GB Tran. Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey. New York: Villard, 2011. 192 pages.
Graphic novels can be an extremely effective medium for memoir–Art Speigelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’ Persepolis have proven. GB Tran’s Vietnamerica is very much in the mold of these two classics, and it tells a story that similarly mingles memoir with history.
Tran’s family fled Vietnam with the fall of Saigon, and his parents–particularly his father–didn’t tell their son much about their homeland. Vietnamerica is the story of Tran’s return to Vietnam with his parents for the funeral of his maternal grandmother Thi Mot. The trip triggers his exploration into the history of his family, which parallels the past three generations of Vietnamese history.
It’s a vividly-detailed look at the family that doesn’t sugar-coat unpleasant aspects (of which there are a few) or simplify for the purpose of telling a more cohesive story. Tran is a courageous writer who takes some real risks here, and they pay off. It’s probably a cliche to say that Tran puts a human face on history with this graphic novel, but it’s absolutely true.
There are many powerful characters in the book; the one who dominates much of the story is Tran’s father, but both sets of grandparents have their moments, as does is mother. All in all, it’s an unflinching look at a difficult period in his family’s life, and one that sheds some light on the biographical repercussions of historical events.