Thao Thai is the author of Banyan Moon, a Summer/Fall 2023 Indies Introduce selection.
Thai is a writer based out of Ohio, where she lives with her husband and daughter. Her work is published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, WIRED, Elle, Lit Hub, Electric Lit, Catapult, The Sunday Long Read, Cup of Jo, and other publications. Both h’s in her name are silent.
Thu Doan of East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, California served on the panel that selected Thai’s debut for Indies Introduce. Doan said of the book, “Delicately expressed from the lenses of Minh, Hương, and Ann, three generations of fierce and enigmatic Vietnamese American women, Banyan Moon is a rich and sweeping narrative that shows us the complexities of family, the tenderness that humans owe to one another, and our determination to break toxic cycles. But most importantly, that imperfection is freedom. Such a moving read!”
Here, Thai and Doan discuss Banyan Moon.
Thu Doan: What inspired you to write Banyan Moon?
Thao Thai: In the years after I gave birth to my daughter, I was thinking a lot about motherhood, especially the more complicated aspects I rarely heard people discuss. In my experience, relationships are ever changing; few are locked in stasis because humans are so prone to evolution. We go through the years snapping apart at various times, but also coming back together again. That’s the pain and relief of motherhood, that you’re always going to be somewhat separate from your children. There can be a lot of secrets and darkness between mothers and daughters, but also deep love and hope. And within the alienation and Gothic intrigue of the Banyan House, there was a sense of claustrophobia that heightened many of those tensions I was interested in. Ultimately, this is a story for all the survivors out there — of war and violence, of heartbreak and the transformative experience of motherhood.
TD: Banyan Moon is about three generations of Vietnamese American women, Minh the matriarch, Hương, and Ann. These three women share blood, have lived together, learned from each other, and hold deep and intimate feelings for each other. Can you talk about some of the challenges or things you’ve learned when writing characters that could be alike in so many ways but at the same time nuanced? How do you make them each stand out in their own way?
TT: Interestingly, Banyan Moon was originally narrated solely from Minh, the grandmother’s, perspective. I liked the thought of her weighing in on her daughter and granddaughter’s decisions from the afterlife, nearly as meddlesome as she was in life. But the other voices fought to be heard. I could feel Hương’s complicated gratitude towards her mother, Ann’s desperate desire to be free of her childhood home. I wanted the book to feel like a tapestry of motherhood at various phases, and the only way to do that was to unite the three narrative strands. To make them distinct, I thought about the different pressures they each faced: for Minh, it was survival in a new country; for Hương, it was the impact of her treacherous marriage; and for Ann, it was the weight of betrayal and grief, mingled together.
TD: Minh, Hương, and Ann are from different generations and circumstances so I think it’s natural that they would have issues with communication. If you could assign or invent a love language or preferred method of self-expression for each woman, what would it be and why?
TT: I love this question! It’s clear to me that Minh would appreciate actions. She’s decisive and resolute, prone to thinking of her life in terms of the practical next steps, and she values those who can fulfill their promises. Hương needs words of affirmation; or, more accurately, she’s easily swayed by them. Because she never got enough verbal validation from Minh, she wants someone to articulate their love aloud. Ann, I feel, is a person who is drawn to the sensuous world: the feel of the ocean breeze, the kicks of her new baby, the pull of intimacy.
TD: The title refers to a folktale that Minh tells Hương to soothe and distract her during a stressful situation. The same folktale also weaves its way throughout the novel. Did you grow up with any folktales and what impressions did they have on you?
TT: I did! The seed of Banyan Moon was an image of a locked trunk I used to see in my mind, from a Bluebeard-like folk tale my mother used to tell me as a child. I come from a great line of storytellers and we’d often spend evenings listening to the stories of my family’s lives or the tales that’d be handed down to them over the generations. Folklore has always felt to me as less of a practice, and more of a space of the imagination that you can return to. The shared, communal aspect of a folk tale, as well as its oral nature, creates a different sort of narrative magic that can feel larger and more epic than other storytelling modes. One day I’ll tell my daughter the same folk tales I was told as a child, and I imagine it’ll feel like a sort of homecoming.
TD: Book endings can feel either resolved, leaving the reader with all their questions answered or left to the reader’s imagination, up for interpretation. Banyan Moon is both, which I love because, that’s kind of how life is, and it makes the story of these incredible women feel so real. How did you decide which plots/themes to wrap up and which to let run free?
TT: Thank you for these lovely words! I love ambivalence in story endings because they feel like an invitation for a reader to complete the story. Yet, at the same time, I know how important it is to honor your characters with a sense of resolution — after all, they traveled so far to get to where they ended up. The narrative arcs that were important to me were those centered around the relationships in Banyan Moon. How will Ann resolve her feelings with her mother? How does Hương find peace with her mother’s death? And even in the afterlife, how can Minh finally let go? These are the questions that felt urgent and necessary to answer. The rest of the endings — I leave those up to readers. I can’t wait to hear their interpretations on the Tran women’s lives!
Banyan Moon by Thao Thai (Mariner Books, 9780063267107, Hardcover Fiction, $30) On Sale: 6/27/2023.
Find out more about the author on her website.
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