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Owner of a Lonely Heart

A Memoir

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About The Book

Named a Best Memoir of 2023 by Oprah Daily • Selected by Time, NPR, and BookPage as a Best Book of 2023

“This book…is what memoir writing in the hands of a caring, curious wunderkind can be.” —Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy

From the award-winning author of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, a powerful memoir of a mother-daughter relationship fractured by war and resettlement.

At the end of the Vietnam War, when Beth Nguyen was eight months old, she and her family fled Saigon for America. Only Beth’s mother stayed—or was left—behind, and they did not meet again until Beth was nineteen. Over the course of her adult life, she and her mother have spent less than twenty-four hours together.

Owner of a Lonely Heart is “a portrait of things left unsaid” (The New York Times), a memoir about parenthood, absence, and the condition of being a refugee: the story of Beth’s relationship with her mother. Framed by a handful of visits over the course of many years—sometimes brief, sometimes interrupted, some alone with her mother and others with the company of her sister—Beth tells an “unforgettable” (People) coming-of-age story that spans her childhood in the Midwest, her first meeting with her mother, and her own experience of parenthood.


Chapter 1: Twenty-Four Hours 1 TWENTY-FOUR HOURS
Over the course of my life I have known less than twenty-four hours with my mother. Here is how those hours came to be, and what happened in them.

I grew up in Michigan, in a mostly white town in the 1980s, pretending not to be a refugee. Back then, the idea was to forget the past and move along. Stay out of trouble. Don’t talk about the war. Don’t react to racist taunts. Behave well enough not to get noticed. And that’s what I did. I did my homework and watched television and climbed the neighbor’s plum tree. But every spring I would think about how my family had left Saigon the day before the fall of the city and the end of the war—what is known in Vietnam as the American War. I was a baby, carried by my dad and uncles and grandmother, brought by motorcycle, boat, ship, and airplane to refugee camps and eventually to a home in the United States. I would try to imagine this: literally fleeing a country, not knowing what would happen next.

It was my grandmother Noi who made the final call. She had done it before, leaving her birthplace of Hanoi for the south, when the country was divided in 1954. By the time we arrived in the United States, in the summer of 1975, she was fifty-five years old, a refugee twice over. I asked her once, years ago, How did you decide? She said, You just know. You just go. At the time, I thought it was an unsatisfying answer. That’s how far I was from understanding what she must have gone through.

When we left, my mother stayed in Saigon, or was left behind in Saigon. For many years, I wouldn’t know which phrasing was more true. But I knew not to ask about it, because no one in my family wanted to talk about my mother and no one wanted to talk about the war. I grew up knowing these were silences that needed to be kept. And it wasn’t even hard, because I had no actual memories of war and leaving. I had the privilege, instead, of getting to imagine. Silence can look like submission, but for many of us it can be a form of self-preservation.

I was ten years old when I learned that my mother had come to the United States as a refugee, too. I was nineteen when I finally met her.

The known hours I have spent with my mother have been bounded by years and miles of absence. They have taken place over six visits and twenty-six years. Always in Boston, the city where she eventually landed. Toward the end of a visit she will look at me, sitting next to her on a sofa or at a table in her apartment, and she will give a small, tired smile as if to convey, What else is there? What else is there to say? I have never called her Mom. Our hours together have been defined by what we do not say. By now, silence is the language we have with each other, and the one we know best.

The person I call Mom is my stepmom, whom my dad met and married when I was three. In real life, when I talk about my mom I’m talking about her. I use the word stepmom here, in my writing, only because the limits of language require such distinctions.

What I’m saying is that I grew up with a mom and a grandmother and I was lucky to have so much. I had no right to ask for more.

Refugees don’t fit the romantic immigrant narrative that’s so dominant in America. They are a more obvious, uncomfortable reminder of war and loss. And too often, as scholar Y?n Lê Espiritu points out, the “history of US military, economic, and political intervention… is often included only as background information—as the events that precede the refugee flight rather than as the actions that produce this very exodus.” Part of my own refugee condition is realizing that I have participated in this kind of rhetoric and erasure.

America can be ruthless to newcomers. Refugees—those who are even allowed in this country at all—are expected to become relatively self-sufficient within a year. They are supposed to pay back the cost of travel to get to the United States. And they are expected to be absolutely grateful. I watched my dad and uncles and grandmother struggle—sometimes with English, sometimes with the strange habits of Americans. Always there was a sense of not knowing how things were supposed to be done. Who would even think to tell us? In your first experience of winter and snow, how would you know what to do with an iced-over windshield? In a pre-internet world, how would you know there was a thing called a scraper? What if you threw boiling water on the car, thinking this would surely melt the ice, having no idea the glass would explode? What if in trying to navigate this new cold world you tried to ask questions at stores, but people just stared and said, I can’t understand you. Speak up. Speak English. What if people told you to go back to where you came from, all the time, as if you could, and looked at you as the enemy because they didn’t really understand the war and to them all Vietnamese were the same?

