’s in your book?

Quan Huynh: The story is just my process of spiraling down into darkness and how I found my way back out of it.

Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, it’s an incredibly powerful story. You do such a great job throughout the writing of really pinpointing all of the emotions that you go through at each stage of that journey. And right from the beginning, it’s really amazing how much empathy you’re able to really tap into between you and the reader. Thank you, it’s really powerful.

Quan Huynh: Thank you.

Emily Gindlesparger: Let’s begin by giving listeners a little bit of your personal background and feel free to be as broad strokes or as detailed as you like with that.

Quan Huynh: Sure. Let me see, I’m a Vietnamese American, I came to the United States when I was several months old after we lost our country. My family settled in Provo, Utah. We had sponsors over there and that’s where I grew up. I grew up around 99.9% Caucasians. And I remember as a little boy growing up, I just felt like I didn’t fit in, I wished me, and my family looked normal–like the people around us.

I would have to say that’s where a lot of my struggles later on in life about not feeling accepted started. My father got diagnosed with leukemia and he created the Vietnamese Refugee Association in Utah and was giving back and helping other Vietnamese refugees adjust to their new homeland. So, as a little boy, I would go with him to neighboring states like Wyoming and Colorado and I remember these drives where my father said he’s helping people go to the DMV or fill out their social security–doing a bunch of things like that which, as a boy, I didn’t understand why we were driving all this way. Especially when he told me he wasn’t getting paid for it.

Then he gets diagnosed with leukemia, his condition gets worse, and we move out here to California where some of his family lived. That was my first time going to school with Vietnamese kids and Hispanic kids and black kids.

I remember even then, I didn’t fit in with the Vietnamese kids because this was during the time when a lot of the boat people were coming over. And a lot of these immigrants, these refugees, did not speak English well. A lot of their parents had changed their birth dates. Let’s say they’re 14 or 15 but their parents would say they’re 11 or 12 just so that their kids could go back a couple of grades and learn the English language.

I remember these kids teased me, said I was white-washed. And I just never felt like I fit in on either side, with any culture growing up. Yeah, that’s basically my childhood. My father’s condition got worse and he passed away from leukemia when I was 13, and our family was in poverty at the time. Me and my brother, by that time, we’re already started to get in trouble and hanging around with the kids that were getting in trouble.

Looking for a Place to Fit

Emily Gindlesparger: And then, of course, the events of your book happened later in life when you were 24 and in college. You were in a job with GALLUP and you shot and killed a man in gang activity. The book is about the story that goes on from there and how you found redemption. Or how you found self-forgiveness in prison. Is that an accurate way to describe it?

Quan Huynh: Yeah, I would say that. By the age of 17, I was already arrested the first time and it just began a spiral where I got more steeped into the gang life, and I became more engrossed in criminality. And then I ended up shooting and killing another human being in 1999. You know, I look back, even during the writing process, and even during my soul searching inside prison and I was like, “What made me capable of murder, how did this happen?”

I just kept on thinking, “Okay, what was going on in my life?” And a lot of it had to do with just an inability to express emotions or express them in a healthy manner. I got turned down for a management position at Gallup, which I had placed all my hopes and dreams in. Basically, I just hoped my life would go right for once in my life. This was before the fame of their Strengths Finder Studies. The Gallup interview it’s all personality-based. I remembered when it came back and they told me, “Quan, you are not fit.”

Those were the exact words and I think that went back to those same issues, “I don’t fit in, there’s something wrong.” I had no self-awareness at the time in order to realize this job did not define me. But that’s what I had placed all my hopes in, thinking, “Maybe, for once in my life, things will go right. Maybe I can do something with my life.” So, when they told me that, I thought, “Okay, I’ll just go down to the bar, get drunk.” I didn’t even talk to my girlfriend about it and about a week and a half or two later, I went up to a club in Hollywood and I found some of my homeboys from the same gang got in a fight with another group.

