Mai Nguyen's debut novel "Sunshine Nails" is out now.

In Mai Nguyen’s ‘Sunshine Nails,’ Nail Techs are Front and Center

The author talks growing up as a nail salon kid and clapping back at problematic customers in her debut book

Mai Nguyen's debut novel "Sunshine Nails" is out now.

Courtesy of Mai Nguyen

Words by Samantha Pak

Growing up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, nail salons were a way of life for Mai Nguyen. Her parents owned a salon, as did other relatives and friends’ parents.

Despite this, and the fact that salon life is a shared lived experience among Vietnamese refugees in North America, the 34-year-old Toronto resident rarely saw any stories where the nail techs were actually the main characters.

“Whenever you see nail technicians or scenes or stories taking place at nail salons, the nail techs are usually the side characters. They usually don't even have a name. They probably don't have speaking parts,” she says. “They're probably there to say a joke or be the butt of a joke, or listen in on whatever conversation the two main characters are having.”

This led to Sunshine Nails, Nguyen’s debut novel—out today. The book follows the Trans, a Vietnamese Canadian family running a mom-and-pop nail salon in Toronto, who suddenly find themselves struggling to keep the business alive after a multimillion dollar nail salon chain moves in down the street. Attempting to keep their salon alive, the family resorts to blackmail, gambling, stalking, and more, to take down the competition.

I recently spoke with Nguyen about her book, wanting Southeast Asian stories that go beyond trauma, and “bad” Asian representation.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

"Sunshine Nails" follows a Vietnamese Canadian family trying to keep their nail salon alive.

Courtesy of Mai Nguyen

Samantha Pak: What got you into writing?
Mai Nguyen: I originally started off my career as a journalist in the magazine industry, working as a production editor and then as a freelance writer. And then I wanted to do something on the side that was for myself, so I took a fiction writing course at the University of Toronto. I started writing the first pages of Sunshine Nails, not thinking I'm gonna write a whole book or anything. But I had some assignments and they asked us to write a few chapters. I really was enjoying writing the story and my fellow students and teachers were really enjoying what I was writing. So I figured, “Okay, maybe I'll just write a bit more and see what becomes of it.” And five years later, the book is out.

It takes place in Toronto, around 2016. (About a year earlier) The New York Times published this really huge expose on labor abuses in nail salons. It brought a lot of good to the industry because it cracked down on these really exploitative practices. But I also think it harmed the industry in that it painted all Asian-owned nail salons as bad apples. I wanted to set the nail salon story against that backdrop.

SP: Personally, with the exception of maybe two times I've gotten my nails done, it's always been Vietnamese people.
MN: Yeah, growing up I always thought it was weird that my parents wanted to work in a nail salon. First of all, you don't even get your nails done and since when do you care about nail fashion? When I got older, I realized the majority of the Vietnamese diaspora are opening nail salons because it's their one means of financial salvation. It's a tried-and-true method.

SP: Did you ever work at the salon?
MN: I worked at the salon for summers in high school and university. It's a really tough job. You need to have a lot of upper body strength. You're holding up legs and arms for hours at a time. You're bending and hunched over for a long period of time. It takes a toll on the body, for sure. But it was a really fun job. I got to meet lots of interesting people and—it might sound gross—but seeing people's feet go from zero to 10 was really satisfying.

SP: Were your personal experiences something that you were able to include in Sunshine Nails?
MN: A lot of the scenes that take place in the nail salon are from my own lived experience. Things like when two best friends come in to do their nails. They're gossiping about their whole life and you're listening in and privy to all of these nitty gritty details of their date last night, or weird things that their husband is doing, or issues they’re having with their children.

We also get really problematic customers as well. Customers that get really angry at the service, that don’t want to pay. We deal with some microaggressions as well from customers. I channeled all those experiences and put it into the book.

SP: As a writer, when things annoy me or piss me off, sometimes I'll write it out and be like, “This is how I wish I would have responded!” Do you have any of those moments where the characters at the salon have an annoying or angry customer and they're clapping back, but in real life, you wouldn't?
MN: Oh yeah. In the book, a white woman mimes a really famous, or infamous, nail salon comedy skit by Anjelah Johnson, where she starts using the Asian accent. And the character goes, “Oh, is that why you don't have boyfriend?” And Jessica, the Vietnamese daughter in the family, is like, “It's okay for me to say that but not for you.”

Whereas, I would probably just laugh along. The novel was a great outlet for being able to clap back at these awful characters but they're not real and I can write awesome retorts.

