Short Girls

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"Van and Linny Luong are temperamental opposites. Diligent, unassuming Van has found her calling as an immigration lawyer in the midwestern suburbs, but no one knows that her picture-perfect marriage has suddenly evaporated. Her younger sister, Linny, fashion-forward and socially adept, lives in Chicago where she has drifted into a dead-end affair with a married man. Though both women feel untethered and burdened by a secret, they've never been able to confide in each other." "But then, after nearly thirty years in the U.S., their eccentric,

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Short Girls

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Overview

"Van and Linny Luong are temperamental opposites. Diligent, unassuming Van has found her calling as an immigration lawyer in the midwestern suburbs, but no one knows that her picture-perfect marriage has suddenly evaporated. Her younger sister, Linny, fashion-forward and socially adept, lives in Chicago where she has drifted into a dead-end affair with a married man. Though both women feel untethered and burdened by a secret, they've never been able to confide in each other." "But then, after nearly thirty years in the U.S., their eccentric, invention-obsessed father decides to take the citizenship oath - a rite of passage he hopes will improve the prospects of his most prized creation, the "Luong Arm," an instrument to help short people grasp objects that are out of reach. When Van and Linny reluctantly heed the summons home they end up having to plan a celebration for him, replete with cha gio egg rolls and encounters with old friends from years past. In the time warp of a childhood home unaltered since their mother's death and insulated by the same Vietnamese American community they grew up with, Van and Linny find they are bound by much more than the duties of culture and family history, or their aging father's demands and whims. As they chart the uncertainty that has defined them, as well as the bitter irony of their romantic straits, Van and Linny discover in their common cause a new, enduring connection that sees them through the host of surprises to come." Bich Minh Nguyen was hailed by the Chicago Tribune as "a writer to watch, a tremendous talent" for her debut memoir, Stealing Buddha's Dinner, and her charm and shrewd powers of observation are on brilliant display inthis first novel. By turns deeply moving, wickedly urbane, and utterly entertaining, Short Girls chronicles the pitfalls and triumphs that govern all family lives. Nguyen's insights into the complexities of duty, culture, and ambition often shared by the children of immigrants make Van and Linny's story fresh and unforgettable - a true American tale for our time.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Memoirist Nguyen's debut novel traces the quiet estrangement of the Luong sisters, second-generation Vietnam-ese-American women whose personal lives are falling apart but who put on a brave face for the family. When their father calls them home to Michigan to take charge of his citizenship party, the sisters discover each other as adults for the first time. The casting seems felicitous: Alice Kennedy is also the daughter of South Vietnamese immigrants, lives in Grand Rapids, and nails the nasal Michigan accent. But she falls flat in creating specific voices; all the char-acters-the firecracker Linny, the cautious Van and their infuriatingly stubborn father-sounds the same. Since the novel does not always identify who is speaking, it can be difficult for listeners to follow which character is saying what in conversation. Although Kennedy's performance has strong inflection and emotion, the nuances of Nguyen's subtle character study get lost in translation. A Viking hardcover (Reviews, Mar. 16 ).
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
Van and Linny Luong enact the stereotypical roles of studious, straight-A sister and pretty, popular slacker. The daughters of Vietnamese refugees living in Michigan, the women drift apart as Van pursues a law career and marries a picture-perfect Chinese American classmate. Linny drops out of college, ending up in Chicago working for a food-preparation company. When their father announces that he has finally gained U.S. citizenship, they join forces to give him a party and smooth his participation on a reality TV show where he will demonstrate his inventions, the "Luong Arm," the "Luong Eye," and the "Luong Wall"—objects that help short people, like his daughters, cope in a world of much taller individuals. As the narrative cuts back and forth between Van and Linny, examining their failed relationships with each other and their male partners, this lovely first novel becomes much more—a depiction of immigrant culture in which everyone is a short person trying to measure up to the United States. VERDICT Fans of Nguyen's acclaimed memoir, Stealing Buddha's Dinner, will want to read her fiction debut. This should also appeal to readers of Asian American fiction. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 3/15/09.]—Andrea Kempf, Johnson Cty. Community Coll. Lib., Overland Park, KS
Kirkus Reviews
Divergent Vietnamese-American sisters grapple with their upbringing, their present circumstances and their shortcomings. Debut novelist Nguyen integrates many of the themes found in her immigration memoir (Stealing Buddha's Dinner, 2007), while solidly demonstrating a flair for fictional composition. The book centers on quarrelsome siblings Van and Linny, who find themselves at emotional and cultural crossroads as the first generation of their family to be raised in America. Not surprisingly, their personal dilemmas begin at home. Van, a competent and empathetic immigration attorney, has been abruptly abandoned by her preening, self-possessed husband Miles. This brings all her doubts about herself rocketing to the surface: "No matter what she wore or how good she might feel about herself, the sight of a pulled-together tall woman could make Van feel like a short little stump." Linny has embraced the American way, barely acknowledging her Vietnamese origins. She lives a carefree but rootless life in Chicago, organizing prepared dinners for suburban customers and sleeping with a married man whose feelings toward her are suspect. Adding to the sisters' growing uncertainties is an unwelcome homecoming: Van and Linny are called back to Grand Rapids to help celebrate their father's recent U.S. citizenship. The family's ambitious patriarch is Dinh Luong, a widower and amateur inventor whose most useful invention, a "Luong Arm" designed to extend the reach of short people, sharpens his daughters' sense of inadequacy. As the sisters help their father prepare for a reality show called "Tomorrow's Great Inventor," they find themselves learning significantly more about themselves, their heritage andthe art of self-invention. Nguyen sometimes relies too heavily on a few underlying motifs, but her candid storytelling style more than makes up for this deficit. A compassionate family drama that attacks emotional and generational unrest with an optimistic thesis-life goes on. Agent: Nicole Aragi/Aragi, Inc.
From the Publisher
"A lively, engaging novel of sisterly angst and the cultural heritage ... an exceptional debut, funny, insightful and literary, with lots to mull over after you put it down."
Chicago Tribune
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670020812
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/23/2009
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Bich Minh Nguyen teaches literature and creative writing at Purdue University. She lives with her husband, the novelist Porter Shreve, in West Lafayette, Indiana and Chicago.

