Tran is a graduate of Columbia University with a degree in creative writing and linguistics. She has received fellowships from MacDowell, Art Omi, and Yaddo. Her debut book is a coming-of-age memoir recounting her family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam to Queens in the 1990s, and the author’s struggle to both honor her heritage and find her own voice.
Carrie Koepke of Skylark Bookshop in Columbia, Missouri said of Tran’s book, “Childhood memoirs are tricky, but Tran is skilled at bringing forth her youth alongside reflections brought on by age and understanding. A heart wrenching read of the difficulties of survival, mental health issues, and a fractured family. Though filled with struggle and pain, House of Sticks manages to glide on wings of hope and possibility.”
Here Koepke and Tran discuss the author’s debut book.
Carrie Koepke: Immigrant families are often portrayed flatly in a constant search for "better," ignoring how hard "better" is to achieve. You share the array of darkness and hope in a family shaped by struggle and tragedy in Vietnam, then again in Queens. What perspective do you hope your readers gain regarding poverty and immigration?
Ly Tran: There’s so much that’s being said about immigration and poverty today, but not enough about the nuance of these fraught experiences. I plumbed the depths of my perspectives not just as an immigrant, an Asian American, a person who has experienced crushing poverty, but also as a human being, flawed but full of interminable hope. My greatest wish in sharing my story is to humanize my existence, to usher in empathy and compassion from those who have never experienced what it’s like to live below the poverty line, what it’s like to escape a war-torn country and still carry the violence of that war in their hearts. I want to be a voice for those who, despite never having gone through these experiences, can relate to the individual themes that are pervasive in our collective experiences and can see themselves in my story and find hope. And finally, I want to be a voice for those who have gone through what I went through or are going through it now. I want them to know that they are not alone.
CK: There is a beautiful passage where you explain helping your mother with English, discussing the use of accent marks in Vietnamese. Earlier you talk about her teaching you and your brothers Teochew, a Chinese dialect, and the significance of her gifting you with this heritage. How else did your upbringing with more than one language and the later study of linguistics inform your writing?
LT: As my vision failed me and I could no longer see the world clearly, language and listening were the only tools I had at my disposal, the beautiful rhymes and rhythms, tonal peaks and valleys, that abound in the Vietnamese and Teochew language, and their stark contrast to the English language. My mother’s gift to me was a means of understanding the world when that dominant sense had been compromised, and I strived to pay that gift forward in my writing. I wanted readers to experience being between languages, between cultures, between identities. The spare quality of my writing mimics the limited lens through which I looked out at the world, but my hope is that the emotional depths remain.
CK: The support, understanding, and guidance of others was lacking or often misguided in your childhood years. On the other hand, your more recent friendships and mentorships appear to have acted with much more perspective and benefit. What do you hope educators and those in guidance/social work learn from this book?
LT: I urge educators and social workers to do their best to learn about the cultural backgrounds of those in their care and to recognize that an underperforming student might be suffering adversities that aren’t immediately visible. I wish for these cases to be handled with compassion and sensitivity. Reach out to those students who are struggling, see their potential, and do what you can to preserve that inner light.
That said, I also know that our public education system often leaves educators and social workers without resources. My heart goes out to teachers who are overwhelmed and overworked with thirty, sometimes forty students in a classroom, and to social workers who are underpaid and unsupported. So that, too, must change, with effective policies put into practice, if we want to best serve the next generation of Americans.
CK: Choices in writing characters can be complex, fictional or real. You present your mother as layered and complex, with strength, weakness, hope, resignation, and persistence. On the other hand, your father is built solidly around his pride and time as a POW, with only glimmers of lightness. You also treat each of your brothers with different depths. How did you make those choices and what did they help you achieve in portraying the story you wanted to tell?
LT: I wanted to make the characters in my memoir, my family members especially, as accessible to readers as they were to me during these episodes of my life. My mother is most complex because she’s the person I spent the most time with in my youth and early adulthood. Whether at home chanting Buddhist scriptures or in the nail salon practicing nail designs, I could glean much of her hopes and dreams, her flaws and idiosyncrasies, and the depths of her love for her family during these times. I knew my father in a limited capacity mostly because his trauma limited the way he perceived not just the world but himself as well. I could only know him insofar as he knew himself. And though my relationships with my brothers have no doubt broadened and deepened over the years, especially as we matured, that was not always the case growing up, and the varying depths with which I portrayed them in the narrative reflected this reality.
CK: You share stories of your mother's reluctance and refusal to stand up for herself against hatred and cruelty in the nail salon. How has the recent rise in anti-Asian hate crime impacted her as well as your fear and desire to protect her?
LT: I’d been taking daily walks with my mother around the neighborhood throughout the pandemic. We both need the exercise, and it’s yet another lovely way for us to bond. But lately, I find myself walking closer to her and being hyperaware of our surroundings. I tense up if someone is walking too close to us. We experience the anti-Asian violence that we see on the media vicariously and are thus re-exposed to the trauma we’re already so well acquainted with. It’s heavy. I never want my mother to go through what she went through ever again. Nor do I want her to remember it. So I try not to talk to her about it. I try to only tell her good or funny news and make sure to stop at the cherry blossom trees and the rhododendron bushes as we walk, and take photos of her in dappled sunlight. Look at all this beauty, I’d say to her.
House of Sticks by Ly Tran (Scribner, 9781501118814, Hardcover Memoir, $27.00) On Sale Date: 6/1/21.
Find out more about the author at lytran.me.
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