“Lan knew he was right and could not argue with him. These days, she had not been able to respond to her son at all. He was magnanimous in the way he dealt with his less educated mother. She couldn’t take offense because he was being sensitive. But in her throat, she felt as if she had swallowed a bitter fruit.”
In “Banana Tree,” Abbi Nguyen traces a delicate conflict of identity and loyalty to place, family, and memory. We watch the distance—both literal and metaphorical—grow between Lan and her children as the children attempt to separate their identities from the place in which they were born. The stark rural life, devoid of the influences of modernized culture and media, holds no destination, no future for them, and they strive to adopt—and be adopted by—the modern world. In doing so, they must reject the place they came from—and in doing that, they cannot help but reject their mother, who is so formed by the land she works and lives on that she is part of the land herself.
What happens when a family is uprooted, or scattered, as Nguyen writes, “like the million seeds of a dandelion”? What happens when there is no longer a center, a place for the family to return to?
For so many of us, the departure and separation from home is an essential stage of moving into adulthood, but we rarely address the sense of betrayal or guilt that accompanies the actions of leaving, and leaving behind. In “Banana Tree,” Nathalie attempts to alleviate that guilt and regain the presence of home by bringing her mother along to Singapore, but this is just the final step in dismantling all traces of the life they led before, and all the children are complicit in that dismantling, as one by one, they talk Lan into leaving. Perhaps it is Lan who feels the sense of betrayal most keenly—betrayal of the boy who is the father of her grandson, of her husband who died on this land and whose spirit will remain here with the bamboo door, and of the house and the land itself. But, as Nguyen shows so delicately, we cannot change the course of the wind. —Katherine Perkins