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Read an Excerpt

1

Van

After Miles left, Van began checking the security alarm every time she entered the house. She had nightmares of the alarm failing, losing the password of her and Miles's wedding date. Pressing those numbers made her remember his hand on her back, guiding her through dance steps. They had practiced in a ballroom class, then in his apartment, Eric Clapton singing "Wonderful Tonight" over and over. She didn't tell Miles that the lyrics bothered her: Why must the woman only look wonderful tonight?

The rooms hushed around her, the open floor plan stretching forth on the hardwood. Though they'd moved in almost three years earlier, she still felt vaguely like a house sitter. She was careful to keep the hand towels neat, her shoes lined up in the mudroom. She circled the first floor, making sure the blinds were drawn, and turned on all the outdoor lights. She lingered in front of the television, for going upstairs seemed almost unsafe, a yielding of territory. Someone could trap her there. She thought of places to hide, to buy herself time between the breach of the alarm and the arrival of police: behind the armoire in the bedroom corner: in the cedar chest in her closet. She could just fit into it, her small body folding into the tight darkness, the lid clamping down like a set of perfect teeth.

Van spent most of her time in the TV room, where she lay on the sofa between the windows so that someone standing in the backyard would not be able to see her. Only in bright daylight did she want to peek outside. It was always the same Ann Arbor subdivision, the houses as new and graceful as hers, with brushed–brick facades and wrought–iron sconces. Cars nested in garages. Streets rounded into cul–de–sacs. "Para–noi–a," Miles sometimes sang softly when he caught Van squinting through a slit in the blinds.

Those first two weeks of Miles's absence, Van had waited for someone to confront her. She was certain her coworkers would read in her face what had happened. She prepared answers. A business trip. A big case, confidential. But the days went by and no one at her law office asked her if she was okay. Her friends e–mailed their usual brief messages about work, pictures of their kids. Her sister Linny did not appear on her doorstep to crow about how much she'd always disliked Miles. Van nearly convinced herself that he had been away on a business trip. It was almost easy to go along, letting her world split from that one day in February into separate versions of reality.

How little anyone knew of Van's real life.

Even so, she kept checking the caller ID. She didn't stop expecting to see Miles's cell number, and hated how her heart jumped whenever the phone rang. But it hardly ever did. A week before he left, Miles had added their number to the national Do Not Call list. Van wondered if it was a planned courtesy, that she might exist untroubled by telemarketers while sitting down to her solo dinner.

