A Conversation with Bich Minh Nguyen
“In August 1965 a woman named Rose walked into my grandfather’s café in Saigon.
That much is known. My grandfather would say that’s the beginning of this story.
My mother would say I should have left it at that.”
So begins Bich Minh Nguyen’s much-praised second novel, “Pioneer Girl.” As in her memoir, “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” and her first novel, “Short Girls,” thematic points of connection–places of origin, family relationships, and comforts of food–are laid out before us, each influencing the next, each as important as the others. These points are textured by differences between the first and second generations of immigrant families, the feelings of belonging and not belonging, and the weight of lives that lead from east to west, all the while anchored in both places.
These points of connection are exactly what I love about Nguyen’s books. There is the sense of geography, which spans from Vietnam to the Midwest to the West all the way to the Pacific, which leads back to Vietnam. There are the relationships, close and distant, caring and complicated, between sisters, grandmothers, fathers, uncles, grandfathers, mothers, brothers, and friends. And then there is the food: from all-you-can-eat childhood comforts to the more mature market-grazing of peaches and oysters, white wine and lemon-lavender cake, and throughout the years, the love of banh mi and cha gio and pho and, ultimately, the shared love of eating.
Nguyen approaches these elements with the consideration and concern of a scholar, yet invites her readers in with the ease of a storyteller, her intricate narratives threading through terrain that is as tough as it is touching, revealing characters we come to care about.
“Pioneer Girl” by Bich Minh Nguyen
Thank you, Bich, for agreeing to this interview. You’ve had an incredible year, what with the publication of “Pioneer Girl,” moving from your longtime home in the Midwest to the Pacific Coast, and joining the MFA in Writing Program faculty at the University of San Francisco. Do you see a parallel between your own move to the West Coast and the travels of the narrator, Lee Lien, in “Pioneer Girl,” as well as those of Rose Wilder Lane, the mysterious subject of concern in the novel?
Thanks for inviting me to do this interview!
I wanted to write a book that brought together some of my enduring obsessions: the immigrant experience in the United States; the “Little House on the Prairie” books; and bad food in small towns. In “Pioneer Girl” the city of San Francisco becomes hugely significant to more than one character; it was also the place where Rose Wilder Lane, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s daughter and editor/co-author, became a writer in the early 1900s. When I wrote “Pioneer Girl,” I’d been living in the Midwest for years. I also grew up in Michigan and have spent more time in the Midwest than anywhere else. I had no idea I would leave. But by the time the novel was finished and edited, I had accepted a job in San Francisco. I think what I share with Rose Wilder and Lee Lien is a sense of restlessness, or at least an understanding of that feeling. Neither Rose nor Lee wants to “bloom where they are planted”; they want to roam. They feel the tug of family obligation but also the longing for adventure. I felt many of these complications myself, growing up in a small city in Michigan in the 1980s.
For some, small-town America, as in Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio,” generates a feeling of distress, of feeling trapped and wanting to escape. Your novel, “Pioneer Girl,” and your husband Porter Shreve’s novel, “The End of the Book,” in a way a sequel to Anderson’s book, approach this idea of entrapment with the sensibility and firsthand knowledge of town life in the Midwest.
Lee Lien, of “Pioneer Girl,” questions her family’s choice to remain in the Midwest, once they settle in the Chicago suburbs and open their own café, after years of moving from town to town through a series of Asian buffet jobs. In “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner” you wonder at your father’s strength in bringing your family to the Midwest after the Fall of Saigon and at his decision never to leave. Do you think the Midwest will always inform your writing?
It’s true—Porter and I both wrote novels that deal with real-life literary figures, family duty, and the Midwestern feeling of isolation. We didn’t read each other’s work until we had pretty solid drafts and even then, it took us a while to realize we were on similar thematic tracks. I think it must have been because we were both in the midst of questioning where we were, geographically. We had ended up in Indiana for academic jobs and we had two young kids. We’ve both moved quite a bit, but having kids made us more anxious about where we wanted to be. The back-of-the-mind questions became daily ones: Are we going to stay? Do we want to live somewhere else? Where? What are the risks, gains, and consequences of leaving and starting over? Inevitably, these questions also came out in our writing and in our characters.
I’m sure the Midwest will always inform my writing because I am essentially Midwestern; it’s where I grew up and it’s what I know. One of the aspects of geographical identity I wanted to explore in “Pioneer Girl” is how our childhoods are made by other people. As children, we have no control over where we live or where we grow up. But it informs so much and, as adults, we contend with it. Lee contends with it against her mother’s expectations. Rose Wilder hated growing up in Mansfield, Missouri and couldn’t wait to leave. My father gave me and my siblings the best childhood he knew how to give, and it started with his decision to leave his world behind and start over in the United States. No move I make could ever be so bold and brave. Now that I have kids, I am even more in awe of the burden and responsibility involved in his decision.
