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[Book Review] "Family Style" by Thein Pham

Review by A.M. Larks

Taste is an often underused sense in writing, but not so in Thien Pham’s new graphic memoir Family Style, where it takes center stage. While “[c]oming to America as a Vietnamese immigrant has been told before” it is Pham’s “immigration told through food” that sets his story apart. Dividing the key moments in his immigration, assimilation, and citizenship journey are the eight meals that represent those times--whether that be rice and fish tasted on the refugee boat or the steak and potatoes has as the first meal in America.

Beyond the chapter headings, the memoir makes the point that food defines us and defines eras of our being. Through food--often iconic foods, like potato chips and strawberries--Pham learns American culture; he assimilates. These associations beg the question: what foods define your eras? For Pham, Salisbury Steak school lunches define one era, but for me? I can’t forget Friday Pizza Day and the square-cut pizza with the crumbled pepperoni that everybody, bar none, ate every single Friday at school.

Food would be nothing without pictures, however, and Pham’s illustrations do not disappoint. Not only to they capture the deliciousness of the food, and its preparation, but the story behind the food. We often forget that food has a story, a history. The recipe your grandmother made, the side dish your friend brings, the nachos your partner cooks, each one has an origin and a meaning. Each is special. It is for this reason that Pham’s food stories told in Family Style tug on the heartstrings and bring on the tears. Several blacked-out pages with a single line of dialogue and the panel after panel effort of perfecting the Bánh Cuốn convey a terrifying and harrowing silence.

But all this is not without joy. Joy radiates from the pages despite the many tribulations of the Pham family and their journey to America, which is why Family Style is such a pleasure to read. In Pham’s own words “It’s hard to be an immigrant in America, but it’s also the best. We walk through two cultures at once. We’re raised to eat everything. Other people are missing out.” So, make sure not to miss out on anything else, including devouring Family Style.

AM Larks’ writing has appeared in NiftyLit, Scoundrel Time, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Five on the Fifth, Charge Magazine, and the Zyzzyva and Ploughshares blogs. She has served as a judge for the Loud Krama Productions Emerging Female and Nonbinary Playwriting Award and has performed her stories at Lit Up at Town Hall Theatre in Lafayette, CA. She is the managing editor and blog editor at Kelp Journal. She is the former the former fiction editor at Please See Me, the former blog editor of The Coachella Review, as well as the former photography editor at Kelp Journal. AM Larks earned an MFA in Creative Writing from U.C. Riverside, Palm Desert, a J.D., and B.A. in English Literature.


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