It took Beth Nguyen more than a decade to write (and rewrite) her memoirPossessor of a lonely heart.” But it wasn’t until a few years ago that Nguyen realized that over the course of her entire life—the parts she remembers—she spent less than twenty-four hours with her birth mother. The book became a means of considering why and the division she will never bridge with her mother because of the unanswered questions that remain.
After a rave review of “Owner of a Lonely Heart” appeared in the New York Times, Nguyen attracts a lot of attention, but she is already an accomplished author and essayist. Her 2007 memoir, “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” (written under Bich Minh, not Beth) chronicled her life in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the 1980s. Her novels include Short Girls and Pioneer Girl, and she has received both an American Book Award and a PEN/Jerard Award from the PEN American Center.
Her previous work brought her story to the public’s attention, but to dig into her psyche and untie her own memories and conflicting perspectives for “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” Nguyen had to live in a creative bubble. From her home in Wisconsin, she tells me she wrote with a sense of denial that the work would ever be read by anyone to combat feelings of self-consciousness.
Still, she admits it’s likely her kids will one day read it to understand a past where they were just babies.
“My children will experience the pain of recognizing their mother as a person, not just a mother,” says Nguyen. “That’s important to me.”
That doesn’t make it any easier to put pen to paper. As a professor at Wisconsin-Madison University, Nguyen encourages her creative writing students to write for themselves first, but she admits it’s “easier said than done!” She describes her own writing process as “fraught,” with frequent revisions and rewrites, and she recognizes the need to recognize that readers will engage with her work.
“I would like people to use this book to rethink their relationship with their memories, how they grew up, the past, and how they feel about their childhood and their mothers,” she tells me. “That’s the most important thing I’ve learned writing this: that everything changes based on a shift in perspective.”
What’s in a name?
Over time, her perspective has changed regarding her birth name and the liberation of choosing the nickname Beth. Born Bich Minh Nguyen to Vietnamese parents, she tried to satisfy her father’s desire for assimilation by taking the name Beth, which she explains at length in an essay for The New Yorkers (“America ruined my name for me”).
In it she wrote: “When my family called me, they didn’t know that eight months later we would become refugees and that I would grow up in Michigan in the 1980s, in the conservative, mostly white, west side of the state, where girls had names as Jennifer, Amy and Stacy. A name like Bich (pronounced “Bic”) not only made me stand out, it made me look miserable.”
By taking the name Beth, she concludes that her choice may not be permanent: “It just feels like a piece of space, where I can control how I’m seen instead of being directed. I realize I’ve been waiting my whole life for some kind of permission – my own permission – to be this person.
It is the name Beth that Nguyen has attached to ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’, in which she tells the story of both being a daughter of a mother she does not meet until adulthood and the daughter of a father traumatized by war and struggles to navigate single fatherhood in America (a new, overwhelmingly white world). When Nguyen was 3, her father married the woman young Beth and her sister would know as their mother. When Nguyen was 10, she learned that her Vietnamese mother had settled in Boston, which is why she is referred to as “Boston Mother.”
Nguyen is a great storyteller, funny and curious about her own experiences and memories. As a reader, I can’t relate to being a refugee or raised without knowing the truth of my birth or my mother, but I can relate to feeling disconnected from the mother of my birth and the guilt and shame of wondering what it is my fault as a daughter that my mother and I don’t have a loving relationship.
Nguyen doesn’t meet her mother in a Hollywood-esque reunion of sobs and hugs that heal all the wounds of the past. It just is, in the most relatable ways.
Nguyen’s book is a reflection
Towards the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, when Beth Nguyen was eight months old, she and her father, sister, grandmother and uncles fled Saigon for America. Her mother stayed or was left behind – which is unclear.
“Owner of a Lonely Heart” tells of the handful of visits between mother and daughter that took place over twenty-six years. It’s a work that has seeped into Nguyen’s consciousness, a story waiting to be deciphered by words to any degree without hearing both sides of the story. Her book is layered and questions not only her own memories, but also the role of memoirs.
“I had a lot of these realizations when I was writing,” she says. “An important process I went through was thinking about the purpose of writing non-fiction, and the genre of memoirs has changed a lot over the past two decades. The dominant mode two decades ago was confession, rather than what it is today: reflection. Memoir doesn’t tell the whole story; it is a careful reflection on the past.”
The subjectivity of memory, Nguyen continues, is a big part of her book. In writing this story, she had to think about what to say and what was ethical to include.
“I use ‘I think’ or ‘I remember’ or ‘I don’t remember’ to focus on the fact that this is just my perspective and what I remember, and how that could be wrong,” she explains. “I want to acknowledge that I have changed my mind.”
Everyone has a mother, and that’s the unifying element of her story, says Nguyen, adding that she takes great comfort in realizing that it’s more common than not to have a complicated relationship with the concept of motherhood. We all have mothers in our lives, whether biological or symbolic, and the idea of ”mom” is so infused with expectations and cultural norms of what that person should be. Part of coming to terms with the idea of motherhood, for Nguyen, was accepting that what she wanted from her biological mother would remain elusive.
“I had to accept that I would never get answers to questions,” she says. “I could ask my mom over and over about the day I was born, and what the delivery was like, and she’ll never give me an answer.”
Far from a heartwarming self-help guide that finally solves the philosophical puzzles of what it is to be a wife, a daughter, and a mother, Nguyen’s book offers us possibilities. The one constant she will admit is shame. She hasn’t shaken herself off of it when writing her memoirs, because it’s just not that easy.
“There are so many ways to do everything wrong, which I experienced as a mother and as a child,” she says. “I grew up constantly feeling like I was going to get in trouble. I still feel like I’m going to get in trouble, and I’m not sure how or why. I feel it all the time, and I think that’s related to shame: Am I good enough as a mother? As a daughter? I am certainly not.”
Nguyen recognizes that she needs to be kind to herself, give herself grace and forgiveness, but she also recognizes that Generation X is not a generation of self-kindness, but rather a generation of self-loathing, and it’s hard to unlearn – even in the face of the positive attention she’s received following the debut of ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’.
“The book has been included in many lists and reviews, which has been great,” she concludes. “I’ve spent so much time on it, and people reading it are baffling to me. I feel really touched by it.”