Q&A: Bich Minh Nguyen

Q&ABMN-authorpicBich Minh Nguyen often goes by the name Beth. She is the author of three books, all with Viking Penguin. Short Girls, a novel, was an American Book Award winner in fiction and a Library Journal best book of the year. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, a memoir, received the PEN/Jerard Award from the PEN American Center and was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner has been featured as a common read selection within numerous communities and universities. Nguyen’s work has also appeared in publications including The New York Times and the FOUND Magazine anthology. Her most recent novel is Pioneer Girl. She is at work on a series of essays.

Her latest book

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Title: Pioneer Girl
Author: Bich Minh Nguyen
Genre: Adult Fiction, Historical Fiction, Contemporary,
Mystery, Family, Literature
Pulication Date: February 6, 2014; January 27, 2015
Publisher: Viking Adult; Penguin Group

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About the book:

From an award-winning author, a novel about a Vietnamese American family’s ties to The Little House on the Prairie

Jobless with a PhD, Lee Lien returns home to her Chicago suburb from grad school, only to findherself contending with issues she’s evaded since college. But when her brother disappears, heleaves behind an object from their mother’s Vietnam past that stirs up a forgotten childhood dream: a gold-leaf brooch, abandoned by an American reporter in Saigon back in 1965, that mightbe an heirloom belonging to Laura Ingalls Wilder. As Lee explores the tenuous facts of this connection, she unearths more than expected—a trail of clues and enticements that lead her from the dusty stacks of library archives to hilarious prairie life reenactments and ultimately to San Francisco, where her findings will transform strangers’ lives as well as her own.

A dazzling literary mystery about the true origins of a time-tested classic, Pioneer Girl is also the deeply moving tale of a second-generation Vietnamese daughter, the parents she struggles to honor, the missing brother she is expected to bring home—even as her discoveries yield dramatic insights that will free her to live her own life to its full potential.


Question & Answer

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. 

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 fiancé 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.

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?

That’s it, folks! If you’ve reached this point, I thank you so much! Penguin is releasing Pioneer Girl on the 27th and I may be hosting a giveaway one of these days so stay tuned! 😉 

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