Vilayvanh “Vanh” Bender Shares Insight into Upcoming Children’s Book
For Vilayvanh Bender, taking care of her two daughters, advising patients at her office, and preparing her debut children's book, “My Mommy Eats Fried Grasshoppers,” is all in a day's work. With her book slated to be published in December, Bender said she hopes that it opens up new doors to conversations with young children about immigrant histories and narratives. To hear more about her journey and work, read on.
Tell us a little bit about yourself. Who is Vilayvanh Bender?
I am from Corona, California. I am a registered dietitian in private practice and married with two children, Mahlee and Leela. Our family enjoys spending time together by having movie night or doing an outdoor activity. I also love sharing food and trying out new recipes.
Was writing just a hobby for you or have you always been interested in writing?
It’s funny because I started writing when Mahlee’s first grade teacher Ms. Ajemian asked me to present in her class. Ms. Ajemian said Mahlee would share things about what her Mommy did when she was a little girl in class. I would tell Mahlee and Leela about my childhood mostly as a bedtime story.
Mahlee’s class was learning about native Indians and all the things they would do, and Mahlee shared, “Oh yeah, my mom made shoes out of bananas. My mom ate grasshoppers.” Things like that. So the teacher asked me, “Can you come to the class and present?” And I said, ‘Of course, sure." But I didn’t want to just go in the class and tell them these things. I said, “You know what? I’ll put it in a children’s book format,” and so I kind of just put a book together and that’s how I started writing.
So this book is really your first journey into writing officially then, isn’t it?
Yes, but before that, I’ve always had stories floating in my head, but I didn’t put them down on paper. So when I put them on paper and presented it in class, and received feedback from the kids, I thought, “Wow. This is a really neat process.” I just kind of fell in love with that process because of the connection I made with the kids.
What were the kids’ reactions when you told them these stories?
Oh, they just love it. They’ll say, “Oh wow, is that really true?” They also started sharing about the things they do with their families. The kids were really excited because when I go in to do the presentation for the class, I also do activities from the book I read them. I would bring sticky rice (khao niao), banana slippers, crickets to eat, things to make rag dolls or ninjas, and do other activities. And some of the kids’ moms are cooking sticky rice for them now.
How’s it feel for you to not only share your stories and culture with your children, but their friends as well?
It’s very rewarding and fulfilling, actually. Growing up in America, I tried to figure out how to acclimate. Through that process, you’re unsure to share that part of your culture, you’re unsure how to share or when to share, and I did very little of that growing up.
But to see that I’m able to share my culture with other children, with other families, with other people, it’s almost therapeutic. [I think,] “Wow, I get to share my culture and not second guess, is that right? Do people really want to know?” I try to hold on to my culture and pass it down to my children, and hopefully they will pass it on to their children.
It’s just so amazing that people are interested [in my story] and that children and adults alike... will reminisce. I hope that it will get people to talk about their culture. Maybe it will help the parents/grandparents and open a dialogue about when they came. If kids are willing to listen to their parents/grandparents and engage, I think that’s amazing.
How did these stories your book is based on play into your childhood or how you grew up?
All the events in the books are what I remember from my childhood in Laos because I came here when I was seven. I was a very curious child and my parents just kind of let me roam around; we were allowed to go out and experiment. I remember Laos as a carefree, lush and beautiful place.
I want to leave so much information about Laos and our experience in America and now that we’re here, how do we acclimate to America but still retain our culture? I feel like we are the "glue generation," the generation that can bridge the older generation with the younger generation. I want to set some foundation and leave something, and that’s one of my reasons for writing too. I just want to leave something so you can draw back and the information is accurate. That way, when you come back, maybe after four, five, six, seven, eight generations, I hope it doesn’t get so diluted that it’s not the story of the first wave of refugees—that it’s still the story told by us.
How did you establish a connection with Sahtu Press?
A cousin of mine in Illinois told me about the Writers Summit in 2016. I went to the summit and that’s where I met Nor [Sanavongsay]. I talked to him a little bit about my children’s book. When I got to the summit, I was so impressed with it. I didn’t even know something like that existed. I just never knew there was a Lao Writers Summit so I felt right at home. I bought Nor’s book, “A Sticky Mess,” and I fell in love with his illustrations. I feel like his drawings would be accurate if he were to draw my story. I submitted to other agencies too, but I never felt connected. Then when I learned a little more about Sahtu Press and Nor, I thought, “My manuscript feels like it’s in a good place here.” I knew he would bring it to life and be accurate to the Lao culture. It’s been such a great experience.
How do you keep yourself motivated, inspired, productive, etc.?
What inspires me is my children’s reactions. When I do the cultural day presentation in their classroom, I can see that they’re proud. I try to do the cultural presentation for both Mahlee and Leela’s classes every year. Flashback to my childhood, I’m thinking, “This would never happen.” To actually share sticky rice with children in a classroom, I think it’s that pride I see in my kids’ faces, like, “Yeah my mommy’s talking about her culture.” That keeps you motivated as a mom. I see that my kids want to share their culture too with their friends because they would ask, “Hey mommy, can you make sticky rice for lunch?” Every Friday is sticky rice for lunch and I hear that sticky rice has a high trading value at school.
Since this story pulls from our culture, has the work that has gone into it felt more personal to you, rather than stories you might find in mainstream narratives?
It definitely feels more personal to me. I can still remember when Mahlee’s first grade teacher, Ms. Ajemian, asked me to come in her class and present. Now it’s about seven years later… I have a book coming out from that presentation. It’s like, ‘Wow, it’s coming to life.’ It’s been a great journey because every year I go back to Ms. Ajemian’s first grade class and do the same presentation. I definitely feel like it’s a big personal accomplishment.
What are the challenges of being a mom, dietician, and writer?
Yes, at times it was challenging because I am trying to balance work and home life. I usually write at night when the children go to bed, so the challenge there was probably not getting enough sleep. But because I enjoy writing, every time I had free time (if I do), or would wait for my girls at soccer practice or taekwondo classes, I would work on my manuscript. I try to fit writing in my schedule as much as I can. But at the end of the day, it’s kind of all work.
Why do you think it’s important to have today’s children connect to their culture through relatable stories like yours?
It’s important because your culture is who you are, right? It’s important for kids especially because I think it does translate to being successful and happy. They’re never too young to know who they are and where they came from. When you know who you are, you feel more secure. And when you feel more secure, you are able to manage life’s challenges better. I feel children may get the message more if they see books that are relatable to them. For me, knowing who you are and knowing your culture is so important because that is your foundation to a good start in life. A world with culture is a happy world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.