Beth Nguyen, OWNER OF A LONELY HEART: A Memoir

Beth Nguyen, OWNER OF A LONELY HEART: A Memoir

Zibby interviews author Beth Nguyen about Owner of a Lonely Heart, a powerful memoir of a mother-daughter relationship fragmented by the Vietnam War and resettlement. Beth shares her immigration and refugee story, revealing that her mother did not flee to the United States with the rest of their family and has, since then, spent less than 24 hours with her. Beth also talks about motherhood, baking, writing to make sense of her feelings, teaching MFA students at the University of Wisconsin, the three books she is currently reading, and why she has a giant Keanu Reeves pillow.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Beth. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Owner of a Lonely Heart. Thank you.

Beth Nguyen: Thank you so much for having me here.

Zibby: Can you please tell listeners what this book is about? As I was telling you, I read it several weeks ago. I couldn’t actually wait to dive in. I’ve been so excited about it. Tell everybody all about the book. What made you even write a memoir?

Beth: This book is about a realization I had that over the course of my adult life, I had spent less than twenty-four hours total with my mother. That was the state of our relationship. To have the realization, it was very jarring. I realized that over the course of my adult life, I had spent less than twenty-four hours with my mother. That realization made me think about what it meant to have a relationship with my mother. I didn’t know her when I was growing up. I only met her when I was nineteen. I decided that I needed to trace the hours that I had spent with her. All this happened because my family, we were refugees from Vietnam. When most of us came to the United States at the end of the war in Vietnam, my mother did not. She stayed in Vietnam. There was this huge separation. My sister and I grew up not knowing her, not knowing anything about her. She was this huge silence. It wasn’t until we met her when we were grown-ups and we started talking to each other about it that I realized that this book had to be a memoir. It had to be a way of looking back at the past in order to try to understand who my mother was, what my own relationship with her was all about. What’s my own relationship with being a mother too?

Zibby: You said in the book that you had never really felt like a refugee until you became a mother, right?

Beth: Yeah. That was also a weird realization. I had a lot of realizations while trying to write this book, which took a long time to write. When I was growing up — it’s probably because I grew up in the 1980s. It was a very different time when people just did not talk about refugees in the same way we talk about them now, exactly. I felt a great deal of shame about being a refugee. I tried not to talk about it. I tried to sort of avoid that sense of identity. When I had children, I slowly realized that the identity you have, it shifts all the time. My concept of motherhood was so abstract until I became a mother. Then it made me think about mothers in general and my stepmother and my grandmother and all the mothers that I’ve known in various ways, in various capacities. That made me think about concepts of refugee-ness, what it means to be a refugee. That status was very connected to me in terms of what it means to be a mother and to just inhabit a role for myself that can be somehow separated from what everyone else thinks it looks like or should be.

Zibby: In the book, you detail how your family got to the United States to begin with, what that must have been like, even for your dad. You put yourself in the shoes of everybody before you so that we as the reader kind of understood what that transition was like and all of that and how you didn’t even question that your mom wasn’t there until it was later in life. Okay, so she stayed back. This is what happened. When you first reunited with your mom — I know you identify your stepmom as your mom. You called her biological mother or some other word that I’m forgetting. Tell me what it was like — I know you wrote about it — seeing her again and realizing, what had her life been like? Just all of that stuff.

Beth: The story of how my family got here is so dramatic and strange. I am in awe of it, actually — I didn’t experience it myself because I was a baby — the fact that we literally fled a country and didn’t know where we were going to end up and were in refugee camps and were resettled in Michigan, where I grew up. I had a stepmom. I didn’t meet my biological mother until I was nineteen. She had come to the United States on her own as a refugee. She was a huge source of the unknown when I was growing up because nobody talked about her. We didn’t talk about her because we didn’t talk about difficult subjects back then. We didn’t talk about the war. We didn’t talk about sex. We didn’t talk about anything that might be controversial or make people have feelings. When I finally met her, I was in college. It was not a dramatic story. That’s something I write about in terms of how we have expectations for things like motherhood, reunions, and what we’re supposed to feel like or what it’s supposed to be like. When I met her, it was just sort of ordinary. I kind of realized, oh, I don’t actually know this person. I know that we’re related. I know that she gave birth to me. I know that she’s my mother. I’m her daughter. What does that mean? What does that feel like? I had no road map for that. Writing helped me figure out what it all meant.

Zibby: You had this one very stirring moment where you and your sister were in bed together or cuddling one night or something and quietly saying, do you ever think about her? Wasn’t there something? You barely wanted to even go there. In the dark night, every so often, you would think about it.

Beth: Yeah, when we were really little. My sister is a couple years older than me. We would sometimes sleep in the same bed. Every once in a while, very rarely, we would ask each other, do you think that she’s alive? Who do you think she is? It was a whispered conversation. We knew even as children that we really shouldn’t be talking about this. The grown-ups around us had told us it was an off-limits subject.

