Throughout her work and life, Bich Minh Nguyen has explored identity. In her memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, she describes how as a child in Michigan, she craved Hamburger Helper and was perplexed when eating bánh chung, the special sticky rice cakes her Vietnamese family enjoyed at Tet, didn’t tantalize her taste buds. In her novels, characters grapple with living on the outskirts of Midwestern suburbia, understanding where the strip malls and split levels intersect with fraught refugee journeys that are similar to that of Nguyen’s own family.
In regular life, Bich Minh Nguyen goes by the name Beth. She is the author of three books, all with Viking Penguin. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner received the PEN/Jerard Award from the PEN American Center and was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year. It has been featured as a common read selection within numerous communities, schools, and universities. Short Girls, a novel, was an American Book Award winner in fiction and a Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Her most recent novel, Pioneer Girl, is about the mysterious ties between a Vietnamese immigrant family and Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Nguyen has been a Bread Loaf Fellow, among other honors, and her work has appeared in anthologies and publications including The New York Times. She has also coedited three anthologies: 30/30: Thirty American Stories from the Last Thirty Years; Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: I & Eye; and The Contemporary American Short Story.
Nguyen received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, where she won Hopwood Awards in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. She currently directs and teaches in the MFA in Writing program at the University of San Francisco. She and her family live in the Bay Area.
She joined Lunch Ticket to discuss writing across genres, immigration and the literary world, and what counts as “home.”
Gabriella Souza: I saw on your website that you are working on a series of essays, Owner of a Lonely Heart—calling to mind the Yes song—and your most recent book was the novel Pioneer Girl. How does it feel to be an amazing unicorn that can write successfully in both genres?
Bich Minh Nguyen: Ha, I never thought of myself that way! But I sure did love unicorns when I was a kid. I honestly think that any writer can work in more than one genre. I mean, why not? And I’m not sure it’s always helpful or healthy to think about genre distinctions. Sometimes it’s the material—the subject, the content—that must determine the form and the genre.
GS: How do the two genres complement one another in your day-to-day writing? Do you have different mindsets for each or do you approach your writing the same, regardless of genre?
I think of writing memoir as just one person’s point of view, one person’s set of memories, observations, and experiences. Developing any character, whether in nonfiction or fiction, requires complication and the exploration of human complexity.
BMN: I try to let myself be guided by subject matter. One thing I love about nonfiction is the freedom to combine narration with reflection—that thinking on the page. One thing I love about fiction is the freedom of plot. Each requires a different mindset, which depends on the day, time of day, weather, mood, and what I’ve been reading.
GS: Speaking of Pioneer Girl, I thought of your 2014 novel the other day because it was recently Laura Ingalls Wilder’s birthday. The plot of Pioneer Girl centers on a young woman whose family has mysterious ties to Wilder, the author of the Little House on the Prairie books. I know those books had a special resonance with you when you were growing up. How has that changed for you and do you still have an appreciation for Wilder’s work?
BMN: I might use the word fascination rather than appreciation. I grew up reading those Little House books, as so many in my generation did, and at the time, we read them basically without context. That is very troubling, and I am interested in that kind of complication because it’s part of the necessary work of rethinking the past—what we learned, what we didn’t learn, what we were taught, what we weren’t taught. How do we deal with those silences, absences, and erasures now? What can we learn through further research and investigation? And what surprises us? Pioneer Girl started because I was surprised to discover that Rose Wilder Lane, Wilder’s daughter who co-wrote, uncredited, the Little House books, once went to Vietnam as a journalist.
GS: Your 2007 memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, tells the story of your family’s journey from Vietnam to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and your growing up amid distinctly different cultural experiences. I noticed that on your website, you have a Where Are They Now? tab, where you give details about the family members you featured in your memoir. What was it like writing about your family, particularly when chronicling disagreements with your sisters, for example, or your parents’ relationship? What has the experience been like watching readers resonate with your family members as characters?
BMN: Writing about one’s family requires an awareness of perspective. I think of writing memoir as just one person’s point of view, one person’s set of memories, observations, and experiences. Developing any character, whether in nonfiction or fiction, requires complication and the exploration of human complexity. All of this can feel risky and a little scary, but often that’s what writing just feels like. I love when readers tell me that they love my grandmother, or when they have a particular feeling or reaction to a character’s words, actions. It reminds me that we’re all looking for connection, all the time.
