Halfway through Owner of a Lonely Heart, Beth Nguyen writes: “What would it take to make someone, to make you, to make me—leave everything known? The history of my family is also the history of multiple wars, of colonization, of imperialism, of loss and diaspora.” This line characterizes Nguyen’s full body of work, which includes the memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, and the novels Short Girls and Pioneer Girl, all of which attempt to articulate diasporic daughterhood in relation to this sentiment. In this memoir, Nguyen adds to this history of displacement and violence through the lens of her relationship with her mother, a relationship shaped by the fact that Nguyen left Vietnam as a baby with her sister, father, and father’s family, separating her from her mother. Owner of a Lonely Heart never loses sight of this—that leaving Vietnam converges with leaving her mother, and so mother and refugee are histories that are perpetually intertwined.
Nguyen’s memoir is a series of lyrical essays that complicate, shift, and theorize motherhood in relation to being a refugee—particularly in relation to the fact that Nguyen has met her mother, who later arrived in Boston, only six times since leaving Vietnam. Early on, she says: “I wrote it down: When I became a mother, I became a refugee.” Here, she highlights her project as she explores, over the course of these essays, what it means to have left both a homeland and a mother, neither of which concretely exists in her memory. In these poetic essays, Nguyen is always aware of how she articulates her own narrative of motherhood and how these essays speak to the connections between her being both a refugee and a mother. Describing her relationship to the conditions of diaspora and refugee, Nguyen writes: “For me, motherhood, like being a refugee, has meant being in multiple consciousnesses at the same time, and never feeling sure about any of them.” She explores her relationship with her mother through the lens of her own relationship to motherhood, including the times her mother has met her sons. She is generous with this history, the self, and the many people who shape this narrative, including herself and her mother, a relationship fractured by selves, by time, by war.
Nguyen’s relationship to what is real and not, what is lost and not, ultimately form the center of this memoir as it engages with being a daughter and a mother. And as much as this is a memoir of motherhood and daughterhood—as Nguyen understands what it means to be a daughter to a mother she left before concrete memory, to a mother who is not Mom as Nguyen points out early in the text—it is also a coming-of-age story in a world shaped by loss, silence, and the condition of being a refugee. Writing of her father’s departure from Vietnam, Nguyen says: “What would you say, at such a moment, if someone asked a question about who you are or where you began? What would you forget, or want to forget? What would you answer?” In many ways, Nguyen always seeks to answer: what does it mean for her to articulate a self, and who is the self she articulates?
On home, and having left the house she grew up in, Nguyen writes: “It would be many years before I would see that the point of home is that it is a known space.” And of Vietnam, the place that shaped her, she says: “I am such a long distance from the country of my birth that the fact of it seems to become more and more an abstraction.” In Owner of a Lonely Heart, Nguyen is always seeking to understand what it means to oscillate between these two things—the “known space” and the “abstraction.” In the liminal space between these, Nguyen, through motherhood, articulates a self in constant movement, between home and “the country of her birth,” between daughterhood and motherhood, between refugee and mother.
A necessary, vital addition to Asian American writing about motherhood, Owner of a Lonely Heart builds on a legacy of Asian American war writing that is intertwined with narratives of motherhood in order to understand a history of displacement. Nguyen writes with a poetic clarity, examining the unreliability of memory, the unreliability of motherhood, the unreliability of daughterhood. Owner of a Lonely Heart is a moving, lyrical meditation on the intertwining of motherland and homeland, always equally incisive and generous in its approach to a motherhood and daughterhood that is and is not.
Owner of a Lonely Heart
By Beth Nguyen
Scribner Book Company
Published July 4, 2023
Vika Mujumdar was born in New Jersey and raised in Pune, India. She holds an MA in Comparative Literature from UMass Amherst, where she is currently an MFA student in Creative Writing (prose). Her work has appeared in the Chicago Review of Books, Girls on Tops READ ME, and elsewhere. She edits Liminal Transit Review.