Zibby: Wow. It is so interesting what you said even a minute ago about this meeting being ordinary. All of the pressure that we put on certain relationships, it doesn’t always show up. This happens also when you have children. There is this notion that you will immediately fall in love with children and that you’ll be overcome with feeling, just like the way you should feel about your mother, but it doesn’t always happen like that for kids either. There are all these things we’re supposed to feel as mothers and daughters. What if we don’t in any of those realms?

Beth: Exactly. I was so not prepared for the amount of anxiety I was going to feel as a mother about every single thing, constantly thinking about mortality.

Zibby: I know. When people started talking about the concept of postpartum anxiety, I was like, okay, I have sixteen-year-old twins. Am I still postpartum? I’m still in the throes of postpartum anxiety at this point. I never let go of my breath.

Beth: I guess it’s permanent.

Zibby: I think it might be. My mother can’t be walking around with me at age forty-six holding her breath. I’ll tell you that. Your family’s journey here was unlikely and harrowing and all of that. Yet here you go living this ordinary life, regular life, transplanted, in a way. Then you have to make sense of it all now. When you decided to write this book, tell me what that feeling was like and even why at this point in your life you decided to write this book.

Beth: Having this story felt like a secret that wasn’t a secret. I think in a way, that’s what writing is like. Writing is about secrets. It’s about figuring out our secrets. It’s about dealing with that which is concealed and bringing it forward. A person really has to be ready to write all this stuff. It’s maybe not great or healthy to force it. In a way, you can’t force it. You have to be emotionally ready. Who knows when that happens? I had written a memoir almost fifteen years ago now called Stealing Buddha’s Dinner. That was about growing up in Michigan. My mother was a little bit in it, but not really. She was kind of an ancillary subject in that book. It really just took me all these years to figure out how I was going to write about her. Was I ready to do it? What was the narrative path forward? It only happened when I had this understanding that I’ve spent so few hours with her in my life. I had to narrate those hours. This is when I visited her in Boston. This is when I saw her next. It was difficult. It was really hard to recognize my own silence, my own culpability, and then just feeling sort of a sense of guilt and failure, which is something that we feel all the time as mothers, but that sense of, I’m doing things wrong all the time. I didn’t maintain this relationship. I didn’t say the right thing. I’m not being a good enough mother, daughter, refugee, anything. Writing was the only way that I’ve ever known how to make sense of those feelings.

Zibby: Tell me about your non-writing life and how you got here and what you do when you’re not writing and between your memoirs, essentially, and all of that.

Beth: In my non-writing life, I’m teaching writing.

Zibby: So far removed.

Beth: Which I really love doing. I teach creative writing at University of Wisconsin, Madison. I love it. I’ve always loved talking about writing. I’ve loved reading other people’s books. I love that whole engagement. It’s a very different process from being a writer because you get to focus on other people’s work. That’s so much more fun, and doing the research and thinking about other people’s lives. I love reading fiction probably more than any other genre. That’s been my biggest influence. The rest of my life is pretty much focused around books, reading, teaching, my children, and baking. I do a lot of baking as sort of a therapeutic hobby.

Zibby: What do you like to bake?

Beth: I like to bake the most elaborate thing I can think of or that I can attempt, really fussy things, layer cakes with a lot of decoration, tarts or pies with an elaborate kind of crust, homemade gingerbread houses that I have to design and then make the gingerbread and everything. The fussier it is, the more comforting it is for me. I am not exactly sure why, but probably a trauma response.

Zibby: I have that same feeling with websites. I love tinkering around with websites, moving them and building them. Now I want to just start making them for other people, even though my own website is terrible. I sometimes just go in and mess around with individual pages. Time kind of stops. I just move things around and focus. I’m totally in control of it. I think it’s that type of thing.

Beth: That’s it. There’s a lot of specific focus.

Zibby: My maladaptive thing. Wisconsin is enormous. Are your class sizes huge? How does it work? Do you have small seminars? What is the teaching like?

Beth: The creative writing classes are small. I mostly teach grad students. We only accept six MFA students a year. We have a very small, focused program. It’s wonderful. I love my colleagues. I love the students. It’s been good. I didn’t know that I was going to live in the Midwest again. I was in California before this. That was weird. Usually, people who grow up in the Midwest, a lot of times, you’re like, I want to leave and see a different landscape. I did. When I visited Wisconsin, I was like, oh, this is so strange, it feels like home. How could that possibly be that the Midwest feels like home? It just reminds me that, you know what, we’re actually always changing. It’s good to allow ourselves to do that. It’s good to admit that we can change our minds.

Zibby: I love that. I’ve been biting my tongue trying not to ask you why you have a giant Keanu Reeves pillow behind you, but I have to ask now.

