In 1980s Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Phuc Tran was one of few Asian kids. After fleeing Vietnam amid the fall of Saigon in 1975, he and his parents resettled in Carlisle, where Tran spent his childhood and adolescence.
Tran’s debut memoir, “Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In,” recounts in stunning detail his coming of age in white, small-town America. Tran — a high school Latin teacher and tattoo artist living in Maine — structures the narrative around works ranging from “The Scarlet Letter” to Homer’s “Iliad.”
This approach expresses themes like longing, love and rebellion, but is emblematic of assimilation in and of itself, and of the ways white supremacist roles of race and class infiltrate identity formation. This framework is perhaps the book’s most powerful hinge.
Tran found himself in the books he was assigned in high school. But this passion also facilitated assimilation he was pushed toward. Simultaneously, his love of literature provided a balm for a tumultuous family life and the confusing landscapes of adolescence, racism and relationships.
“I read as much (or at least name-dropped as much) of the Western literary canon as I could,” Tran writes. “But in the course of reading great books, something happened. My reading molded me, the tool hammering its hand into shape. … The snarl of my journey was untangled and laid out clearly by books.”
In laying out his childhood around themes and metaphors, Tran makes his own Great American Memoir.
Tran’s “mathematics of survival” informed his decisions and behavior; he and his family were “Vietnamese pegs squeezing into Colonial squares.” He adopted a model minority ethos that both propelled him out of his parents’ house and ingratiated him with his teachers: “Society sheltered me: even if I felt like a social pariah in my classes, at least I would have a better vocabulary than these philistines.”
As a boy, Tran easily made friends, despite some bullying. He renders an endearing closeness with his younger brother; their father is manipulative and at times physically abusive, while their mother, in Tran’s eyes, was mostly passive. But Tran’s treatment of his parents is full of love and respect, despite deep wounds.
The worst gash opened in Tran’s adolescence, in a frightening, emotionally and physically violent incident. Tran pushes on the bruise of masculinity and its ties to violence, and pushes on this same bruise when recounting his intimate yet guarded relationships with his crew of high school friends. “If teenage boys were unable to talk about their feelings,” Tran writes of his adopted family of skater friends, “then teenage punks were doubly so, and Vietnamese teenage punks bore that burden by a factor of three because what Vietnamese male showed any tender feelings?”
As Tran pushes against masculinity, he feels a deeper understanding of racism. As a child, he both loves and hates the only Asian representation he sees in movies: Short Round from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” a nameless kid in “Gremlins.” These characters gave him the relief of seeing someone who looked sort of like him, but simultaneously racialized and stereotyped that character. “The movies were doing the work of America, ghettoizing us in our own minds,” he writes. As he grows into young adulthood, Tran begins to confront internalized racism more directly within himself: “My suspicions about who and what was racist, its Caucasian chalk circle, was widening.”
Explorations of masculinity and race in America — which Tran links — sometimes trail off, but perhaps therein lies truth: There are no easy answers to the tangle of pain and oppression America breathes. Tran is a master of meta, after all.
“Sigh, Gone” is also full of humor and wordplay. This is a writer who loves language, and whose keen sense of observation lends a great deal of humor in the layers (when prompted by a college essay to choose a celebrated person to have dine with, Tran chose God).
Tran also does a service to this memoir by containing it in a period of time, closing as high school ends. By focusing on the rich trove of youth without the “after,” this journey never lets go of its nostalgia even while critiquing it. A story, as Tran demonstrates, never really ends. It continues forever, overlapping with others as it morphs.
“Words were powerful,” Tran discovers. “They could destroy you, and they could save you, too.”
“Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In” by Phuc Tran, Flatiron Books, 320 pp., $27.99