AUGUST 13, 2020
PHUC TRAN IS a writer, tattoo artist, Latin teacher, and former (possibly current) punk living in Portland, Maine. In his debut memoir, Sigh, Gone (published in April by Flatiron Books), Tran chronicles his childhood through high school. His family fled Vietnam in 1975 when Tran was a small child, eventually landing in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, via a refugee resettlement program. There, Tran and his younger brother came of age in 1980s America.
As the title implies, Sigh, Gone, with its wistful pun on the erstwhile capital city of his native country, is built around Tran’s devotion to and curiosity about language — the friction between English and Vietnamese, the Western literary canon he fell in love with, the said and the unsaid both within his family and in the wider world. The book powerfully explores themes of assimilation, racism, complex and abusive family dynamics, and the challenge of coming into one’s own. In other words, Sigh, Gone is like all great works of literature — it asks big questions, universal in their specificity.
SARAH NEILSON: You write about how the major themes in the Western literary canon — justice, suffering, belonging, etc. — resonated deeply with you and shaped you as you grew up. The book’s chapters are structured around classic works of Western literature. How much do these books still influence you and your work today, and have you expanded outside the Western canon to other literary worlds?
PHUC TRAN: I leaned into books so heavily because it was really a survival mechanism for me, at least on an emotional level. It definitely made me feel less despondent and alone, even though sometimes it felt like a one-way conversation.
I remember reading The Scarlet Letter in high school, and I thought, “If you’re a white person in colonial New England, you’ve got it made.” But I also thought, “No, this lady’s got it, this is going terribly for her.” That felt weirdly comforting. Hester Prynne is so badass, I think she’s just so resilient, and strong and stubborn. My favorite part is when she refuses to take the letter off and she thinks, “I’m not going to let people shape the narrative about who I am.” Through your actions, you can change the community narrative about who you are. Things like that resonated for me in high school.
The books that really spoke to me were the books that addressed things that I was wrangling with. I didn’t feel like I had an outlet for connecting with my friends around me, and definitely not my family. My family was just trying to survive, put food on the table. Once I started going to counseling, and dealing with my relationship with my parents and past trauma in a therapeutic way, I think it took away how much I needed reading as a crutch, so that I could read for pleasure and enjoy things, and not feel this emotional pressure around it, like a pressure valve.
And yes, I have expanded beyond the Western canon, for sure. I think my attachment to that came from reading Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan, because it seemed like a secret manual for being a well-read erudite white dude. I was like, “That seems to play.” Even if I couldn’t articulate it, I could tell that white men were the people who benefited from the power structures in our society. If I couldn’t say that explicitly, I certainly felt it, that the boys in the class got a certain treatment, and obviously, the white kids got a certain treatment. So yes, I have expanded beyond that.
You grapple a lot with the theme of performance versus authenticity, especially as it relates to the punk ethos you adopted as a teenager, in response to the pressures of being a model student in your pursuit of assimilation. How do you feel about this performance/authenticity dichotomy, and the issue of assimilation, now?
We’re still culturally having conversations around what’s authentic and what’s not. Now it’s more framed by the medium — online versus in real life. When I was younger, it was more about how you look, and what were the motivating factors behind that.
When you talk about the performative nature of being a model student, I think about what I teach, and about kids getting grades. Some kids are motivated by the grade, by the end results, whereas other kids have a genuine love of learning. I’m not sure if you can say that one is preferable over the other. Did they learn the material? Can they apply it? Do they have critical thinking skills? Because at any point, that motivation can shift.
When we talk about authenticity, we’re really asking, “What is the motivation behind what you’re doing?” It’s like when you drag kids to do community service, and they’re grumbling and complaining, but they still do the service. So, at the end of the day, what is the net result?
I think when we talk about inauthenticity, at least in modern times, it often comes up in political conversations. It’s like a lack of trustworthiness or a lack of consistency, which is really frightening to me, at least in the political conversation. Because we’re not allowing people to grow and change. I hope someone doesn’t still have the same opinions they had 10 years ago. That would be terrifying, potentially.
Masculinity plays an interesting role in your book. It links into the exploration of performance of identity, and it’s tied to violence, too. What role do you see masculinity playing in the book’s narrative? Is it something you thought about deliberately while writing?
