“There are seven billion people on earth. Every single person is alive because someone before them somehow managed to live through the horrible reality through each generation.” Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books guest host Julianna Goldman is joined by E.M. Tran to talk about her debut novel, Daughters of the New Year. The two discuss the influence E.M.’s family had on the story, why she wanted to center mother-daughter relationships, and what it was like to research the Vietnam Civil War. E.M. also shares why she decided to write this book backward in time and how Phoebe Bridgers played a huge role in her writing process.


Julianna Goldman: E.M. Tran, thank you so much for being here to discuss your amazing novel, Daughters of the New Year.

E.M. Tran: No problem. Thanks for having me.

Julianna: I have to say that I loved reading your book. Part of it is, I come from a family of three girls. We have a very complicated relationship with our mother. We had one with our grandmother. My grandmother was first generation. Have always been so fascinated by linage and just the relationships between women and what stays the same, what doesn’t. I would love for you to tell us about Daughters of the New Year and what this book means to you.

E.M.: Wow, thank you so much for that compliment. It really means a lot, especially because I made a very conscious decision to focus on the women in this family. There is a father figure, but he’s kind of off to the side. It really is revolving around the mother and the relationship between three sisters. Then as you go farther back, it’s almost like men disappear entirely from the narrative, which was intentional because I really wanted to center women’s narratives, so I really appreciate that. For me, this book, it’s fictional, but I also came from a family that was very women centered. I have two older sisters. My dad was always at work. My mom was at the house a lot. Writing this book was a love story to all of the women in my life and how complicated it can be, especially growing up in a first-generation immigrant household. It’s as much about immigrant narratives as it is about the different places or the roles that we think we have to fulfill as different members of the family. There’s all these stereotypes about the oldest daughter, the youngest daughter, the middle child. Jan Brady is the ultimate middle child. I was really interested in exploring those themes. I feel like women are so complex and wonderful and nuanced. I really wanted to write about that. That’s what I set out to do in Daughters of the New Year.

Julianna: I love how it starts. You write that this all kind of started with a trophy. Tell us about that.

E.M.: Yes. Xuan Trung is the mother figure in the beginning of this book. She won a beauty pageant in Vietnam, which she tells her children about all the time. There’s this trophy that sits in the living room. It’s this mysterious object. It’s a plastic trophy that she spray-paints and makes as an imitation of the trophy that she had won for this beauty pageant in the 1970s. It’s kind of mysterious. The kids don’t really know that much about the pageant. They’re really not that interested. As you go farther back in time, because the narrative moves backwards, you learn about some of Xuan’s secrets. Maybe secrets is too strong of a word. It’s just stories that she didn’t tell her kids because maybe they were too traumatizing or she wants to keep something for herself. There’s all these different reasons why she doesn’t tell her kids. That’s very common with immigrant narratives and also immigrant experiences. We often have that chasm between the first generation and the immigrant generation. I was trying to create that. The trophy is really this symbol for beauty, for loss, for spectacle. It’s based on a real trophy in my own life. My own mother was a beauty queen in Vietnam. When I was younger, I didn’t care about the beauty pageant. Then when I got older, I was like, wait, this is kind of a weird thing that mom was a part of and that I don’t know anything about. We have this gigantic solid-silver trophy in the piano room. The more I dug into that personal narrative, the more I was interested in putting that in the fictionalized one as well.

Julianna: It’s so true. You grow up, and there are just certain things that you might see in your home that you don’t think anything of. Then someone else walks in, and they see it. It’s like, oh, what is this? It’s not until you get older that you can kind of become this outsider observer in your own life and your own upbringing.

E.M.: Absolutely. I thought it was normal. Then it actually wasn’t until I had gone to grad school and I had to write a personal essay about something. I was like, I guess I’ll write about this trophy. Then I started trying to write about it. I was like, I actually don’t know anything about this trophy. That’s kind of embarrassing because it’s this giant object in our home that is really weird. You’re totally right. Then when I brought the essay to the other writers in my workshop, they were like, what? Totally true.

Julianna: I love how you write, “What happens when we have the ability to go back, uncover a truth that is, in reality, forever obscured? What would we discover? How often does history repeat itself without our knowing, the same pain and joy experienced again and again?” That passage in particular just gave me such goosebumps. You think that you’re charting your own path, but some of the currents of our past just run through our blood no matter how hard we try.