She had not been the kind of teenager who could talk for hours on the phone with a friend; that realm had belonged to her sister. When she and Linny called each other they ended up using their father as an excuse: Who was going to visit him next? Had he said anything about Thanksgiving? How was he doing all alone in that house? He was the spool around which the thread of their conversations wound.

Van's father didn't like phones, not even to acknowledge birthdays. In college, she could go almost an entire quarter without hearing from him. His calls, when they came, seemed random. He would want to know where a friend of his could find good sushi in Ann Arbor. Or he'd ask, Do you remember where I put the pliers? Were there any D batteries in the house? As if she were still there, or should be.

But now he was reminding her to come home.

After twenty–eight years of stubbornness her father was finally taking his oath of citizenship, letting go at last of his refugee status and the green Permanent Resident Alien Card. He had taken the test, handed over his fingerprints, had his background checked—the last of all his friends to do so. To celebrate, he was throwing a party in the old style, the way all of the Vietnamese families in their town used to gather in the late seventies and eighties, finding relief in their free–flowing beer and language. It would be a reunion, a remembrance of their collective flight from Vietnam and settlement in America—1975 all over again. Van, who was born in a refugee camp three months after her parents arrived in the States, knew only her mother's description of the dusty barracks and tents at Pendleton, and the startling cold of their first winter in Michigan. She didn't understand why her father would want to return to 1975. "It's the last hurray," he insisted when he first told her his idea for the party. "We come a long way, baby."

After Van had left for college her parents decided to live on separate floors of the house they'd had for twenty years, a sixties ranch in Wrightville, a suburb of Grand Rapids, Michigan. They'd fallen into the arrangement after yet another petty argument—which potted dendrobium at the home and garden center looked the healthiest—blew up into a two–day fight. The Luongs had always done this, scratching at each other's words as much out of habit as anything. But this time when Thuy Luong told her husband to go sleep in the basement "like a dog," he stayed there instead of slinking back upstairs. When Van went home for winter break she found that he had actually moved to the basement. He had shoved aside the old fold-out sofa they'd had since their first apartment in the States and set up a futon right in front of the big-screen TV, a clunky first generation model that would soon be replaced by newer and newer models, to which he'd add an elaborate sound system, with speakers hidden inside wooden figurines of Vietnamese fishermen.

The basement had always been his domain. Van was going on nine when they moved into that house, and she had helped him partition off a section of the floor to create a studio for his company, Luong Inventions by Dinh Luong, for which he often ditched his "everyday money" jobs in tiling and construction. He kept his sketches tacked up on the faux-wood paneling, along with photographs of himself trying out his prototypes. His most successful invention—or least unsuccessful—was the Luong Arm, a tong-like gadget devised to help short people reach items on a high shelf. He had sold more than a hundred Luong Arms to various friends in the Vietnamese community. But the product had never been quite right—the mechanical grip could grab a light basket, but lost control with plates and glasses. When Van graduated from college, her father gave her a prototype as a gift, saying, Short girls have to take care of themselves.

In law school, when Miles first came over to her apartment he had spied the Arm immediately. It lay on top of her kitchen cabinets, where Van had stored and forgotten it because she couldn't see that high up.

Amused, Miles examined the Y–shaped instrument and held it like a divining rod. "Will this lead me to gold and riches?" He steered it toward her.

"It didn't for my dad," Van replied.

She showed Miles how it worked: put the wrist through the velcroed brace, hang on to the wand, and use the thumb to work the lever that opened and closed the tongs. Miles wanted to try it, aiming for a thin–necked vase in Van's kitchen cupboard. "Don't," she said. "It's the only one I have."

"I've got it." He secured the grip and drew back slowly to set the vase on the counter. But it slipped from the Arm and crashed onto Van's linoleum floor.

When Dinh Luong settled into the downstairs part of the house, he bought a set of safari-print sheets from JCPenney.

The basement, with its low ceilings and movie-worthy darkness, was perfect for running Die Hard and Indiana Jones DVDs until he fell asleep. He got a mini-refrigerator to store his beer and bought a George Foreman grill from a garage sale. When he cooked he made turkey burgers with pickle, dipping each bite into nuoc mam sauce. When he got cold he used a space heater that made the basement smell like Linny's old curling iron set on high. Van worried that her father would burn the whole house down but he had laughed at that. "I'm an inventor," he said. "I'm not destroying—I'm making."

