Owner of a Lonely Heart: A Memoir
Beth Nguyen’s second memoir, Owner of a Lonely Heart, revolves around a story that is still “uncomfortably dramatic” for her to tell in real life. When Nguyen’s family flees Saigon a day before the war in Vietnam ended, Nguyen’s mother stays, or is left, behind. In the aftermath, Nguyen spends the eighties growing up in a mostly white town in Michigan, where her given name Bich, and her multigenerational household that consisted of family members both biological and not, were unconventional for the area. Safety is found in silence, in not provoking her father’s anger or longing for people and places she cannot remember.
Nguyen’s mother eventually relocates to Boston, where she and Nguyen are reunited for the first time, after Nguyen’s sophomore year of college. Since then, they have spent less than twenty-four hours together, in meetings that rarely delve below surface-level questions. Nguyen feels much more guilty about the physical and emotional distance than her sister, who believes that families are made, rather than given.
There are no scripts for what they owe their mother, and as Nguyen attempts to write new ones, she must also grapple with the rigid society she grew up in, her new identity as a mother of two, and the changes that came “too late” for “the one and a half generation of people who were born in one country but raised in another.” The result is a probing and generous book about the ways that “a historical body of violence; a systemic violence” inserts itself into refugee families and lingers.
For Nguyen, the words “refugee” and “mother” are “both weighty constructs, infused with assumptions.” Throughout the book, she describes familial circumstances in straightforward prose, before quickly noting or addressing the disproportionate reactions of her peers and assumed readers. When she tells a boyfriend that her family doesn’t say “I love you,” he describes them as “borderline abusive.” She confesses that there were years when she forgot her mother’s full name, although people still defaulted to “I’m sorry” when she told them the story of her mother.
While there are many parts of her history she is still trying to understand, it is people’s reactions to the “unconventional” that have forced her to code-switch and regulate herself, to the point where partners have described her as “withholding.” When a high school classmate laughs about Nguyen’s father running after her with a stick, Nguyen deflects the incident with a joke. She learns to cover for herself, creating a layer of protection so she won’t “be made to explain this life to anyone who didn’t already know it.”
As a second-generation Vietnamese American, I’ve experienced a version of the same “colonizing curiosity” when white people learn of my families’ extended relationships, many of which are difficult to name in English (cousins who are actually secret wives, second cousins who are more like general aunts, coworkers who are like family, etc.). Other writers usually ask if I will write a book about it, not because I’ve expressed any interest in doing so but because many refugee and immigrant family relations fall outside of normative, American scripts. Unlike Nguyen, however, I benefit from being born into an era where we have the privilege of arguing about corny diaspora poets online, instead of spending my time bargaining with people to pronounce my name correctly.
It is remarkable how quickly circumstances can change from generation to generation, which Nguyen’s father notes when she searches for an answer to something child-related on her phone—“I wish we had Google when you guys were little. There was so much we didn’t know back then.” Nguyen’s niece, a second-generation American, lives in a “different reality,” angry at Nguyen and her family for staying away, while Nguyen’s kids easily accept that they have a new “Boston grandma” in addition to their “Michigan grandma.” As a self-described Gen X woman of color, Nguyen simply states, “I grew up hating myself because that’s what we did back then.” Nguyen is careful to account for every character’s reality, never forcing a narrative where one doesn’t already exist.
Nguyen herself writes of existing in multiple consciousnesses, being trapped in double binds and fearful of intruding in spaces that are not hers. After years of her given Vietnamese name, Bich, making her “miserably visible,” she ultimately changes it to Beth to be free from the American gaze. Growing up in a state of refugeetude, where lives are shaped on “someone else’s terms,” taking control of how she is seen becomes a radical act, permission to have “a bit of space” all her own.
Nguyen is a confident and reliable protagonist even when running up against painful memories, providing readers with enough distance as to almost be objective. She notes that in America, the word “hero” denotes something good and powerful, “but anyone who studies literature knows that heroes are complicated figures who often create their own suffering and tragedy.” If everyone is the hero of their own life, Nguyen has made a journey of facing her origins and contending with the limitations of American narratives, and we are lucky to be invited along the way.