E.M.: I was thinking about generations. The scope of the book is very large. I was just thinking, all of us are here now because someone in our past survived. There’s seven billion people on earth. Every single person is alive because someone before them somehow managed to live through the horrible reality through each generation. We all go through traumatic things. I was just thinking, that is massive. We forget. Sure, we remember our mother’s and our father’s lives, maybe, and to a very limited extent. Maybe we know our grandparents. Maybe we know a little bit about our great-grandparents. You really can’t go much farther beyond that. Most people don’t know about their great-great-great-grandparents. People get forgotten, but that doesn’t mean that what they went through or what they experienced — it’s just seemed, to me, so interesting. Probably, we all go through the same things over and over again. We just don’t know. It’s possible that it happens over and over and over again. We just keep forgetting because each generation begets another generation, begets another one. I think that our memories are very short as human beings. Part of my project of the book was interested in going back far enough to think about, what things happened over and over again? There’s a lot of repetition and a lot of cycling that happens in the narrative.

Julianna: It’s so powerful. I love how you go backwards and also tell that narrative through the voices of the different characters through their voices from older to younger. They kind of start with more perspective. Then as you go backwards, it’s sort of their core selves.

E.M.: What’s interesting, too, is that the younger they get, they slowly fade away. They kind of disappear. We start moving into the perspectives of the older generations. It’s a reversal. We often forget about the people that are before us. We also are very focused on the individual always moving forward. I think it’s very particularly Western and very American, this idea that the individual is always growing, always moving forward. We’re always thinking about the future. It’s very focused on the I. I wanted to destabilize that and decenter that and think about, what happens when, actually, we go backwards? When people associate with going backwards, they think about regression, but that’s not necessarily true. There’s so much that happens in the past that isn’t regressive and is actually very similar to what the characters in the present, which I have then turned into the past, go through. I was interested in subverting that and really turning it on top of itself.

Julianna: This is such a tribute to your family, to your lineage, and to the women who came before you. How did you do that research? I know you say that a lot is forgotten to history and a lot is fictionalized. Tell us about your process.

E.M.: I did a lot of reading and research on colonial Vietnam, on the rubber plantation. I just started looking up different things about living life in Vietnam during the colonial period, during Indochina. One of the things that I found was, particularly for the social elite, I found that they hung out at a place called the Cercle Sportif, which is a recreational club. I would find things like that. Then I would do research on it. Then I would include it in the book. There’s the Cercle Sportif in the book. Then there’s also the Buddhist monk that burns himself. I did a lot of research into that. What’s really fascinating about a lot of this historical research was that because the Vietnam Civil War happened in the sixties and seventies, a lot is televised. A lot of it is on tape. You can look up video and audio of the Buddhist monk burning himself. A lot of my research was that, just going through news articles from The New York Times — they had a lot of the archives up — and going through videos and things like that and getting a feel for what it was like to be alive from that time.

The really difficult part was thinking about it not from an American perspective, but trying to imagine what it would be like to be a Vietnamese person in Vietnam during a civil war. That was really hard. I found, actually, that it was easier, in a way, to write the second half, the things that I had really made up going farther and farther back in time, than it was to write the stuff closer to the present day because some of that felt like I had to purposefully remove the autobiography from it so that it was more interesting. I feel like sometimes our tendency, at least for me, is when I’m writing, a lot of it is based in experience. Then I feel really attached to the experience, so I don’t do what’s best for the writing. I’m like, but this is what really happened. It actually doesn’t really matter because it’s fictional. I found that the second half, stuff with the research and all of the listening to audio clips and newspaper stuff, was freeing also, in a way, because I could really imagine outside of my own experience.

Julianna: Did you sit down with your mom and have longer conversations about her upbringing? What was that like?

E.M.: Actually, my mother is very guarded with her stories. That’s partially what the book is about. It’s about not being able to talk to your parents about things. I did actually try to ask my mother about some of her experiences. She didn’t really want to talk about them. She was a part of the social elite in Vietnam. She was a beauty pageant queen. She went to a lot of balls. I tried to ask her about going to these balls because I was so interested in the exclusivity of that particular social class in Vietnam. It’s so interesting to me. They’re in a kind of weird liminal space because they’re Vietnamese. They’re not white French, European, but they’re still very wealthy. I wanted to know about it. I asked her about going to balls. I asked her if she’d gone to the Cercle Sportif Ball at the recreational club. She was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve been to so many balls.” I was like, “What about them, though?” She was like, “I don’t remember. I went to so many.” She was very guarded. It’s very difficult for her to talk about it.