I wasn’t even involved with the fight but yet, I wanted to be the one to pull the trigger. I mean, the parole board asked me over and over until I heard it, “Why did you have to be the triggerman? You weren’t even involved in the fight.” I just realized, in this part of my life, I failed, I may not be a fit. But in this part of my life, in the gang part of my life, I know how I won’t fail, and I know how I can be, in a warped sense, recognized and where I could fit in. I would have to say that’s a lot of the motivation for why I thought it was okay to shoot and kill another human being.

Emily Gindlesparger: The way that you describe that motivation in chapter one, the way you described your emotions around that–I sat there reading it and thought, yeah, I have felt those emotions, I have felt like that. I have wanted to be powerful in some way and kind of take my fate into my own hands in some way. I’m curious, was it ever difficult to pinpoint what those emotions were at the time and what you felt as these events were unfolding?

Quan Huynh: Yes, I would say it was very difficult. I had not developed any type of emotional intelligence at that time in my life. It was basically, this is what’s going on. I don’t feel good inside, let’s say, I argue with my girlfriend or argue with somebody or somebody looks at me wrong, and even a sense that I never viewed myself as someone angry. Because I thought, someone who is angry is someone that screams and yells. That was my definition of an angry person. And because I never screamed or yelled or showed emotions I thought I didn’t have anger problems.

It wasn’t until later on during my life sentence when I started understanding. Even looking into books and reading stuff on emotional literacy–I had major anger issues but I didn’t recognize it at the time, I did not know. I was just so unaware of it.

Emily Gindlesparger: I know in my experience and I’m curious if this is what you’re describing as well, is like sometimes those emotions that we’re not aware of, they just kind of go into this soupy mass of discontent. And that’s all we feel, it’s this amorphous kind of dissatisfaction and gloom.

Quan Huynh: Yeah, that’s exactly what it is, but then, of course, in the gang lifestyle, I had an outlet for it where I could stuff my emotions down into some dark corner, and then call up one of my friends and say, “Okay, I’m upset with my mom or I’m upset with my girlfriend or I’m not satisfied with something that happened today. Someone cut me off in traffic,” whatever.

Something builds up and I stuff it into a corner, call my friend up, bring a gun with me and “Hey, let’s just go to the pool hall,” or “Let’s go out there.” And everything in the back of my mind is saying, “Okay, now I have a gun, now I can look around, who is looking at me wrong. And now here’s my opportunity to take out everything that’s going on inside myself at this time and here’s an excuse for me to unleash this onto somebody. And it will make me feel better and it will give me this greatest high.”

When I look back, most of us in the gang and most of us–my homeboys knew what we were doing and the fact that every single one of us had major issues but we never talked about it. It wasn’t like, “This is what’s going on in my life, let me tell you about it.” It was more like, “Okay, let’s go out.”

Then I don’t know what’s going on, suddenly my friend, he ends up fighting with somebody or whatever and it’s because of this inability to understand and process and feel emotions.

Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah. What you say about it in terms of seeking that feeling of feeling high, in terms of trying to create this emotional response or trying to vent out this emotional response. That resonates so well with me and it resonates with things I’ve read too about drama being an addiction, really. That we seek out these–unconsciously of course–we seek out these high-impact, high-adrenaline inducing events as a way to vent all of that stuff that’s underneath that we can’t name.

Quan Huynh: Yeah, that’s exactly it.

Prison and Questioning

Emily Gindlesparger: You say that in prison, you started asking this question of, “Why did I do that, how could I have done that?” Do you remember the first moment when you started asking that question and what that felt like?

Quan Huynh: I would have to say, that moment it didn’t come until at least 10, 12 years into my prison sentence. That first 12 years, I did not even approach it at all. It was more a script I had continued to tell myself over the years or the narrative in my head that was my life or theirs. They were gang members, so was I. They had it coming. I guess that fulfilled that narrative in my head and also because of that, I’m not that bad of a person. Then, it was just around the time that there were several things that happened, my grandfather had passed away, my niece was born, and I saw the first pictures of her, and she was so adorable.

