How I became a Nhà Viết Văn

Stacey's grandfather, age 50, at a zoo in Saigon
Stacey Nguyen/Courtesy
Stacey's grandfather, age 50, at a zoo in Saigon

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When I was a little girl, about 8 or 9, I stumbled across a yellowed, pocketbook version of L.M. Montgomery’s “Anne of Green Gables,” a story about a spirited, redheaded orphan. I fell in love with Anne Shirley, whose good intentions and misadventures charmed me. Her romantic and poetic voice made the woes of an awkward fourth-grader less painful. I began writing silly short stories, reimagining Goldilocks as a CIA agent infiltrating the three bears’ cottage or the evolutionary inception of the platypus as a WWE match between a beaver and a duck. Feeling fanciful, I supplemented these stories with waxy drawings created in bright crayon colors and knew that I wanted to pursue art.

I told my mother I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. I sat upright in a black stool in our small kitchen, beaming at her through my coke-bottle glasses.

“An auditor? Yes, auditors are well educated and make a lot of money,” she replied.

“An artist,” I said a little louder, glowing from my ostentatious newfound sense of purpose.

“Hm. They don’t make so much money. You have to be really good at what you do.”

My mother advised me to study hard in school, to become a doctor or a banker. I petulantly associated her with the stifling unimaginativeness and dullness of adult life. This  petulance deepened during my teenage years as I felt my creative desires choking under endless standardized exams and heightened expectations from my parents, who never finished college. I attributed my lack of creativity to them­ — upstanding, first-generation, blue-collar immigrants who blended into the suburbs of the Bay Area. My friends had parents who paid for their piano and SAT lessons. I studied inside a small townhouse while my parents blasted Vietnamese folk songs and New Age instrumentals. While my friends traveled to places like Hawaii, we traveled to places like temple.

Despite her disapproval, my mother occasionally jokingly called me a nhà viết văn — a writer. Growing up, accolades for my writing never satisfied me. I felt like a charlatan. I followed forms and rules that my teachers prescribed to me, but I couldn’t quite articulate a sense of self through my words. Writing never came to me easily — I struggled, chiseling out each word like a sculptor confronted with a giant slab of marble but equipped with a toothpick. Perhaps it was teen angst, but I believed I simply wasn’t cultured or bright enough, stuck with an uninspiring life and burdened with oppressive parental expectations. On top of that, my family was foreign — everything from our looks to our American Dreams. We lacked the careless sophistication of the white yuppies we saw on television and in magazines. Nothing about us was quite American, or as my mother would say, “tây,” enough.

During high school and college, I considered myself culturally illiterate, simply because I could not identify people such as Vermeer or the Coen Brothers. In my humanities classes, I found myself secretly yearning to be like the pretentious pseudo-intellectuals who worshipped Nietzsche with the same idolatry that he despised. Still, it was really my parents who first exposed me to the richness of the arts. The elementary school library allowed us to check out a maximum of three books at a time. My father simply did not think that would do, so he frequently brought home huge plastic boxes of books from his weekend trips to the flea market. My collection of Anne books — as well as a behemoth of the Babysitters’ Club books — came from these trips. My mother told me that as a child, she too loved reading. She told me fantastic tales from “One Thousand and One Nights,” a collection of stories a woman told a king in order to avoid execution. Every night after dinner, I would curl up next to my parents and watch whatever they rented at the Vietnamese video store. My first exposure to film came in the form of Vietnamese-dubbed Chinese fantasy dramas about magistrates with magical powers and a monkey king adventuring with a pig and Buddhist monk. I took secret pleasure in these stories, but none of them created an identity I could project to the world outside of home.

My childhood was also replete with trips to fabric stores and weekends fidgeting with craft supplies. My mother, a thin woman with elegantly arched eyebrows and soft brown eyes, would occasionally drive me to a little Vietnamese shopping plaza after scavenging the flea market, where we visited a fabric store called Fabrics R Us. Located next to a Vietnamese tofu deli, it was a small shop piled with giant cardboard tubes of fabric, seasonal colors and patterns in the front. I remember picking out different buttons as I watched yardstick-armed Vietnamese women dressed in loose ao bà bas trailing customers.

On weekends, my mother sat on the floor with her legs crisscrossed, lost in her craft. On some days, she would sketch out designs for dresses and blouses by chalking scraps of fabric. Her attention never once lifted from the cloth. Her execution was both meticulous and determined. I watched as she delicately created rows of stitches with her sewing machine, the sound of a needle steadily punching through fabric becoming the sound of home for me. Sometimes, she would even try to teach me sewing and knitting, although I lacked the keen eye or dexterous hands of a tailor. On other days, she would string tiny, colorful crystal beads into complexly weaved necklaces. My mother had a knack for using the most mundane objects, such as thin wire and pliers, to produce beautiful, immaculate creations.

Forty years ago, her father, too, shared this transformative knack. Pushed out of his hometown in North Vietnam, my resourceful grandfather stepped foot into Saigon when he was 12 without a clue as to where his family was. He pieced together bits of leather that were discarded from the United States or Italy, designing jackets and other items of clothes. Eventually, he founded a shop called “Toan My” in Chợ Bến Thành, a prominent marketplace in Saigon. He was the primary tailor and designer of the clothing company, which shipped products all over the world. My mother grew up learning how to sew and knit from the ladies who worked for my grandfather. Every now and then, my mother would tell me about her childhood and the legacy very nostalgically.

As a child, I took these experiences and stories for granted. It didn’t strike me that anyone would want to listen to them. They didn’t seem interesting or valid. My shame of otherness had turned me white. I’ve been told that you are a writer if you say you are, but I didn’t become one until college. Freshman year, I sat in my dorm hallway, staring at my glowing laptop screen. I closed my homework, tired of the pseudo-liberal whiteness of academia. I wanted to create something that would come from me. Slowly, the stories started unraveling in the back of my mind like threads coming undone on a dress. The click-clack of my fingers hitting my keyboard resonated with punching needle of my mother’s sewing machine.

So I wrote, stringing together words like beads on a necklace. My craft operated in a confidence I gathered from a heritage of creativity and culture.

I find it somewhat funny that I come from a long line of fashionistas, because my personal style emphasizes function more than form. I don’t even dress like a writer, save for my thick, black glasses frames. Before I ever venture to a library or a cafe to write, I throw on a wrinkly, oversized manteau jacket, plain, straight-fit jeans and a pair of Naturalizer lace-up ankle boots. Sometimes I find that my jacket is missing a button or has a tear, and I think to call my mother, who is 50 miles away. I call and speak in canned, broken Vietnamese. She replies clearly and fluidly, reprimanding me for dying my hair blue. Still, she sits in the kitchen seven cities away from me, promising to repair my jacket the next time I come home.

Contact Stacey Nguyen at [email protected]