Julianna: Why do you feel like it’s so difficult for her?

E.M.: I just think that it was a very traumatizing time for her. I think to revisit it, even the fun parts or the joyful parts of her childhood bring up something that — it’s painful still because it’s a past that she doesn’t have access to anymore.

Julianna: Has she read the book?

E.M.: She has not read the book.

Julianna: Does she plan to?

E.M.: I don’t know. I’m giving her a copy. I hope she reads it, but she’s not a big reader. I think part of that is also the language gap. The thing that she mostly reads is horoscopes in her horoscope almanac. I hope that she reads it. She’s going to have a copy. I did give her the essay that I wrote about the trophy. She read it. She was like, “Yeah, sounds good.”

Julianna: Wow. Mom.

E.M.: I’m like, Mom, tell me more, please.

Julianna: Anything else.

E.M.: She’s very, very, very guarded with her stories. I think that it’s probably because she’s been through a lot. I think probably especially nostalgia for times gone past are really, really hard for her. The person that I did actually get a lot of stories from was my dad, who was also a writer. When he found out that I was a writer, he was like, “Let me tell you about all my stories.” He was very generous with those.

Julianna: That’s neat. The book still tells the story through women, but your dad was also instrumental in helping craft that narrative.

E.M.: Definitely. He’s not the of the book, but he is a very complex man who was very much a masculine — I think that Vietnamese culture really prizes the first son and the masculine archetype of the Vietnamese man. He was the firstborn son in his family, and you can definitely tell. He had a lot of confidence. He just did things in his life that could only be born of the confidence from someone who had been celebrated his whole life by his family. He’s a very interesting person. He was very funny because when I wrote that essay about the trophy and then when I was writing this book about mothers and daughters, my dad was like, “When are you going to write a story about dads?” I was like, calm down.

Julianna: This is only a debut novel, Dad.

E.M.: There will be more.

Julianna: Your Twitter profile says that you are a writer, Gilmore Girls and Kardashian expert. I’d love to unpack this. I do love the way, through the book, you weave in pop culture, but reality TV in particular, so whether it’s the beauty contest or The Bachelor. Tell us about that.

E.M.: Oh, my god, I love reality television. Actually, the amount of reality television that I watch is disgusting. I’m sure people are like, when does she write? She’s watching reality television all the time.

Julianna: When do you write? How do you divvy up the time?

E.M.: I write in bursts. Some writers wake up at dawn. They’re writing every day. I’m not that person. I actually think it is good for those writers. I actually really envy them. I also think that that kind of belief that you have to do that is sometimes damaging because there are so many people who don’t have the time to do that. Moms, for example, don’t have time to just, every single day, consistently write. Sometimes they have to write at naptime or whenever. That’s not me. I’m not a mom. I have to write between my reality television binges. I write in bursts, and usually at night. I’ll watch reality television whenever it airs.

Julianna: Do you watch it live? Do you binge it?

E.M.: I’m a recorder. I’m a person who records. Although, I will say it is much more fun to watch something live because then you feel like you’re a part of this communal thing. All these other people are watching it. If you watch something like The Voice live, it’s way more fun because you can do voting. They have an app. Yes, I’ve downloaded the app. You can say who you like. I watch a lot of The Bachelor. Although, it has felt like more of a job than a joy lately because there’s so much content. I just love it because it’s so ridiculous. If you went back fifty years or a hundred years and you were like, one day, there is going to be a show called The Biggest Loser — it’s called The Biggest Loser, right? The one about weight loss.

Julianna: I think so.

E.M.: There’s a show called The Biggest Loser where — there’s a show where this woman goes on, and she makes out with thirty men and then finds a partner from that. They would be like, no, there’s not. That’s ridiculous. I love the over-the-top ridiculousness, the gall to have a show like that. I was going to say that I love the spectacle of it. I always think about the people that are on the show. What is their motivation for being on the show? Why put yourself through this agony, this scrutiny? I love thinking about each person’s motivation on a show like that. It’s a situation that’s potential for such conflict, and rife. I thought, why not include it in a book? You would be crazy not to.

Julianna: It was also some of the funnier and lighter moments of the book. I loved a lot of the interactions and when the bachelor was like — I just loved the way you poke fun at it. I wouldn’t say you poke fun at it because you’re a consumer. You love it. You highlight some of the silliness and absurdity of it.