She looked just like a spitting image of my brother and it took me back to our childhood and, I’ve always been a bookworm. I was reading different types of books but during that time, I happened to be reading these books on the saints. Those resonated with me because each of the saints, they would leave such amazing legacies. But yet, every single one of them were very flawed human beings at one time or another in their lives.

That is when I started searching and it began this question, “Look at what my father did in his 36, 37 years on Earth and the impact he made on people. Look at the destruction that I did during my time.” Because I think I was around 36, 37 at that time. I started asking myself, “Why? How did I get down this path? Am I meant to die, is this it for me?” Those books at that time on the saints gave me solace and it gave me a small ember of hope. There was one day on the yard, I remember specifically it was early morning. I was standing there, my head filled up with these readings. I had, by that time, been meditating pretty regularly and it was a thought like, “Why does prison have to be punishment?” And I realized, it doesn’t. This is a place where I could make myself a better person, it doesn’t have to be punishment.

That understanding right there made all the difference in the world. I remember the sun was coming up over the hills and I could feel the warmth of it and the individual blades of grass, I got to see the drops of dew, and up above me in the razor wire, I heard a sparrow chirping. I tell you, it probably had been chirping my whole prison term but I never once heard it.

But that day, I heard it. And that day, prison no longer was this cold, harsh, ugly place. It was a place where I connected with other human beings, it became a place of, tranquil beauty. We were all just stuck on our journeys and this was a place for us to really discover ourselves.

I felt I could make myself a better person, even if I die. Even if I am to die, I can leave a legacy in here. And that’s how I started to approach life while still incarcerated. “What can I do to make an impact in my little piece of the world, right here, that’s been totally discarded from the rest of society?” But in this little corner of my world, I can make an impact and that’s what I started trying to do.

Emily Gindlesparger: I gather that part of making an impact also meant feeling the agency to make an impact, even despite, or because of, you reconcile with the past that put you in that place. Tell me how that went?

Quan Huynh: Well, I think the first stumbling block that I had to get over was my father’s death. I would have to say, 25 years later was when I first began to properly grieve him. Then understanding the process of grief and loss and the stages, going through therapy, and being fascinated with that process around me and recognizing it in other men–even though they didn’t recognize it themselves. Even if they had never lost a loved one, they could be experiencing loss by getting transferred in prison, they could experience loss by growing old or being denied multiple times at the parole board.

They had no way of healing themselves or even beginning to grieve those losses. I remember, I had crafted a syllabus, put it together, and submitted it to a psychologist on the prison yard, and he was blown away by what I put together. I said, “I want to create a group for men here.” He was all for it and we created the first grief and loss group in the prison. I saw things like that. I was able to make an impact and understanding my own journey and then also, use my understanding to go back and help others out. That was when I suddenly felt alive inside the prison.

Emily Gindlesparger: That’s amazing. It sounds like you created a space to really feel this grief and go through that process. Before you created the group, what was it like trying to grieve while in prison?

Quan Huynh: Impossible. I grew up thinking men do not cry. I think it was absolutely reinforced in juvenile hall, the California Youth Authority, and then, ultimately, prison. I was never able to cry, actually, never showed anybody when I did. Any time I spoke about my father, it always brought me close to tears, so I would stop.

I remember when I began this process, I decided one day to write a letter to my father and just say to him all the things I never got to tell him and tell him sorry for where I’d lived my life. Writing it was one thing but then, I felt moved to share with the therapist, and I read it out loud, and just hearing those words coming from my mouth, I had not cried that much in my whole life. There was snot coming out and I was bawling but it was very healing for me.

I realized, from that stumbling block and then, my sense of identity was tied into me as a gang member. Me as a hustler in prison and all of these roles and identities. This narrative that I told myself, I realized, every single one of these things was created in my head to make me feel better or make me feel like I could impress people around me. Or me wanting to build some type of reputation and realizing that all of that was fake. It was very terrifying for me at one point because I realized any sense of identity, no matter how fake, was better than no sense of identity and that was where I was at.

