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No Longer Running: An Interview with Felicia Heath

“And, later in life, when I was dealing with my father coming out of prison and perhaps rekindling that relationship, I started to look at my experience slightly differently. I started sharing bits and pieces of my story with people and, to my surprise, found that some of the reactions were positive and even inspiring.”

On August 9th, Merion West’s Celine Sleiman was joined by full-time physician and first-time author Felicia Thai Heath to discuss the writing of her memoir Spirit of a Hummingbird: Memories from a Childhood on the Run. Following the events of her early childhood as the daughter of a notorious Vietnamese criminal and escaped convict, Dr. Heath’s story covers the trials of crossing international boundaries on the run, poverty, and abuse. Although it is a test of endurance, her story is ultimately one of kinship, as well as healing in the aftermath of great dysfunction. In her conversation with Ms. Sleiman, Dr. Heath delves into the nuances of her writing process, the catharsis of finally sharing her story, and the quiet strength we can find in acceptance.

Felicia, I wanted to begin by asking where this project started. In the memoir, you mention your appreciation for stories and how they helped you through what was a very unconventional childhood. But writing is not your everyday profession, so I’m wondering if sharing this story has always been something you planned to do, or if it came about more recently?

It was not something that I’d always dreamed about doing. Initially, I saw my past as a shameful story and an experience with a lot of dysfunction. I didn’t feel comfortable sharing it with almost anybody. And, later in life, when I was dealing with my father coming out of prison and perhaps rekindling that relationship, I started to look at my experience slightly differently. I started sharing bits and pieces of my story with people and, to my surprise, found that some of the reactions were positive and even inspiring. So, that’s kind of when I started to think about writing the book, when I realized that people were listening when I was talking about my past, that my experience sounded interesting and is nothing to be ashamed of.

Yes, I remember toward the end of the book, you mention leaking some of the story to your friends and colleagues and on social media, as well as that decision to turn away from ambiguity toward honesty and humility. So, that was lovely to read. Now, I’d love to delve more into the writing process itself. Obviously, this is your first book, and, as an autobiography, it was incredibly personal. Was that a daunting task, or did you find it somewhat cathartic to write it all down?

The entire process was cathartic. When I initially sat down just for a few hours here and there, I knew that I felt some kind of therapeutic effect from it. So, I had decided to just finish the book. The process itself was difficult because, like you mentioned, it’s not my career. It’s my first time writing a book. It was very, very daunting.

The idea is always so romanticized, but when we actually sit down and write, it’s hard work. It was my passion project. I had a full time job as a physician. I had three little ones at home at the time; I had chores that were piling up constantly, so it was difficult for me to prioritize writing. It wasn’t until I actually let my husband read some of it that he encouraged me to take it more seriously. He saw talent in my writing; he truly believed in it and encouraged it to the point where, when we found an opportunity where we were both able to be home, he told me just go write.

So last year, I had our third baby, Naomi, and after I delivered her, I checked into an Airbnb in Philadelphia for three weeks and sat there and wrote because he also had family leave, and he took care of the kids. While I just sat there and finished the manuscript.

That sounds like a great opportunity.

Yeah, and it was difficult and very unconventional for a young family. But it was the best idea because the recurring advice that you hear from writers is that you just have to write the book. There is no book until it’s written, and you have to write without interruption because once the creative process starts, you want to ride that momentum. So, I did. I wrote 14 hours a day—at least—I was either reading, or researching and brainstorming, or interviewing some family members that I had reached out to. I ended up not even taking any breaks, Celine. I bought a bunch of frozen meals, microwaved them, ate them, and went back to the drawing board because my husband was making a huge sacrifice, so I had to finish—I had to finish the book. There was a sense of urgency, and I actually ended up checking out one day early out of that Airbnb.

That sounds intense but also like a dream scenario for a writer to work in. Speaking of that creative momentum, I’d like to narrow in on your writing style because the narration was something that really intrigued me. The story begins with you as an adult, but then it’s told in flashbacks from childhood and with reference to family history. I noticed this tonal tension between your childhood self and the adult who is reflecting on the story. I was wondering, how do you think your youth affected your recollection of events?

Seeing through the eyes of that young girl, my younger self, I think helped my writing. When I thought back and I tried to re-experience everything, I would lean back in my chair, close my eyes, and try to relive the moment so I could actually describe it—as if it was a movie or something that my reader would be watching, listening, and living with me. I think it’s probably because my memories from my childhood—like anyone else’s—aren’t the most accurate. I think by trying to relive it as a child, rather than just reflect on it as an adult, it did help me recognize the trauma that I was experiencing.

