‘Banyan Moon’ Author Thao Thai On the Stories We Tell Ourselves

The Vietnamese-American debut novelist chatted with Observer about identity, womanhood and the stories we inherit.

Regardless of the mother and daughter in question, mother-daughter relationships are inexplicably complex. Thao Thai’s debut novel, Banyan Moon, explores this in a way that few books (or people) do. Why is it, after all, that some mothers are better grandmothers than mothers?

A collage of a book cover and a woman
‘Banyan Moon’ author Thao Thai. Courtesy HarperCollins

A deeply poignant exploration of motherhood and womanhood, the novel dives deep into the lives of three generations of women from the Vietnamese-American Tran family: the matriarchal Minh, her daughter Hương and granddaughter Ann.

The novel bridges the points of view of its three protagonists following Minh’s death, across time and culture, in a manner that is uniquely Asian—even to me, as an Indian woman. Which is to say, much of what love is or isn’t is held in what is unexpressed and unsaid.

“I love her and I’m impatient with her,” Minh ponders, thinking of her daughter as she awaits her end. “It doesn’t pain me to say that now.” Combined with Vietnamese folktales and set in a gargantuan Gothic house among the Florida swamps, Banyan Moon draws on the idea of the unspoken until its conclusion.

I connected with Thao Thai to discuss her book, and how motherhood changes people. Note: This interview, which was conducted via Zoom, has been edited for clarity.

I hesitate to call it an immigrant novel, I find the term and the genre a little pigeonhole-y, especially in the American context. What are your thoughts—do you feel it’s an “immigrant novel”?

I think it’s a novel with immigrants. But as you say, I think the term ‘immigrant novel’ sometimes forces us to write a certain kind of narrative that is palatable or educational to certain audiences. While I hope that every book I write brings something new into the world and makes others feel seen or enriched, I don’t think it’s my job as a fiction author to educate people on my experience. I also just don’t think that the immigrant experience is a monolith. It’s so complex. Even just the Vietnamese-American experience. I think a lot of Vietnamese Americans won’t see themselves represented in this novel because it won’t mirror what they went through. The job of fiction isn’t necessarily to replicate one’s lived reality, it’s to expand one’s imagination and empathy.

If I had to place it in any category, I would call it a novel of survivors. That’s something that’s resonant not only across the immigrant experience but also across the image and experience of motherhood and womanhood.

I thought it was interesting you chose to tell this story through different viewpoints—the three women of the Tran family. How did that decision come about?

I started this novel from Minh’s perspective. Her voice called to me really strongly, and I had this image of her narrating scenes from beyond the grave. I thought there was something really interesting in the tension between her personality, being sort of controlling and very action-oriented, and having her be forced to be passive for once—to be an observer instead of a main character.

As I got more into it, I realized that the interiority of all these characters would be the thing that would make this book work, because it is so much about the stories we tell ourselves and how one specific incident can look so different when it’s refracted through these perspectives. To give that sense of multiplicity and the shifting viewpoints, I needed to get in the heads of Minh and Hương, and the book became sort of a symphony of voices because I really wanted to honor the individuality of each experience.

Was it at all important for you for the characters to be likable because they’re women of color? Did you give that any thought, or did it just work out that way?

I gave it thought in the sense that I knew that would be something people would talk about. A lot of people have mentioned that they despise or detest Ann–which is a very strong reaction, but not a completely unexpected one. I think there is such an emphasis on creating characters who are palatable when we’re writing women of color especially, and I wanted to resist that because I didn’t want them to feel flat.

For example, the narrative of sacrifice is so heavy in the narratives of immigrant mothers—I wanted to find a way to subvert that or challenge that or complicate that—because these women are so seized by their own desires and their ambitions. I think that’s just part of encountering people that feel real, you know, the fact that you have a reaction to a character is probably because they are authentic enough to provoke a reaction inside of you. That’s a compliment in itself.

