Though I still love reading, I can’t help but notice that the experience of cracking open a book has changed since I was a kid. I remember finishing a book series and feeling a distinct sense of satisfaction and sadness. I wanted to interact with characters on the daily and desperately wished to stay in the world they inhabited.
I was by no means alone in my escapist fantasy either, as is evidenced by the number of children’s books that focus on a different, or at least transformed, world. From The Wizard of Oz to The Chronicles of Narnia, there’s something about portals to a different world that we just can’t seem to resist.
That feeling is also the pathos behind No Place Like Home, a new children’s book by U of T alum Linh Nguyễn, released on March 14. The book pays homage to portal fantasies like The Wizard of Oz while adapting the format to explore the meaning of home from an immigrant perspective. Nguyễn sat down with The Varsity to discuss what home means, both literally and figuratively, in her novel and in life.
Nguyeễn originally thought of the idea for No Place Like Home while doing an independent study under Deirdre Baker, an assistant professor in the Department of English who studies children’s literature, in the fourth year of her undergraduate degree. She originally plotted the book as a reverse Wizard of Oz, in which a protagonist was transported to a different land and their goal was to stay rather than leave, tapping into the feeling of wanting to remain in a magical place forever.
However, Nguyễn’s initial story felt too simplistic so she adapted it, making it a more nuanced exploration of home. For Nguyễn, who immigrated at age 11 from Vietnam, home is a collection of memories, people, and places. As a result, her protagonist Lan, who shares Nguyễn’s immigration story, goes on a journey to discover how we carve a home out in strange places and redefine the concept for ourselves.
Though Lan isn’t immediately interested in staying in an unknown place, she is motivated to stick it out for the people she meets and due to a feeling of wanting to prove herself. Over the course of her journey, her relationships to both her environment and the people around her change. When she returns to Toronto, her new home after moving from Vietnam, she’s able to apply the skills she learned to another unknown place.
Fiction as home
Nguyễn didn’t start seriously working on the book until she had a strange dream a little while after she graduated. She recounted that, in the dream, she was sitting in a lecture hall and Annabeth Chase from the Percy Jackson series was at the podium. Her eyes locked on Annabeth’s and as they greeted each other, Nguyễn realized that she felt she had known this person her entire life, despite the fact that she wasn’t real.
Nguyễn explained that finishing a good book feels like leaving the magical world in a portal fantasy, and that the metaphor was crystallized at that moment. When she woke up, she felt that loss at no longer being able to communicate with Annabeth and saw how she could manipulate that format to explore homecomings and departures more generally.
Her book tries to capture that shift you feel when you read a book that really resonates with you and changes how you view the real world. She emphasized the importance of literature and stories for not only children, but for people of all ages, and concluded that we must continue to value stories and encourage people to write.
Nguyễn noted that, though people believe you can’t make money writing fiction, that’s not really the case, and that lots of writers get by on the earnings they get from their work. For fellow writers like me, who have heard their fair share of cautionary tales about a humanities degree, it’s comforting to remember that writing is a job like any other, and that I can still hold onto the stories I love for a little longer, even as I supposedly grow too old for fiction.