Nonfiction – print. Villard, 2011. 288 pgs. Library copy.
As the only member of his family born in the United States, Tran grew up largely indifferent to the experience of his immigrant family in Vietnam and how they came to the United States following the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Tran decides to return to Vietnam in April 2008 with his parents after much prodding on the part of the his mother and a decisive edict from his stereotypically stern and distant father, and this comic documents the experiences of his parents, grandparents, and uncle during decades of colonial rule and civil war.
While it is not always easy to keep the names of each family member straight (Tran includes a great drawing of this problem), their stories touch on multiple aspects of Vietnamese history and document how war can tear a family apart over multiple generations: Tran’s paternal grandfather joined the Viet Cong in the northern portion of the country because he believed in their communist cause and loathed French colonial rule, his father’s first wife was a white, French national who abandoned her two children and husband when the French pulled out of the country; his maternal uncle was conscripted by the south Vietnam army at the behest of the American forces despite still being a teenager; and his paternal grandmother had an affair with a French solider in order to provide food and shelter for her children.
One of the things this book has going for it is both the reader and the author are in the unknown, both are exploring Tran’s family history and the larger history of Vietnam together for the first time. The intrigue and the wonderment are shared emotions, and there were multiple times where I, too, wanted to yell at Tran’s parents to stop being so evasive with explaining their life stories.
Yet, in some ways, this fact works against the narrative because Tran does not always provide a solid timeline for the events detailed in his book. One story will trigger a memory or a recollection and suddenly the narrative is thrown forward or backwards in time in order to cover that event.
As such, the book is not a great primer into the history of Vietnam – I have a general idea of who the major players on (the French, the Americans, the Viet Cong) but not a good understanding of their ideology or role in the conflict. Perhaps this is too much of a demand to place upon a family history, but I felt like the larger picture was often needed to explain the smaller one the reader is offered.
It took me nearly three weeks to read this book, which is usually long for me when it comes to comics and graphic novels. Part of the delay was due to the type of fonts Tran uses. Each character is assigned a particular font, although sometimes it appears they switch or share them, and the cursive font he uses for himself was incredibly difficult to read. But the delay was also due to the fact that Tran inserts so many hidden images into his drawings that you cannot take a single panel at face value.
Tran details how trying to “be American” ran smack up against his parents attempt to start over in America while retaining aspects of their own culture and shared history. As a poor immigrant, Tran’s mother purchases clothing for her family at a thrift shop and neither she nor her teenage stepson are aware that the Minnie Mouse t-shirt she purchased is perceived by his classmates as being for girls only. This is just one smaller story I could have easily missed if I flipped through the book at my usual pace.
The book might have worked better for me had it been more clearly arranged, included more background information or, at the very least, dropped the awful cursive font, but I’m still glad I picked it up off the library shelf. Tran’s comics exposed me to a region of the world and a portion of history I know very little about, and I enjoyed the opportunity to linger over a particular panel and marvel over how perfectly Tran managed to capture such a dramatic moment through his use of color, shadows, and imagery.