Banyan Moon (Mariner Books, 2023) is an expertly crafted debut novel by Thao Thai (both h’s in her name are silent) that spans three generations of women from pre-wartime Vietnam to a rundown mansion in the wild swamplands of the Florida coast. At its core, Banyan Moon is about the mothers and daughters of the Tran family, their long-reaching secrets, and the intensity of their love and conflicts with one another (and their partners and fathers).
Banyan Moon was the July 2023 Read with Jenna title, a selection for Book of the Month, and a longlisted title for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. Thao’s essays have been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Elle, Lit Hub, Catapult, Cup of Jo, and others.
I met Thao virtually while writing for Cubby at Home, the parenting site for The Kitchn and Apartment Therapy, for which she was then an editor. I was struck by her talents—and her generosity in extending a compliment, explaining an edit, and building our relationship.
I was thrilled to have spent time face-to-face with Thao Thai via Zoom to discuss her work. Our interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Jodie Sadowsky: Did you ever imagine this reception to Banyan Moon?
Thao Thai: You hope someone will read your book, but the attention has been wild and fun and not at all expected. Even though I have an MFA in creative writing, I worked in graphic design and computer programming and only started writing professionally during the past five or six years, so writing is very much a second-chance career for me.
JS: How did you step in and out of your writing career?
TT: I was an avid reader, but I didn’t see people in creative careers, certainly not in my family or my small town. I’m a first-generation immigrant so writing wasn’t something I was told I could or should do.
I thought I might teach creative writing or English literature. I applied to MFA programs and focused on my craft. I read a lot and learned to take critique and edits. After my MFA program, I submitted my memoir to several agents. I didn’t have the sense of the persistence needed to get a book deal and I had student loans to repay, so I leaned on my graphic design background and worked in the field for a decade. But the writing called me back, especially in motherhood.
JS: You’ve written and edited nonfiction essays for many years. Is it a relief to remove the focus from yourself with fiction?
TT: I began my MFA as a fiction writer. I switched to nonfiction; now I’m back to fiction. I may be ping-ponging for the rest of my life!
The two genres are different but complementary. Nonfiction teaches you essential skills about interiority, how to build a convincing sense of character, and how to play and figure out what you want to say. You might not necessarily have the answers right away. Most of the nonfiction essays I write are based more on a question than an answer. That sense of curiosity helps my fiction.
Fiction allows me to explore and dive into my obsessions. For example, I’m weaving my love for the art world into fiction with a literary suspense novel set to release in 2025.
JS: What are the obsessions that appear in Banyan Moon?
TT: I am obsessed with houses, and particularly, the concept of inherited homes. In our village in Chau Doc, Vietnam, my grandparents built a house with three stories with the intention of our different generations living on different floors. We moved to America before the generations began filling out, but intergenerational living was a deep obsession of mine. The pandemic lockdown gave us a taste of the claustrophobia that develops when people are trapped together while dealing with personal struggles, inherited traumas, and complicated family systems.
The symmetry of the landscapes of Vietnam and Florida provided a lovely resonance to explore: the tropical weather, the flourishing vegetation, and the proximity to water. And banyan trees, too, grow in Vietnam and many places in the states, though they are a rarity in Florida.
JS: When Ann, the youngest of the Tran women, returns to the Banyan House as a twenty-something, she’s been estranged from her mother Huong for years. There’s some lovely tenderness but also bitterness, what you describe as the “snapping together and coming apart.” Do these waves of gratitude and resentment between mothers and daughters feel autobiographical, cultural, or universal?
TT: I think this happens in most mother-daughter relationships, even if it’s not acknowledged. Amid such intimacy, there necessarily arises all these emotions of gratitude, resentment, joy, but also this burbling kind of anger, while you are trying to find your individuality within co-dependent relationships.
You feel it as a daughter and as a parent. Our ideas of motherhood are often based in sacrifice and martyrdom and giving up parts of yourself. But in that giving up, even as you’re happy in your motherhood, there is also a part of you that wonders about the different lives you might’ve had.
Humans are complicated. We have so many emotions. Sometimes, it’s not this or that; it’s both. That’s the point of humanity, what I find beautiful and compelling. I wanted to explore how you could love so intensely and yet feel this darkness and alienation.
When we’re younger, we want things to be very simple and see our parents in a certain way. As the years accumulate, there is more of a tolerance for nuance. As we gather experiences, we develop more empathy, and we’re willing to entertain the possibility of other people needing our forgiveness and being willing to give that to ourselves. Much of the book, particularly the ending, is about this journey to forgiveness.
JS: Ann’s mother, Huong, asks a powerful question: “What could the men who hurt us have been, had they been loved enough?” Does this not being “loved enough” excuse some of your characters’ bad behavior?
