Behind the Cover: Bich Minh Nguyen
December 5, 2007
Bich Minh Nguyen’s first book, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner (Viking Penguin, February 2007), received the PEN/Jerard Award from the PEN American Center. Her work has also appeared in publications such as Gourmet magazine; Jane magazine; Dream Me Home Safely: Writers on Growing up in America; and Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose. She also coedited three anthologies: 30/30: Thirty American Stories from the Last Thirty Years (Penguin Academic); Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: I & Eye (Longman); and The Contemporary American Short Story (Longman). She is currently at work on a novel, Short Girls.
Nguyen was born in Saigon in 1974. On April 29, 1975, the night before the city fell, her family fled Viet Nam by ship. After staying in refugee camps in Guam and at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, they settled in the conservative, mostly white town of Grand Rapids, Michigan. In Stealing Buddha’s Dinner Nguyen writes about growing up in a Vietnamese household in an “All-American” city in the deep 1980s.
She received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and currently teaches creative nonfiction, fiction, and Asian American Literature at Purdue University. She lives in Chicago and West Lafayette, Indiana with her husband Porter Shreve.
Nguyen’s first name, Bich, is pronounced like “Bit.” Nguyen, the Smith of Viet Nam, is pronounced something like Ngoo-ee-ehn (said quickly, as in one syllable), but most people tend to say “Win” or “New-in” instead.
Behind the Cover: Bich Minh Nguyen
Online Assistant Editor James Grasselli
Bich Min Nguyen plans to read from her PEN/Jerard award-winning memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the JC Gold Room. Want more? Take a look at her website. Not enough? Here’s a Behind the Cover look at the writer behind the memoir.
What inspired you to start writing Stealing Buddha’s Dinner?
Before I even had the thought to write a memoir, I had written a few essays
about childhood, immigration, and Asian American identity. Eventually it
dawned on me that those essays, when reworked, could become part of a
larger, book-length manuscript about growing up in a multicultural
You talk very little about your birth mother in Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, what prompted that decision?
When I was growing up much of the world seemed steeped in mystery. The minor mysteries–how exactly did Pringles get their shape?–weighed almost as much as the major mysteries, like the question of what had happened to my mother. The subject of her life was shrouded in secrecy–no one in the family wanted, or dared, to talk about her–and in my book I try to recreate that sense of silence. The structure of the book mirrors my experience of not knowing, and not even really allowing myself to think, about her. She was an off-limits subject, and I not only bowed to that, I was a part of that pact. It sounds awful, but the reality was that I had never known her; I didn’t know anything about her. And since I had a mother, Rosa, in my life, and my grandmother Noi, I wasn¹t lacking maternal figures. When I fantasized about having the perfect family, I dreamed of mothers I could not have, like Marmee March or Maria Von Trapp; they represented, or so I often thought, lives of perfection. In Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, the truth about my mother is not revealed until the near end–again, the narrative structure reflecting my experience–when, no longer a child, I face the mother I had all along feared to know.
A large portion of “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner” is about your obsession with American snacks and foods, are you still as fascinated by non-Vietnamese cuisine as you were then?
The food theme emerged as soon as I started the project, since food truly was a literal and figurative marker of my childhood. I planned my hours around what I would get and hope to eat. I thought of food as something wonderful and transformative. I also thought: if I could eat what normal Americans were eating then I could be one of them. In the book, that desire
is meant to be seen as both comical and sad.
I still love all kinds of candy, from fancy chocolates to Nerds. But the other processed foods of my youth–all that Chef Boyardee–appeal to me now only in a campy, nostalgic way. They have become symbols and ideas, signposts of a previous self, a past-tense time, place, and identity. Such foods, for me, are inextricable from their context, their role in my 80s childhood.
Do you have a favorite food these days, American or otherwise?
I love all kinds of food! I’m basically guided by cravings: one day it might be steak frites, the next, mapo tofu. I¹m always on the lookout for the perfect cherry pie, the perfect potato chips… the list is endless.
How did you end up working as an editor on three anthologies?
The anthologies emerged and evolved from coursepack ideas. We (my husband Porter Shreve and I–we coedit the anthologies) also wanted to put together anthologies that were as diverse and wide-ranging as possible.
Do you have any short stories, fictional or non-fictional, that will be appearing in magazines or anthologies in the near future?
I’m working on a couple of new essays as well as my novel, Short Girls.
Your next book, Short Girls, is fictional. Why the genre shift?
Fiction was the first genre I started writing in so, in a way, nonfiction seems like more of a shift for me!
Writing fiction after writing nonfiction has been very freeing. I keep thinking: I get to make stuff up! I¹ve always enjoyed working in more than one genre and thinking about places where one genre bends toward another. I have found, for myself, that subject matter is the primary element that decides which genre a work is going to veer toward. Short Girls does draw on
what I know in that it’s partly set in Michigan, and depicts characters who are Vietnamese American, but that’s pretty much where the autobiographical involvement ends. Well, except for the title.
What drew you to George Mason’s Fall for the Book?
It’s a terrific celebration of books. So many writers I admire have participated in the event.
At Fall for the Book you’ll be reading from Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, do you already have a selection planned and what, if any, interaction will you have with the audience before/during/after the reading (i.e. Q&A time)?
I will be reading a section from Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, with a Q&A after
the reading. After that, I will be signing books if anyone wants one signed.