Bich, Anh, and their dad – Grand Rapids, Michigan – mid-1970s
In “Pioneer Girl” you have created remarkable moments between the first- and second-generation members of an immigrant family. You’ve shown the conflicting sense of guilt and sense of responsibility, as well as the loyalty and memories that bind one to family. The daughter Lee’s relationship with her mother is seemingly no-win, the mother always disapproving, criticizing. Yet Lee tries to imagine why her mother is this way, and generosity, understanding, and compassion rise above feelings of shame, anger, and guilt. The grandfather, Ong Hai, is nonjudgmental, always understanding and optimistic, always caring and loving without agenda. His is true unconditional love. And the brother, Sam– first-born, the son, “spoiled”–separates himself from family by disappearing.
Could you comment about these relationships, how you found a way to describe them so deftly, focusing on each character, keeping their wants and needs distinctive and yet tied together, so that family remains the true collective sum of its individual members?
I wanted to explore the way people take on certain roles in a family and how sometimes those roles are given. You know—that’s the artsy kid, that’s the athletic kid, that’s the good one, that’s the wild child. These identifiers can be only partly true because they’re too reductive. But once they get made they can be hard to shake; they can end up becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. Yet everyone has a secret self, a set of secret beliefs and feelings: this is who I really am, and no one else knows it. Lee feels this for herself, but it takes a while for her to realize that’s true of everyone else in her family too. She thinks she knows her mother so well, but there are, of course, hidden wells. The same goes for Sam and Ong Hai.
I also wanted to explore the way families make their own myths. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder did that through the “Little House” books—and they fought quite a bit while working on them. Most families have internal and often passive-aggressive struggles for power: who gets to control the narrative of the family story? In “Pioneer Girl” Lee’s mother seems to be in control, but Lee begins to question that. She does and does not want to be the good daughter. Obligation is inescapable in most families, I would guess, and not just Asian ones. And it’s a major factor in the conflict between the first and second generations in immigrant families. I wanted to find ways to show that conflict emerging, not just in big fights, but in everyday interactions.
Bich and her sister, Anh
“Short Girls” by Bich Minh Nguyen
Early in your novel “Short Girls,” the chapters alternating between two sisters’ viewpoints, the character Linny has a moment of understanding and empathy for her older sister, Van. She “thought of her sister driving through her subdivision in Ann Arbor, decelerating, directing the car into the driveway. She pictured Van just sitting there, almost unwilling to move. How well Linny knew that feeling… a mixture of relief and dread. Now I have to get out of the car, she thought at those times. And she always did, even though she dreamed of driving on without a map… For the first time, it occurred to Linny that maybe her sister had fantasized that very same thing.”
Would you speak about your process of approaching the tougher, more emotional concerns of relationships, especially between siblings?
Fiction writing requires empathy and understanding. In many ways, that’s why we read and why writers are born out of reading: we want to understand the lives and experiences of other people. “Short Girls” was partly inspired by my own relationship with my two older sisters and partly by Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” (a book I’ve loved since high school). My sisters and I aren’t much like Marianne and Elinor, or like Linny and Van. But we had, as those characters do, our ups and downs, our arguments and resentments. I remembered always trying to figure out my sisters when we were growing up. Why won’t they play dolls with me anymore? Why are they listening to that same Led Zeppelin record over and over? How do they know how to behave as girls? Do they like me? Are we going to get along today? I wanted to apply these feelings toward Linny and Van. They have to figure out how to see each other not just as sisters, bound by the common, irrefutable bond of a shared childhood experiences, but as people who are in some way essentially unknowable. By the way, I should say that my sisters and I get along great; it’s just much more interesting to explore the conflicts!
Noi and her sons
Bich, Anh, and their grandmother, Noi
Food, family bonds, and identity are recurring themes in your writing. One example of how these themes come together, and in which you pay beautiful tribute to you grandmother, Noi, is in the chapter “Cha Gio” of “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner.” When Noi prepares the ingredients of cha bio for Tet–the grated carrots, fish sauce, black pepper, mung bean noodles, the ground shrimp and pork–you recall the “forkful of filling on a triangle of banh trang spring roll wrapper,” Noi’s laughter and how later she would “pluck the cha gio from the frying pan,” and “the first anticipated bite, the sweet and peppery flavors of shrimp and pork and fish sauce weighted against the delicate crunch of the fried wrapper.” In Noi’s cooking there is love, as seen in the lines: “I ate slowly, trying to memorize the flavors, trying to know what my grandmother has always known: this amount of pepper, this amount of fish sauce. She had always been there to show me this world without measurements.”
