As I mentioned in my review of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, I am interested in the Vietnam War for very personal reasons. My dad was in Vietnam when I was born and missed the first six months of my life. I can’t remember that, of course, but I can remember the looming presence that war had on my childhood. In the last couple of years, I have been wanting to learn as much about it as I can. I think one reason is that I became very close to a few of my students from Vietnam.
GB Tran’s graphic memoir Vietnamerica caught my attention through a post on Literary Hub about Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American literature. The list was compiled by Viet Thanh Nguyen, whose book The Sympathizer made such a splash in literary circles last year. I found the cover arresting, and I am trying to read more graphic novels, mainly because my students like them, and I want to be able to recommend good ones to them. Tran’s memoir is about his family, who left Vietnam five days before the fall of Saigon. He was born the following year. He felt, in many ways, separated entirely from his Vietnamese heritage and culture, and this book explores that feeling of being the first generation American in a family of immigrants. Tran initially has no interest in his family’s history, but as he notes in the book, quoting Confucius, “A man without history is a tree without roots.” This book is Tran’s journey of discovering his family’s history. As he says in his afterword, “Making this book broke my heart.”
Tran’s artwork is captivating. He captures the chaotic scenes of Saigon and the evacuation of refugees particularly well. His use of color is deliberate and thoughtful. Scenes in the past are often muted shades of sepia and gray, while the present is generally drawn in brighter colors. I found it a little hard to keep track of the cast of characters at first, but by the end of the book, I had it figured out. Tran also captures well the feeling of the first generation American in a family of immigrants who have different histories, cultural ideals, and personal beliefs. I liked, for instance, his motif of his family’s celebration of Tet, a small way he shows the cultural gap he feels between his parents and himself.
One interesting thing I learned from this book, and it is something I have wondered about for many years, is why America (and before America, France and Japan) did not achieve their goals in Vietnam. Tran’s answer, given through his family members, makes a great deal of sense to me. I won’t spoil it for you if you want to read it, too, but it underscores the importance of being exposed to multiple narratives. As Chimimanda Ngoze Adichie says, the problem with stereotypes is not that they are “wrong” but that they are “incomplete,” and when we are only only exposed to a single story about an event—and war often lends itself to “right sides” and “wrong sides” when reality is more complicated—we naturally have a limited understanding of the event.
Vietnamerica is not so much a personal memoir as a memoir of a family and Tran’s journey to learning who his parents and grandparents were. It is not a linear story, and it took me a little while to figure out the storylines, but it was worth it. If you enjoyed Art Spiegelman’s Maus, you would probably like Vietnamerica.
Images © GB Tran and used for the purposes of criticism.
I am counting Vietnamerica as my first book for the Wild Goose Chase Challenge as my “book with an exotic or far-flung location in the title.”