E.M. Tran's debut novel 'Daughters of the New Year' interweaves mother-daughter relationships with the Vietnamese zodiac
Her novel—about the vivid, fraught, wry web of relationships between generations of mothers and daughters in a Vietnamese-American family—was released on Oct. 11 by Hanover Square Press/Harper Collins. Library Journal proclaimed the “Daughters of the New Year” as “an engrossing story of the ties among mothers, daughters, and sisters, sprinkled with humor and intrigue.” Booklist described it as “a complex meditation on history, memory, and what each generation carries.” It was also selected as a Marie Claire Book Club Pick.
Tran, who received her Ph.D. in English (creative writing-fiction) from the College of Arts and Sciences in 2020, graciously made time to answer the questions in this Q&A for the Ohio University community. We talked about her writing and research process, favorite writers, advice to current OHIO students, and more.
A central motif of "Daughters of the New Year" is the Vietnamese zodiac, used by Xuan Trung, both a matriarch and main character in your novel. This motif serves a lot of purposes: it's thematic, provides structure, and powerfully characterizes both Xuan and her daughters, as Xuan, a Metal Tiger, interprets each daughter through their roles: Nhi, Fire Tiger; Trac, a Goat; and Trieu, a Dragon. It's a hard-working motif. Did it introduce any challenges as you wrote the novel? If so, what were they?
Using the zodiac turned out to be a really useful tool in character building. While each character doesn’t always fulfill every trait popularly associated with each sign, that wasn’t really the goal. The archetype of each zodiac sign offered an idea around which I could imagine each person, always compared against the sign as a reference point. This was immensely helpful in creating distinct characters. I didn’t want a reader to get to the end of the book and say, “Well, all those women could’ve been one character.” At the same time, I didn’t want to create caricatures. Having the zodiac signs was a great way to gently guide me into writing nuanced but unique women.
The major difficulty with using the zodiac signs is that it made revision difficult. I couldn’t easily rearrange chapters because I was tied to a backwards-moving timeline anchored by various historical events, and therefore, each character at each specific moment in time couldn’t increase or decrease in age. If I wanted Nhi to be older in a particular chapter, for example, I couldn’t do it, because she was tethered to her zodiac sign which is dependent upon year.
Your novel goes backwards in time in nonlinear ways, defying the expectation of linear time progressing forward. How did you come to that structural choice, and what are/were the benefits for you as the writer, both anticipated and unexpected?
I read "How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents" [by Julia Alvarez], which also moves backwards, and was inspired by that structure. It immediately clicked with me, as I had been struggling with how to present the vast scope of the novel. At the center of writing this novel, I always knew I wanted to include the Trung Sisters and Lady Trieu, all women warriors in Vietnam’s history. They’re historical figures, but there’s so much we don’t really know about them, and they have become partly mythologized. At the same time, I still needed to depict the present, but I wasn’t necessarily interested in the consequences in the future of the present conflict, per se, but what happens in the past that causes each present moment to be the way it is. In a way, by going backwards, I am also making the past the present again and again, subverting the Western and colonialist idea that moving forward into the future is progress, while moving backwards is regression.
What kinds of research did you need to do to write "Daughters of the New Year?" Please share about that aspect of writing the novel.
In the first part of the novel, I did some research about reality TV shows. Research is a really dramatic word though, because is it research if I just absorbed through osmosis all things reality TV due to the fact that I’m always watching and reading about it thanks to sheer recreational interest?
Most of my deep-dive research was for the second part of the book, which takes place in the past, before 1975, in Vietnam. I’ve never been to Vietnam, for one, and I wasn’t alive during that time. The interesting thing about doing the research for the Vietnam War is that so much of it was documented on television. I could just look up videos on YouTube, which was bizarre and disorienting for me. I liked to follow various research trails while reading old New York Times articles of the period, maybe casual mentions of someone important or of something I wasn’t familiar with. I got really involved in reading about things like rubber plantations and socially exclusive recreational clubs in Saigon, for instance. I enjoyed looking up major figures during the time and seeing if I could figure out where they ended up. Stuff like that really interested me because it reminded me that this wasn’t that long ago. The former president of South Vietnam lived in Massachusetts somewhere, and I imagined his kids just anonymously living their lives, probably. Some of the most interesting research I did was running some of the “facts” past my father, who would sometimes provide me with an alternative history.
