BY NHIEN NGUYEN
In Bich Minh Nguyen’s debut memoir, “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” the author recalls one of her first Tet celebrations at school in Grand Rapids, Mich. when she was about eight years old.
Her grandmother sewed matching ao dais for her and her sister “out of a silky red fabric and white flowy pants.” Rosa, her Latina stepmother, made the two wear them to school for Tet day, so the school kids could learn about the Lunar New Year at an assembly in the gym.
“So we resigned ourselves: we would be on display,” Nguyen writes.
But not everything about Tet was so bad for the Vietnamese American writer.
“I got to skip school,” says Nguyen, in a phone interview with the International Examiner.
This year, Tet festivities for Nguyen are not laden with Lunar New Year activities and treats, but instead involve traveling to different cities on her first book tour. Nguyen visits Seattle this month, the day after the Year of the Pig begins, on Monday, Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. at Elliott Bay Book Company.
In “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” Nguyen captivates the reader with detailed, lyrical descriptions about her upbringing as a young Vietnamese immigrant in America’s heartland during the 1980s. Those who grew up during this time of television sitcoms, fast food, processed junk foods and ‘80s music will be moved by familiar details of popular culture juxtaposed with Nguyen’s experiences of self-consciousness and crises of cultural identity.
Nguyen, who hated it when her sisters read her diary during childhood, never set out to write a memoir. “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner” was developed over a period of seven years as separate essays appearing in various journals and publications. The book, she says, “kind of happened very slowly,” when she began to see similar threads in her nonfiction essays about growing up in a small town as an immigrant.
“It was strange to write a memoir,” says Nguyen, as her craft is in fiction writing. “I tried to write [my stories] in fiction and poetry but it didn’t come out right.
“It was a story I need to write as non-fiction.”
As a young teen, Nguyen always wanted to be a writer. She loved books, obsessively reading all the time and “falling into someone else’s world” as an escape from feelings of loneliness.
Though Nguyen’s parents were neutral over her writing aspirations, she always thought she was doing something “illicit” when she would write “ridiculous” creative writing stories. Nguyen didn’t seek her family’s stamp of approval because writing was something she needed to do on her own.
Now, as a 32-year-old, Nguyen is finally comfortable about her identity as a Vietnamese American woman, which includes embracing her first name, Bich (pronounced “Bit”).
Her first name is “one of those names” that would cause any new American to change it upon peer ridicule at school.
When Nguyen thought of changing her name, her parents refused to allow it as they wanted her to be proud of who she was. By the time she turned 18, she had become accustomed to the name.
Nguyen says people would ask, “What’s wrong with you that you didn’t change your name? You could have been Barbara.”
Nguyen says she has kept her name mostly from stubbornness and out of default, as she could never find a name that suited her besides the one that was given to her.
Nguyen, who is hard at work with her first fiction novel, “Short Girls,” is content with her life as a writer and teacher of literature and creative writing at Purdue University. She lives with her husband, novelist Porter Shreve, in West Lafayette, Ind. and Chicago.
Nguyen met Shreve, author of notable novels “Drives like Dream” and “The Obituary Writer,” during her MFA program at the University of Michigan. In their daily life together, Nguyen and Shreve talk often about story ideas and books, but they don’t read each other’s work while it’s in progress — only after the completion of a first draft.
Nguyen says having a writer-spouse comes with great benefits. Not only does Shreve understand what she is going through during the writing process, but also because her husband would never want her to produce work that wasn’t at the top of her game, and vice versa.
“There’s a lot of trust between us,” she says. “We have our best interests at heart.”
As more young Vietnamese Americans produce fiction, non-fiction and poetry, Nguyen believes it is important for their stories to be accepted into the mainstream.
She says, “As we progress, we need more American voices.”
For more information on the author, visit www.bichminhnguyen.com..