Monday, October 15, 2012

Q&A with writer Bich Minh Nguyen

Award-winning writer Bich Minh Nguyen is the author of a memoir, Stealing Buddha's Dinner, and a novel, Short Girls. Born in Saigon, she left Vietnam as a baby with her family, and grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She now lives in Chicago and in West Lafayette, Indiana, and teaches at Purdue University.

Q: In your memoir Stealing Buddha's Dinner, food plays an important role. Could you discuss the impact food--both American and Vietnamese--had on you and your family during your childhood in Grand Rapids, and the role food can play in the lives of immigrants trying to learn about a new culture?

A: In many ways Stealing Buddha’s Dinner really is all about the role that food played in my family, my childhood, and the formation of my identity. Growing up in the Midwest in the 1980s, I wanted to be as “American” as possible, and to me Americanness came through music, television shows, movies, and food—everything from Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to Pringles to Hershey’s Kisses. I thought that if I consumed Americanness then I would become it, transforming myself from the inside out. Food also marked a sharp difference between my life at home, where we mostly ate Vietnamese food, and my life outside the home, where I wanted to be as white American as my friends. It took me many years to understand all of this! And today I don’t eat or desire all that junk food I pined for as a kid. I suppose that’s kind of when I realized I was a grown-up, or at least someone who had a better understanding of identity: when those foods no longer held symbolic power for me. But I’m still obsessed with food of all kinds. Cooking it, eating it, reading about it, traveling for it. Food—what people eat (and want to eat), and how, and why—is one of the best ways to learn about a culture and become a part of it.

Q: You write in Stealing Buddha's Dinner about a trip you made to Vietnam in 1997. Have you been back there since, and what is your sense of the dynamic between the United States and Vietnam today?

A: It seems like it’s never been easier or faster (though not less expensive!) to travel between Vietnam and the U.S. Not only does this allow family and friends to see each other more often, it also allows for a greater flow of communication and culture between the two nations. I haven’t had the chance to go back to Vietnam since my first visit, unfortunately, though I would love to do so. That first trip was incredible for so many reasons, but mostly because I was with my grandmother Noi. I’ll always remember seeing her reunite with her siblings in Hanoi; she hadn’t seen them in 40 years.

Q: You created some wonderful characters in your novel Short Girls, the story of two Vietnamese-American sisters and their family. Why did you move from non-fiction to fiction, and what do you like about working in each genre?

A: I studied and wrote fiction and poetry before I ever thought about writing nonfiction, so after Stealing Buddha’s Dinner it made sense to return to fiction. I love novels—reading them, rereading them, getting caught up in them, spending time with the characters. Fiction provides the great freedom of getting to make everything up. Though Short Girls is about a Vietnamese American family, the characters and conflicts are all fiction. At the same time, nonfiction provides the great freedom of not having to make things up—of getting to tell the truth. So to me it’s beneficial to work in two genres, because when you get exhausted with one the other one feels liberating. It’s also helped me figure out which ideas and images should belong in which genre. Some things feel too true for fiction; some memories are too hazy for nonfiction.

Q: What is different about the Vietnamese immigrant experience in the United States from that of other groups, and what is similar?

A: Pretty much all of the Vietnamese immigrants in the U.S., including my family, came here as refugees (or as relatives of those refugees); they fled Vietnam because they had lost the war. I don’t think I began to realize or understand what that meant until I was in high school and college. What it must have meant for my father and uncles to fight in a war alongside Americans, to lose that war, and to have to leave their country—suddenly, with almost nothing—and start over on the other side of the world. Still, I really think that all immigrants, regardless of country of origin, or whether they were pushed or pulled to emigrate, go through very similar feelings and experiences: outsiderness, navigation of different cultures, changes between first and following generations. Immigrants have to do a lot to adapt, from language to clothing to manners. But one thing immigrants keep is their food heritage. The keeping of this, and then the eventual sharing of it through friends, communities, and restaurants, is what defines America’s overall, and growing, food culture.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: My second novel, Little Gray House in the West, will be published by Viking Penguin by 2014. The novel is about a scholar, Lee, who stumbles across a literary secret involving Laura Ingalls Wilder’s legacy. Lee’s family has spent years moving from town to town, running Asian buffet restaurants. Lee is finishing her dissertation in English literature when she uncovers a startling link between Wilder’s family and her own. Basically I’m drawing a kind of parallel between the pioneer’s westward search and the immigrant’s westward search. I’m also working on another nonfiction book, kind of a sequel to Stealing Buddha’s Dinner.

 Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview previously appeared on

Bich Minh Nguyen

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