Cartoonist Gia-Bao Tran illustrates his family’s narrative through the filter of the past
“A man without history is a tree without roots – Confucius”
Ranked as a Top 10 Graphic Memoirs of All Time by Time Magazine, ‘Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey’ provides a window into the past with illustrations about his family’s personal history across generations and different continents. The images are rendered by an individual whose background includes traditional cartooning, graphic design, watercolor, and block printing.
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“You can’t look at our family in a vacuum and apply your contemporary Western filter to them.”
The author plays the title character, referring to himself as GB (an acronym of his given name, Gia-Bao).
GB grows up without knowing how or what uprooted his parents from their ancestral home of Vietnam 30 years ago.
And on page one of the book, the cartoonist introduces the reason for his family’s departure from Vietnam. The entire page is stained with red brush strokes and a streak of smoke in the bottom left hand corner. There is a gray war plane flying towards the edge of the page.
It’s important to note these entities as they form the basis of Tran’s exposition: color being used as a visual language and the repetition of both text and images to symbolize the connection between past, present ,and future. Every element that finds itself on the paper has deeper meaning that is left up to the reader to uncover.
“We were all overwhelmed trying to start over from nothing. The simplest things were suddenly impossible to do.”
While GB is the main character, his parents’ personal histories form the backbone of the story. Our first encounter with GB’s parents comes immediately after the page one flashback chronicling their escape from Saigon in 1975 with three children in tow (GB was born in the following year.)
Fast forward 30 years later, the two parents reappear aged and back in Vietnam. GB’s mother, Dzung is endearingly nostalgic while his father, Tri Tran is anything but. The two have returned to Vietnam to attend their parents’ funerals. Dzung loses her beloved mother, Thi Mot, but the homecoming is more joyous than tearful as it is the first time she is able to reunite with her family after 30 years apart. On the other hand, Tri Tran’s reluctantly pays respect to his deceased father Huu Nghiep. Their relationship is one marred by the effects of war as Tri’s father was a high-ranking officer who abandoned Tri as a young child to take arms against the Japanese, French, and Americans.
“Sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, customs and shared history lost within the span of single generation.”
Meanwhile, GB is portrayed as a man without a heritage. Disinterested and insensitive. His father continuously scolds him for imposing his Western mentality on a culture he barely knows.
But naturally, in every homecoming, realizations are made as the present collides with the past. GB is forced to reconcile with the truth about his parent’s homeland and livelihood before the War. A moment that sticks out in my mind is a scene of exodus, painted in angry shades of cobalt blue and steely gray against a blood-red sky. The bottom panel on the same page is that of Vung Tau, portrayed in pale orange and muted teal. Vung Tau is the beachside town where Dzung and her husband Tri Tran lived happily prior to the Fall of Saigon in 1975. The juxtaposition between desperation and tranquility is an intensely raw comparison between humanity at its best and worst.
“It was then that they realized their Vietnam only existed in stories and fading memories.”
Vietnamerica is a beautiful collage of memories; an honest portrayal of the art of remembering. It’s a tangle of emotions and narratives, deviating from traditional linear storytelling in favor of a disjointed narrative. The author jumps between the past and present and different sets of narrators. Chaos and noise canvas the pages. The delivery feels very personal, as if the author is asking us to piece together the puzzle with him.
Overall, the discord brings into stark relief the generational and cultural divide that separates a family in diaspora in that the losses suffered were more about the intangibles: language, history, and identity. As Tran attempts to reconnect to his roots, the epiphany dawns on him that “sometimes doing what’s right means leaving things behind.” You ultimately leave with a profound respect for all those who courageously left everything behind in the name of survival and self-preservation.
All Photos Courtesy of GB Tran