Thien Pham builds each chapter of his debut graphic memoir, Family Style (First Second), around resonant food memories, from school cafeteria Salisbury steak to com tam dac biet. Though Pham is the author of the YA graphic novel Sumo (2012) and illustrator of Gene Luen Yang’s 2011 Level Up, Family Style is his first memoir.
“I’ve been wanting to tell this story all my life,” Pham says, and he got started during pandemic quarantine. Inspired by the daily comics journals he and fellow artist Briana Loewinsohn posted on social media, Pham experienced a “resurgence in drawing,” he says. “I decided it was time to ask my parents about our coming to America.”
In 1979, Pham and his family left Vietnam for Thailand; the following year, when Pham was five years old, they traveled to the U.S. His mother and father worried about burdening him and his younger brother with their stories of anxiety and fear.
Yet Pham retained “big memories” and gaps he hoped to fill. Each week during Covid, he visited his parents and asked them questions about the past. “I would come home exhilarated from talking, and I wrote it so fast,” he says. “I’d spend seven to eight hours drawing, then post it on Instagram, and the next day I’d do the same—it just poured out of me.”
Though Pham did not plan Family Style as a book, Callista Brill at First Second—who edited his graphic novel Sumo—asked whether he wanted to publish it. “That’s when we got the ball rolling,” he says.
Family Style proceeds chronologically, with each chapter focused on a dish that sparks Pham’s imagination. While speaking with his parents, he says he realized that his childhood memories were “tied to food, like the strawberries we ate or the time we saw a sign for onion dip and thought it was mayonnaise.”
The book opens with a treacherous sea crossing from Vietnam to Thailand, during which a seasoned rice ball comforts him belowdecks on a creaky boat. At the Songkhla refugee camp, Pham’s mother learns to make bánh cuon (which reappears in a chapter about Pham’s adolescence). When the family finds an apartment in a San Jose building where other Vietnamese American immigrants live, Pham meets friends his age and experiences love at first crunch with a potato chip.
In addition to the meals that structured his youth, Pham writes about formative elementary-through-high-school relationships. His parents opened a bakery and later owned a video store; his friends’ caregivers held multiple jobs and went to night school, too. “I was a latchkey kid since kindergarten or first grade,” he says. “We were left to our own devices, and adults basically babysat in shifts. Without that community helping each other out, I don’t know where we’d be.”
Pham finds satisfaction in retelling these memories and sharing them with his close relatives and friends. “My parents have always been supportive of everything I’ve done, but they’ve never had a huge interest,” he says. Thanks to this project, he adds, “I think they understand me better, and I understand the sacrifices they made, the generosity. It makes me think about every time I’ve grumbled about helping to fix their Wi-Fi, and how much my parents did to get us here.” The process of researching and writing Family Style “brought us a lot closer together.”
His passion for cuisine resulted in a unique marketing campaign. Pham is fascinated by international food customs (“I’m a huge fan of watching people eat,” he says), so one day he decided to film himself eating noodles. “I decided, I’m going to eat noodles every weekend until my book comes out, just being a goof,” he explains. His cartoonist friend Derek Kirk Kim threw down a bigger gauntlet, suggesting Pham eat noodles every day until the pub date. “And I was like, ‘You know what, Derek? I will.’ ”
Pham started his scheme on March 17, fully expecting his PR team or friends to object. “A couple weeks later I went to an event at a bookstore and the owners were like, ‘We love your noodle eating. It’s amazing,’ ” he recalls. “I talked to my marketing people, and they were like, ‘Keep going! We love it!’ So I basically locked on.”
Asked how he sustained this intensive noodle regimen through June 20, Pham expresses an undiminished love of noodles. “Honestly, it hasn’t been much of a challenge,” he says. “The only challenge is when I’ve had a long day and realize, ‘Oh no, it’s 10 p.m.—I have to go eat noodles!’ ”