Beth Nguyen On the Divisions She’ll Never Bridge

Her new memoir, "Owner of a Lonely Heart,” explores the philosophical puzzles of what it is to be a woman, a daughter and a mother.

It took Beth Nguyen over ten years to write (and rewrite) her memoir “Owner of a Lonely Heart.” But it was only a few years ago that Nguyen realized that in the course of her entire life—the parts she remembers—she’s spent less than twenty-four hours with her biological mother. The book became a vehicle for reckoning with the question of why and the divisions she’ll never bridge with her mother owing to the unanswered questions that remain.

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A collage of a book cover and a photograph of a woman
Nguyen’s book offers us possibilities rather than neat conclusions. Courtesy Beth Nguyen

After a rave review of “Owner of a Lonely Heart” appeared in the New York Times, Nguyen is attracting a lot of attention, but she’s already an accomplished author and essayist. Her 2007 memoir, “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” (written under Bich Minh, not Beth) detailed her life in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the 1980s. Her novels include “Short Girls” and “Pioneer Girl,” and she’s received both an American Book Award and a PEN/Jerard Award from the PEN American Center.

Her previous work put her story in the public eye, but to dig into her psyche and unknot her own memories and conflicting perspectives for “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” Nguyen had to exist in a creative bubble. From her home in Wisconsin, she tells me that she wrote with a sense of denial that the work would ever be read by anyone to combat feelings of self-consciousness.

Yet she concedes that it’s likely her children will one day read it to make sense of a past in which they were merely infants.

“My kids are going to experience the pain of recognizing their mother as a person, not just as a mother,” Nguyen says. “I think that’s important.”

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 that’s “easier said than done!” She describes her own writing process as “fraught,” with frequent revisions and rewrites, and she recognizes the need to acknowledge 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 what they think of their childhoods and their mothers,” she tells me. “That’s the biggest thing I learned in writing this: that everything changes based on a shift in perspective.”

What’s in a name?

Over time, her perspective has shifted regarding her birth name and the liberation of choosing the moniker Beth. Born Bich Minh Nguyen to Vietnamese parents, she tried to appease her father’s desire for her to assimilate by taking the name Beth, which she explains at length in an essay for The New Yorker (“America Ruined My Name For Me”).

In it, she wrote: “When my family named me, they didn’t know that we would become refugees eight months later and that I would grow up in Michigan in the nineteen-eighties, in the conservative, mostly white, west side of the state, where girls had names like Jennifer, Amy and Stacy. A name like Bich (pronounced “Bic”) didn’t just make me stand out—it made me miserably visible.”

Of adopting the name Beth, she concludes that her choice may not be permanent: “It just feels like a bit of space, where I can direct how I am seen rather than be directed. I realize that my whole life, I have been waiting 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 being both a daughter to a mother she only meets in adulthood and the daughter of a father who is traumatized by war and struggling to navigate single fatherhood in America (a new, overwhelmingly white world). When Nguyen was 3, her father married the woman that young Beth and her sister would know as their mother. When Nguyen was 10, she learned that her Vietnamese mother had resettled in Boston, and hence she is referred to as “Boston mother.”

Nguyen is a wonderful storyteller, funny and curious about her own experiences and memories. As a reader, I cannot relate to being a refugee nor being raised without knowing the truth of my birth or my mother, but I can relate to the sense of not truly relating to the mother of my birth and the guilt and shame of wondering what fault it is of mine as a daughter that my mother and I don’t have a loving relationship.

Nguyen does not meet her mother in a Hollywood-esque reunion of sobbing and hugs that heal all the wounds of the past. It is ordinary, in the most relatable of 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 it is remains unclear.

“Owner of a Lonely Heart” recounts the handful of visits between mother and daughter that took place over twenty-six years. It is a work that has percolated in Nguyen’s consciousness, a story waiting to be unknotted through words to whatever degree is possible without hearing both sides of the story. Her book is multilayered, questioning not only her own memories but the role of memoir.

“I had a lot of these realizations when I was writing,” she says. “A significant process I went through was thinking of the purpose of writing non-fiction, and the genre of memoir has changed a lot over the last twenty years. The dominant mode two decades ago was confession, rather than what it is now: reflection. Memoir is not a tell-all; it’s 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 consider what was hers to say and what was ethical to include.

“I use ‘I think’ or ‘I remember’ or ‘I don’t remember’ to focus on this being just my perspective and what I remember, and how that could be wrong,” she explains. “I want to acknowledge that I’ve changed my mind.”

Everyone has a mother, and that is the unifying element of her story, Nguyen says, adding that she finds it a great comfort to realize 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 ‘mother’ is so suffused with expectations and cultural norms of what that person should be. Part of reckoning with the notion of motherhood, for Nguyen, was accepting that what she wanted from her biological mother would remain elusive.

“I had to come to terms with the fact that I was never going to get answers to questions,” she says. “I might ask my mother over and over about the day I was born, and what childbirth was like, and she’s never going to give me an answer.”

Far from a heartwarming, self-help guide that ultimately wraps up the philosophical puzzles of what it is to be a woman, a daughter and a mother, Nguyen’s book offers us possibilities. The one constant she’ll admit to is shame. She has not shaken free of it in the writing of her memoir because it’s just not that easy.

“There are so many ways to do everything wrong, which I experience as a mother and experienced as a child,” she says. “I grew up constantly feeling like I would get into trouble. I still feel like I’m going to get into trouble, and I’m not sure how or why. I feel it all the time, and I think that’s connected to shame: Am I being good enough as a mother? As a daughter? I’m definitely not.”

Nguyen recognizes that she ought to be kind to herself, to offer herself grace and forgiveness, but she also acknowledges that Gen X is not a generation of self-kindness but rather a generation of self-hatred, and it’s hard to unlearn—even in the face of the positive attention she has received following the debut of “Owner of a Lonely Heart.”

“The book has been included in lots of lists and reviews, which has been wonderful,” she concludes. “I spent so much time working on it, and people reading it is mind-boggling to me. I feel really moved by it.”

Beth Nguyen On the Divisions She’ll Never Bridge