Today’s author interview guests are Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao, authors of Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter.
A dual first-person memoir by the acclaimed Vietnamese-American novelist and her thoroughly American teenage daughter
In 1975, thirteen-year-old Lan Cao boarded an airplane in Saigon and got off in a world where she faced hosts she had not met before, a language she didn’t speak, and food she didn’t recognize, with the faint hope that she would be able to go home soon. Lan fought her way through confusion, and racism, to become a successful lawyer and novelist. Four decades later, she faced the biggest challenge in her life: raising her daughter Harlan–half Vietnamese by birth and 100 percent American teenager by inclination. In their lyrical joint memoir, told in alternating voices, mother and daughter cross ages and ethnicities to tackle the hardest questions about assimilation, aspiration, and family.
Lan wrestles with her identities as not merely an immigrant but a refugee from an unpopular war. She has bigoted teachers who undermine her in the classroom and tormenting inner demons, but she does achieve–either despite or because of the work ethic and tight support of a traditional Vietnamese family struggling to get by in a small American town. Lan has ambitions, for herself, and for her daughter, but even as an adult feels tentative about her place in her adoptive country, and ventures through motherhood as if it is a foreign landscape.
Reflecting and refracting her mother’s narrative, Harlan fiercely describes the rites of passage of childhood and adolescence, filtered through the aftereffects of her family’s history of war, tragedy, and migration. Harlan’s struggle to make friends in high school challenges her mother to step back and let her daughter find her own way.
Family in Six Tones speaks both to the unique struggles of refugees and to the universal tug-of-war between mothers and daughters. The journey of an immigrant–away from war and loss toward peace and a new life–and the journey of a mother raising a child to be secure and happy are both steep paths filled with detours and stumbling blocks. Through explosive fights and painful setbacks, mother and daughter search for a way to accept the past and face the future together.