Beth Nguyễn: Owner of a Lonely Heart

My reading pace had been slow. A 250-page memoir should only take me a few days or a week to finish. Beth Nguyễn’s Owner of a Lonely Heart took me two weeks not because it wasn’t engaging, but because I was distracted with other projects and priorities. The last two days I was determined to focus on it and I just couldn’t put it down.

Ms. Nguyễn’s memoir is so real and relatable, in particular her story as an immigrant from Việt Nam. I love the story of her name. Like her, I changed my name from Doanh to Donny because I got tired of correcting people butchering it. In recent years, I have been wondering if I should change it back to show that I have not been Americanized. After reading Beth’s story, however, I’ll stay with it. It’s just a name, as she points out, “… it doesn’t change my past, my family, our lives as refugees in the United States.”

Ms. Nguyễn writes about the complicated relationship with her mothers as well as her relationship with her own kids. Even though she married a white guy, she still recognizes who she is. She writes:

All my life I have felt like an imposter daughter, an imposter Vietnamese, an imposter American, and often an imposter mother, failing and disappointing, an unreliable narrator. When does a refugee stop being a refugee? The answer is in the question itself, forever unanswerable.

I also appreciate her realness on motherhood. She confesses:

Here is a thing that I have never said or admitted because it sounds fucked up: every year my children get older feels like such a relief, not just because every year feels like a gain in their health and growth, but also because it feels like every extra year means they will be okay because they will be old enough, and getting older enough, to bear it if something terrible happens. One of the reasons early childhood, and thus early motherhood, is so terrifying is that we are always thinking about danger, worrying about safety and loss. What is worse, the fear of losing your children or the fear of your children losing you? And if your children lost you, would you live enough in their minds? What if they forget, and thus lose you?

This memoir speaks to me in various aspects and her prose is so damn good. I am so glad to see more and more Vietnamese-American writers making it. Whether fiction or nonfiction, I am seeking out Vietnamese-American authors to read.