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Q&A with Thao Thai - Banyan Moon

Banyan Moon

By Elle Summers

We are thrilled to introduce Thao Thai to The Reading Corner to talk about her new release Banyan Moon out on the 13th of June 2023.

When Ann Tran gets the call that her fiercely beloved grandmother, Minh, has passed away, her life is already at a crossroads. In the years since she’s last seen Minh, Ann has built a seemingly perfect life—a beautiful lake house, a charming professor boyfriend, and invites to elegant parties that bubble over with champagne and good taste—but it all crumbles with one positive pregnancy test. With both her relationship and carefully planned future now in question, Ann returns home to Florida to face her estranged mother, Huơng.

Back in Florida, Huơng is simultaneously mourning her mother and resenting her for having the relationship with Ann that she never did. Then Ann and Huơng learn that Minh has left them both the Banyan House, the crumbling old manor that was Ann’s childhood home, in all its strange, Gothic glory. Under the same roof for the first time in years, mother and daughter must face the simmering questions of their past and their uncertain futures, while trying to rebuild their relationship without the one person who’s always held them together.

Running parallel to this is Minh’s story, as she goes from a lovestruck teenager living in the shadow of the Vietnam War to a determined young mother immigrating to America in search of a better life for her children. And when Ann makes a shocking discovery in the Banyan House’s attic, long-buried secrets come to light as it becomes clear how decisions Minh made in her youth affected the rest of her life—and beyond.

Spanning decades and continents, from 1960s Vietnam to the wild swamplands of the Florida coast, Banyan Moon is a stunning and deeply moving story of mothers and daughters, the things we inherit, and the lives we choose to make out of that inheritance.

Banyan Moon

I want to start by taking the time to thank you for the opportunity of reading this amazing book. The exploration of familial relationships fractured by time and experience was crafted in such a genuine way, and I really enjoyed the human reflection of Minh, Hương and Ann!

Thank you so much for these words, Elle! I’m really happy Banyan Moon resonated with you. As Banyan Moon is your debut novel, I would love to hear how you found the publishing process and to learn a little more about the journey this book has taken you on?

I’m very fortunate to have had the experience I did with my debut! I received my MFA almost fifteen years ago and experienced some hard writing setbacks afterwards. I stopped writing for nearly a decade, in fact, but after I gave birth to my daughter, I felt a rush of creative energy again. Around the time I was really getting deep into writing Banyan Moon, my agent, Abby Walters, reached out and asked to meet for coffee. She’d read my published essays and wanted to know if I’d ever considered writing a novel. I shared my manuscript with her and thankfully, she loved it. She put it in the hands of my talented editor at Mariner, Molly Gendell, who worked tirelessly with me on revisions to bring out the story more fully. Since then, this whole process has been full of the most wonderful and memorable moments. From the cover design that I love so much to the stellar marketing and publicity campaigns, I have felt supported every step of the way. Every person who worked with me on the book had read it and felt connected to it in their own way, and that showed in the amount of effort they put into shepherding it out into the world. Banyan Moon could not have been handled with more tender care. I’m lucky!

Could you please tell us a little about the biggest challenge you faced in publishing

Banyan Moon?

I’ve dealt with a lot of imposter syndrome all my life (haven’t we all?!), and that old chestnut reared up mightily as I neared the finish line to publishing my novel. I could hear many of the bad-faith voices in my head, asking me why this book should be in the world, why I thought I deserved to have a dream like this come true. As writers, we’re often told that our dreams are too big, that we should find our way to more practical vocations. I took those voices seriously for much too long. In some ways, the biggest roadblocks that emerged were ones put up by my own mind!

It is undeniable that Minh, Hương and Ann are all strong women in their own right. Was it important for you that the female voices in your novel were presented this way?

I’ve met very few—if any—women that haven’t been full of magnificent resilience, especially in a world that often tries to deny their personhood and autonomy. One of my blessings in life is to be surrounded by women who resist in unexpected ways, by choosing to embody their truths through word and action. If I would choose one word to describe the Tran women—Minh, Huơng, and Ann—I’d call them fierce. We need that ferocity, as mothers and as children and as thinking beings in the world!

