The powerful link between food and memory has always evoked a powerful emotion.
To no surprise, there have been some stunning memoirs structured around the theme of food and identity, such as Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart, Grace Cho’s Tastes Like War, David Chang’s Eat a Peach.
In Thien Pham’s new graphic memoir, Family Style, he recalls his family’s immigration to the United States from Vietnam using memories of food to tell the story.
Each of the eight chapters in the book are titled after foods that Pham and his family ate during their migration and American assimilation. The food selections vary from Vietnamese foods like bánh cuốn and com tam dac biet, to steak and potatoes, and ham and cheese croissants. The selections are never arbitrary, as the story continues, readers see the profound meaning of each dish to Pham’s upbringing.
The book begins with “Chapter 1: Rice and Fish” with a adult Pham pondering what his very first memory is. We immediately go back in time to find a dark memory of Pham as a 5-year-old boy in 1979 with his family on a boat leaving Vietnam, navigating dangerous waters to get to a refugee camp in Songkhla, Thailand.
The family dreams of getting to America as they find community throughout their journey with other migrants and other Vietnamese families. The point of view of Pham never changes and we eventually get to the end of his journey, to the year 2016, when Pham obtains his U.S. citizenship in time to vote in a presidential election.
Author Thien Pham works as both a high school teacher and graphic novelist, having previously authored the YA graphic novel Sumo in 2012, and illustrated Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel Level Up.
While Family Style is listed as a work of young adult nonfiction, its universal themes of community, friendship, and belonging, all while using food to highlight the pivotal moments of Pham’s life make this an immersive read for people of all ages.
The book excels at being full of empathy on every page. Halfway through the 230-page memoir, Pham begins his first day of school terrified, especially since he has little-to-no knowledge of how to even speak to his new classmates on the school bus.
Pham’s mother turns to him, beautifully illustrated, wiping his tears away and says: “Don’t cry. Be brave. This is your story now.”
Pham has stated that he doesn’t remember parts of his life very well, which is why the connection to food stirs up certain memories within him. Readers see that throughout the narrative, as Pham keeps the story moving very quickly, jumping between various periods of his childhood in quick succession.
Early in the book, when Pham’s family first arrives in San Jose, California, we see them struggle with English, which is brilliantly depicted in this graphic memoir as squiggly lines in the dialogue boxes, leaving both the characters and the reader in the dark. Not many pages later, we see the family feeling comfortable enough to buy a bakery in an attempt to forge their own American path. At some point their family-owned bakery becomes a video store, but when and why the change happens is irrelevant to the story.
These are memories recounted and shared in a way that always feels authentic. There are no digressions, and the story never gets bogged down with specific details on Pham’s adolescence. Instead the story moves from each memory of food in short order, making this an easy to digest read in one-sitting type of book.