Oct. 14 2009 12:00 AM

Author shares immigration experience

Most of us have tasty memories of the junk food we ate growing up — Little Debbies, Mallo Cups and Cheetos, all washed down with a Dr. Pepper — but novelist Bich Minh Nguyen turned her favorite childhood treats into a compelling memoir about the immigrant experience in the United States.

After touring in support of her Michigan Notable Book “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” Nguyen was struck by how similar her experience was to others who came to the United States from around the world. “After arrival, it’s about fitting in, change and a search for identity,” Nguyen said. “ Al though everyone comes from different places, their experiences are much more similar than different, and food is one of the ways you fit in and maintain identity.”

Nguyen used food as a means to fit into Grand Rapids, a mostly white, Dutch, conservative city, and as a metaphor to explore cultural identity and the difficult adaptation to a new world.

Her search takes her on a food odyssey of what is commonly referred to as junk food. The author felt Pringles, Twinkies and Kit Kats would help her assimilate into a community that didn’t look or feel like her family. Nguyen, 35, and her family arrived in Grand Rapids in 1975 as part of the refugee stream fleeing from Vietnam. Nguyen, her sister and later two brothers, were raised by her father, grandmother and stepmother.

The author is touring the state as part of the Michigan Humanities Council’s The Great Michigan Read program. Nguyen will discuss her book and experiences growing up at Lansing Community College on Friday, Oct. 16.

The strange duality of existence Nguyen writes about was described by American Indians as “having a foot in two canoes” and not doing very well staying balanced in either. This is the life Nguyen describes, as she writes about her grandmother carrying the tradition of appeasing Buddha through gifts of food, while surrounded by families with last names like DeVos and Van Andel.

In the book, readers also learn about Nguyen’s search for her lost mother, who was left behind in the chaotic days as Saigon fell.

Marked with American junk food titles, the chapters follow Nguyen’s search for a new life in an often-unforgiving new country. Friends in similar situations have their names Americanized, but Nguyen’s stepmother refused to go along with the practice.

When Nguyen first goes to school, she is quick to note the contents of her lunch pail as being much different from that of her blond schoolmates.

Further complicating her relationships is her family make-up: multi-generational, multi racial and lacking a mother. But Nguyen is as at home with French fries as she is tamales, and her family becomes a metaphor for the changing America demographic, which, in just one generation, watches salsa push ketchup into second place.

Nguyen’s latest book, the recently published “Short Girls,” is a good companion to “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner.” Although not a memoir, it follows two Vietnamese sisters as they search for identities in a confusing world. One is a driven immigration lawyer; the other is a social drifter. They reconnect for their father’s citizenship ceremony, which begins their transformation. As the sisters return home, they find a time warp in their eccentric inventor father and their former friends.

Nyugen said the story isn’t autobiographical, but it does draw strongly on her observations and from experiences of her friends at the University of Michigan.

Nguyen is working on a novel that engages one of her writing heroines, Laura Ingalls Wilder, as central to the plot. “I was always very impressed with ‘Little House on the Prairie,’” Nguyen said.

Without giving away the unique plot element, Nguyen said she was drawn to the stories written during the Great Depression and how Wilder’s work was ultimately published.

The attraction seems like a natural one, since, for many, the Great Depression was a terrible disruption of life, much like the immigrant experiences Nguyren writes about in “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner.”

Bich Minh Nguyen

Author of “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner” 2 p.m. Friday, Oct. 16 LCC’s Dart Auditorium, 500 N. Capitol Ave., Lansing FREE

True crime author at Schulers

“Isadore’s Secret,” Mardi Link’s second true -rime novel, is a chilling look at a murder that took place more than 100 years ago in a small, West Michigan city. But it still has the ability to stir community outcry to curtail the book’s publishing a century after the crime was committed.

In 1907, a young nun disappeared in Isadore. Ten years passed before her bones were discovered in the church basement. Link follows the crime to its unsatisfying solution: the conviction of a church aide, which raised more questions than were answered.

Link adds new information through interviews with family members and a reinvestigation of the facts.

While working on the book, Link received threatening e-mails about a boycott of the book and asking her to abandon the project.

Link will appear at Schuler Book & Music in the Meridian Mall in Okemos. 7p.m. Oct. 21. FREE. www.schulerbooks. com.