Beth: My Zoom background, yes, it is governed by this Keanu Reeves pillow that my friend, the writer Amy Fan, sent me right before lockdown started. It’s sequined and such a fun, wonderful gift. Everyone loves Keanu, right? I thought I would just put him there as my Zoom background and decided that he should never leave because everyone loves Keanu, unless something bad happens and he gets canceled. He’s just going to be there as a lovely, generous, kind figure looking over us. He gives me comfort. Instead of looking at myself — I don’t want to see myself in Zoom. I want to look at Keanu. Who wouldn’t?

Zibby: There you go. You have to find a way to get in touch with him and tell him about all this extra publicity you’re giving to the entire writing community. Who knew? That would be so great. That is how this whole thing has to end. You have to have him on your Zoom.

Beth: Oh, my goodness, that would be one of the greatest things ever to happen in my life.

Zibby: There’s got to be a way.

Beth: Keanu, are you out there? Come to my Zoom. Come to my personal Zoom room.

Zibby: You never know. Somebody listening might have a friend who knows a friend, who has an agent, blah, blah, blah. I think all the actors are striking anyway, aren’t they? They’ll have lots of free time. That’s so funny. When you are busy teaching and then you turn to your own work, can you suspend a critical eye long enough to get the words out, or are you always going over each sentence to perfect it? Do you get it all out? Given that it took ten or fifteen years, maybe it’s the latter, but let me know.

Beth: I’m not usually a slow writer. I think the reason why it took so long for me to write this book was because I wasn’t ready. I was really trying to find my way through. When I had that narrative realization, then the book came together pretty quickly. It’s just that it took me years to get to that realization. Sometimes a book happens that way. Sometimes we do not actually have control over how a book is going to come forward. I would rather be patient and wait for that than just force a narrative that doesn’t actually work. That’s what I was doing for years, was trying to make a narrative that didn’t actually — it wasn’t good. There was nothing to it. It was just sort of all over the place. It took a while to be ready. I work in a very undisciplined way. I work when I have time. I work around my kids. Got really used to that. I work really well on airplanes.

Zibby: Me too. Love that.

Beth: Especially a nice four-hour flight.

Zibby: I know.

Beth: That’s like a mini writing residency.

Zibby: It’s perfect. I love flying to California. It’s the best. I’ve gotten so much done on those flights.

Beth: Yes, so much done. I try to be as harsh with myself as possible when I’m writing. I don’t write in a pretty font. I’m a Times New Roman kind of writer, so I’m not fooling myself too much. I try to write as much as I can just going forward. If I don’t know something, I use a method that I call the TK method where I just say, TK, more information here. I’m just trying to get somewhere. Otherwise, I’ll stop myself and go over the sentence so many times. That’s better done later on in revision.

Zibby: Interesting. I love it. Are you reading anything great now?

Beth: They’re on the shelf. The three books I’m reading right now, one of them is a nonfiction book called To Name the Bigger Lie by Sarah Viren. It’s such a good book. I’m learning so much. That’s a nonfiction book. Then Holding Pattern by Jenny Xie and The Apartment by Ana Menéndez. Those are the three books I’m reading right now.

Zibby: Amazing. You like having a few going at the same time?

Beth: I do, yeah, for different moods.

Zibby: Me too. I like to have a lot going on. Are you going to work on another book? Do you have another book coming?

Beth: You know what? I was working on a novel this past year, but I suddenly started working on another nonfiction book. I don’t know how that happened. Oh, wait a minute, I do know how that happened. It happened because I got divorced. That’s how it happened. I started thinking about definitive relationships in my life. Then I was like, oh, no, I’m writing another nonfiction book. Writing a nonfiction book. Writing a novel. We’ll see what gets finished first.

Zibby: Maybe it’s some sort of blend.

Beth: Autofiction.

Zibby: I’m also divorced. We could talk about that offline. How many kids do you have?

Beth: Two boys.

Zibby: How old are they?

Beth: They are fourteen and almost twelve.

Zibby: Amazing. Yes, it’s fun.

Beth: I say that with some apprehension because everyone else tells me, oh, boy, there’s a lot coming.

Zibby: I know. I always used to freak out about the teenage years, but they don’t just happen out of the blue. I have an eight-year-old still. I’m like, oh, my gosh, he’s going to be a teenager. He’s never going to talk to me again. It’s going to be a whole thing. He’ll be a teenager, and it’ll be just one day after he was the age he was the day before, which is one day after that age. It never happens that fast. Not like it can’t spiral out of control. It’s just one day.

Beth: That is a good attitude. I like that.

Zibby: Otherwise, I get too anxious. Anyway, maybe one of these days, we can clink glasses of Zoloft or something and try to relax about our kids and divorces and writing and all the rest, what it means to be a mom, all of it.

Beth: Oh, wow. When you say it all like that, yeah, okay. Clink glasses of something. That’s for sure.

Zibby: Beth, thank you so much. Thanks. It was so nice to meet you and so fun to chat. Congratulations. Your book was absolutely beautiful.

Beth: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Take care. Bye to Keanu.

Beth: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

OWNER OF A LONELY HEART: A Memoir by Beth Nguyen

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