Synopsis in under 100:
A misfit kid of the 80s? talk about the spirit of punk rock.
The son of immigrants, dealing with the subtle and overt racism in America? talk about poignant and relative.
Phuc Tran’s memoir will undeniably become a cult classic to the habitual geeky outsider who finds solace in the written word and those of us who romanticize the 80s punk rock scene. This memoir is laden with classic literary references, sticking it to the man via counter-culturalism, and an ever-present juggling of multi-cultural conflicts (counter- being just one).
Get on the Tran Train. It’s one helluva ride.
I listened to Sigh, Gone on audible, narrated by the author. It was delightful to hear the tonations and use of language throughout the story. It enhanced the narrative’s authenticity (not that it lacked a sense of authenticity) that I would have only glanced over if I were reading it for myself. The way Tran describes his mom “Vietnamese-ing” and his father “English-ing” at him is comical, but also drives the point home: there are linguistic and cultural barriers inside as well as outside the home he’s forced to constantly juggle.
Tran has an absolute mastery of the English language – meaning he uses language in a captivating, deliberate, structured way poets use language, not that it’s surprising to see these qualities from a Vietnamese immigrant. I’m not that small minded. His imagery, reflections, and literary connections to life are as natural as they are insightful. He grabs the listener full-force and plunge them into his narrative. It’s like I was shaken awake into a new reality, skating alongside Tran as he exposed incredibly personal things from his adolescence, while using crazy deep literary references to drive the point home.
One segment of the memoir that focused on the use of language brought a keen, sublime joy to my heart:
“In Vietnamese, the word for country and the word for water are the same: Nước. Context obviously makes it clear if you’re talking about the former or the latter, but in Vietnamese, your country is not the terra firma or the nationality; it’s the water. The waters that feed the soil. The waters that lap your shores. If you ask someone where they’re from, you’re asking them literally from what waters do they come. The county of America is called, in Vietnamese, nước mỹ: the waters of America.”
Knowing what little I know about Vietnamese topography (mostly from “The Amazing Race,” I’ll be honest), I know there is more/less as much land as there is water. Hearing in my mind’s eye how the Vietnamese language connects human lives and the water was striking and beautiful in its newness to me.
As an American, our history and culture is tied firmly to the land, despite the fact that deltas brought on the greatest growth opportunities. We only ever refer to the land when describing home or how to get to a place. Land is strong, finite, firm, and can be contained and marked upon. These are characteristic we associate to the American identity, a sort of brute physical force.
Water, on the other hand is malleable, replenishing, cyclical, it takes the form of any container and is able to seep through the smallest gaps. Water spreads over a surface evenly, and it cannot be divided by striking it, it cannot be marked on, and is difficult to divide without outside forces. Are these accurate descriptors for the Vietnamese people?
It was an interesting and beautiful turn to hear water being the element of identity.
Perhaps it’s a small detail to a larger story I cannot fully grasp being who I am and where I come from, but there is something poetic about the way Tran describes not only a language in general but the people who use said language.
Hearing Tran’s story in his own words and his own voice deeply impacted me. There were a few times I genuinely teared up or full on cried through the narration. I know the feeling of “outsider,” as well as being unable to connect with one’s parents; they’re not the same feeling. Estranged parents are an enhanced realm of loneliness. When the people you’re supposed to connect the most intimately with are all at once estranged… it’s… I don’t have the words, but Tran does.
“With my mother, I lacked the words to tell her what I needed. With my father, I lacked the trust to tell him, the trust that he wouldn’t respond with violence or disappointment.”
This memoire hit me on a truly personal level. Somehow I feel a kinship to the author/narrator, and Phuc Tran is one of the five I would have at my dinner table “If [I] could choose any five people, alive or dead, to have dinner with…” He’s absolutely an amazing human being with a story well worth sharing.
That being said, I did a bit more digging into Phuc Tran than I do most authors. He’s still 400% a badass! Teaches Latin, continues to write, is a tattoo artist, and full-on family man.
His tattoo studio, Tsunami Tattoo, is in Maine, and y’all better believe it is now one of my life goals to visit him and get some art done. As soon as COVID is over, it’s going to be my first trip (no doubt he has a backlog of clients to get through first, but I’m more than willing to wait). I already know the piece, and looking over his portfolio, any one of the artists in the shop can fulfill the idea.
He also did a TedxTalk about language and how a language can further describe (and ultimately define) a people or a culture. Though there are mixed comments and I don’t know anything about the Vietnamese language, it’s still an interesting concept. The subjunctive tense: something I never understood about English until studying Spanish, and now more so learning French.
“If you catch me in my off-guard moments, I’ll tell you that at some points in my life, I wanted to be white. It’s not a proud feeling, but it’s not a feeling that comes from the shame of being brown. It’s a tired feeling. Tired of the crushing racism. Tired of not belonging. It’s the exhaustion from fighting for your right to exist.”
“I cried hard for everything. For nothing. For myself. For my parents. For the lives that we were supposed to have. For the stupid life that we did have. For the circumstances that made my father and mother who they were. I wanted to believe that they were better people. I cried for who they were and who they wanted to be. I cried for everything being so fucked up.”
“Do we want words to be powerful or powerless? We can’t have it both ways. If we want them to be powerful, we have to act and speak accordingly, handling our words with the fastidious faith that they can do immeasurable good or irreparable harm. But if we want to say whatever we want- if we want to loose whatever words fly into our minds- then we render words powerless, ineffectual, and meaningless, like the playground bromide of “sticks and stones.” That childhood logic leads you to believe that suffering corporal trauma is worse than verbal trauma.”
“What’s worse than turning into a giant bug? Turning into a giant bug and having your family act like a bunch of assholes.” On Kafka’s Metamorphosis.