Detail of an image from the book 'Vietnamerica' by Gia-Bao Tran. (Gia-Bao Tran )
A Family's Journey
Villard: 179 pp., $30
Where does memory end and myth begin? GB Tran's graphic novel "Vietnamerica: A Family's Journey" occupies the messy middle ground of that question.
Born in 1976 in South Carolina, Tran was separated by time and geography from his family's Vietnamese roots His parents left Vietnam with their two older children three days before the fall of Saigon in 1975: Their American-born son is literally a man between cultures, with no experience of what his parents and siblings left behind. How does he reconcile this? How does he come to understand the present through the filter of the past? "Vietnamerica" seeks to trace that process. As Tran notes early in the book, quoting Confucius, "A man without history is a tree without roots."
The blending of comics with memoir dates to at least to the 1970s, when Harvey Pekar published his first "American Splendor" stories and Will Eisner produced "A Contract With God." In the decades since, some of the genre's most vivid touchstones have been its most personal ones: Art Spiegelman's "Maus," for example, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its nuanced evocation of the Holocaust, and Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis," with its portrait of life in Iran in the wake of the Islamic revolution.
"Vietnamerica" has similar intentions, shifting between the present day and the middle of the last century, moving among generations of family as it goes from Southeast Asia to the U.S. and back again. It's a kaleidoscopic approach, and like Spiegelman or Satrapi, Tran frames himself as a guide. He writes: "It was a bizarre coincidence, Mom's mom and Dad's dad, my last two surviving grandparents, dying within a few months of each other."
What complicates Tran's story is Vietnam, a country where resolution remains elusive to this day. Consider Tran's grandfather, a high-ranking Communist who abandoned his family for the revolution, only to see his wife take up with a French colonel. When the colonel is targeted for assassination, he intervenes. "With him dead," he argues, "who would help raise my children?" Here, Tran highlights the interconnectedness of even the most divided society. "Individuals pick sides," he tells us. "Families don't."
There's something fundamentally hopeful about such a statement, with its assurance that blood is thicker than politics. As "Vietnamerica" progresses, however, the story gets muddied, for life is rarely so clear-cut. Part of the problem is that families make painful decisions all the time, and Tran's story shows this at almost every turn. "Mom and Dad fled Vietnam to keep the family together," he notes. "If they hadn't, Dad would have ended up in a labor camp, Mom denied work and forced to struggle in poverty, and my sisters and brother reduced to street beggars.… How do I know if I would have ever been born?"
Still, as necessary as it was, his parents' departure also split the family and separated them from their heritage. When Tran visited in 2006 for his grandmother's memorial service, it was the first time he'd met many of his relatives. "Sometimes doing what's right," he observes, "means leaving things behind."
That's true, of course, but it also points to a larger problem with "Vietnamerica." Tran simply is unable to achieve the reconciliation to which the book aspires. Like all personal narratives, his relies on reminiscence — but other people's more than his own. His life remains largely in the background, except when it intersects with the family's experience in Vietnam.
To hint at the fluidity of these recollections, he has constructed the book as a tapestry in which various story threads weave in and out of each other in a pastiche that intends to be as fluid as memory itself. Too often, though, people and situations are framed in sketches, a difficulty that extends to the book's visuals as well. Tran's drawing style is too broad, not specific enough, with few identifying details to make his characters truly come to life. This, coupled with the tendency of his anecdotes to bleed together, leaves us with a book that feels uncomfortably open-ended, neither specific enough for memory nor expansive enough for myth.
This, to be fair, may be unavoidable because of the double-edged sword of immigration. "My family's unwillingness to share the most basic facts," Tran admits, "was as much to blame as my decades of disinterest and insensitivity." And yet that is the challenge, the necessity, of personal history, to fill gaps of time and distance with imagination. Or as Tran puts it, citing an old Vietnamese proverb: "Our parents care for us as our teeth sharpen … so we care for them as theirs dull."