Saturday, May 10, 2014

Q&A with author Bich Minh Nguyen

Bich Minh Nguyen is the author of the new novel Pioneer Girl. Her other work includes the novel Short Girls and the memoir Stealing Buddha's Dinner. She has taught at Purdue University and the University of San Francisco, and she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Q: How did you come up with the idea for Pioneer Girl, and why did you select that as the title?

A: The idea for my book grew out of a lifelong obsession with the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I have to admit, I’m not fond of the title Pioneer Girl. For years, it was called Little Gray House in the West, but I was told that wasn’t a good title.

Pioneer Girl was the name of an early manuscript that Laura Ingalls Wilder had written; it was never published, and was eventually turned into the Little House series.

The idea also grew out of a realization that my family’s experience as immigrants actually had a lot of parallels with the Ingalls family’s experience as pioneers in the 1870s.

What do Asian Americans and pioneers have in common? A lot! Starting over; searching for a place to call home; figuring out new identities.

I also learned that Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, once a well-known writer herself, had essentially co-written the Little House books.

And I learned that Rose had traveled to Saigon, in 1968, as a reporter. That last fact set in motion a series of “what if” questions for me: what if Rose had met a family in Saigon and established a connection with them? What if that connection would lead, one day, to the unraveling of a major literary and family secret?

Q: The book includes both real and fictional characters. What did you see as the right blend of the two?

A: Everything about the real-life Rose and Laura in my book was based on a great deal of research. In the novel, Lee does some research at the Herbert Hoover Museum and Library in West Branch, Iowa, where the Rose Wilder Lane papers are kept. I did the same thing, long before starting to write Pioneer Girl.

While the book is partly historical, it still belongs mainly to the contemporary-day narrator, Lee. The book as a whole draws upon the actual past, and relies on it, but is definitely still fiction.

Q: Can you comment more about how Lee's family's experiences compare with those of Laura Ingalls Wilder's family?

A: Lee is the daughter of immigrants—the family that perhaps met Rose in Saigon in 1968—and she’s struggling to figure out where she belongs within her family, within the field of academe, and within the context of second-generation Asian American identity.

Her family’s main livelihood has been running restaurants, especially Asian buffets in small towns in the middle of nowhere. Lee feels a sense of obligation to her family but also wants to escape.

I wanted Lee’s dilemma to echo, in a way, the dilemma Rose Wilder faced as the daughter of Laura Ingalls and Almanzo Wilder.

While her parents preferred the rural farm life, Rose couldn’t wait to move to a city and live on her own. But there are consequences for such independence—guilt, uncertainty, and an underlying worry that a family’s way of life has been betrayed.

Q: What do you think of the book jacket/cover art and did you have a role in selecting it?

A: I think the cover is beautiful! It’s meant to evoke the original editions of the Little House books, which were illustrated by Helen Sewell and published in the 1930s.

I didn’t have much of a role in how the cover turned out. All I wanted was for the cover not to evoke, accidentally or otherwise, an “exotic” stereotype. So I’m really happy with the cover.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on memoir-essays about high school, family, and television shows and movies from the late 1980s and early 1990s. These sort of continue where my first book, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, left off in terms of identity and pop culture in the Midwest.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Here’s something that is still so strange to me. In Pioneer Girl, more than one character heads westward. Rose Wilder, in the book and in real life, moved to San Francisco, where she established herself as a writer.

I wrote Pioneer Girl in the Midwest, where I was living and where I more or less figured I would continue to live. I had no idea that my family and I also would be heading westward to the Bay Area.

Now that we’re here, I still think about the Midwest a lot. I think about landscape, and the reasons for and consequences of moving, settling, resettling, and making the decision to try another place.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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