Would you tell us more about how the world of tastes and meals, both Vietnamese and American, was influenced by family and friends, creating new ties and strengthening or complicating old ones, and how all this shaped your identity?
Food keeps appearing in my work because I think about it all the time! Don’t most of us? What should I have for breakfast, lunch, dinner? What’s in the refrigerator? Where should we eat? What should I make? I love thinking about food and reading about it; I love fulfilling a craving. I think I ended up writing “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner” because I realized that food was an expression of longing in my childhood, a marker for cultural and social contexts. At home, we ate Vietnamese food. Out in the world of small town Michigan in the 1980s, no one was eating that; they were eating peanut butter and jelly, Chef Boyardee, Hamburger Helper, and casseroles. So much of my experience growing up was about trying to figure out where I fit in as a child of immigrants. I felt totally American, yet could never “look” American enough; I was also Vietnamese, yet knew almost no Vietnamese at all. My relationship with identity became very complicated, but somehow my relationship with food did not. I loved Vietnamese food; I loved American food. No matter what else was happening around me, as long as I had the right food at the right time, then everything was going to be at least a little okay. I credit my grandmother Noi for instilling in me a great appreciation for good food. She truly enjoyed it—the process of cooking, the art of opening a pomegranate, the daily ritual of dinner—and so I did too.
“Stealing Buddha’s Dinner” by Bich Minh Nguyen
“Throughout my childhood I wondered, so often it became a buzzing dullness, why we had ended up here [in Grand Rapids, Mich.], and why we couldn’t leave. I would stare at a map of the United States and imagine us in New York or Boston or Los Angeles… I was convinced people were happier out on the coasts, living in a nexus between so much land and water.” – from “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner”
Bich, now that you’ve landed decades later with your immediate family in San Francisco, a city on the Pacific Coast, do you feel a sense of happiness and possibly a connection—geographical, spiritual, or otherwise—to the distant coast of Vietnam?
I probably felt that way, growing up, because when you live in the Midwest you’re always being told that you’re in the middle of nowhere. Flyover land. But the Midwest—Michigan, Indiana, Illinois—is where I’ve lived the most, and it wasn’t my life’s goal to move to New York or San Francisco. When the opportunity came up, my husband and I really debated it. It freaked me out, really, to imagine living on the west coast, in the Pacific time zone, far from everything I’ve known. Now we’re here in the East Bay and I’m still getting used to it in a sense—getting used to the fact that I chose to change my life. And that our kids are going to be Californian, which seems so strange. I wouldn’t say that living here gives me any particular connection to Vietnam or anything like that. But I do feel more comfortable, by which I mean normal.
Lemon-lavender cake, Twinkies, or a Top Pot hand-forged doughnut?
Lemon-lavender cake. I do love doughnuts though, and almost all kinds of homemade cakes. I love making old-fashioned bundt cakes and layer cakes.
And finally tell us something you’d like to be asked – from inspiration to breakfast to bliss!
Why the obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder?
When I was a kid I read those “Little House” books until I practically memorized them. I loved the descriptions of food, the cozy evenings, the ongoing battle of farmer versus nature. When I reread the books as an adult, it occurred to me that maybe I loved them because the experiences of the Ingalls family—pioneers moving westward, homesteading, in the 1870s—was not unlike the experience of immigrants moving west to America. They’re parallel stories of heading out to unknown places and starting over. Though Laura and I had nothing in common on the surface, I felt a kinship with her. She knew what it was to be restless, to be shy and bookish, to want to stand out while also wanting to hide. She had longings for certain foods and material comforts. She had a great frenemy. She had secret rebellious thoughts. When I started researching the origin of the “Little House” books, I learned that her daughter Rose had heavily edited, perhaps even co-written, the books. Rose is an obscure figure now, but once upon a time she was more famous than her mother. And late in life she went to Vietnam, as a journalist, in 1965. When I learned about that literal connection between the “Little House” series and Vietnam—this was probably twenty years ago—I knew I would one day write something about it. I just didn’t know what it would be.
Bich Minh Nguyen
Bich Minh Nguyen’s most recent novel is “Pioneer Girl.” Her novel “Short Girls” was an American Book Award winner in fiction and a LIBRARY JOURNAL Best Book of the Year. Her memoir-in-essays, “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner” received the PEN/Jerard Award and was a CHICAGO TRIBUNE Best Book of the Year and a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book. Nguyen received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and has taught in the MFA Program at Purdue University and the MFA Program at the University of San Francisco. She has also coedited three anthologies of short stories and essays. She and her family recently moved to the Bay Area.
All photographs with permission of Bich Minh Nguyen.
The Poppy: An Interview Series
Four to six questions begin as pods, then burst open with answers, bright lapis,
black-stamened, conspicuous—ornament, remembrance, opiate.
First posted in the ARTS section of Hothouse Magazine.