Abbi Nguyen’s hope of and hard work towards publishing her short story—and Capstone—“Banana Tree” paid off after she submitted to about twenty fiction magazines, as it will appear in not one but two literary journals: Missing Slate (electronic only) and Bad Version (print).
And this isn’t even her first success. Her story “The Foreign Dream” about a girl who sells helmets and finds herself fascinated by foreigners appeared in Blaze Vox this past winter as well. Both “Banana Tree” and “The Foreign Dream” deal with the lives of people living in Vietnam without the clichés now associated with this setting, something she surprised herself with since she never really dived into this area before: “I realized that’s what I really wanted to do. I believe a lot of our emotional connections relate to geography, landscape, places where we grew up. I have been away from my homeland for eight years now, but my experiences there as a child are deeply ingrained.”
Whether or not she writes about this emotionally charged location, though, Creative Writing Professor Craig Wright comments that Abbi has a natural gift and “willingness to take on more serious human subject matters” as well as “an ability to connect to the reader’s emotions” subtly through her storytelling. As he put it, she has a “pure presentation” and “lyrical quality” to her writing that makes people notice. He commented that his WR 241 students who heard her read “Banana Tree” at the St Valentine’s Day Massacre reading event last February were enthusiastic about her writing even though “they couldn’t put their finger on why they liked her…as if the story speaks for itself.”
While Abbi stated that she found his assistance very helpful on her drafts of “Banana Tree” in his Advanced Fiction Writing class, Wright remarks that the only help he provided was “trying to [help her] distinguish between what’s coming across…and what’s just nice,” with her readiness to be hard on herself and her writing being the most useful tool for her when refining the piece by reordering sentences and constructing the narrative to come across most effectively.
When asked why she writes, Abbi responded, “It is the only way I can express myself, to make sense of the world. If you know me, I am a pretty inadequate speaker, stumbling over my words and getting way too nervous. I am mute when I’m not writing.” While perhaps not quite mute off the page, Wright commented that her normally timid-sounding voice “greatly contrasts her writing voice,” which has details that “can call attention just by being there.”
But as in any story—even a non-fiction one—one wants to know what comes next. For Abbi, she intends to attend graduate school for her MFA while also wanting to write a novel and compile a short story collection, saying she hopes to contribute to the “many stories out there about identity crisis and being a perpetual foreigner wherever one goes” while also exemplifying “the lives of Vietnamese people in Vietnam, without connections to the war.” She goes on to say “I intend to show modern Vietnam, not in terms of technology, but just people struggling with life as they do anywhere else in the world. Underneath it all, we are the same.”
Excerpt from “The Foreign Dream”:
“Linh has heard of them before—the girls of the night—they were hunters, scouring their territory, swarming like a disease through District One and Three. They were perhaps the lowest class of their kind, vagrants who slept in different beds when night fell. In Ho Chi Minh City, there were other professional fronts like hairdresser, masseuse, hostess, that served the same purpose—men with money.”
Excerpt from “Banana Tree”:
“Under the banana tree was a straw mat. The farmers usually gathered there at mid noon, taking a nap, sharing lunch or a piece of gossip. They would break the leaves off the branches to fan themselves. At night, it was a spot faraway enough from the marsh and safe from water snakes. She had heard their footsteps crunching on the dry leaves and turned out the oil lamp. Back pressed against the cold cement wall, she pulled her knees to her chest and listened to a succession of suppressed giggles and irregular breathing.”
CAS Student Intern