America’s a very colonizing presence globally—especially from a cultural perspective. We get a unique taste of this with the scenes set in Vietnam; the war there is called the “American War” rather than the Vietnam War, and American soldiers are vague ghostly figures in the background while the war plays out, rather than heroes. Was this an important distinction for you to make?

My family never referred to it as the American war, but I know in common parlance, within Vietnam, it’s sometimes referred to that way. I think a lot of the [English] narratives we have been given about the Vietnam War, [have] been through the lens of white men who have fought in the war and brought their stories back. [While] there’s probably a lot of truth in that experience, it wasn’t the experience that I grew up with. My grandparents and my mom went through a lot [during the war]. And I felt like there wasn’t a space for their stories at the time when I was young and coming of age.

When I did learn about the Vietnam War in school, it was different than what I had learned from a firsthand perspective from my parents. I think two truths can exist, but the idea of creating an overly heroic portrayal, or an overly one-sided portrayal, really does a disservice to history. So much of history written in English is from the white perspective and as valuable as that can be, I wanted to give a different sort of lens in this book.

If I had to, I’d describe these three characters as (essentially) single independent Vietnamese women—do you agree? Was this something you saw a lot of in real life, or in books you read growing up?

I was raised by a single mother, and my grandmother’s mother (my great-grandmother) was a single mother. I’ve definitely had a lot of models of very strong women throughout my life. The one thread they have in common is they have this instinct to survive. A lot of decisions, not just for single women, but all women, are very fraught–you have a lot of judgment in a world that doesn’t make space for your story or turns your story into a cliché or a stereotype. Having had those firsthand encounters and experiences, I was able to understand the things that drive single mothers, not only in terms of their ambitions for themselves but also for their children.

This book spells out something I think we see a lot in Asian families, where things are thought but never said and love is shown through small gestures. In fact, there’s this whole FB group called Subtle Asian Traits where people bond over the ways in which their stoic Asian parents show love. Talk to me about this and perhaps intergenerational trauma in women?

I think a lot of people believe that motherhood shuts off possibilities to you, but motherhood expanded my notion of creativity. I got my creative writing degree, an MFA in fiction and nonfiction, and then I didn’t write for a decade. Then I had a daughter and all of a sudden, all the stories that we’re inside, we’re just kind of bubbling to the surface. Motherhood really changed my sense of empathy. I was able to look at my own mother with more curiosity, I think, because I was going through a lot of the things she went through, but in a very different context. 

Oftentimes, I think that the best fiction comes from a place of questioning and obsession: what is it that you are driven to think about off and on the page.

Motherhood and this [idea] of an ancestral matrilineal line became one of my obsessions when I had my daughter. I couldn’t stop thinking about the things I was passing on to her in terms of physical inheritances, as well as the more ephemeral things like: What burdens am I passing on to her? What joy is what sense of ancestral pride am I instilling in her? This richness of questions opened a new terrain that I was really eager to explore, and Banyan Moon came out of that.

I read about how Banyan Moon came to be some years after you gave birth to your daughter. Has motherhood changed how you write? Or how you read?

What I wanted to underline in Banyan Moon is that love is not a uniform expression. I grew up in the sitcom era, so I was seeing these representations of love that were very different from the ones I experienced growing up. So, you’d see mothers sitting on these bunk beds with their kids having these talks about boys, or whatever they were going through—and this idea of radical openness and intimacy was seen as like the epitome of mother-daughter relationships, a kind of Gilmore Girls model. I don’t think that there’s this sort of universality and expression, especially among different cultures.

A lot of Asian American parents will express a sense of pride, but it’s not always completely visible to the kids. There’s this gulf of expression, but it is still very much there. When I was helping my mother clean out her storage facility, I noticed that she had these boxes full of my illustrations from when I was a kid—these really badly drawn or probably traced cards that I would make her—they’re now like 40 years old. And there was just this sense of love in what she chose to preserve, yet that was never expressed. I think that there is a very kind of fragile beauty in that. I don’t think I can make a value judgment on which way is best, but I wanted to underline that there were many ways to love.

‘Banyan Moon’ Author Thao Thai On the Stories We Tell Ourselves