Cupcakes and Ideal Writing Days: An Interview with Bich Minh Nguyen

Bich minh nguyen Over this past weekend, novelist Cristina García, Centrum's artistic director for writing, sat down over coffee and email with fiction and nonfiction writer Bich Minh Nguyen (pictured), who will be leading a creative nonfiction writing class at the 2010 Port Townsend Writers' Conference.

Cristina García: Could you tell us a bit about the role of food in your acculturation to the U.S.?
Bich Minh Nguyen: When my family came to the U.S. from Vietnam I was eight months old. Growing up in the suburban Midwest, I longed for very American foods—packaged cupcakes, candies, potato chips. Meanwhile, my grandmother was cooking wonderful Vietnamese foods that I didn’t appreciate at all. Like many immigrants, I felt like I had a dual identity—the one at home and the one outside the home. When I look back, I can see how this duality can be represented by food, commercials, restaurants, and aspects of Vietnamese and American food culture. My obsession with American food was a way for me to try to fit in. Of course, today when I look back I’m amazed and chagrined that I ever preferred Pringles to my grandmother’s egg rolls 

CG: What are the biggest adjustments for you in writing fiction vs. non-fiction?

BMN: The best thing about nonfiction is that it has to be true. No worrying about straining credulity—it’s all memory, perspective, contemplation. The worst thing about writing nonfiction is that it has to be true. Lots of worrying about the subjectivity of memory, the boundaries of what should and shouldn’t be told. So it can be very freeing to go from writing nonfiction to writing fiction—suddenly, you’re released from the truth and can make anything up. But that presents a whole new set of problems: do these fictional details, characters, events ring true? So then it’s freeing to go from writing fiction to writing nonfiction. All of which is to say: it’s great to maintain a relationship with both genres, allowing the process of one to help that of the other. 
CG: What's an ideal writing day for you?

BMN: For me, an ideal writing day would involve getting up early (voluntarily!) and having the feeling of total freedom—no other appointments, commitments, obligations; no emails or phone calls to answer. Just the whole lovely day stretching ahead, with the promise of a good dinner at the end of it. 
CG: If you could leave your students with one overriding idea about writing, what would that be?

BMN: That it’s important to locate, then follow, their subjects. To discover what they need, and not just want, to write about. To pursue rather than avoid. I know that’s more than one overriding idea, but they’re all connected!

Registration for this workshop, as well as all available Conference workshops, is available here.