It was during that time that I found solace also and a lot of spiritual readings. I liked the theme of remaking yourself. That is where I began my process of remaking myself–taking myself back to the little boy and embracing the little boy that I once was. And from there, trying to rebuild me as a person.

Taking Ownership

Emily Gindlesparger: A therapist that I worked with once said that trauma happens in community and it also gets healed in the community–I love that. Being vulnerable in front of other people is really the thing that starts to unlock our sense of safety around who we are.

Quan Huynh: Yes, I fully agree with that. Later on, when I got involved with other groups on the yard and was facilitating the victim’s awareness groups, and being part of building out that curriculum, and getting them to understand and take ownership of their crimes. Then getting involved with other groups, like the Alternatives to Violence, I noticed that when I shared my failures and I shared my faults and was absolutely vulnerable, men would come up to me after the workshops. They would tell me, “Oh I learned this from you,” or “Wow, what you told me is going to make me really think.”

So, I saw firsthand the impact and how effective it was to share, I guess, all of my failures. Contrasting that with other men that were also facilitating with me. They would get up there and use the time as an opportunity to teach and say, “Oh you need to do this and this and this.” And it was never effective from my experience.

It was not as effective as sharing my own failure. That is actually the same way I approached writing the book. I realized guys learn best when I just shared my journey and if there was something for them to get out of it then they can get some lessons out of it. If there was nothing then they could just discard it and walk away, but the whole time I was writing my book, I was thinking, “Okay, if I don’t want to share this, most likely it means I should be sharing this.” And I would just dig into myself and put it together and put it out there.

Emily Gindlesparger: That’s so inspiring. I remember too, of course, because it is such an impactful mental frame. I remember as you were writing that you talked about having a mental table of truth. Do you want to describe that?

Quan Huynh: Sure, we did this exercise in prison of who were you going to have at your table for whatever you wanted to do. Just like your imaginary table in your head and your motivations behind it. So, I had imagined on my table, when I was struggling with my writing, on days where I didn’t want to sit down and write, or I didn’t want to share, or I am confused. I don’t want to go with my story. I had some people sitting at my table and I imagined what they would say.

The people that I had sitting at my table were, of course, my father. I had my victim, the man that I shot and killed, he was sitting at the table. I had my younger self, the little boy, the eight-year-old boy, he sat at the table. Then I had the avatar. They talk a lot about and teach us in Scribe, who the book is written for. So, my avatar was a prisoner and his name was David and he was a spitting image of one of my old bunkies, because it was a guy that never wanted to examine or even touch on his crime and his own journey into darkness.

So those are the people that kept me on point and kept me, I would like to say accountable to my writing process.

Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, that’s incredible. What was that like? Was that you thinking of them whenever you needed motivation, did you have conversations with them?

Quan Huynh: I do. I remember one of the most difficult times during the writing process was when I put myself back into juvenile hall in the county jail, just the beginnings of my times of being locked up. During the writing process, I sat there at the table and I told myself that every single fiber of my body wanted out of prison, wanted to get out of there, thinking, “Why am I putting myself back in there for? I don’t want to do this, I shouldn’t do this.”

But it was remembering who was at the table with me and what they would say–they all told me you have to do this.

Serving a Bigger Purpose

Emily Gindlesparger: Was it easy to follow those directives or were there ever times where you were just like, “F you!”?

Quan Huynh: You know, oh my God, some days,  I didn’t want to do this but then it is just the words that I have to remember. This is not about me or what I want. This is about serving a bigger purpose. During my time in there, the last few years before I went home, I sat down and prepared men for the board. We call it a board prep–it is basically coaching them to understand and become their best selves.

