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'Owner of a Lonely Heart': Beth Nguyen's journey from refugee to motherhood

Beth Nguyen, author of "Owner of a Lonely Heart"
Beth Nguyen, author of "Owner of a Lonely Heart"

At the end of the Vietnam War, when Beth Nguyen was a baby, she and her father, sister, grandmother and uncles fled Saigon for a new life in America. Her mother was left behind. They didn’t cross paths again until Nguyen was nineteen.

"Over the course of my life I have known less than twenty-four hours with my mother," writes Nguyen, who is a professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In a new memoir, Nguyen explores her identity as a mother and refugee, as well as her complicated relationship with her mother. Owner of a Lonely Heart recalls Nguyen’s childhood in Grand Rapids, Michigan, meetings and attempts to connect with her mother over the years, and eventually becoming a parent herself.

Cover of "Owner of a Lonely Heart"

Having arrived in the U.S. as an infant, Nguyen felt uncomfortable identifying as a refugee, a label often steeped in shame. Motherhood gave her the chance to re-evaluate her distinct identities. "Becoming a mother made me rethink what it meant to be a refugee, and I think that was because the concept of motherhood was so big to me, so weighty," Nguyen says.

What Nguyen did remember was the silence that she often grew up with. It was a standard practice in her family not to discuss uncomfortable, complicated topics: the war, violence and her mother.

"Silence is so easy and so comfortable," says Nguyen, who writes about inadvertently replicating the silences that she grew up with for her own children. "It's a very strange notion that silence is protection. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it just really isn't."

To be a refugee is to be in between, Nguyen writes. In Vietnam, birthdays, for instance, hardly mattered when she was born. "I literally did not find out what my actual date of birth was until my grandmother died, and we had to go through her things," she says.

As she grew older, she found herself experimenting with birthdays and even her name — a result of the compare-and-contrast she always made as a refugee, questioning what mattered to "general America" versus her own family. "It was a bit of a weird revelation for me to realize that we can make choices for ourselves," she says.


Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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