By Samantha Pak
Northwest Asian Weekly
A Phở Love Story
By Loan Le
Simon & Schuster, 2021
Meet Bảo Nguyễn and Linh Mai, two Vietnamese American teens who go to the same high school and whose families both own phở restaurants. You’d think they would’ve bonded over these similarities and became friends. But for as long as either can remember, their families have been at odds, as their competing restaurants are just across the street from each other.
Because of their feuding families, Bảo and Linh have avoided each other for most of their lives. But a chance encounter brings them together and before either knows what’s happening, they’ve become friends—and begin developing feelings for something more. As the two get to know each other better, they begin to suspect the animosity between their families is more than just friendly competition. What Bảo and Linh discover is a complicated history that goes back to before they were even born and seemingly insurmountable obstacles conspiring to keep them apart.
In addition to a sweet “Romeo and Juliet-esque” love story about a pair of star-crossed lovers, Le does a great job of weaving Bảo and Linh’s budding relationship with the stories of their families—both back in Vietnam and once they arrive in the United States. The trauma the Nguyễns and Mais experienced during the Vietnam War didn’t disappear just because they came to a new country. It has a lingering effect and that is something a lot of people with immigrant backgrounds can relate to.
Speaking of relating to, there were so many things Bảo and Linh experienced that took me back to my teen years. From discovering and embracing their passions for writing and art, respectively, to figuring out how to be honest with their parents about certain aspects of their lives, I’ve definitely been there. Tweak just a few of the details, and that’s basically my adolescence on the page.
And then, there’s the food. In addition to phở, Le describes a variety of Vietnamese dishes—some I knew and some I didn’t—that will have you craving so many things. I don’t recommend you read this book on an empty stomach.
My Brother’s Husband, Volumes 1 and 2
By Gengoroh Tagame
As a stay-at-home suburban dad in Tokyo, Yaichi is the main caretaker of his daughter, Kana. His days are spent taking her to school, cooking her meals, and occasionally coordinating family time with his ex-wife and Kana’s mother, Natsuki, who he is still friends with. The small family’s life is suddenly turned upside down when a large Canadian named Mike Flanagan shows up on Yaichi’s doorstep, claiming to be the widower of Yaichi’s estranged twin Ryoji. Mike is on a quest to learn more about Ryoji’s past and Yaichi reluctantly takes him in and plays host.
As Yaichi and Kana show Mike around Tokyo and Japan, Mike shares with them stories about his life with Ryoji, who had died just a month prior to Mike’s visit. Yaichi, who hadn’t seen his twin in about 10 years, learns a side of his brother he hadn’t known.
“My Brother’s Husband” gives readers a glimpse into Japan’s largely still-closeted gay culture. While it’s understandable for school-aged Kana to learn about what it means to be gay, we see Yaichi also learn and come to terms with how his relationship with his brother changed after Ryoji came out to him.
Tagame delivers messages of love, acceptance, and family in a story that is accessible to readers of all ages. I particularly enjoyed his depiction of family and how it can come in all shapes and forms. With Yaichi as a single dad and Natsuki working full-time, the traditional gender roles are reversed, but it’s noted that this is becoming more common in Japan. So when Mike shows up, we see how Yaichi realizes that love also comes in all shapes and forms.
As a manga, “My Brother’s Husband” is told largely through pictures. Tagame conveys the characters’ emotions in just a few panels and as someone who doesn’t regularly read this medium (it took a minute to get used to reading right to left), I came to appreciate the phrase, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
The Mountains Sing
By Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai
Algonquin Books, 2020
Every family has its fair share of grief and trauma, and the Trần family is no exception. From matriarch Trần Diệu Lan, born in 1920 and forced to flee the family farm with her six children during the Land Reform, to her granddaughter Hương, coming of age in Hà Nội amid a conflict that is tearing their country apart, Quế Mai takes readers on a multigenerational journey with the family, set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.
Told from Hương’s and Diệu Lan’s alternating perspectives, “Mountains” is the story about a family torn apart by conflict—both within and from outside forces. We see the lengths members of the Trần family go through to find their way back to each other. And how even when they are back together, it can still be a struggle—especially in the aftermath of a war.
While stories about the Vietnam War are not difficult to find, Quế Mai’s story is somewhat unique—at least in the United States—in that she gives readers the perspective of Vietnamese people, showing us the human cost of war. We also get to see the story about a family who never left and are working alongside their neighbors to rebuild their country. I read a lot of books about people starting over in a new country (see this entire column), so it was a nice change to read a story about people starting over in a place they’d been their whole lives but is also starting over in a way.
Quế Mai also introduced me to Vietnamese history beyond the war—my knowledge of which was already extremely limited—specifically the Land Reform as the Communist government rose in the north. She also shows that erasure in history happens everywhere, as one of the characters note that it would be difficult to find information on the movement because the powers that be don’t want to highlight mistakes in the country’s history.
Samantha can be reached at email@example.com.