Q&A Bich Minh Nguyen
March 28, 2007
Author of “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” assistant professor of creative writing, Purdue University
Bich Minh Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American whose family fled its homeland in the last moments before the fall of Saigon in 1975, settling in Grand Rapids, Mich. Today, the 32-year-old teaches creative writing at Purdue University and has just published her first book, “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: A Memoir,” which has received national media attention, landing its author on NPR and in The New York Times.
The title is drawn from a childhood incident when Bich Nguyen (pronounced “Bit” and “Ngoo-ee-ehn”) stole some fruit from a display her grandmother had set out for Buddha.
It’s also a nod to the American junk food that serves as a cultural metaphor. Nguyen recounts the way she thought she could eat her way to assimilation — she was raised on her grandmother’s traditional Vietnamese fare such as pho (a beef and noodle soup) and shrimp curry, but longed to eat the same Cracker Jacks and Ding Dongs her American classmates unpacked at the lunch table.
“Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” says Nguyen, is about being multicultural before multicultural was cool. Today, she shares her 1920s frame home near the Purdue campus with husband and fellow writer Porter Shreve, and stacks of books waiting to be read.
You write a lot about junk food, such as Pringles and Hostess CupCakes, in your book. Is this an indictment of American culture?
“I didn’t know it was junk food when I was a child in the 1980s. To me it was magical food. I thought it was fantastic. I thought it was exotic and beautiful and wonderful. It’s only as an adult that we can look back and say that’s bad. That’s junk food. But at the time it represented everything that was possible.”
How long did it take you to write your book?
“It started six or seven years ago when I was just writing a series of essays that I didn’t know was going to become a book. Those were just some discrete essays about immigration and childhood and food. It was about two years ago that it really came together as a book.”
When did you start writing?
“For fun? When I was seven or eight. Pretty realistic narratives. Serious writing? It was in my freshman year (of college) that I took my first creative writing class. That was my first introduction into workshop, opening myself up to critique, and reading short-story writers such as Charles Baxter and Stuart Dybek.”
Who are your major literary influences?
“I would definitely count those two. Probably because they were among the first two I read. I would also say Tobias Wolff. Maxine Hong Kingston. And definitely writers like Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy and Dickens. I really like the old literature. (The latter) taught me a lot about narrative and how character and plot are tied together.”
What are you hearing from your readers?
“I get a lot of e-mails from people, and they say, ‘This is me, and we are totally different people. I’m not Vietnamese and I didn’t grow up in Michigan. But we had much the same experience.’ I think that’s wonderful. It makes me feel really good to get those kinds of comments.”
Why do you think you’re getting so many interviews?
“For one thing, people are really interested in food. I think that’s an obsession that most people have, what food represents. Most people have a nostalgic feeling toward food . . . what foods marked their childhood. I think childhood is such an interesting place to explore. Everyone has a childhood. Usually our personalities or what will become our real personalities are formed when we are kids.”
You teach creative writing at Purdue. Do your students truly love to write, or do they just want to be famous?
“I think if you just want the glory it’s going to be very difficult to be a good writer. There’s very little glory involved, almost none, and whatever occurs is going to be very short-lived. You have to be in it for the craft of writing and for the dedication to reading. The mistake many of my students make is they don’t read enough.”
How many hours a week do you devote to writing?
“I know a lot of writers who get up early and write for two or three hours. That sort of discipline is wonderful, and I wish I had it. I work whenever I can. I need to have a schedule, and I need to go to sleep so I can get up at 5 a.m., but it’s not happening to me.”
What is the hardest part of writing?
“For me it’s letting it go. Being finished. I would just write and rewrite without stopping.”
How do you deal with rejection?
“It’s just common and normal. You just can’t feel bad about it. It’s often a matter of taste and style. You’ve just got to keep going. Rejection is absolutely integral to the whole process and business of writing. It’s a rite of passage . . . A handwritten personal rejection can actually make you feel good. Someone actually read your work and felt strongly enough about it to actually write you a personal note.”
What is your next book going to be about?
“I’m finishing a novel right now. ‘Short Girls.’ “
Is it autobiographical?
“Just in the title. It’s actually set in Michigan and Chicago. It’s about two sisters and their families. The two sisters are very short, and they don’t get along. Their father is a failed inventor of products to improve the lives of short people.”
Call Star reporter Abe Aamidor at (317) 444-6472.