I'd heard of Stealing Buddha's Dinner when it first hit bookstore shelves in 2007, but I was living in northern Vietnam at the time and it certainly wasn't on any bookshelves there. Finding it featured recently at the local library, I fell for the marketing and checked it out.
Nguyen's memoir is similar to others of the period, yet deserves its own praise. Like so many others, her family narrowly escapes the fall of Saigon and the takeover of South Vietnam by the northern Communists. Leaving by boat, she finally arrives, with her grandmother, father and sister, in Michigan--a place that has nothing in common with her home country.
Here she has to find herself, discovering who she is a Vietnamese-American through food. She both revels in and rebels at her Buddhist grandmother's cooking. Eating over at a friend's house challenges her to learn to use a knife. When her father remarries, her Mexican stepmother provides another variety of food and then Nguyen discovers American junk food.
Struggling, like all adolescents, to find her identity Nguyen turns to Twinkies, Kit Kats and Kool Aid. It's about what one has, consumerism, that drives her as she deals with American life, her father's increasing absence, the birth of a baby brother and the repercussions of being seen as "other."
A quick read, Nguyen weaves bits of Vietnamese culture into her story of family problems (we've all got 'em!), the turbulence of youth and coming to terms with being the outsider. You'll get caught up in her story, particularly if you came of age in the 1980s.
Check out Powells.com or your local library for a copy of Stealing Buddha's Dinner(Viking Penguin, 2007).
Her first, the book won the PEN/Jerard Award from the PEN American Center and was named a Chicago Tribune Best Book of 2007, a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book, and a BookSense pick. Her work has also appeared in publications such as Gourmet magazine; Jane magazine; Dream Me Home Safely: Writers on Growing up in America; and Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose. Her first novel,Short Girls, will be published by Viking Penguin in 2009.
Stealing Buddha's Dinner is available at Powells.com