Banyan Moon, Thao Thai’s expansive debut novel, has its roots in isolation, the initial seed germinating in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic – a stretch when the Columbus author spent a lot of time writing about old houses and how it felt to be sequestered in a small space “with people you have a lot of feelings for.”
While present in Banyan Moon, Thai gradually expanded on these elements, traversing both continents and generations as the action shifts between 1960s Vietnam and present-day Florida. Told from the perspectives of the three Tran women – grandmother Minh, daughter Hương and granddaughter Ann – the novel explores the complex family dynamics that exist between the Vietnamese trio and how the secrets kept as a means to protect the ones we love can sometimes produce deep, unintended fissures.
Initially, Thai planned to write the novel solely from Minh’s perspective, opening with the grandmother’s death and then drilling down on her desire to control actions as they unfolded in its aftermath.
“And I was thinking about what it would be like for her to be helpless in this circumstance, and to have so many thoughts and opinions, as Asian grandmothers do, and yet not be able to have any direct influence on the people and activities in front of her,” said Thai, who will celebrate the release of Banyan Moon in discussion with novelist Lee Martin at Gramercy Books today (Monday, June 26). “But eventually the other two women just really fought for attention on the page, and I felt like I wanted to explore their interiority in more detail.”
Of the three, Minh came most easily, her strong personality taking three-dimensional shape from the first clicks of Thai’s keyboard. The other two, however, revealed themselves more slowly, with the author ruminating on the things they cared about and the various stories she envisioned they told themselves, sometimes taking a single action and then imagining how each character might process events. “Oftentimes we think of storytelling as a collection of facts,” Thai said. “But for me, it’s a collection of impressions we have about what we experienced.”
While Thai's familial bonds are far stronger than the frayed threads linking the Tran women, the author was able to draw on her experiences both as a daughter and a mother in giving the intergenerational relationships greater dimension.
Thai said the creative process invited greater dialogue with her mother, who came of age during the war in Vietnam and shared the challenges of growing up, falling in love, fighting with siblings and generally trying to find herself amid this fraught, often violent backdrop. “And I wanted to know, particularly, how she preserved her sense of hope and dreaming within that,” Thai said. “In some ways, war limited opportunities for a lot of people. But it challenged others to rise to the places they were meant to go, and I loved talking to her about that.”
Having her own daughter also served as a watershed moment for Thai, who earned her MFA in creative writing from Ohio State a decade ago but had gradually drifted away from the practice, describing the idea of writing her own book as “maybe one of those dreams that you move past.”
“But then when I had my daughter, I fell in love with books again, and it was those late nights with the Kindle, rocking her to sleep,” Thai continued. “Being among those words and among those stories, it really made me want to create something of my own.”
Thai traced her love of literature to childhood, recalling the experience of emigrating from Vietnam to Florida at age 5 and finding herself in a classroom with a limited understanding of English – a disorienting sensation the author compared with being trapped in a bubble. “You could see what was happening, but you really couldn’t understand it or have an impact on it, because you couldn’t use your language,” she said. “And so, when I finally learned English and then discovered books, it felt like a different world I had entered. And it felt transformative in a way that I had unlocked the doors to all of these things that I had no idea existed.”
And yet, Thai initially resisted the idea that she could become an author, sharing how even her rare artistic-minded relatives held down “normal” jobs, such as her uncle, a would-be painter who worked as a chef. This idea was reinforced in college, first at the University of Chicago and then at Ohio State, where students were introduced to scant few Asian American authors, making it more of a challenge for Thai to see herself existing within the form.
“I felt like I didn’t have a strong role model, and I spent a lot of time trying to imitate other people’s voices, and really the voices I thought would go over well in MFA workshops,” Thai said. “And it was only after I got some distance that I started to find my own. I had to actively shove everything aside and listen to what was inside.”
Thai said a turning point arrived in a series of essays she wrote for a lifestyle blog, which centered on subjects such as race, motherhood and identity – all concepts central to Banyan Moon. “And because none of the super literary journal-types would be reading it, I felt free to inhabit whatever voice felt most authentic,” she said. “And to see people respond to that made me realize that there was a big world out there for a lot of different kinds of readers, and that I might have readers out there, too.”