.Susan Lieu’s debut memoir ‘The Manicurist’s Daughter’

The Asian American immigrant story of achievement is well-trodden territory, but to many outsiders, what motivates perseverance for Asian Americans is largely misunderstood.

In her seminal work on Asian American life, Cathy Park Hong critiques the perseverance narrative and argues that these stories are the cause of Minor Feelings, her book’s titular phrase.

Hong explains that minor feelings are “built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.” Minor feelings are induced by the assumption that Asian Americans are the model minority. We supposedly work hard and achieve social mobility because of our cultural values and beliefs, never mind the pain we endure in the process. We are rendered invisible when, in fact, we are raging inside.

The model minority myth and the narrative works that support it ignore the complicated histories of Asian Americans, a group that is composed of six ethnicities and renders Asian American reality invisible. This month, Santa Rosa’s Maria Carrillo High School alumnae Susan Lieu published a debut memoir that obliterates the perseverance narrative.

The Manicurist’s Daughter, out last week from Celadon, an imprint of MacMillan Publishers, examines how war trauma and migration impacted Lieu’s family. It also sheds light on the impossible beauty standards women are held to that took their mother’s life in California. Lieu’s mother died during a botched tummy tuck procedure she underwent in San Francisco in 1996 when Lieu was 11 years old. She was just 38.

The book is a lesson in grieving, healing and community-making through storytelling. It is especially valuable for Sonoma County Asian Americans, who make up just 5% of the county’s population and for whom Lieu’s book gives a voice. Readers may especially appreciate Lieu’s details of her family’s spiritual practices and food preferences. The story will make one cry, but it will also make one very hungry for Vietnamese cuisine.

Those who get their nails done in Santa Rosa may recall Lieu’s mother, Jennifer, as the owner of Today’s Nails on Fourth Street near the Santa Rosa mall, which she owned and operated with her husband and sisters and with the help of her children. Some locals may also recall Lieu and her sister, Wendy, selling chocolates outside of Today’s Nails during summertime farmers’ markets. Wendy Lieu recently celebrated her chocolate business, Socola Chocolatiers’ 10-year anniversary in San Francisco.

What is less known to the public is the story of Lieu’s family and the hardships they endured escaping Vietnam and assimilating into life in California. Lieu’s parents are boat people, refugees who, in the 1980s, survived a narrow escape from the Vietnamese communist government and a harrowing journey across the ocean in search of stability.

A matriarch and savvy businessperson, Jennifer Lieu started her own nail salon business in the East Bay. Eventually, Jennifer Lieu made enough money to bring her sisters and mother from Vietnam to California and move her business and family to Santa Rosa so her children could attend better schools.

Jennifer Lieu’s untimely death impacted the family. But after her passing, business needed to go on as usual for Today’s Nails, and the family grieved in silence. This confused and unsettled Lieu, who missed her mother. But when she attempted to seek consolation and answers from her family, her father, siblings and aunts only wanted to move on.

When asked what kept her going as a teenager in Santa Rosa after her mother’s death, she said it was community—former Santa Rosa public school principal and family friend Laurie Fong nurtured Lieu throughout high school. The former manager of the Santa Rosa Farmers’ Market admired Lieu and her sister’s industrious spirit and helped them sell their chocolates during the summer farmers’ market.

Still, Lieu’s suppressed grief followed her to Harvard, where she attended college, and later into her life as a married woman. Feeling pressure to be “a good Vietnamese daughter” and have babies, Lieu knew she needed to heal her grief before she could start her family. To do that, Lieu turned to storytelling.

In The Manicurist’s Daughter, Lieu’s desire to grieve her mother intersects with her increasing urge to seize the stage as a performer. At first, she resists writing a play about her trauma. But when Lieu eventually uses performance to explore her grief, she finds power. Storytelling enables Lieu to heal herself and, eventually, family members and strangers needing a way to reckon with their grief.

“Now I am doing it for the we,” Lieu told me. She considers her work a container that allows audiences and readers to feel their own grief. Storytelling is a spiritual practice for the author and audience.

The Manicurist’s Daughter began as one-woman play 140 LBS: How Beauty Killed My Mother, which Lieu performed on a 10-city national tour, including a performance in New York, which landed her an agent and led to her book deal. As with her play, Lieu intends for her memoir to inspire conversations within vulnerable communities dealing with intergenerational trauma and loss.

During her performance tour, Lieu led discussions with refugee and immigrant organizations. She is currently raising funds to purchase copies of her memoir for nonprofits directly serving refugees and minorities. “When we feel, we heal” is the core message of Lieu’s book.

There are many reasons that Asian American feelings are rendered minor. In The Manicurist’s Daughter, Lieu explores the political, economic and racist reasons her mother and family suffered. The plastic surgeon who operated on her mother placed ads in media that Vietnamese American women read and watched.

Though Lieu pieces much of her mother’s story together through external investigations, she ultimately turns inward to heal. In creating containers to explore and share her grief, Lieu finds a way to convene with her mother. Through writing, Lieu has found a way to let her mother guide her toward herself.

To celebrate the publication of ‘The Manicurist’s Daughter,’ Susan Lieu will be at Copperfield Books in Santa Rosa at 7pm, Friday, March 22, and at Sonoma State University at 6pm, Thursday, April 18.

Jen Hydehttps://jenhyde.substack.com
Jen Hyde is a writer from Sonoma Valley. She writes about Asian American life at jenhyde.substack.com.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

North Bay Bohemian E-edition North Bay Bohemian E-edition