I see, and—as a follow-up question, in terms of the narrative elements—I’d love to discuss the sequences, where you tell your mother’s side of the story, from her youth in Vietnam, to being adopted in America, and then going back to find her family as an adult. I know the conflict that your family was experiencing was your father’s doing, but—from my reading—it seems your relationship with your mother was really at the heart of the story. Why was focusing on her experience so essential?

I emphasize that my mother’s narrative is probably the most powerful part of my story. She went through so much, and there was no way I would have survived without her strength. So, I had to tell her story. And her story is more unbelievable than mine, or my siblings, or even my father’s. It required the most resilience. I had to incorporate it, and so much of what she went through I had never even learned about until I was an adult.

It was important to incorporate it because one of the concepts that is being brought to light is this idea of generational trauma, which is causing mental illness in young adults today. You don’t even understand why, but it’s because your mother and your grandparents went through this intense, severe trauma that went unchecked and gets passed on from generation to generation. So I had to include her story for sure.

Definitely. And one of the most memorable moments, for me, was when you describe your mother returning from Vietnam, having reconnected with her lost family. She brings back symbols of Buddhism and incense, which became a constant for your household, despite any chaos that you were facing. You really beautifully describe her faith in karma and the belief that good fortune must be coming. I was wondering how that source of faith influenced you? Did it offer reassurance, or did you have a different source of optimism?

Yes, I would say that rubbed off on me a lot. And I’m so thankful for that because I am very much an eternal optimist, just like my mother. And I do believe that there’s karma and you manifest your happiness entirely. So, yes, that faith has influenced me a lot in my everyday living, and almost my every thought.

That’s wonderful, so then circling back to the challenges that tested that faith, and the generational trauma you touched on; although your family’s experience is certainly unique, there are some challenges you describe that I think anyone who has experienced great change can relate to: language barriers, beauty standards, cultural differences, seeking comfort in familiarity. They are somewhat universal to the immigrant experience. Is there anything specific that you hoped readers might relate to (or seek comfort from) in your story?

I want my readers to feel a sense of community—community in the sense that they’re not the only ones going through this type of experience. The immigrant story is everyone’s story in America. I want them to feel inspired, to recognize the strength in their own struggles, and be empowered by them. Hopefully, they can find a way to shift their perspective after reading my book, and allow the tough circumstances that come with being an immigrant to bless them, rather than bring them down.

Perfect. So, shifting back, away from your mom, and now toward your dad, I just wanted to ask about the change in your perception of your father. You describe your frustration, confusion, and, eventually, your apathy. At the end of the memoir, you write that the desire for your dad to play a significant role in your life peacefully went away. I’m sure that writing this was far from emotionless, so I’m wondering if reflecting for this project has changed your perception of him in any way.

Yeah, it was a roller coaster of emotions. And I don’t think I realized it in the moment, but when I reflect on that time, I can see the changes in myself. It was difficult, but it brought a lot of insight to write out my feelings, so that I could explain it to my reader. Especially when I was going through all the stages of possibly rekindling a relationship with my father—that was definitely very emotional for me.

When I looked back and saw the phases I went through, it gave me a lot of closure. I was able to see that I grew and evolved, and I was very comfortable with my decision. It also encouraged me to try to see things from his perspective—all the things that he had done, but in a more neutral manner. In the sense that he was an immigrant, that he arrived here with no resources, and he took a path that would be easily taken by any other immigrant experiencing poverty and needing to survive in a country that didn’t provide any support to start with. So, I was able to empathize with him because, in his own way, he was just trying to survive.

It was also important for me to understand that I was holding onto the notion that we were father and daughter, so we should try to act as such. When I detached myself from the idea, I could see that there was no bond worth saving, which is okay. I didn’t have to hold myself to any expectations. Our roles in each other’s lives had played their course.

Right, having that acceptance, if not forgiveness.

So, just before we wrap up, I have to ask about the title because it doesn’t come up immediately when you’re reading the memoir. You have to wait until the end—where you write about your travels and the painter who told you that hummingbirds symbolize healing—to really grasp that theme.

We see that spirit in your mother’s endurance, in the moments of joy with your siblings, and even in your own ability to be isolated and tell yourself that it was going to be okay. I suppose I was curious about your decision to name the book after that encounter.

I didn’t come up with the title of the book until the very end. It actually took me several times reading through to find something that I felt was fitting, as well as being poetic and providing some form of imagery. When I read that part about the hummingbird in Spain, I just thought it was perfect.

They bring lightness and joy. I ended up looking more into them and reading about what they symbolize, and they actually represent adaptability and the ability to combat toxicity and negativity, which is a recurrent theme in the memoir. So I thought it was very fitting, especially because I had to continually tap into my capacity to handle the nature of our lives on the run and not allow the dysfunction to break my spirit.

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