A thoroughly Asian-American tension runs through Phuc Tran’s memoir, Sigh, Gone: no matter how many works of the Western canon Tran reads, ollies he pops or punk rock concerts he attends, a white boy could always cut him down with a racist slur.
Tran is in second grade when a schoolyard bully taunts him on the playground, making slanty-eyed gestures before yelling an epithet. Tran doesn’t know exactly what the word means, but he understands its intent: It is a naming. And it’s a moment when Tran becomes fixed within the white gaze as someone not from here, but permanently from there.
Sigh, Gone is Tran’s first book, a recollection of his childhood growing up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, after his family’s escape from Saigon right before the fall in 1975, when he was a baby. What ensues is a story intensely preoccupied with the project of assimilation, which he attempts with varying degrees of success: From changing his name to Peter for a day, to finding a skateboarding crew, to — at last! — discovering a love for literature after reading Clifton Fadiman’s paean to world classics, The Lifetime Reading Plan. For Tran, immersion in the Western canon holds “the promise of acceptance and connection and prestige”, a near-religious belief he never questions. Even now, in this retelling, he names each chapter after a Great Book (“The Scarlet Letter,” “Pygmalion,” “The Metamorphosis”) detailing his own travails and life lessons alongside theirs.
The dichotomy he thus sets up — between what he perceives as his true, American self and his Vietnamese face — is never quite resolved. A high school teacher takes him to see a production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, a gesture that makes him feel “known and seen, not for being Vietnamese but for my passions and ideas”. He arrives home from this buoying, thunderous experience only to quietly tuck it away when he sees his parents. “What did my family really know about literature or theatre?” he thinks. “Ironically, the arts were connecting me to strangers, and yet they widened the already yawning gulf between me and my family.”
He never manages to close the gap. His description of his parents doesn’t leave the realm of teenage caricature — his father is violent, abusive and domineering; his mother quiet and submissive. We assume there is inherited trauma, but we don’t know its contours. Overall, his parents are voids that obliterate all light and perception. The result is a coming-of-age that is solipsistic in its understanding of its own pain. Even now that Tran is a 40-something husband and father of two, a Latin teacher and tattoo-shop owner in Portland, Maine, his memories are not told with the wisdom of age, but with the arrested development of adolescence.
As a result, a mix of resentment and light condescension toward Vietnameseness hangs over the book. Tran phonetically writes out his father’s mispronunciations in English. When his family members speak in Vietnamese, he calls it “Vietnamesing”, as in, “She Vietnamesed feebly”. (Sometimes they “English”). Sigh, Gone does not question its central premise that assimilation should be the desired goal for self-making and self-preservation.
Even the white, miscreant members of his skateboarding cohort are drawn with broad strokes; we don’t really know what connects them beyond hooliganism and pack loyalty. Sigh, Gone lacks curiosity about the world beyond Tran’s immediate one — whether political or familial or communal — to give the book enough sinew and connective tissue. (Even the way he writes about punk has a superficial flair. Little about the book itself is actually punk besides the anarchist “A” on the cover).
Sigh, Gone gestures at interesting ideas without fully engaging in them. Tran recalls an exchange in the supermarket when an old man accosts him and his parents to ask if they are Vietnamese, only to tell them that he fought there in the late sixties and that it’s a “beautiful country”. It’s an odd exchange, underpinned with menace. Tran recognises in that moment that his family represents a symbol of patriotic duty for the veteran. The thorny socio-political burden he bears is ultimately left unexplored.
By the end of the book, Tran is riding a high: He’ll attend Bard in the fall, and has been selected as a speaker for his high school graduation. Just weeks before the ceremony, though, another student calls him the slur again, dragging him back into the mud. “I was exhausted, frustrated and angry that I had spent so much of my time in Carlisle trying to be seen, understood and accepted, and I just wanted to forget it all,” he writes. “I knew that my real feelings wouldn’t fulfil the expected, celebratory tone of a graduation speech,” so he writes “a speech about souvenirs” instead. He didn’t write the speech he wanted, and the book still feels stuck in that same mentality — of waiting for approval that isn’t someone else’s to give.
© 2020 The New York Times