Graphic novels and comic books are high literature now, and Vietnamese American writers are breaking into the scene. diaCRITIC Jade Hidle reviews and interviews the hottest Vietnamese American comic book writer now, GB Tran and his aptly-titled Vietnamerica.
In being a committed attendee to San Diego’s annual Comic Con for the past decade, I have witnessed the convention evolve from a relatively exclusive event for dedicated, Klingon-speaking, Star Wars-fluent comic-philes to a full-blown, downtown-consuming phenomenon celebrating all aspects of pop culture. While over the past ten years actual comics have been pushed to the margins, both in the physical layout of the event as well as in the minds of the majority of the attendees, the convention’s actual comic book booths and events have represented a convergence of American and Asian arts and literatures.
When I first began attending Comic Con, these exhibits dedicated to texts written, drawn, and published primarily by white American men, clearly dominated, spatially and ideologically. One of the convention’s consistent features are the looming effigies and floor-to-ceiling inflatable giants of Spiderman, the X-Men, Batman, and other such now-familiar figures who have achieved their heroism often by defeating foreign others, or the typical go-to enemy—Communists. On the other hand, the Asian comics, mostly Manga, were relegated to two aisles on the west end of the convention center, wherein young models dressed in the scanty outfits of Japanimation starlets peddled the latest issues and accompanying merchandise of plush characters, key chains, etc.
However, in the past few years, Asian American writers’ and artists’ works have been popping up in other spaces in the convention center as well. Independent comic publication houses have featured, and recently profited from, Asian American-penned graphic works, such as Korean-American Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series at Oni Press, as well as Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings and Optic Nerve series and Mariko and Jillian Tamaki’s works at Drawn and Quarterly Press. The growing inclusion of such texts indicates that the representations and roles of Asians in American graphic arts and literatures have changed and are continuing to evolve.
GB Tran’s graphic memoir VIETNAMERICA, released on January 25th by Villard Books, is the most recent example of how the comic book form is conducive to exploring Asian-American identity. In brief, VIETNAMERICA narrates Tran’s experience of visiting Việt Nam for the first time with his family, and, over the course of this journey, he unlocks stories of the past that weave into his present and future. In my email interview with Tran, he stated that, while he doesn’t think the comic book form “necessarily has an advantage in exploring Vietnamese-American identity over others,” “Comics can be an individual experience to each reader depending on how they process the constant interplay of words and images, and definitely is a different language of expression than film or prose.”
He likewise shares my interest in the proliferation of comics in literary capacities: “Ever since I was a kid reading my older brother’s Transformers and Uncanny X-Men’s, comics have been a constant presence in my life. They’ve entertained, educated, and expanded my mind for decades, so there’s always been a huge desire to contribute to the ‘comic book culture.’ A part of me thinks it’s fantastic—and long overdue—that graphic novels are more widely respected as a versatile, engaging literary medium by the American audience… But then there’s another part of me that takes issue with the need to make ‘comics’ sound more sophisticated by calling them ‘graphic novels’ in the first place. Maybe it’s just semantics, but I consider them to be broad interchangeable terms; similar branches from the same storytelling tree.”
When I asked him how he views his graphic memoir entering the comic book industry, the author-artist expressed similar sentiments about San Diego’s Comic Con event: “I’ve been making the pilgrimage to SDCC for almost two decades, as an attendee and exhibitor, and really feel comics-for-the-sake-of-comics is becoming less and less part of the spectacle. Seems like every year it grows more and more into this giant pop culture extravaganza, and I’m totally fine with that because plenty of smaller, more comic-centric, phenomenal shows like SPX, TCAF, and MOCCA have filled that void. I’ll be promoting VIETNAMERICA at as many of these as I can afford, and hopefully more book events in addition to comic events. The novelty that a complete stranger would be interested enough in my work to spend her/his hard-earned dollars hasn’t worn off, and it’s the only way to meet and thank those people in person.”
What follows are a few reasons why VIETNAMERICA is worth your hard-earned dollars.
The book is a beautiful piece of art, and Tran’s writing is honest—serious and humorous in the right moments. For these reasons, VIETNAMERICA is an enjoyable read for a wide audience, particularly because it addresses the oddities and difficulties of learning what it means to be someone’s child, of getting to know your parents as the people they were before you were born. Yet, in writing this review, I respond to VIETNAMERICA as someone who is the first American-born child in a Vietnamese family and who has just recently visited Việt Nam for the first time. While I by no means think that my interpretation of the text is representative of all Vietnamese-Americans, I believe that my personal connection to the text speaks to its power to forge a sense of community and belonging for those who feel they have been suspended between two cultures, languages, and identities.
Immediately striking about VIETNAMERICA is the book’s two covers. The dust jacket (pictured above) mingles the colors and designs of the Vietnamese and American flags, and the colors of the former recur throughout the memoir, drawing the eye to beacons of yellow on certain pages that are otherwise monochromatic. Tran’s purposeful invocation of the Vietnamese flag throughout his family’s story calls attention to the struggles for national identification, both in the context of war between North and South Việt Nam, as well as for Vietnamese who have come to America. To similar ends, the hardback cover inside the dust jacket depicts a puzzle, mid-assemblage, whose pieces bear parts of the faces of Tran’s family members. The interior of the cover features a family tree that draws attention to the continual processes of assemblage in Vietnamese-American genealogy. There are branches bound by a sense of family rather than biological relation, some names are unreadable, and Tran draws himself at one branch of this lineage, struggling to catch falling pictures and names.
