Vietnamerica the Beautiful: An Interview with G.B. Tran
G.B. Tran's parents fled their native Vietnam before he was born and raised him here in America. All his life, Tran's parents tried to build a connection between Tran and his heritage, but it was one he resisted. It wasn't until fairly recently that he made a trip to his parents' homeland, and that trip inspired the heartwrenching and poignant memoir Vietnamerica. We talked to Tran about the powerful experience of creating this book.
In the afterword to Vietnamerica, you say that making this book broke your heart. How so?
There was so much about my family's past that I had no clue about, and uncovering and telling their stories took me from joy to sadness and everywhere in between over and over again. This constant emotional rollercoaster ride, spread over several years, was very exhausting.
Do you wish now that you had gone to Vietnam earlier in your life? How do you think it would have affected you if you had?
I think things happen when they need to happen, so I don't regret not going to Vietnam earlier. Considering the different mindset I had in my younger years, what's to say that an earlier trip would have even resulted in this book? Whether it was because I was less interested then, didn't have enough confidence to tackle on such an immense project, etc.
How did making this book change your relationship with your parents and the rest of your family?
For my parents, I hope it's made us more empathetic to each other. For the rest of the family, it's secured my role as the deadbeat artist. Every family should have one those.
Can you now imagine doing what your parents did—leaving the country of their birth at that age and beginning anew in a strange new foreign land?
That was a constant question running through my mind while working on Vietnamerica, and the main reason for the emotional rollercoaster previously mentioned. Considering my dad's painting career was just taking off when he had to flee, it was impossible not to imagine myself in his shoes.
Obviously the Vietnam War represents one of the most fractious eras in American history. For you personally, it resonates in a similar way with your family dynamic. Growing up, what understanding did you have of the political situation of Vietnam and what your parents had to escape from?
My parents didn't raise me on stories of their past. That, combined with my own lack of interest, meant I had no understanding of Vietnam's political turmoil. This would later become one of the driving forces behind creating Vietnamerica—that desire to better understand what my parents were trying to escape from.
One of the most striking things about the book is the way it jumps from one time period to another and from personal story to another. Did you work on it in this way, piece by piece, rather than chronologically?
Yes, in the sense that as I researched and gathered family memories, I had to piece the stories together like a puzzle. Early on, I organized them chronologically to determine which event would be the book's climax. Once that was figured out, I kinda reverse-engineered the narrative, which led to splitting it into two main timelines that naturally converged at the end for the climax. In a way, I also think it was my subconscious wanting to simulate how disorienting it was for me to unravel my family's history in the first place.
What parts of your parents’ stories did you never know or properly understand before beginning this project?
With the exception of the scenes involving me at some point in my life, I was totally clueless on about 99 percent of it.
What reaction to the book have you had from family members?
Pride to curiosity, I think. The former with my parents, and the latter with the extended family. Thankfully, the most critical comment has only been my mom complaining I didn't draw her beautiful enough.
What are you working on next?
I'm spearheading a book with a group of amazing cartoonists, illustrators, and animators that continues to explore one of the major themes of Vietnamerica in what I hope is a very unique and poignant format. Mum's the word till we find a publisher.
As for the next project that I'm writing and drawing myself, I'm taking some of the unused Vietnamerica research and telling a smaller story hopefully to be serialized online. There's just so much material left on the cutting room floor that I wanted to further explore, but just not through the same emotional lens as Vietnamerica. I feel the former is 90 percent seriousness and 10 percent humor, so this next project is 10 percent seriousness and 90 percent humor. And it has a robot in it.-- John Hogan