EDITOR’S NOTE: Post Comic Riffs contributor Winyan Soo Hoo was particularly moved by G.B. Tran’s compelling graphic novel “Vietnamerica.” With Tran scheduled to appear this weekend at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, the journalist interviewed the artist about his acclaimed memoir.
Artist G.B. Tran is proof that there is perhaps no greater story than the personal.
Tran explores the personal intensely in “Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey,” which chronicles his relatives’ escape from Vietnam in April 25, 1975 — during the fall of Saigon, and one year before his birth.
“Vietnamerica” finds its place among the relative handful of graphic novels that capture the Asian American experience, and does so using a first-person memoir style. Rather than re-tell world history in broad strokes, Tran said he wanted to offer a view of the war’s reach on an intimate, microcosmic level; through the eyes of his family alone.
Like many comic artists, Tran chose the art form for its sublime interplay of words and images. A longtime comics fan, Tran said that his calling to this medium was undeniable. The creative problem-solving appealed to the former college astrophysics major who delighted in the storytelling aspects of comics.
“Every reader will experience a book differently, depending on what they pay attention to. It’s a very reader-specific experience, which makes it so unique,” says Tran, who will appear at this weekend’s Small Press Expo, where he’ll take part in Saturday’s “Stories of Cultural Identity” workshop panel, further detailing the themes addressed in his book.
“I’m well past the point to ever break even at a show,” Tran said. “The dream of selling enough to pay for the table cost [$300] never happens, but meeting fans at the show makes it worth it. I still can’t believe that total strangers will buy my work and enjoy it.”
Tran said he found that mere strangers — some Vietnamese, some not — connected with his family’s story and shared with him their own immigration experiences. He found core similarities within their accounts, telling of a conflicted love for a home country and a struggle to abandon the old life for the new.
“You go back two or more generations, you’ll see that [most] everyone has one or both parents from another country,” Tran says. “Although we may not be directly related to an immigrant experience, we are the product of their journey.”
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“Vietnamerica’s” story begins at his grandparents’ funerals, held within months of one another. The loss was one of many occurrences that prompted Tran to slowly piece together their elusive history in Vietnam. Tran, who will turn 35 Sunday, logged three years of full-time work to write, pencil in and ink the 300-page book, revisiting his parents hometowns to uncover the bittersweet memories of the past. Through hundreds of hours of interviews with older family members and their friends, he was able to thread together a composite picture of hard-won resilience and a journey for a better life.
“I gained a deeper respect and understanding for my parents; it became a lot more obvious as to why they made the sacrifices they did,” Tran said. “I realized that even in war or in conflict, people want to do all they can to provide for and protect their family.… Growing up, I was like any other kid, and I went through a phase where I didn’t care where my parents came from.”
Tran’s parents were children of a nascent war-torn country, caught in the cross-fire of foreign invasions and brutal a war that split the country into two, leaving a communist North and the U.S.-aided South. These events left a lifetime of unspoken trauma, unbeknown to Tran, who was born in the States.
Tran said their lessons learned in Vietnam War are still relevant today.
“I don’t think it’s ever a bad time to hear stories like [‘Vietnamerica’], considering all the conflicts that are happening right now and that are potentially happening in the future,” he said. “It reminds us to examine the ramifications of war, especially on a family level.”
The war uprooted family, as his uncle fought for the South against his grandfather who sided with the North.
Tran’s mother grew up in the small villages of Langson and Vungtau, the latter a place where she crossed paths with and Tran’s father, Tri Huu Tran. By the time the elder Tran reached Vungtau, he had encountered hardening life experiences: a broken first marriage, a kidnapping as a prisoner of war, and a humbling career change. Tri Huu Tran, like his son, was also on the verge of becoming a successful artist in his own right, when he was thwarted by the demands of living in wartime, and chose another profession to make ends meet.
Beyond storytelling, Tran is an artist truly gifted in his medium. He carves Vietnamerica’s story line into breathtaking panels of art, slicing in images of vintage war propaganda and lush imagery of the Vietnam countryside. Fluid and bold strips of color texture his intricate portraits, each page seemingly more layered than the last. Tran also deftly illustrates the daily rhythm of life in Vietnam, capturing the bustling, developing streets filled with varied food vendors and smoky vehicles.
“If I hadn’t gone back to Vietnam to experience what life was like there, I think this book would’ve been radically inferior,” he said. “There’s so much you pick up when you’re immersed in that culture, whether it’s how people eat at table or what the furniture looks like.”
In one scene, Tran’s relative offers him a mysterious delicacy at the dinner table, providing his tender American stomach a little dance with the porcelain gods (or more accurately, the underbrush).
“I never would’ve thought to put it in the book, but it happened to me over and over again,” he said.
The minor affliction was one of the many nuances that pad his book. Tran eventually navigates through the culture shock to a place of insight and down the path of adulthood. A study of his family’s personal story led him to discover more about himself.
“I’m at a place where I want to start making more sacrifices to provide for my own future family, much like what my parents did for me.”