Vietnamerica by G.B. Tran, Villard, 2011, ISBN: 978-034-550-8720
Vietnamerica is G.B. Tran’s family memoir of their experience in the Vietnam War and their immigration to the United States. Born in 1976, Tran has little connection to his Vietnamese history. He’s been raised in South Carolina and Arizona and seems typically American in his outlook and attitude. When his two grandparents die within months of each other, he decides to journey back “home” to learn something of his family’s history prior to their escape during the fall of Saigon
With Tran as a guide, the reader gets three stories in the graphic novel: 1) The historical account of the Vietnam war; 2) The family memoir, which chronicles how the family was split apart by the conflict and; 3) The immigration story, which shows how Tran and his family adapted to life in the United States. For Tran, all three parts of the story have a direct impact on his cultural identity. As he writes early in the novel, quoting Confucius, “A man without history is a tree without roots.”
Vietnamerica is a sprawling, kaleidoscopic book that illustrates (both literally and figuratively) the famous William Faulkner quote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Its story structure is similar to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, in that it chronicles the author trying to understand his family’s past during one of the most violent conflicts in the twentieth century. Unlike Spiegelman, however, Tran returns to his origins and shows us how the conflict shaped both sides of his family – the family that escaped and the family that remained. Within Tran’s narrative, we also get the stories of his grandfather, who left his family to join the Vietcong and his grandmother, who took up with a French soldier during the conflict. Most harrowing, perhaps, we see Tran’s family struggle to escape Vietnam at the fall of Saigon. Tran captures the panic and chaos of the time and how their departure depended on luck, timing, and connections. These stories help explain some of the family’s dynamics in the present, showing how the war affected them despite their desire to leave it all behind.
The illustrations in the graphic novel are beautifully rendered. I found myself spending more time on these pages than I have in other graphic novels. The level of detail and use of color are remarkable and help the reader experience Vietnam in both the past and present.
The novel chronicles a large family’s experience and the sheer number of characters and their relation to each other can be a challenge at times. Tran includes a family tree on the inside book cover and I found myself flipping back to it repeatedly to keep track of the different characters.
G.B. Tran takes the reader into the Vietnam conflict and shows how it affected the lives of his family in his family memoir Vietnamerica. The graphic novel is an excellent source of small and large history. The reader learns not only how the Vietnamese experienced the war, but also how it affected a generation of immigrants brought to America.
Information about the author
From the author’s web page http://www.gbtran.com/about.html, we learn that “I was born in South Carolina, raised in Arizona, and now live in Brooklyn making illustrations and comics. When doing neither, I travel to speak about various topics related to my book Vietnamerica, ranging from multiculturalism to graphic memoir, diaspora to DIY mini-comics.”
Graphic Novel, Memoir
English, History, Art
What family member’s story resonated the most with you?
How is Tran changed as a result of his journey to Vietnam?
Reading Level / Interest Age
Grade 9 and up
Why did I include this title?
I saw Vietnamerica in a bookstore and was immediately drawn to it by its colorful cover. Thirty minutes later, I was still reading the book and knew I had to purchase it for the library. It is a beautiful account of one man’s journey to understand his past and present. An excellent way to understand history and the immigration experience.