Upstairs, Van's mother and sister made changes too. They gathered up Dinh Luong's infomercial orders—the food dehydrator, the vacuum sealer, the automatic shoe polisher—and left them on the basement steps. Mrs. Luong painted their bedroom lavender, and threw out the pile of Popular Mechanics magazines her husband had saved in the bathroom. They didn't ignore each other, didn't quite divide the house in two, but it was clear to Van that they had come to some sort of resolution about their space: they just didn't want to have to see each other very often. Linny, a senior in high school then, used the opportunity to spread out her clothes and music, stay out late while their parents were so distracted.

Van was secretly glad that they hadn't just given up and divorced. In her mind they couldn't—they were too conjoined, had known too many years together. Ornery as old house cats, they needed each other's presence without ever admitting it. They could have gone on like that for decades, Van knew, living together but not together, meeting only occasionally when Van's father needed to get some towels or utensils from upstairs or when Van's mother needed to use the washer and dryer. And maybe they would have if Thuy Luong hadn't collapsed in her best friend's nail salon that May, 1994, nine years ago; Van was finishing her first year at the University of Chicago and Linny was about to graduate from high school. At the hospital, the attending physician had been fairly sure that it was a stroke, rare for a forty–two–year–old, though they never knew for sure because Dinh Luong had refused an autopsy. She wouldn't want it, he said, and the pronouncement gave a strange comfort to Van, made her think that in spite of all the arguments, her parents had known, after all, a river of intimacy. The fall after Mrs. Luong died, Linny started community college and moved into her own apartment, and their father returned to the upstairs part of the house for good.

When nighttime started its descent over Ann Arbor—less swiftly every day, Van noted, grateful for hints of spring—she wondered what it would be like to coexist with Miles, each living on a separate floor. Would she rather have him in the house, secure in his nearness, or would it make her insane, force her to eavesdrop on his phone conversations with people she didn't know? Watching television in her usual way, lying on the sofa so that everything on the screen appeared sideways, Van was glad that Miles could not see her like this. If he were home she would be sitting up with a glass of wine, playing an indie movie since Miles called network television a scourge on the brain.

Van knew that she would have to go to Wrightville for her father's party, and that questions would follow her: Where's Miles? How's Miles? When are you and Miles having a baby? She had begun to plan her answers, simple as tabbed files: He had a case. He's doing fine. We're in no hurry just yet. The last one a lie she had been telling for more than two years.

Van pictured her father shuffling up from the basement, stepping into the kitchen. If in a good mood he would wave hello and pat her on the back, saying, "Where's that Chinese boy?" It's what he'd been saying since the first time Van brought Miles home. They were engaged by then, and Van's father had inspected the prongs that held the diamond in place and said, "Good thing we love Chinese food."

If Van had dated a fourth–generation Chinese American in high school—if there had been any to date, if she had dated at all—her mother would have wept and her father would have forbidden it. Those were the days when they were strict about Vietnamese boys who would grow into suitable husbands for Van and Linny. Once, during Van's junior year, her mother had tried to make her go on a blind date with a son of a cousin of a friend who had just settled in the area. Van had outright refused. But a few days later Pham Ly was sitting at the kitchen table when she came home from a Sunday trip to the downtown library. He was gawky and full of smiles, his cheekbones sharp and shiny. In those days, phrases like "fresh off the boat" embarrassed Van. By now it had become hip or funny, one of those bits of language people were trying to reclaim. They're so fobby, her friend Jen Ye had said affectionately about her own parents. Van often thought the word applied to her father too.

Pham had been in the States for less than a year and his accent showed it: warbled, clotting the sounds he couldn't yet pronounce. Mostly he spoke in Vietnamese with Van's parents, and the three of them shouted with laughter over jokes Van could not understand. Sullenly she ate her mother's fish soup, wondering where Linny was. Even in tenth grade, Linny had things to do. She was always going out; she dated Van's classmates. By then they hadn't been close, hadn't really talked to each other without squabbling, in years.