GS: Immigration continues to dominate the national news and is a frequent theme in recently published literature. How have you seen the literary world and the publishing industry change in terms of telling stories of immigrants and refugees? And if you have noticed a change, was that a reaction to people wanting to share their own stories or a need from the publishers to follow the natural conversation?
BMN: It’s wonderful that the idea of “immigration” has become more comprehensive and complicated in recent years; we are getting to see a wider range of immigrant narratives. I do think that tokenism is still a problem in publishing and literature. Part of that is rooted in publishing itself. [See recent examples here and here.] But I’m heartened to see more immigrant and refugee stories out there, in any genre, particularly ones that challenge “traditional” modes and viewpoints.
GS: After moving to the Midwest from Vietnam as a baby, you have since moved to California. What do you consider home? Is it possible that the idea of “home” is obsolete?
“I’ve always been uncertain about what to call home and where to call home. Perhaps for that reason, home for me is usually defined by the physical space in which I live and the sense of comfort I feel when I have to leave that space.
BMN: I’ve always been uncertain about what to call home and where to call home. Perhaps for that reason, home for me is usually defined by the physical space in which I live and the sense of comfort I feel when I have to leave that space. When I moved to the Bay Area, I realized what it meant to be just another Asian American person in the crowd—not viewed as a perpetual foreigner but just as a regular person, every day.
It was astoundingly wonderful because I’d never known that level of comfort—by which I mean such absence of self-consciousness.
GS: Your name on your book jackets is Bich Minh Nguyen, but you also go by Beth. As someone who has grappled with different names and the various identities they bring herself, I’m curious how you see name as related to identity.
BMN: I started going by Beth as a social experiment, to see if people would view me as “more American” with such a simple, straightforward name. I was also curious if that would affect how I thought of myself. I have a long essay about this in the works, that will be included in my next book. One thing I discovered, and this isn’t really a spoiler, is that, yes, I am more easily, typically seen as “American” when I go by Beth. It’s been an interesting experience that has made me reconsider ideas on identity and the role of names and naming.
GS: You teach in the MFA in Writing program at San Francisco University. How does teaching affect your writing, and vice versa? Have you ever been tempted to write about your classroom experiences?
BMN: I’ve always loved teaching because it keeps me thinking and learning about the craft of writing. I mean craft in a dynamic way, as in Matthew Salesses’s crucial “Pure Craft Is a Lie” series. Teaching writing can lead to energy and ideas for everyone in the room. I’ve only written about classroom experiences for conference papers or essays on pedagogy and craft. It’s crucial to have care and great respect for students’ individual experiences and their privacy, which every writer should have as they figure out their work and their process.
GS: I mentioned before that you’re working on Owner of a Lonely Heart, a new series of essays that you described as “about high school, music, and the Midwest.” Are you picking up where Stealing Buddha’s Dinner left off? Are you working on anything else that we should be on the lookout for?
BMN: Owner of a Lonely Heart is kind of a sequel to Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, in linked essay form. Many characters return—like my family! Some of the essays have to do with middle school, high school, or college; some are about parenthood; some are about the now. Music, refugee and post-refugee life, identity, food and culture and landscapes—these are all ongoing subjects for me. The title goes back to that awful, catchy Yes song because it has always posed a dilemma for me: is an owner of a lonely heart indeed much better off than an owner of a broken heart?
GS: One of the most entertaining aspects of your work are the popular culture references you pepper throughout your prose—from descriptions of Hamburger Helper and lists of the candy you craved as a kid to details of MTV music videos and beauty regimens, hairspray and all. What was behind your decision to include popular culture in your writing, and does it continue to play as big of a role in your life currently?
BMN: Writing and literature must include setting, and setting involves time and place, and time and place must include details, images, and moments particular to time and place. I don’t really distinguish “popular culture” from “culture.” It’s all how we live and what we take in. I’m always interested in that which affects and shapes us before we realize it, which is why I often write about childhood and adolescence. Everything we’re consuming (in all senses of that word) can define our sense of self and place—only we may not understand that for many years. What do we think of as culture? Who determines that? Whose stories and perspectives are we getting—and not getting? What we experience and observe on a day to day basis—sure, that could be mundane but it can also be the stuff of wonder and certainly the stuff of intense inquiry.