SP: What was your favorite part about writing this story?
MN: I really enjoyed writing about a family that, as dysfunctional as they are, at the end of the day, they really love themselves and they love each other. And they're willing to do anything they can to keep the family intact. 

That is the core of why we love reading family dramas. We want to know, “What is keeping this family together? What is the glue that keeps them together?” As much as we love to see fights and drama, I really enjoyed all the tender moments between the family characters.

SP: Just reading the description (of Sunshine Nails), the family is trying to get back at the new salon and there's “light sabotage.” It sounds like you've gone beyond the trauma porn that you get a lot of in Asian immigrant stories. This one, it sounds like there might be some of that, but it's also funny.
MN: That's a very good point. Obviously, there are some reminders of their traumatic pasts. There are flashbacks of (the parents’) time in Vietnam, of being boat refugees, being thrown onto a boat and having the boat being ransacked by pirates. But they're very small scenes that are peppered throughout the novel. I just was craving stories that weren't wholly consumed by the (Vietnam War).

I wanted to talk about contemporary struggles. I wanted to write a story that, yes, there are struggles, but the stakes aren’t literally life and death. They're not running from war. They're not running from famine. But there's still a lot to lose there. It allows me to input a lot more joy and happiness and triumph in the book as well. So, no to the trauma porn. There's enough of that out there.

I wouldn't have been able to write a story centered around joy and humor if it hadn't been for the authors that came before me and wrote those stories about the Vietnam War.

SP: I feel like your book and then The Fortunes of Jaded Women are some of the first, in terms of the Vietnamese story, that I've seen where the war might be mentioned, but that's not the central focus of the story for a Vietnamese family.
MN: Yeah. If you speak to any Vietnamese person, they're not talking to you about the war all the time. It's a privilege to be able to write in this lane. I wouldn't have been able to write a story centered around joy and humor if it hadn't been for the authors that came before me and wrote those stories about the Vietnam War. Because those stories are important to have too. And because there are already so many stories like that out there, it made room for me to talk about more contemporary issues.

It's also kind of nice to see what happens to war-displaced refugees after they land in North America. The story still goes on, and there's still lots of stories to be told.

SP: As you were writing this, was your family aware?
MN: Yes. I told them I was working on a book that was set in a nail salon. And they were like, “Why would anyone want to read this book about people who work in a nail salon? What's interesting about that?” I was like, “No, trust me. I think it's very interesting. You represent a huge swath of people that do the same thing. There's a whole phenomenon behind Vietnamese people working at nail salons.”

I didn't want to co-opt their story and make it my own. It's our story. It's our family story. Now that the book is out, and they've seen physical copies of it, I think they finally grasp what I had been doing for the last five years.

SP: Have they read it?
MN: No, their English is not that good. I'm hoping maybe one day the book will be translated into Vietnamese so that they can read it.

SP: I like that you’ve described (the Tran family) as messy. People are messy, no matter where you're from, no matter what you do. Life is messy. The model minority stereotype says Asians are perfect and we have our life together. It sounds like these folks do not (laughs).
MN: No, they do not (laughs). I wanted to counteract the model minority. Because people do see Asian Canadians and Asian Americans as very hard working, very determined, very smart and intelligent. And I honestly was craving content around badly behaving Asians. I just love bad Asians, like in The Good Place, if you see Jason Mendoza.

SP: (gasps in delight) He’s such an airhead. He's my favorite himbo ever!
MN: Yeah, I love that! Because you don't get to see that! I wanted to see a dumb Asian on TV. And I wanted to show more Asians that just kind of fumble through life and make really terrible decisions and are a little bit morally ambiguous.

Beef just came out and I was like, “Yes! These are terrible human beings, who also happen to be Asian!” Because we need that! We see so many white protagonists who are awful people, the anti heroes. We need some of that in our Asian representation.

I think fiction can be a really beautiful reflection of our reality that even though it's all made up, and the characters don't exist, it can reflect our reality somewhat better than nonfiction can sometimes.

SP: Was writing a book something you always wanted to do or did it just happen?
MN: It honestly just kind of happened. I remember being in journalism, people were always like, “Oh, do you ever think about reading fiction?” And honestly, I was like, “No, that's a whole different league.” That's like asking a baseball player if they want to play hockey. It's completely different.

As a journalist, I really wanted to say more about the nail salon community and the history of it. Maybe it came from me not being able to find an outlet that would want to take my story. So I was like, “You know what, let me just write a book about it.” That way I can make up my own characters, make up my own plot.

I think fiction can be a really beautiful reflection of our reality that even though it's all made up, and the characters don't exist, it can reflect our reality somewhat better than nonfiction can sometimes.

Published on July 4, 2023

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.