Growing up, I was afraid all the time. It was a low-lying fear that I couldn’t explain to myself or dare admit out loud. It kept me awake at night, made me feel both too seen and unseen. I think now that I was afraid of all that my family still had to figure out about American life—how far from being settled or self-sufficient we actually were. It’s why I learned to read early and copied inflected dialogue from TV shows. I memorized words, perfected them. I won school spelling bees. I tried to live in libraries. In school, I watched and learned whatever my white friends did. What they wore. What they brought for lunch. Their idioms and slang. I could be almost just like them, so long as I avoided the mirror and used powerful forms of denial whenever I was at home. I thought I could transcend my origins, as if I were never a refugee, as if I were American born, as I sometimes pretended to be. As if that would protect me.

My dad has a photograph of himself in Saigon, leaning against his prized Yamaha motorcycle. He is so young—he was twenty-eight when we left Vietnam—his hair full and wavy. His smile is a gambler’s smile. Later that motorcycle would get us from our house to the Saigon River, where we would find passage on a boat that would make its way to a U.S. naval ship out on the sea. My dad abandoned the motorcycle, of course, leaving it on the riverbank with the key because someone else would need it. His first ten years in America, he worked at a feather factory. He tried to keep the down out of his black hair, but it would settle on his jacket and clothes, a fine casting of dust that smelled to me like old sleep and Sunday mornings.

Fall is the word people always use when describing April 30, 1975, the day North Vietnamese forces took over Saigon, famously crashing tanks through the gates of the presidential palace. Whenever I heard that word, fall, I imagined bodies and buildings in slow-motion collapse. I still imagine it, because I cannot really know it. Not that day, nor the day before it—the chaos and flight, families trying to leave because there seemed no other choice.

Gallup polls from 1975 show that most Americans were against the idea of Vietnamese resettlement in the United States; polls from today show similar feelings toward refugees and asylum seekers from non-European countries. I wouldn’t have needed a poll, back when I was growing up, to know that that was true. And maybe this is why the word refugee felt suffused with shame. As artist and scholar Trinh T. Minh-ha has said, “For general Western spectatorship, Vietnam does not exist outside of the war.” The only narratives I heard about the war came from white people and their movies. Their gaze, their versions, their depiction of Vietnamese bodies as disposable, sites of violence and blame, determined the story that most Americans knew.

The prevailing message to refugees and immigrants is a demand for value: prove that you belong here; prove that you have any right to exist here. Show how much work you can do. The good refugee is invariably described as gracious, which is to say grateful. You can’t just be a person. And if you’re Asian in America, you’ll always be regarded as foreign, at least a little bit suspect, a possible carrier of diseases and viruses. For those of us who grew up here, it’s nearly impossible to avoid the effect of these views.

“When does a refugee stop being a refugee?” In asking this question, scholar Vinh Nguyen pursues the idea of “refugeetude,” an identity that “is not temporally constrained to singular events (displacement, asylum seeking, resettlement), spatially tied to specific locations (the boat, the border, the camp), or bound to the letter of the law. Instead, it is psychic, affective, and embodied.”

My relationship with the word refugee has paralleled my relationship with the word mother. Both weighty constructs, infused with assumptions. For much of my life, I felt uncomfortable with both words, a deep sense of shame. Because how could I even say them when I didn’t really know what they meant?

One morning, not long after my second child was born, I got up from a night of broken sleep with a sentence in my mind. I wrote it down: When I became a mother, I became a refugee. It took a long time to make sense of it: how inhabiting motherhood has made me inhabit the refugee identity that I hadn’t thought belonged to me, or hadn’t wanted to belong to me. But I cannot be a mother without thinking about my mothers, cannot raise children without thinking about how I was raised. In every instance, in the back of my mind, I am here, I am a mother, because I was once, because I am still, a refugee. Meaning, all the political and cultural forces that have shaped me are still shaping me. Meaning, I am always carrying my family’s stories with me, even the ones I don’t know, the ones I don’t know how to ask about. Every refugee has to bear the story of leaving. In my case, my dad and uncles fought in the war and lost. They weren’t special or rich or high-ranking; we got out because we were lucky. We didn’t know where we would end up. I lost a mother and a country and, eventually, a language. Now I’m a mother, with children who were born in the United States, children who know the word refugee more as concept than identity.