When I first started doing it, people thought I was crazy and people thought whoever was sitting with me was crazy because nobody really shared hearing transcripts. Here I was sitting with somebody and they said, “How is Quan going to help you when he has never even been to the parole board?” But inside the parole board, they fish you a transcript of the hearing, but for some reason, it is a cultural thing of the men in there, they do not share their transcripts. Nobody asks about this, so you don’t share the transcripts.

I somehow got my hands on some transcripts of some of the men and when I read it, I thought, “Oh, I think I can help. I think I know why he is getting denied at the board. I think I know what the parole board is looking for.” They are looking for the same exact thing as this path that I am on–this journey of I how do you make amends? What is remorse? What is personal responsibility and what is choice?

It just felt so in alignment with where I was with my life. I sat down and started coaching guys before they went to the board, and people thought I was crazy until the first guy came back from the parole board and was found suitable. Suddenly, men wanted to sit down with me to help them prepare for the board. I knew their motivation was to go home, which is fine. But I also knew my motivation was to be able to share with them this sense of liberation and freedom I had already discovered while I was sitting here.

It was almost like I had this secret and I was trying to tell the men all around me and nobody was hearing me. So then, I was thinking, I am crazy. During those last few years, I was able to help, maybe 10, 12 guys go home, which is not an insignificant amount. That was just 10 to 12 guys in that prison in that yard. That has always been a motivation for this book–this book is for those men I left behind.

When I go back into the prisons now and men find out I’m a lifer, they usually say, “How did you get out?” They say, “This is what the parole board told me,” and I listen to them. I think, “I can help this guy, but I don’t have the time.” I am not in the prison. I am not there but I want to help them. So, I hope the book in some way can help them, so they can understand that this is the path you have to go. That’s the way I approached trying to write it.

Emily Gindlesparger: So many pieces are clicking in place because I was curious about how you had included transcripts of your own parole hearings, I believe, right? They are at the beginning of each chapter. That is even more incredible now, knowing that so many men who are on the inside really need visibility into those conversations.

Quan Huynh: Yeah, because they don’t share it. It is a form of the truth. Those are my actual hearing transcripts. I did not edit them. I did not alter them in any way. It became a great framing device for me to keep my story moving along, and also giving enough backdrop that I didn’t have to tell everything else. I could just jump right into what I wanted to say in that lesson. That is the way I put it together.

Emily Gindlesparger: Yeah, it does such a good job of exactly that–of moving the story along. Of mile-posting it. And I am curious, what was it like, going through those transcripts, as you were writing?

Quan Huynh: So, my very first hearing, there was a commissioner. She was, in denying me, she was very vicious in her feedback, saying that I lacked any sense of humility. That I exuded arrogance. I was full of ego and pride. I remember sitting there and they had denied me five years at the time. This was 2013. It was my very first board hearing, and I got denied five years. I went back to the yard and people said, “See? Quan didn’t know what he was doing. If he did, he wouldn’t have gotten a five-year denial.”

All of those things hurt, but I think the thing that hurt me more was her words, telling me those things. I remember thinking, “Am I still that ugly of a person and still unaware of it?” I kept going back to that and just holding onto that. Going back to the transcripts, after I was home, during the writing process and getting back to those things and reading her words again still hurt me. It made me really think, “Crap, I wonder if she saw something I still have now?”

While I was going through my transcripts out here and this was three, four years even after I  saw her. So that was like, 2013? It is in my book. My aunt wrote a letter, basically telling me just to resolve myself to dying in prison. I think my family thought I was crazy for telling them that I felt that I needed to go home and that I was studying about ownership and taking responsibility.

That was when I was struggling with the words from the parole commissioner and then my aunt wrote me a letter and basically says, “We are concerned for your mental health. Don’t put your eggs all in one basket.” In reading the letter I thought, “Oh, they think I’m crazy. My family thinks I’m crazy. Everybody thinks I’m crazy.” But I realized that if I didn’t believe in myself, nobody would. So that’s what gave me resolve to say, “You know what? I am not crazy. I know what I am feeling here. I know that I am making a difference in this world right here and I am just going to move forward with wherever this path leads. I am just going to live my best life right now.”