Their parents were erratic in their rules, probably because they could never unite in enforcing them. Mrs. Luong could scream at Linny for coming home at two in the morning, but Mr. Luong would have forgotten it by the next day. He might announce, "You're grounded until further notice!" (a phrase he had learned from TV) but it would be his wife who would have to make it stick. Linny, taking advantage of the disarray, slipped around the questions so that their parents often ended up interrogating Van—what she had been doing after school, and who had been there, though she was more likely to play Trivial Pursuit than a drinking game.

At the end of dinner Van's parents suddenly retreated, leaving her alone with Pham, who had become flushed and cheerful from the Budweisers Mr. Luong had offered him. "What you doing tonight?" Pham asked her. The dinner, the company, the beer had turned his shy smile slick, and Van looked away. "I have to study," she said, making sure to emphasize her English, using a cold voice she didn't know she had. It was something that would come in handy later, in law school. Then Van got up from the table and fled to her room.

By the time Van left for college her parents had pretty much given up: any Asian was a good Asian. They had seen enough of their friends' children dating white people to realize that. Van wondered how much she'd had her mother's wishes in mind when Miles came into the picture during law school. Her mother had once said they probably had relatives who were part Chinese, their heritage handed down through centuries of rule. Chinese, Japanese, Korean—here in America, it was all the same.

Van changed the channel—The Golden Girls starting on Lifetime—and fought the desire to call Miles and tell him that she was going to visit her father. The idea of leaving town and coming back and never saying a word about it to him made her shiver. How would he know where to think of her?

She worried she wouldn't be able to keep up the lie, at least not with Linny, who might stare her down, narrow her eyes, and in that way force the real story. Van knew, too, something harder: it had been six weeks, and each day meant a greater separation, a further burrowing of the truth. One day, she would have to open her mouth and speak it.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

Van and Linny Luong are just a year apart in age, but they are separated by a much greater divide. As the daughters of Vietnamese immigrants who unexpectedly found themselves in the cold and culturally baffling world of suburban western Michigan, each has striven to find her own sense of identity, albeit in very different ways. Serious and studious Van pursued academic success while beautiful Linny rebelled against her sister’s example and sought acceptance amongst the popular crowd. Now, circumstances, and the demands of their eccentric, widowed father, lead them to rediscover one another, their pasts, and what it means to be second-generation Vietnamese Americans.

To outsiders, Van followed a seamless path from college to a career as an immigration lawyer in the Detroit area. Her husband, Miles, charms everyone but Linny with an effortless confidence that overwhelms shy Van: “She felt—couldn’t help it, in spite of what her women’s studies professors would have said—chosen” (p. 37). She is also self-conscious about how her second-generation, Midwestern upbringing contrasts against Miles’s status as a fourth-generation Chinese American, Her uncertainty takes a toll on her work and marriage, leading her to a near-double life: outwardly successful, living in a meticulous home, but in actuality gripped by anxiety, and covering up the terrible truth that Miles has just walked out on her.

Linny has all the self-assurance that her sister lacks. Though both are petite, Van often feels stymied by her shortness while Linny tries to use it to her advantage. Growing up, Linny’s only real goal had been to escape life in suburban Michigan. Without finishing college and refusing to commit to either a career or a relationship, she is working as a cook at a home-catering business in Chicago when she meets Gary, the husband of a client. The two begin an affair that, at first, satisfies Linny’s need to maintain her own space—“Linny wasn’t afraid to be alone. She was more afraid of . . . letting someone encroach” (p. 63)—but soon turns troubling, forcing Linny to confront her true motivations and desires.

Having drifted apart in adolescence, Van and Linny now meet only when their brief visits home coincide. Almost a decade after their mother’s death, their father, Dinh Luong, continues to drink with his Vietnamese buddies and putter in his basement workshop fine-tuning his inventions—the Luong Arm and the Luong Eye—designed to improve the lives of short people. Dinh relies on financial support from Van, but has steadfastly ignored his daughters’ advice to become an American citizen. So both are caught off guard when he announces his decision to take the oath and orders them home to throw a big celebration party.

The timing could not be worse for the two women, for each is harboring a painful secret: Van, the end of her marriage; Linny, escalating tension in her affair with Gary. Yet amid memories of their mother and their childhood, and surrounded by the close-knit Vietnamese community in which they grew up, Van and Linny at last begin to recognize the value of their common bonds and find new perspectives on home, belonging, sisterhood, and their place as women striving to reach new heights in America.

