Branching out

People who follow Minnesota writer Bao Phi on Facebook know that his feed is like a live memoir. His anecdotes about parenting, and his musings on writing, life and the world can be a joy to follow. 

In fact, one of his Facebook posts — a poignant story about going shopping with his 8-year-old daughter, Sông, and losing her in the store — compelled two filmmakers, Dominic Tassencourt Howes and Joel Weber, to create a beautiful short video poem, starring local actor Randy Reyes, titled Unique, With Love

It’s no surprise Phi is such a natural at social media. Being a part of a community is so integral to who he is as an artist, arts administrator and activist. Though he’s usually soft-spoken, Phi is constantly giving his time and energy to help other artists and causes he believes in. 

In turn, he found a community of support when it came time to write his first children’s book. After years of fellow writers telling him he’d be great at the art form, he eventually sat down with other children’s book authors and got some advice and encouragement. 

“The children’s book community in Minnesota is just lovely,” he said. “Everyone’s really supportive.” 

To create his first-ever children’s book, A Different Pond, Phi adapted a poem he’d written his father, who would take him fishing as a boy. (His family came to the U.S. in the shadow of the Vietnam War when he was a young child.)

Phi’s manuscript was discovered by coincidence when he wrote a blog post for the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, where he’s the program director. It was about a children’s book — Here I Am by Patti Kim. Phi praised her work, and discussed how he, as a parent, wanted to be sure his daughter had diverse books to read.

The publisher of Kim’s book, Capstone Young Readers, reached out to Phi to thank him for the review, and asked him if he wrote children’s books. Of course, Phi happened to have one he was already working on, and sent it to them. 

Six months later, they bought it. 

A Different Pond has received rave reviews since its August release. It features illustrations by California-based graphic novelist Thi Bui, who also came to the U.S. from Vietnam. (Her autobiographical book, The Best We Could Do, came out in March, also to much acclaim.) 

A Different Pond came out on the heels of Phi’s second book of poems by Coffee House Press, Thousand Star Hotel, published earlier this summer. The works in the book of poetry touch on race, identity and politics, topics he’s explored since his early days scribing poems for the speech team at South High School and during his early career gaining national fame as an award-winning slam poet. 

Phi, a Macalester alum, continues to infuse politics into his work, but there’s a more intimate side to his writing as well. 

“The last few years of my life have all been about being cracked open,” he said. 

Phi credits therapy as one way to become more vulnerable in his writing. 

“Straight men of color are taught that we need to appear strong because we are ‘fight or flight’ all the time,” Phi said. “The idea of being vulnerable can be daunting because our self-mechanism in this country is always have your walls up.” 

Phi often discusses his writings about his daughter with Sông’s mother, with whom he trades off parenting duties. 

Writing about parenting can be tricky, as he balances writing about his experiences as a single co-parent with what he feels is best for his daughter. 

And now that Sông is old enough, Phi talks to her about how she figures in his writing. 

“It’s a combination of intuition and also consent,” he said, adding, “The scary thing is what she’s going to write about me.”

Sheila Regan lives in Minneapolis. She writes for numerous publications and also teaches children’s theater.


About the book

Bao Phi’s first children’s book, A Different Pond (Capstone, $15.95), gives a glimpse into the relationship between a father and son through the lens of a real-life long-ago fishing trip Phi took with his father when he was a boy.

They awoke early before his father’s long workday to fish on the shores of a small pond in Minneapolis. It wasn’t just for fun: A successful catch under starry skies meant a fed family. Between hope-filled casts, Phi’s father told him about a different pond in their homeland of Vietnam. 

A review from the kid-lit site Brightly, called the tale “a beautiful and powerful story about family, culture, sacrifice, memories of home and life as a refugee. Bao Phi’s smooth prose and Thi Bui’s evocative illustrations combine to tell the story of a simple but profound fishing trip between father and son that carries with it so many of the hopes, dreams and challenges of the immigrant experience.”