About a year and a half later, I filed some paperwork and I told my aunt, “You know I am not crazy. It is 2013, the board gave me a five-year denial. I guarantee you, I will be home before 2018. I am not crazy.” A year and a half later, I put in the paperwork to go to the parole board and everybody in the yard said, “Oh they only granted it because they are going to bring you back in and deny you.”

In prison, I saw this mentality of conspiracies of people always looking to screw you over. I see it on the news now as well and it just reminds me of how it was inside prison. So, I went back into the parole board in 2015. I saw the same commissioner. She was now the head commissioner inside my hearing. And she was even more vicious at the second hearing. Somehow they found me suitable and I got out in 2015.

Emily Gindlesparger: What do you think was the difference between the first hearing and the second?

Quan Huynh: I don’t know. I look at the transcripts, I am not sure. I look back now, even reading those transcripts, I was still the same. I was still trying to give my message and I think the first hearing when I read it as I shared with you, I struggled with her words. They still hurt me. Then when I got back to my first round of edits from the editor, some of her notes really gave me clarity.

It was because the commissioner did not have context on my journey up to that point. So, I think by the second hearing, the commissioner already knew some context about me. I think she read further because I had submitted, by that time, quite a bit of writings–just things I thought about. I submitted all of it–70, 80 pages worth of my writing about my thoughts on certain topics and it became a part of the record.

Emily Gindlesparger: Is that standard?

Quan Huynh: No. No, I think I went about it and just did it as part of my book report. I wish I had some of that stuff that I submitted to her. I also have this habit that if I read a book and I like it, then I write a three-paragraph, one-pager book report for myself. The first paragraph is what the book is about. The second paragraph is something I want to practice out of the book, and the third paragraph is how I want to use that in my life moving forward. And I dated each of them.

So, I have those now and when I go back, I can see where the development of my mind and my soul began to start to build up. I could see, “Oh it’s this book,” and I began to practice this habit. I totally forgot, oh it is this one where I got this first seed of hope regarding this topic. I submitted those too. Those are pretty big records–my attorney was very impressed with the stuff I wrote about. It gave me healing. The whole writing process gave me so much healing while I was inside.

When I was eight, I was first recognized for writing. They sent me to a young author’s conference when I still lived in Utah. I grew up reading fantasy books. And I just love writing creatively. Then at 12, when I came out here to California, they recognized me for writing and sent me to UCI’s creative writing school but my father passed away when I was 13. It wasn’t until prison when I joined a creative writing group and I was writing and one of the guys said, “Have you always written?” I said, “You know what? I haven’t written in forever.” And then I realized, “Crap, the last time I wrote creatively was at the creative writing school before my father died.” I had not written since. That was 25, 26 years later before I began to write again.

Emily Gindlesparger: Wow, and I am so glad now that you have a book to give to the world.

Quan Huynh: Yeah, me too. Me too, especially to give to the men in there.

Emily Gindlesparger: Well Quan, thank you so, so much for this interview. It’s always incredible to hear your story and hear your journey and how you have made sense of things. I know that the vulnerability that you share helps a lot of people move steps further along on their own journeys too. So, thank you so much.

Quan Huynh: Yes, it is my pleasure, Emily. Thank you so much.

Emily Gindlesparger: If people and maybe even especially the men inside, were to take one or two things away from your book, what would it be?

Quan Huynh: That I believe in each one of them. That I hope that they can also find their freedom one day regardless if they go home or not–that they could find some sense of freedom in them.

Emily Gindlesparger: That’s beautiful. Thank you and besides checking out your book, where can people find you?

Quan Huynh: They can find me on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, it is all the same name @quanxhuynh that is the same as my website, @quanxhuynh.

Emily Gindlesparger: Beautiful. Thank you, Quan.

Quan Huynh: Thank you, Emily.