In Short Girls, writer Bich Minh Nguyen puts her own stamp on a quintessentially American story of immigration, ambition, and family. Emotionally nuanced and peopled with finely drawn characters, her stunning debut novel fulfills the Chicago Tribune’s prediction that Nguyen is indeed “a writer to watch.”

ABOUT BICH MINH NGUYEN

Bich Minh Nguyen [Bit Min Nwin] is the author of the memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, winner of the PEN/Jerard Award and featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” She teaches at Purdue University and lives in Chicago and West Lafayette, Indiana, with her husband, the novelist Porter Shreve.

A CONVERSATION WITH BICH MINH NGUYEN

Q. What was your inspiration for the novel?

The most autobiographical part of this novel is the title Short Girls. I’m just under five feet, and I grew up in a tall Midwestern city, so I’ve always been conscious of height and interested in the ways it can affect one’s identity and self-perception. I knew I wanted to write a novel about two sisters, but the main idea didn’t take shape until the title Short Girls somehow popped into my mind. Then I knew: the book would be about how two short sisters dealt in different way with their shortness, literally and figuratively. I’ve always been interested in exploring the particular bond, tension, and shared experience between sisters. I grew up with two older sisters and a younger brother, so I drew on some of the feelings of sibling love and rivalry from childhood, taking them to a level of greater conflict. One of many differences between my characters and me is that I’m close with my own siblings. But fiction demands conflict, so I knew that Van and Linny would need to have much more trouble between them.

Q. What do you think citizenship ultimately confers? Is it necessary to truly feel/be American?

Unlike Van and Linny, I was born not in the United States but in Saigon, Vietnam. I was eight months old when my family came to the States, so I’m more “first-and-a-half” generation rather than second generation. I couldn’t wait to become a citizen, and applied as soon as I could, at age eighteen. Some of my experience with the fascinating naturalization process, including taking the oath in the Gerald R. Ford Museum’s auditorium, eventually turned into material for Short Girls. While I don’t think someone has to be a U.S. citizen in order to be an American or feel like an American, I do think the process of naturalization is significant. Wouldn’t it be interesting if everyone, whether born here or not, could choose to take the citizenship test and oath? It certainly made me further appreciate what it means to be an American, especially given how this country has been shaped by waves of immigration. My family, and Van and Linny’s family, have been a part of one of those waves, and that context, that history, is central to the formation of familial and personal identity.

Q. As a petite woman yourself, are you simply using height as a metaphor for difference or do you think life in America is more challenging for short people?

Shortness is something that really can’t be changed, no matter how high of a heel one tries to wear (and I’ve tried!). So short people have to make do. In Short Girls, I made use of all the height jokes and minor annoyances—like having to hem all of my clothes, or having tall people sit in front of me in theaters—that I’ve dealt with over the years. The more resonant, metaphorical aspect of shortness is feeling diminutive, or overlooked, or not taken seriously, or the feeling that full access to the great wonderful world is somehow out of reach. Just the other day I read about another study that showed that in the workforce, taller people are paid more than short people. News like that would come as no surprise to Dinh Luong, the father in Short Girls. His inventions aimed at improving the lives of short people are genuine and literal, but they’re also representative of his desire for visibility and equality. He wants to be seen.

I actually think short people and tall people have a lot in common. Both groups tend to have an acute awareness of the body, and can understand the longing to fit in with the more average-sized crowd, which is to say the longing to fit in with what often feels like the rest of the “normal” world.

Q. Being a writer—rather than a lawyer or dentist—does not seem to be high on the typical immigrant’s list of his or her child’s potential career choices. How does your family feel about your occupation?

I’m grateful that my family has been wonderfully supportive about my career path. It helped that my stepmom was a teacher who believed in the value of a liberal arts education. Most of my Asian American friends did not have the same experience, and I wanted Van and Linny to feel the pressure that second-generation kids so often struggle with: feeling torn between obligation to their parents, who uprooted their entire lives for the sake of their families, and the desire for personal pursuits. Van is the more dutiful daughter; she excels in academics, becomes a lawyer, and marries the seemingly right guy. Linny is the rebellious one, more interested in boys than school, and she’s still searching for a career path. Yet how Van and Linny end up in the novel, and how they handle the consequences of their obedience to or avoidance of duty, turns out to be both ironic and necessary to their progress as sisters and as individuals.

Q. You, like Van and Linny, grew up in Michigan. Do you wish you’d grown up in California or New York? How do you imagine your experience would have been different?

