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28 April 2011 @ 09:41 pm
A Review of G.B. Tran’s Vietnamerica (Villard Press, 2011).  
A Review of G.B. Tran’s Vietnamerica (Villard Press, 2011).

I recently read G.B. Tran’s delightful and poignant Vietnamerica, which we might more call a graphic memoir, in that it depicts the very difficult circumstances that lead to his parents’ immigration to the U.S. Tran adds to the growing legacy of post-Vietnam War literature written specifically by Vietnamese Americans and offers an important corrective to the representational terrain, which literary critic Viet Thanh Nguyen has noted, typically focuses on the experiences of the traumatized veteran. Tran’s graphic memoir traces both his mother and father’s family lives, as they grew up under the turbulent regime changes and invasions occurring across the long arc of the 20th century within Vietnam. Tran employs an exceedingly successful circular style. While the graphic memoir opens with Tran’s trip to Vietnam, the bulk of the narrative spends time creating a detailed background for his brusque, but still loving parents. Perhaps, this nuanced approach is what I appreciated the most: Tran doesn’t necessarily draw back from the often austere parenting style that his parents employed, but he also makes sense of it and clarifies why they might have turned out to be the kind of parents they are. The graphic memoir has many sections and really gets deep into the family history, moving further back into time, thus drawing out not only American involvement in Vietnam, but also periods of French colonial power and the Japanese occupational period. Tran’s style is very much his own and the colors he tends to use in this work draw the lives of his family in darker registers, perhaps keying us into the challenge of their everyday lives. Scenes are often blocked out against dark panels or shadows. Like Fred Chao, Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, the page and panel spaces are played with, such that there isn’t always a clear boundary between borders, panels, and gutters. Often times, panels arc across the binding of the page and Tran is especially effective at using these larger scale panels to draw out panoramic viewpoints (also reminiscent of Shaun Tan in this respect). For instance, one of the repeated “panorama shots” is of modern-day urban Vietnam, replete with cyclos, markets, apartments, animals, and dense throngs of crowds. Much of this novel is, of course, invested in a kind of personal excavation. The novel thus opens as a kind of “return to the homeland” narrative, but we see that this return is far more complicated by the novel’s conclusion. The circular quality works just right; we come to understand the desire that GB’s parents have for erasing the past, and why then they might actually want to include him in rethinking that paradigm at a later point in their lives. I will definitely add this one to my future graphic “narrative” course.

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