TT: By the phrase “loved enough,” I don’t necessarily mean within the immediate family systems, but more in a societal sense. The idea that patriarchy does as much harm to men as it does to women—I find that true in this book, in terms of the expectations put upon men, whether too high, for toxic masculinity purposes, or too low, in terms of empathy and responsibility.
When writing some of the immigrant characters, I thought about concepts of masculinity within Asian American culture and how that translates when you arrive in the States, where many men are devalued both as providers and intellectuals but also as men existing among other men. I’ve seen this call to prove one’s masculinity and to push against the harm done to you by channeling that into harming those even more vulnerable.
JS: The voices of the three generations ring familiar, but there’s also a strong contemporary feel. What writers or books influenced your storytelling?
TT: Jesmyn Ward’s poetry with language is beautiful. She puts her characters in peril, yet that peril brings out the most sublime parts of their humanity.
Lauren Groff does place like no other—that sense of the tangibility of place. Her book, Matrix, is about an enclave of nuns living in the 13th century who are fighting for their autonomy in a society that does not value their ability to subsist on their own. Although the characters are not speaking in slang, there’s something very contemporary about their struggles.
Both the joy and the tragedy of writing a book like Banyan Moon is that a lot of the struggles are ahistorical in the sense we are still fighting for our voice as women. Minh, Ann’s grandmother, grew up 50 years ago, and Ann grew up in the present day, and they are experiencing the same struggle. There’s a beautiful symmetry to that, but it’s devastating to imagine someone writing a book after 50 years about the very same struggle.
JS: I wondered about the scene where Ann’s first and last names are jumbled. What has your name meant to you?
TT: When I was growing up, nobody could pronounce my name. People then weren’t as aware of how important it was to get names right. I was bashful about it but at a certain point, I felt I deserved to be called by my actual name. If you don’t know how to pronounce a name, it’s so simple to ask.
My parents were married, but my father was prone to disappearing. When my mother gave birth, he was nowhere to be found. My mom was exhausted and grieving. My grandfather stepped in with empathy for my mother, understanding she would be alone in the world except for me because she couldn’t depend on her husband. He gave me the name Thao, which means filial obedience, or filial closeness, this sense of being tied to your ancestors and having a deep sense of respect for them. I think he hoped my name would prophesy my relationship with my mother, that it would be the two of us against the world.
Growing up, I didn’t relate to that. I didn’t feel terribly obedient. I felt rebellious in my inner life. I didn’t necessarily want the life that my family wanted for me. When my mom married my stepdad and became a citizen, I became a citizen and had the opportunity to legally change my name. That’s what I’d wanted—to Americanize my name, to become someone new instead of the person whose name was mispronounced on the playground every day. I thought I’d be Christine. And I would have taken my stepfather’s name; he was white, so I would’ve had an Anglo name.
But at the last minute, I couldn’t do it. I loved that part of my grandfather was inside of me. And my last name is my dad’s last name, and no one in my family has that last name. It felt important to acknowledge my heritage, even if it’s not the prettiest thing. By the time I married, I’d been publishing under my name and had such a strong identification with it, and I had already made the choice to keep it.
JS: What guidance do you have for other literary mamas?
TT: We are often the first people to dismiss ourselves. Some of this is cultural. Women are taught from a young age to minimize their dreams and ambitions. I was apologetic about my writing because it wasn’t bringing in household income and took time away from my family.
Thankfully, my husband urged me to treat my work as a serious vocation, not a hobby. We spent some savings on a hotel weekend where I could work. As I only have one child and a supportive spouse who is completely present, I have some privileges that made it easier for me to write a book while working and doing childcare.
The first step of building a writing career: you have to be the first person to take yourself seriously. The moment you do, I find the rest of the world follows. Don’t apologize for what you love, don’t apologize for what you need. The example you set for your kids is immeasurable, if you reveal your willingness to throw yourself into something hard and the confidence that it will pay off.
JS: Many lines in the book echo that radical support. When Ann considers her boyfriend, Noah, she thinks, “I’ll wait for truer, I’ll wait for better.” Minh says, “I just want Huong to seize her own fate, to lead with will rather than by another man’s promise.” What lessons do you hope your daughter will take away from the Tran women someday?
TT: One of the hardest things about being a person in the world is feeling alone in your emotion, that the thing you’re feeling this deeply, this painfully—you feel you’re the first and only person to have felt it. If my daughter were to read Banyan Moon one day, I want her to feel she has a companion in her pain. I hope that she will feel that there is a wide net of women, her mothers, her friends, her people out there who will hold her, even some in her ancestral line who she has never met. I want her to feel held and seen by this book.