Vietnamerica

Created by: GB Tran

Published by: Villard

ISBN: 0345508726 (Amazon)

Pages: 192

Genre: Memoir/Autobio, Non-Fiction

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Vietnamerica

Easily one of the more interesting aspects of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (at least narratively speaking) is the interaction between the author’s character and a past he knows little of. Spiegelman tries to understand his father’s place in historical events from a place divorced locationally, culturally, and historically from the world in which his father formerly lived. In Vietnamerica, GB Tran unveils his own association with a family history of which he was almost entirely ignorant. His work seems to owe a substantial debt to Spiegelman, at the least in that Spiegelman prepared readers to engage in this kind of story. Yet while Maus primarily focuses its lens on the experiences of those who lived through Hitler’s Germany, only sprinkling in occasionally Spiegleman’s own reaction to the unfolding story, Tran’s Vietnamerica nearly wallows in the author’s journey from ignorance to enlightenment.

And does so greatly to the book’s benefit.

In the book’s opening pages, Tran’s father chides the author for trying to judge things in Vietnam from a vantage of ignorance: “You can’t look at our family in a vacuum and apply your myopic contemporary Western filter to them.” In a way that Tran likely intended, the entirety of Vietnamerica can be read as an exploration of how to become liberated from such myopia through actively seeking revelation. Heartbreaking revelation, sure, but revelation like this, if it doesn’t sour us completely on the human animal, can build us into the beautiful people we might be. Certainly the Tran who wrote Vietnamerica is a more careful human being than the Tran that exists on the page.

Vietnamerica features a host of people who are simultaneously sympathetic and unsympathetic. Tran himself comes off in his younger days as apathetic and neglectful, caring little for whatever lives his parents might have had before they become the monolithic individuals he seems to see them as while he is growing up. His father is gruff and unrelenting, stoical and stereotypically demanding. His mother is argumentative and embittered by an American dream that turns out to be just another hard life. And yet his mother not only has reason to have been disenchanted and reason to be upset with her husband, but Tran shows that she is not just the caricature he concocted of her in his early twenties; after all it is through her own careful, passionate, and invested narration that much of Vietnamerica‘s story unfolds. His father, in the end, is so much more than the broad stereotype he seems to inhabit and Tran’s investigation into the man’s inner character (in part aided by his mother’s narration) reveals, like the father suggests to the author earlier, that a one-sided perspective is inadequate for discovering who people are and what moves them. Even Tran himself does grow up—the publication of this beautiful book being primary evidence to his maturation.

The page attached to this panel did a fantastic job of shifting Tran’s father well into the realm of sympathetic characters. Perfect page.

Beyond just the reading, Vietnamerica is a joy to page through. The illustrations are well-composed and the colours pitch perfectly with Tran’s narrative chase across a fairly complex historical journey. I first encountered Tran in 2003 when I chanced upon the Xeric-awarded short-story Content. Not only was the story intriguing but his page compositions were inventive and well-designed. With Vietnamerica Tran continues to work to his strengths and the book has so many wonderful pages that any number are noteworthy representations of what a great creator can do with a page.

Despite the fact that, and I have said this a number of times over the years, I’m no great fan of memoir, sometimes authors can pull off something both interesting and worthwhile. GB Tran accomplishes these with Vietnamerica—the first by simply presenting an interesting story in interesting terms and the second by crafting something of a critique of the common Western gaze that is neither pedantic nor patronizing but, almost as if by accident, simply is. Vietnamerica is worth your time.

And this family tree found on the flyleaves is indispensible for figuring out who’s who along the complex storyline.

And it’s probably unfair to say, what with the author having just finished such a major work, but really: I can’t wait to read what Tran does next.

 

 

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I am Seth T. Hahne and these are my reviews.

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