The ambivalence involved in self-identification as a process is further explored throughout the text, across generations. His father struggles with allegiances to Việt Nam during the French colonial occupation (he marries and has two children, Tran’s elder siblings, with a French woman), and in narrating how his adopted brother sided with the French, Tran writes, “Individuals pick sides. Families don’t.”
Likewise, Tran and his siblings deal with ambivalent identities. Tran humorously represents his first experiences of arriving as an American in Việt Nam in a collage of panels, some of which show his unsuccessful efforts to pronounce “phở” and literally being covered by bugs. Similarly, a later panel illustrates little amorphous creatures partying inside of Tran’s stomach where a banner that reads “Vietnamania” announces what is familiar to many visiting or returning to Việt Nam—the unsettling gastrointestinal gurgle and the following sense of gratitude for the bottle of Pepto Bismol that our parents urged us to pack in our suitcases.
While the above illustrations of the ambivalence of being both Vietnamese and American prompt chuckles for their familiarity, Tran also touches upon the more serious aspects of identifying through two cultural perspectives, primarily in his rendering of the relationship with his parents. In witnessing his mother return to her hometown in Việt Nam for the first time in nearly fifty years, Tran writes, “Every sign, sound, and smell, transported her further and further back.” These words appear across a vertical series of panels that show the mother growing increasingly younger and younger, until the final panel wherein the portrait Tran draws of his mother’s face is half her as a young girl and the other half her present self. Here and throughout the book, it is Tran’s verbal and visual mingling of past and present—the inheritance (however removed) of parents’ traumas and losses—that articulates the second-generation’s warranted gratitude and tenderness for our parents, despite how long and under what circumstances it may take for us to get to that point.
When I ask Tran how his parents’ responded to his decision to write about them and their personal (including secret) experiences, he writes,
“In the beginning, my mom was hesitant and my dad was very resistant. They didn’t raise their children on stories of how they got from A to Z, all the hard decisions they had to make, the family/friends/lives they left behind, etc. And now here I was, a son that had never expressed interest in their personal history, snooping around for family stories to make into a comic. I asked them to reserve judgment until they actually saw how I treated the material, and I think when they read that first draft a lot of their fears were put to rest.
Ultimately, my hope is it makes us more empathetic towards each other and knocks down some barriers. As hinted in the book, my parents’ generation—especially on my father’s side—aren’t very close. When everyone was uprooted and forced to start their life over in a foreign unimaginable place, be it South Carolina or Switzerland, I think it was more difficult for them and their siblings to maintain relations. Preserving their journey in VIETNAMERICA has helped connect the dots for their children—their legacy of sacrifices—and I feel helps reverse the trend of growing apart as I, my siblings, and cousins reach the ages our parents were during this tumultuous period in history.
They grew up with war as a constant backdrop, and when they became ‘adults’, they were uprooted and replanted in a completely new land. Not having the luxury of maturing gradually, like their parents’ generation or their kids, I think exaggerated the generational gap that VIETNAMERICA tries to bridge. Now that they’re holding the finished book in their hands, I think they’re happy in their own way: my mom’s telling her friends to buy it, and my Dad grunts approvingly.”
In hearing Tran’s consideration of his parents and their history, I feel I must respond to David Ulin’s recent Los Angeles Times review of VIETNAMERICA which calls the memoir “uncomfortably open ended,” stating that Tran leaves his experiences “in the background” of his family’s story and “is unable to achieve the reconciliation to which the book aspires.” Here, it is important to point out Ulin’s assumption that a memoir must center on an individual when clearly, as evinced by Tran’s comments about his family within the text and in my interview with him, family is not separable from the self. Ulin taking issue with this aspect of the memoir does not point to “problems” in the narrative, but rather emphasizes VIETNAMERICA’s potential for opening up dialogues for cultural understanding. Further, I believe that the open-endedness is purposeful, that the discomfort the reader may feel is part of the discomfort felt by those of us who are perpetually negotiating our identities. In this context, a memoir does not inherently aspire to reconciliation or linearity, as the structure of Tran’s book underscores. The cycles through time suggest that “the journey” is, especially for the children of immigrants, never-ending, ongoing. One of the final full-page images in the book reintroduces the recurring image of the airplane—so powerful in its invocation of the aerial nature of the U.S. warfare in Việt Nam, but also emblematic of the possibility of return—that literally links visualized memories of past and present, of hope and loss. It is this visual and verbal palimpsest of time and memory that is the story for those of us who do not have the privilege, expectation, or even desire for clean, pat narrative reconciliation.
And, as mentioned earlier, while Tran’s many striking images often exert their power through use of color, I find most haunting the series of black pages used to represent his parents’ flight from Saigon at the end of the memoir. These black pages speak loudly. They are full in their emptiness, words and images present in their absence. They ask us, what stories are yet to be told? What do you remember and how will you do it? Who and what do you mourn? What silences will you keep and which will you speak?
In considering such questions of what stories to tell and how to tell them, Tran has this to say for readers like me who are already anticipating his future work: “As for future comic projects, I’m spearheading a book with a group of amazing cartoonists, illustrators, and animators that continues to explore a major theme from VIETNAMERICA in what I hope to be a very unique and poignant format (details forthcoming when we find a publisher). As for the next project that I’m writing and drawing myself, it’s a smaller story that didn’t make it into VIETNAMERICA’s final version. There’s so many more family stories left on the cutting room floor that I want to further explore, but just not through the same serious emotional lens as the book, and focusing on this new specific topic allows for a different storytelling experience. Plus, this one has a robot in it.”
For more information on Tran and his work, please visit www.gbtran.com.