Yeah, as much as I could. It’s really hard for me to unpack. Toxic masculinity was definitely there, and it was so tied into Americana and Americanization. Even more than the idea of assimilation, which is definitely a thing that I talk about. But I think that, at least in this country, there’s a very specific brand of Americanizing yourself. Part of being American, at least in the ’70s and ’80s, was this hypermasculine persona that everybody aspired to, not just immigrants.
That was the era of it. The ’80s had the rise of all of those weird action movies, Rambo and Terminator and all that stuff. Not to put the onus on them, it’s not cause and effect, but those movies are symptomatic of our culture. It turns into a kind of a cyclical loop. Within the text, I wanted to just lay it out there, and then allow readers to grapple with it; let readers engage with that in whatever way they want to engage. Depending on what readers are bringing to the book, there are so many different reactions that I can’t anticipate. That’s part of the magic of reading, right?
I’m so fascinated by that. It feels like the ultimate Rorschach test in a way. I think masculinity is definitely baked into Americanization, or that hyper-masculine aspect of our culture. It was there, it still is there. It’s there in Vietnamese culture as well. So those things are already laminated on top of each other. And then if you add into that mix adolescent boys, who are just constantly looking to weaponize emotionality as a weakness … it’s all these things that keep getting shellacked on top of each other.
Can you talk about writing the part of the book where you, as a high school student, confront the complexity of racism in America? What was it like to revisit that awakening?
It’s tricky. I just wanted to lay it out there for what it was. We didn’t talk about racism at all with my parents. And I think, at least in my family — I can’t speak for all Vietnamese culture, but in my family — there’s a pretty prominent racism, anti-Black racism. It’s complicated. I think it’s part of my family’s mechanics, like my older parents, and their aunts and uncles and stuff like that.
I think it’s exacerbated by Asian Americans being what they call adjacent to white. Now, as a middle-aged person, and having read a lot more about it, I can look back and go, “Oh, that’s what was going on.” But at the time I thought, “Hey, why are we saying these things about Black people in the comfort of our own home?” It definitely made me nervous to write about. But I needed to say it, if only in the hope that I can shine a light on this, so that we can have a conversation about why we think this way, and why we aren’t aligned with Black America. I think it’s an important conversation for the Asian American community to have.
It’s bubbled up from time to time, certainly around like the Rodney King riots and stuff like that. There was a lot of tension on the West Coast, or at least in central Los Angeles, between African Americans and Korean Americans. But I think it’s a bigger conversation to have. And I think we don’t talk about it as much as we should.
Did writing this book change the way that you thought about your family legacy, or your family’s story?
I don’t think it changed how I felt about things. I think, if anything, it really clarified for me, as I was writing it, how important those lens books were. It wasn’t hard for me, when I was working with my agent and crafting the book, to choose books to refract my experiences. Being forced to sit down and think about the lessons that I learned from each book — that really clarified for me how important reading was. And also why the books were so important to me.
I read recently someone saying how, when you’re processing your feelings about something, it’s such a long and recursive process. When I was in my teenage years, reading something like Crime and Punishment, and feeling that resonance, I thought, “Why am I connecting so deeply to this 19th-century Russian novel? Oh yeah, because this is my childhood.” So, writing the book helped me clarify the importance of those books.
In writing my parents, it really forced me to think of them, write about them with a lot more depth and empathy. I attribute that to a lot of therapy, too. Once I started going to counseling, I realized I can have the relationship that my parents can give me. And it won’t be as volatile, because I’m not asking them to be people they’re not. When I wrote them as “characters,” and had to flesh them out with as much depth and complexity as I could, my interpersonal relationship with them also softened. Or deepened, I guess, because I recognize that we’re all complicated people.
A third piece is that I really wanted to lay out my childhood and my coming-of-age years in as complex a way as possible, which I feel is counter to our culture right now. Like, in terms of public narrative, I think we’re constantly trying to reduce people’s stories to 280 characters. A friend of mine once said, “In the public discourse, we’re constantly triangulating in our story about whether we are the villain, the hero or the victim.” Those are your choices. I really wanted to defy that, at least for myself. Sometimes I’m all three. If nothing else, I hope readers can see the book as an invitation — to read my story and all of its complexity, but also to think about their own stories, in their complexity.
Sarah Neilson is a freelance writer and book critic whose work appears in The Seattle Times, The Washington Post, Electric Literature, LARB, LitHub, BuzzFeed, and The Believer, among other outlets. She can be found on Twitter @sarahmariewrote, Instagram @readrunsea, and on her website, sarahneilsonwriter.com.