I am in between: the one and a half generation of people who were born in one country but raised in another. A once-refugee and child of refugees. An uncertain-space, liminal state, partial refugee, where all the gaps are filled with shame. I am in between mothers, in between parents, in between loss, trying to understand how the past keeps changing because we keep changing. I am hiding in plain sight. An American citizen not by birth but by need. I took the tests and paid the fees. And every April, like so many Vietnamese, I think about 1975. I try to imagine. The exit, the unknown, the trust in chance. I look at that photo of my dad with his motorcycle and am astonished by how far it has traveled, intact, across so much water and land. It is an artifact, one of the only family heirlooms we have. It is a reminder, too, of how much was left and lost. Like our bodies and our faces, it is proof of our history and of how we got here.

About The Author

Photograph by H. Nguyen

Beth Nguyen is the author of the recently published memoir Owner of a Lonely Heart, the memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, and two novels. Her work has appeared in publications including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Best American Essays. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for Nonfiction in 2024 and teaches creative writing at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (July 4, 2023)
  • Length: 256 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982196349

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Raves and Reviews

One of the Most Anticipated of the Year from USA Today, NPR, Boston Globe, and Goodreads

"Achingly beautiful... told with wrenching emotion and exquisite controlled prose. A soon-to-be classic with implications about immigration in any era."
—Oprah Daily

Owner of a Lonely Heart is not a chronological memoir. It circulates among memories, embellishing and deepening the reader’s and Nguyen’s understanding of them… A superb writer, Nguyen gives readers a tactile sense of her childhood home life and the love and anguish she felt there.”

"Nguyen grapples with vital questions of family, loss, and memory, giving voice to the oft overlooked contours of grief – and encouraging readers to reflect on their own relationships."
—Christian Science Monitor

"A portrait of things left unsaid ... this is a memoir for those late-night moments."
—New York Times Book Review

"Nguyen puts these experiences into writing, a healing recognition occurs, most movingly through her children, who are able to see and validate things she cannot."
—Washington Post

"Nguyen is a confident and reliable protagonist even when running up against painful memories, providing readers with enough distance as to almost be objective ... Nguyen has made a journey of facing her origins and contending with the limitations of American narratives, and we are lucky to be invited along the way."
—Brooklyn Rail

"Affecting ... The book is filled with honest and sometimes painful insights that Nguyen discovers in her search for truths about the past."
—New York Journal of Books

"A deep dive into the void of a mother’s absence and the silence surrounding it...Nguyen reevaluates what we call brokenness and creates hope that broken bonds can have meaning even if they are never mended to our satisfaction."
—The Christian Century

“Beth Nguyen has created a new way to ache that is as comfortable exploring loss, loneliness and longing as it is exploring the contours of joy, survival and, really, the kind of fleshy isolation necessary to make lasting art. The premise here is so compelling, but the execution is otherworldly. Every page of Owner of a Lonely Heart will have you holding your chest with one hand to eagerly turning the page with the other. This book, and the making of lives it explores, is what memoir writing in the hands of a caring, curious wunderkind can be.”
—Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy

Owner of a Lonely Heart is the autobiography of a feeling—the story of a fear you cannot name because you are one of the authors, a secret you hid even from yourself in case even this might save you. Nguyen unravels the way the child refugee she was learned to save herself, which turns out to be the final act of saving oneself—not from the country she left, but the country she found. This memoir is a distillation, the sort of cure you make from a poison but can offer to others, and she has written it with a direct, spotlit brilliance, page by careful page.”
—Alexander Chee, author of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

“Nguyen's triumph of a book is forged and fed by her searing curiosity about her refugee family's past and her jeweler's eye for precise detail – all while navigating the geography of her Midwest roots with a big, beautiful heart. A must-read for all who struggle with or celebrate complicated family. This will nourish, rend, and tend your heart.”
—Aimee Nezhukumatathil, author of World of Wonders

Owner of a Lonely Heart is, quite possibly, the most beautiful memoir I’ve ever read. It is a book about history, about family, about where and to whom we belong, and whether we ever really do. Devastating in both its sharpness and its compassion, this book is a masterpiece — truly, a gift.”
—Lacy M. Johnson, author of The Reckonings

“This brilliant, searching memoir clinches Beth Nguyen’s place among the great writers and thinkers of our day.”
—Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year and A Fortunate Age

"Quietly moving... A ruminative, unadorned, lyrical look at origins, family, and belonging."

“Ruminative… This shines as a multilayered look at the ways absence can shape one’s sense of self.”
—Publishers Weekly

"Poignant... Beautifully written and painfully honest, Nguyen's memoir reveals the struggles and prejudices refugees face and the importance of knowing your life story."

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