Were there some characters you especially loved writing about?
I loved writing about Bambi, a side character who you meet briefly in the latter half of the book. She’s a past friend of Xuan, one of the protagonists, and I just had a lot of fun thinking about who this person was. I mean, how can a character named Bambi be anything but cool?
What is your writing process like? Do you write at a set time, in a certain place, and do you have writer friends with whom you exchange pages?
I write erratically, in fits and bursts, usually long marathon-like blocks of time and then a small lull. It’s a kind of an exhausting way to write, but it’s just how I do it, often at night, alone, in total silence. I don’t tend to share my work with people while it’s in flux because it feels counterproductive to me to share something incomplete. How could I get helpful feedback from someone who doesn’t have the full picture? I’m sure there’s value in it, but for me, it needs to be a full draft. I’ll share a project while I’m writing it with my partner, though, who knows what I need at that point is for someone to cheer me on so that I feel brave enough to continue writing.
Who are your favorite writers, and did any of their works serve as inspirations, lanterns that illuminated the way, and/or other kinds of resources when it came to producing your novel?
I feel indebted to any Asian American writing out there, and was imagining my novel in a discourse with those books as I wrote it. Growing up, we were rarely assigned work by Asian writers, and so, I was so grateful to find they existed when I began looking for them: writers like Maxine Hong Kingston, Amy Tan, Celeste Ng Viet Thanh Nguyen. I also live in constant admiration of Jesmyn Ward and Toni Morrison. I looked to many Black writers for instruction on how to write beautifully about complex joy and love in the face of systems that don’t value your life.
What are some of the most valuable things as a writer that you learned while a Ph.D. creative writing student at Ohio University?
While in the program, I learned to lean into the weird things I wanted to write about. I think I really developed a style while enrolled, and I stopped trying to be other people or even worrying about what people expected me to write. I don’t think I necessarily learned this in a class or anything, but rather that I got older and learned the all-important lesson that it doesn’t really matter what people think, and also, that the environment of being in a writing program probably fostered that realization purely because I was always in a state of consideration about my writing. Maybe I wouldn’t have reached that point as fast if I were out in the world, working in a corporate office or something, only thinking about my writing when I had the time to. I also worked in the rare books vault at the Mahn Center in Alden Library, a gigantic room full of old and rare books, manuscripts, and leaves. I was constantly in that book vault, just in silence and dealing with these old objects. There was some intangible effect on the writing of my book from being surrounded by these physical attestations to history.
What advice would you give students on that same path now? What do you wish you knew earlier on?
Take the small, weird, strange moment you experienced or witnessed and write about it. Stretch it out into a poem, a scene, a short story, a whole book, and turn the volume up on that small, weird, strange moment to a thousand. Allow that moment to take your writing places. If it fails, then there’s nothing lost. Also, don’t be afraid to erase whole pages. Don’t be so precious about your writing.
What did the process of writing this novel teach you that you likely otherwise would not have learned?
I cut an entire chapter from the novel, one that I was quite attached to. But everyone from my dissertation director, Patrick O’Keeffe, to my editor, Grace, told me to cut this chapter, so I finally relented. I had to write a new, earlier chapter to replace it. They’re totally different chapters, but even so, little bits and pieces of that chapter I had to get rid of found its way into the new one. It was one of those moments that reaffirmed I should trust the process, trust that the things I’m interested in will find their way into the book.
Is the Vietnamese zodiac a resource in your life?
I like to pretend I’m above it, but I check my horoscope frequently. Every year, I read a full report on what’s to come for the Earth Snake. Whether or not I believe in it (and maybe I do?), it does feel like my participation in it is keeping some cultural memory alive.