I thoroughly enjoyed the element of mystery that surrounds the plot of Banyan Moon

with each character living their own lives, with their own secrets. As the novel concludes, there are still unspoken truths between the three women - do you think that the relationship had to continue in this underlying fractured way in order to not undermine all the women have been through?

It could have gone either way. We sometimes see in book and movie narratives that secrets release into the world, and then there’s some kind of tidy resolution. But that’s not always what happens in real life. So many secrets stay buried—or they pass to one person, but not everyone in a family. It’s like a game of hot potato; who’ll be left holding the secret at the end? But even without complete transparency in relationships, there can exist a lot of love, loyalty, and healing. I hope that came through in Banyan Moon.

From the acknowledgements in your novel, it is clear that you have a strong family support

network as an author. How did you find putting yourself in the shoes of women who at points feel completely alone in the world? Well, again, it’s that idea of holding nuance in relationships. They’re never static; people come together and snap apart at different points in their lives. I’m very fortunate to have the relationships I do now with my family, but it was certainly not always like that when I was younger. There were periods of great pain and estrangement on both sides, and I had moments of feeling alone. And ultimately, I bet we all feel alone at different points of our lives, no matter how stalwart our support systems. While tremendously difficult, that sense of aloneness can bring about some startling transformations, as it does in Banyan Moon.

I love how the Banyan House takes on the role of a character itself. For me, the house feels

inextricably linked to Minh and her dreams of America. What did you take inspiration from when thinking about the look of this house?

I grew up on the coast of Florida, and the homes there range in styles, from beachy cape cods to Spanish colonial homes to flat ranch houses. The architecture is very much a mark of the diverse history behind Florida and its inhabitants. I liked the idea of a home that seemed to embody a bit of everything, with a large dose of Gothic decay. Not far from my childhood home, there was a great estate owned by John and Mabel Ringling (of circus tycoon fame). As a kid, I loved walking past the oceanfront terraces, the rose gardens, the big stately rooms and imagining myself living in those spaces. The Banyan House is at once a home of my dreams and my nightmares. It lured me in!

It was a pleasure to read about a different culture through your work, I found the references to

Vietnam touching and eye-opening. Yet, there are also moments where the idea of identity and belonging are tested. Please can you tell us a little more about the themes of belonging that run throughout this novel?

Thanks, Elle! I couldn’t write about the diasporic experience without a sense of alienation weaving throughout the book. So many immigrants and People of Color feel othered in public spaces, marked for differences that aren’t necessarily celebrated by everyone. I know few immigrants who haven’t felt uncertain in their new land, with all the changes in language and customs. So you want to build security for yourself, which often comes with lots of questions about identity and, as you say, belonging. But aside from the particularities of the diasporic experience, people often don’t feel they belong in their families of origin, their hometowns, their friendships and marriages, even. Part of the isolation we feel is a natural product of being individuals struggling to connect with others, but I do feel that’s amplified and complicated sometimes as an immigrant in a new country.

Following on from my previous question, do you think the traditions and rituals brought about

through religion in your novel were important for providing moments of belonging and peace for your characters?

I don’t have an organized religion, but I love a ritual. They create meditative spaces for people to come together and exist in tradition. That’s beautiful to me. Ann and Huơng return to religious rituals not because they believe in religion per se, but because they want to inhabit something familiar in a time of great distress. There’s incredible power there.

Where can people find your wonderful novel? Thank you for asking! You can get a copy from any retailer, but my favorites are Bookshop and Gramercy Books, my local store that ships around the country!

Banyan Moon

Thao Thai is a writer living in Ohio with her husband and daughter. Her work engages with tangled family relationships and the intersections of motherhood and identity. She’s been published in Cup of Jo, Eater, Catapult, Sunday Long Read, and more. A recipient of the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund, she has also been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes and earned fellowships in creative writing. She received her MFA from The Ohio State University and her MA from The University of Chicago.

Thao's Instagram: @thao_writes


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