Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Q&A with Bich Minh Nguyen, author of PIONEER GIRL

Bich Minh Nguyen (pronounced Bit Min New-`win) was born in Saigon in 1974. Her family fled Vietnam on April 29, 1975, and eventually settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where Nguyen grew up. These experiences formed the basis of her memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, which received the PEN/Jerard Award and was named a best book of 2007 by The Chicago Tribune. Nguyen has appeared on programs such as The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer to discuss the prevalent themes in her book—immigration, food, and family—and how they relate to so many other areas of life. Her work has also appeared in publications such as Gourmet magazine, Jane magazine, the anthology Dream Me Home Safely: Writers on Growing up in America, and the anthology 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).

Nguyen teaches literature and creative writing at Purdue University. She lives with her husband, the novelist Porter Shreve, in San Francisco. Her novel, Short Girls, was published by Penguin in 2010 and her lastest novel is Pioneer Girl (Viking, 2014).

You can visit her online at

Your last novel came out in 2009. What has been different about the writing and publishing process this time around?

Pioneer Girl is told through the voice of Lee Lien, a daughter of immigrants who finds herself tracking down a mystery connected to Rose Wilder, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her own family. Where Short Girls felt like it needed to be third-person limited, alternating between two sisters, Pioneer Girl immediately felt like a first-person project. This book was also very much guided by a lifelong obsession: in this case, with the Little House books. Because food is so integral to those books, defining every rise and fall, every day, it became integral to Pioneer Girl too; here, Lee grows up in a family that runs Asian buffet restaurants. In one of the chapters, Lee has a very voice-driven moment in which she goes on a tirade about buffets. I have to admit that, literary obsessions aside, food-as-identity seems to be a subject in all of my work.

Your main character, Lee, is Vietnamese-American, like yourself and the protagonists in your first novel, Short Girls. How much of yourself and your own experiences do you put in your fiction?

I’m interested in all kinds of identity—the 19th century pioneer one, for example!—but so far my main characters have been Vietnamese American because that’s the identity I both know the best and yet still haven’t quite figured out. In that sense, my fiction does draw on personal experience. At the same time, the great joy of this genre is the imaginative freedom to stray from, change, and subvert whatever it is that the mind calls truth or reality. In Pioneer Girl, Lee is living a fear I once had but thankfully never experienced: having nowhere else to go after grad school but back home. Probably the strangest thing about writing Pioneer Girl is that I feel like I somehow anticipated my own future. I’ve lived in the Midwest most of my life, and wrote this novel while in the Midwest. In the book, several characters, including Rose Wilder and Lee, head westward to San Francisco. Then this past year, long after I completed the novel, my own family and I ended up moving to the Bay Area.

Laura Ingalls Wilder and her daughter Rose are central figures in Pioneer Girl. When did you first read the “Little House” books? How did they shape you as a reader and a writer?

If the connection between Little House on the Prairie and Asian American identity seems unexpected or unusual, believe me, it isn’t! The Little House books are read all over the world and in the U.S. were (and perhaps are?) often given to immigrants as a kind of introduction to American history. I first read them when I was a kid, starting around age eight, and I couldn’t get enough. I practically memorized them. I identified with Laura, as almost everyone who loves these books does. She and I both felt like outsiders at times; we both enjoyed school; we both harbored rebellious thoughts. Later, as an adult, I read the books again and was struck by their depth of complexity and darkness. I realized, too, that there was a parallel between pioneers and immigrants in the U.S., both moving westward or to the West, both looking for new places to call home. I’m sure the Little House books shaped some of my thinking about the idea (and anxiety) of home, as well as the importance of seasons and food in literature. Food, definitely, for the way it marks necessity and luxury, past and present, hope and desire.

There is an object in your novel that connects Lee’s family with Laura Ingalls Wilder. How did this idea come to you? Is there an object from your family’s past that holds a special meaning?

In one of the Little House books, Laura’s fiancĂ© Almanzo gives her a gold pin as a Christmas gift. In Pioneer Girl, I imagine that the pin is a real object that has perhaps found its way to Lee, who lives with her mother and grandfather in suburban, present-day Chicago. This idea grew out of the fact that Rose Wilder Lane once visited Saigon, in 1965, as a reporter for Woman’s Day. It’s the one actual link I know of between the Ingalls-Wilder history and the history of Vietnam. I couldn’t resist wondering “what if?” What if, while in Saigon, Rose had met a man who turned out to be Lee’s grandfather? What if Rose was wearing a gold pin—her mother’s gold pin—and somehow left it behind? What if Lee’s grandfather and mother brought the pin with them to the United States, not knowing its origins? Because my own family fled Saigon in 1975, we don’t have heirlooms beyond a few photographs and papers. I’ve always wondered what other things got left behind or forgotten.

There are some revelations about Laura Ingalls Wilder in your novel. How much did you already know about her life and what did you discover? What research did you do to find out more?

I read a number of biographical and critical texts about Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane. I also visited The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home in De Smet, South Dakota, where the Ingalls family settled for good in 1879; The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri, where Laura and Almanzo settled and where Rose grew up; and the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa, where the Rose Wilder Lane Papers are kept. In Pioneer Girl, Lee also visits a couple of these places (though I took many liberties in terms of what she did there!). While I knew about Rose’s involvement in the writing of the Little House books, I hadn’t realized that she and Laura had had such a tumultuous relationship.

You portray two complicated and difficult mother/daughter relationships. How did you begin to imagine these relationships? Did they change as you wrote the novel?

I’m not sure if most people know that Rose Wilder heavily edited the Little House books—some even say she co-wrote or ghost-wrote them—and that she had a difficult and codependent relationship with her mother. Their letters to each other are fascinating. I wanted Lee and her mother to be a kind of indirect parallel to Rose and Laura. Both relationships are marked by back and forth squabbling, passive-aggressiveness, and a sense of obligation mixed up with guilt and resentment. Both Lee and Rose owe so much to their mothers yet at the same time often feel trapped by them, bound by expectations. They have benefited from their mothers’ (im)migrations. At the same time, they don’t want to fit the roles their mothers want them to have. I drafted this novel for a good long while before I realized that I was trying to say something about power dynamics in a family. Who gets to shape and set the narrative of a family history?

In your memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, you talk about your experience as an immigrant. What draws you to writing these stories in a fictional setting?

When I write nonfiction, I feel like fiction is easier. When I write fiction, I feel like nonfiction is easier. In nonfiction I tend to do more reflecting, or thinking on the page, often allowing ideas to determine the narrative path. In fiction, I enjoy creating and demanding more trouble and conflict. I like the process of plot: good old-fashioned making things up, figuring out back story, letting characters take off and do what they will. I love the gathering ideas part of the process. Back to food again: I often get ideas while I’m cooking or grocery shopping.

Your characters navigate physical and metaphorical frontiers. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s pioneering journey is well-known. How does Lee’s journey echo Laura’s?

The journey of the immigrant and the journey of the migrant both involve a search for home, yes, but they also involve a sense of displacement. Time and time again the Ingalls family had to acclimate to a new town, new neighbors, new schools. In Pioneer Girl, Lee has a similar experience. Growing up, she and her family moved around the Midwest, running Asian buffet restaurants, always looking for the next best opportunity. At each stop they had to start fresh, every day gauging whether this was the place they really wanted to be. Behind all of this, I think, are questions that I, as an immigrant and child of immigrants, thought about myself when I was growing up in the Midwest: Where are we meant to be? Where do we want to be? Will we know when we get there?

To read my review of Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen, please visit 

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