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by worlds of wonderby hari kesuma
A Vietnamese-American explores his roots in a colourful graphic memoir.
Vietnamerica – A Family’s Journey
Writer and artist: G.B. Tran
Publisher: Random House
SURVIVAL is having children even if they hate you,” Art Spiegelman once noted in his journal as he was working on his comic masterpiece Maus – A Survivor’s Tale.
The classic graphic memoir recounts the harrowing experience of Spiegelman’s parents surviving the Holocaust, but central to the story is the “hate” between him and his father.
With its own father-son hostility anchoring the historical epic of Vietnam War, it is difficult not to compare GB Tran’s graphic novel Vietnamerica to the revolutionary comic.
Like Maus, Vietnamerica evokes the suffering, humour and daily trials of surviving war. And like the Holocaust survivor’s tale, this family journey explores the tetchy filial relationships, and how they are impacted by catastrophic forces, with touching honesty.
Some may find it hard to imagine Vietnam as anything other than the backpacker paradise it has evolved into, but for many of a certain generation, the war-torn land is the spectre looming in the crevices of their subconscious, no matter how disconnected it is from their reality.
In many ways, this is also the lens that Tran seems to use to filter his family heritage for the memoir. Born in 1976, a year after his family settled in the United States as war refugees, Tran is separated from his Vietnamese roots by time and geography. Yet, his present and future are bound tightly to his parents’ tragic past, and it is this personal journey to understand his shackles – and hopefully break away from them – that Tran takes us on in his impressive debut opus.
It all begins with the coincidental deaths of his last two surviving grandparents – “Mom’s mom and Dad’s dad” – which, as fated, fall within a few months of each other.
Pushed by his father’s taunt, quoting Confucius’ “A man without history is a tree without roots,” Tran decides to make that trip “home” to Vietnam for the funeral with his parents.
There, he is confronted by ancestral history in a land that is as much estranged as it is an inseparable part of his existence. But as he trawls through his family tree, the pieces start falling into place to give him an understanding of his complex kin.
The biggest revelation of all is the tortured relationship between his father Tri and his grandfather who was a Vietminh commander. Tran begins to understand his own difficult relationship with his bitter father.
From the French colonialism and the Japanese occupation during World War Two to the American war against the Communists, Tran manages to illustrate the long and treacherous road that had led his family to the supposed land of the free.
Crucially, he manages to capture the drama of the internal unrest and violent conflict of the times without detracting from the central family drama.
This in many ways is largely due to his choice for a more kaleidoscopic trail instead of the easier linear path. The elliptical jumps backward and forward in time and place might require some effort on the reader’s part to stay focused, but they definitely lift the familiar war above your average history tome or movie.
This is also where Tran uses his art to good effect, which, to me at least, is the best thing about Vietnamerica.
With his imaginative palette, Tran creates vivid panels that juxtapose personal history and collective memory by alternating bold vintage war propaganda poster style with the more subdued but intimate strokes.
Tran also deftly captures the daily rhythm of life in not only present Vietnam with its bustling, smoky streets, but also the misty, romantic bygone era.
He fluidly switches from the past to the present and back with clever visual devices to mark the passing of time, such as pieces of memory spiralling out of his father’s cigarette smoke or boxes that cannot contain the painful past.
One ingenious family portrait is that of a scrabble board weaving Tran’s parents’ experience when they first arrived at their adopted country.
Then there is the jigsaw puzzle made up of parts of the different family members’ faces (on the cover, no less) which captures the essence of the memoir – the separate but connected pieces that make a family whole.
My absolute favourite though is a full-page panel showing Vietnam on a map of the region with a giant crevasse, like the mouth of an awakening monster, swallowing its screaming citizens.
Where Tran fails, however, is to reconcile his own personal conflict about his chequered heritage, leaving one with niggling feeling that – to misquote his favourite Confucius saying in the comic – although Tran has found his history, he has yet to find his roots.
Graphic novel Vietnamerica – A Family’s Journey is courtesy of Kinokuniya Bookstore.
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