When I was a kid I was fascinated with coastal cities, big cities, and metropolitan areas in general. Much of this was due to the isolation I felt growing up in the suburban, western Michigan town where my refugee family was resettled in 1975. But growing up Vietnamese American in a mostly white community ended up providing me with experiences and perspectives that shaped my concept of identity and, definitely, my writing. I keep going back to the immigrant experience in the Midwest—the great expanses, the “heartland,” so-called “flyover country”—and writing about the uncertainty, difference, assimilation, isolation, and ultimately, rootedness, that can come with it. I wanted Van and Linny and their father to have varying degrees of that experience too, and in a way represent Midwestern immigrant/second-generation points of view: Dinh Luong is an immigrant who has made a home of where he’s landed; Van has mixed feelings about where she belongs, but ends up feeling most at home in Michigan; and Linny longs to escape to the “big city” of Chicago.

Q. Your memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, focused on food as a means of assimilation. In Short Girls, food—such as Van’s taste for American fast food and Miles’s disapproval of it, Linny’s job at You Did It Dinners and her perfect cha gio—also has a role in this novel. Why is food such an important part of your writing?

I love reading, writing, and thinking about food and food culture, so I guess it’s no surprise that the subject keeps appearing in my work! In Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, I used the metaphor of food as a way to explore identity and American culture. In Short Girls, food can reveal aspects of characters’ identities. For example, when Van sneaks fast food it’s because she knows Miles would disapprove of her eating it, which in turn speaks to their marital tension and lack of communication: she’s hiding a part of her true self from him, and he’s exerting controlling behavior over her. Linny’s job at You Did It Dinners is another way I wanted to reveal character and tension. Her work involves cooking and developing recipes, something she enjoys, but she also feels restricted by the company’s goal of creating easy freezer-to-oven family meals, which are contrasted against the traditional Vietnamese dishes her late mother once taught her to make. The job forces Linny to think about her own relationship with family.

I think food is one of my literary and real-life obsessions because it can be both quotidian and monumental. The ordinary omelet or cha gio can take on enormous personal, social, and cultural meaning, depending on who prepares them or for whom, or for what occasion. At the same time, food is of course a daily necessity. It both is and symbolizes sustenance, socioeconomic status, desire, and consumerism.

Q. Van is envious of Miles’s self-confidence and believes it comes from being a fourth-generation Chinese American. How is the Chinese American experience different from the Vietnamese American experience? Encompassing so many diverse cultures, does the term Asian American mean anything beyond geography of origin?

Even though Van and Miles share some similarities of experience that we might lump under the broader term of Asian American identity—such as always looking “foreign” or having to deal with certain stereotypes—her perspective as a second-generation Midwesterner is necessarily different from his perspective as a fourth-generation west coaster. Because Miles’s family has been in the U.S. for decades, and because there’s such a strong Asian American community in the San Francisco area where he grew up, Van sometimes feels, albeit irrationally, that he is more legitimately established or “American” than she is. After all, the earliest waves of Asian immigration—from China, Japan, and the Philippines—began in the nineteenth century. Vietnamese immigrants, on the other hand, by and large didn’t arrive in the U.S. until the 1970s, and they came as refugees. Van can’t help seeing Miles’s self-confidence as a kind of manifestation of his rootedness in America. She longs for the same—she longs to belong—and in a way she uses her marriage as a guise of belonging. It takes her a while to figure out that she has to find a sense of rootedness on her own.

Q. Van’s marriage fails and Linny, it seems, can only allow herself to be emotionally intimate with Tom—a Vietnamese American with a similar background. Do you believe that a shared history is necessary for a successful relationship?

Shared sensibility, I think, is more important than shared history. Van and Miles could not endure as a couple because their sensibilities, their ways of seeing the world, were too fundamentally different, and they didn’t even know how to talk about that. Had they shared similar sensibilities, they probably would have been able to create a shared history together. In regard to Linny’s character, I wanted her to realize that Tom is the first guy whose history and sensibility are compatible with hers. I do think that successful relationships, of all kinds, rely on shared outlook and understanding more than shared experience. After all, even though siblings like Van and Linny have the same history, they often clash because they have such divergent sensibilities.