E.M.: I think it’s fair to say that I poke fun at it. I can definitely make fun of the fact that I am a consumer of this ridiculous thing. I also think that people judge reality television for being trash TV. Yes, it is, but the way that it’s constructed is also a kind of art. There are many narratives in a show like The Bachelor that come from just raw material, hours and hours of footage that would otherwise be nothing. They’re just creating storylines from nothingness. The Kardashians, too, is a really great example of that where they’re just living their lives. Kendall’s just cutting a cucumber, and they make a story out of it.

Julianna: Thank god.

E.M.: It’s incredible. I do sometimes watch it for, okay, let me see the artfulness here and figure out what they’re doing. I do watch it for that as well.

Julianna: I also just want to let everyone know — people are listening to this, but I feel like it’s okay for you to speak very confidently about this passion of yours because behind you right now, you have about two hundred books on your book wall. It’s not like it is sacrificing your time writing or reading either.

E.M.: Yes. There’s so much snobbery with genre and medium. If we think about someone like Charles Dickens, who wrote serialized novels, that was considered the equivalent of trash TV. You got it in the mail. You consumed it. It was this little bit of joy. It was considered just throwaway. You’d literally throw it in the trash afterwards. Shakespeare too. There are farts jokes in Shakespeare. Fast-forward a couple hundred years, and people are like, this is high art. I think that there’s something worth interrogating about ourselves whenever we say that something is trash. We don’t have to consider it trash just because it’s enjoyable. I think also, it’s sometimes conflated with, women’s books or women’s television is often considered trash. Again, interrogate that. Why? Why do you consider it trash?

Julianna: I’d love you to do a time capsule. We’ll see if in several hundred years Keeping Up with the Kardashians is likened to Hamlet or Othello.

E.M.: The book is about generations.

Julianna: Real quick, Phoebe Bridgers, you had on repeat while you wrote your book.

E.M.: Yes. Oh, my god, I love her. Normally, I write in complete silence. I need to be alone. I need no sounds. Sometimes my husband will come in and be like, “Do you want water?” He’s trying to be nice. I’m like, “Leave me alone!”

Julianna: Get out.

E.M.: He’s being super nice. I’m like, “I need silence.” It was odd that I was listening to music at all while I was writing. Writing a book is such an enormous endeavor. It’s so time-consuming. You spend hours and hours just slaving away trying to wrench the words from yourself. I think that because I spent so long on it, I was like, I need to change it up. I need to listen to something, maybe some ambience, something that’s unobtrusive. I don’t know how I happened upon Phoebe Bridgers. I think I randomly found her on Spotify and just started playing her music and was like, oh, this is kind of relaxing. I started off just having it very, very low. The song was on volume one. Then I started recognizing some of the songs subconsciously. I was really drawn to “Garden Song.” There’s this one line in the song that’s like, “The doctor said that my resentment’s getting smaller.” He feels her liver, her kidney, or something, some organ, and says that her resentment’s getting smaller. I remember hearing that line and thinking, that’s really quite artful. Then I started turning the music up a little bit higher and listening to the song. Then I just started repeating “Garden Song” over and over again. It turned into this whole thing where I had to have “Garden Song” on while I was writing. Actually, one of the chapters towards the end of the book, one of the ancestors is digging in the garden and finds an object in the dirt and then has her first period. I was like, I have to write an homage chapter to “Garden Song” and Phoebe Bridgers. That’s what that chapter’s about, really.

Julianna: I love that.

E.M.: I feel so indebted to Phoebe, so I had to do something.

Julianna: Phoebe Bridgers, if you’re listening.

E.M.: Please, come here and hang out with me. I love you.

Julianna: I’ll come over for that too.

E.M.: I’ll be like, hey, um, Phoebe’s here.

Julianna: E.M. Tran, what’s next for you? Where can we find you? If listeners want to learn more about you and your writing, where do we go?

E.M.: I have a website, elizabethmtran.com. I usually post my publications there on one of my pages. I update my events there. I’m doing a bunch of events this fall. I’m going all over the place. I’m actually going to Virginia and New York and Texas. I’ll be all over the place if you want to see me read. Going forward, I’ll be working on my next novel. It is about sorority women in the South. It is based in a fictional town in Northern Louisiana near some Indian mounds, a real place called Poverty Point. I’ll be working on that novel.

Julianna: Fascinating. I can’t wait for it to come out and to read that. In the meantime, E.M. Tran, Daughters of the New Year, congratulations on this amazing debut novel. Definitely, definitely recommended with a hot cup of tea.

E.M.: Thanks for having me.

Julianna: Thank you so much.


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