A few years ago Bich Nguyen had a remarkable debut as a writer. Her memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner–which was, among other things, her story about growing up as a Vietnamese immigrant in Grand Rapids–won some big national awards and was chosen as one of the first state-wide “Michigan Reads” books. In that book, the author’s childhood attraction to the worst of American fast food, and her rejection of her grandmother’s traditional Vietnamese cooking, became the metaphor for Nguyen’s childhood effort to make an American identity, to fit in.
In her debut novel, Short Girls, published a few years later, the height of the two protagonists, two sisters separated by temperament and ambition, is the ethnic marker that was their distinguishing characteristic, if race and racism were ignored. Van and Linh (Americanized to “Linny”) grow up in Grand Rapids. Their mother works hard to keep the family together financially, until her early death leaves the daughters almost on their own. Their immigrant father withdraws into wild schemes of invention; he tries to patent devices that will make the world more accessible for people less than five feet tall. He mishears the Randy Newman song without any sense of irony: “short people are no reason to live.” In portraying him, Nguyen masterfully navigates between the comic and the utterly poignant. He is fond of making “his pronouncements at the dinner table–about how short people were discriminated against, and how short people had to work extra hard to get good salaries and respect.” As Van begins to understand some of the difficulties she has had navigating the world, she realizes that “she had been standing on her tiptoes for most of her life.”
Van is the dutiful Asian daughter–smart, hardworking, who finishes at the top of her class, comes to Ann Arbor, becomes a lawyer who practices idealistically in immigration law, marries another Asian lawyer, and lives in a tasteful McMansion. Linny, the beautiful daughter, is the rebel. She drops out of school, heads for Chicago where she has a series of unsuccessful and unwise relationships, then stumbles into a trade she knows nothing about.
By the end of the book, the roles have been reversed: Van is divorced and troubled; Linny has found useful work and a relationship that is healthy and is even with a good Vietnamese man. Along the way the daughters have found a way to value the experience of their father and of his Grand Rapids Vietnamese community, to understand something of what these recent immigrants have suffered to remake their lives here. Nguyen has no false heroics in Short Girls, no easy flourishes or obvious appeals. She tells her story with a straightforward clarity that becomes more moving because of its subdued tone. She writes a story about people her readers come to care about deeply even as they are looking into an American subculture they know little about.
Bich Nguyen talks about Short Girls when she joins many other authors at the daylong symposium on the “State of the Book” at U-M on October 6.