Monday, October 28, 2013

Vietnamerica: A Family's Journey

by GB Tran

I don't understand how Vietnamerica: A Family's Journey, which was released in 2010, did not get a lot more press, good reviews, and recognition in the comics community.  This is easily one of the best graphic memoirs I've ever read, and is among the best graphic novels I've read in the last year.

Gia-Bao (GB) Tran's parents fled Saigon with the last of the Americans in the city, making their way to South Carolina, where Tran was born in 1976.  This book begins with his first visit to his family's homeland, a few years ago, after the death of his maternal grandmother.  That trip awakened an interest in his family's history, which is quite complicated.

Tran's paternal grandfather had abandoned his family when Tran's father was quite young, so he could fight the French alongside the Vietminh.  Tran's paternal grandmother ended up marrying a French colonel for a while, and after he left, becomes an imperious figure in the family narrative.  Tran's father marries a French woman, who also later leaves.

The story is told in a kaleidoscopic fashion, moving from one time period to another without immediate rhyme or reason, but slowly, the narrative of three generations gets told.  At times the book was a little confusing, and I found I had to flip back a little to remember who some people were and how they related to each other.  This is largely due to Tran's skill at drawing the different people at different ages, and maintaining family resemblances throughout.

Tran as an American teenager showed no interest in learning about his family's past, and it is the birth of his interest that is one of the more interesting threads in this book.  Many families live in diaspora from a number of different cultural backgrounds, and I think parents and children would be able to recognize something of themselves or their situation in this book.

I have had an avid interest in fiction and comics that deal with the Vietnam War for about twenty years now, but I think this is the first book that tells that tale from the perspective of a mostly apolitical Vietnamese family.  Sure, Tran's grandfather was Vietminh, but after the Americans were run off, even he lost faith in his country.  Tran's maternal uncle was pressed into service with the ARVN, the South Vietnamese army, and the scenes that show him at war also support the theory that many Vietnamese did not want to be involved in the conflict.

This is a highly sensitive and complex piece of cartooning, on a level with Craig Thompson's Habibi, and it truly deserves to get more attention.  I cannot recommend this book enough for anyone who is interested in the Vietnam War, family drama, or really, just amazingly good comics.

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