Q. How was the writing process different this time around, for a novel, than it was for your last book, a memoir?

I didn’t know it at the time, but writing Stealing Buddha’s Dinner helped me get the truth out of the way, allowing me to write fiction more freely. While working on Short Girls I had many gleeful moments of thinking, “I can make up anything I want!” And so I did. While a few components of the novel were inspired by real-life observations or experiences—such as my Vietnamese American background, my shortness, my Midwestern upbringing, and my fascination with infomercials—they became, in fiction, transformed, and radically different from my actual life. I like the idea of having a happy real life and unhappy fictional characters. Charles Baxter says that stories are “hell-friendly” and that makes sense to me; fiction writers have to put their characters through hell, and see how they deal with it. It’s funny, though. With nonfiction, the truth is out there, so in a way there’s almost less to worry about. With fiction, I’m suddenly worried that people will think the characters and situations are autobiographical!

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • How does Mr. Luong’s obsession with short people affect Van and Linny? Do you think there’s some truth to his beliefs, that, for example, short people have to work extra hard to gain success?
  • After Linny sees Miles with Grace, she is uncertain of how to raise the topic with Van, thinking, “they didn’t talk the way true sisters did” (p. 156). Do you think most sisters communicate the way Linny imagines they do?
  • Was/is Mr. Luong romantically involved with Nancy Bao? How does the answer affect your opinion of the girls’ father?
  • What do you make of Lisa Bao’s plan to give her two young sons growth hormones?
  • What do you think was in the empty picture frame on Miles’s desk?
  • At the beginning of the novel, Linny envies Pren’s beautiful home and Ice Princess looks. But, by the end, she feels a kind of pity for her. What does Pren represent?
  • Van blames herself for Na Dao’s behavior but ultimately knows she cannot be responsible for his behavior. Why would someone in Na’s position risk being detained after learning the consequences?
  • In many ways, Van and Linny’s renewed intimacy with one another parallels their acknowledgment of their Vietnamese ancestry. Would one have been possible without the other?
  • Immigrants like Dinh Luong and the Baos are caught between two worlds—an America that will never quite be home and a homeland that is frozen in their memories but in reality changing every day. On the whole, are the benefits of emigrating worth the risks? Under what circumstance could you imagine leaving your homeland?
  • Class is an unspoken issue that nonetheless affects both sisters and their parents’ experience in the United States. Is class more or less likely to inspire prejudice than race in America today?
  • Do you have a sibling that you—like Van and Linny—defined yourself against? What is your relationship like now?
  • Short Girls is, in essence, a novel about the American experience. Did Van and Linny’s story remind you of any others?
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 8 of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 20, 2009

    Family Business

    'You pick your friends and you pick your enemies, but your family you're stuck with.' I don't remember who said that bit of wisdom or if he was famous, but it is a saying I've heard all my life. By the time most of us become adults we find that it is true. No matter where we wander, it's very hard to dismiss those first eighteen years. That is the topic of this book, Short Girls.
    Van and Linny Long are a set of sisters who find themselves estranged from both each other and their Vietnamese heritage. Their parents emigrated from Vietnam but they were born and grew up in America, finding it difficult to relate to their parents from such a different culture.
    They also find it difficult to relate to each other. As small children they were close, but as they grew up conflicting identities emerged. Van was the studious one and the perfect daughter, always eager to please. She went to college, married well, and appeared to have a perfect life. Linny was the more social and most American, losing the ability to speak or understand Vietnamese and dropping out of college.
    The sisters come back together to celebrate their father finally becoming an American citizen, both interrupted from crises in their own life. Van's husband has left her and Linny's affaire with a married man is ending badly. Both are shaky and fragile and in need of each other now that they are so alone. Though the hardships they begin to realize how valuable their sister is.
    This story is a wonderful tale of immigrants' children and the struggle to be both of the Old World and America. Both Van and Linny walk a sort of tight rope, trying to balance between honoring their ancestral culture and being modern as well. Neither is very successful at first. Van tries to remember her roots by using her law degree to help other immigrants. She tries to play the perfect Asian daughter and breaks when the façade crumbs.
    Linny tries to be totally a hip American, but she can not forget the past and finds solace in cooking. She is the daughter who can cook the Vietnamese recipes taught by her mother.
    Very like The Joy Luck Club, it is a tale of two women who are trying to be American while struggling against their mother's memory and the expectations of their Vietnamese heritage.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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