Anna Coats (AC): Please introduce yourself and briefly describe your literary work and career path to date.
Vu Tran (VT): I came to the States in 1980, when I was five, a refugee from Vietnam. I grew up in Tulsa, Okla. and eventually went to school in Iowa City where I got my MFA, and Las Vegas, where I got my PhD. For over 10 years, I wrote and published short stories and did not publish my first novel until 2015. During this time, I taught literature and creative writing at the University of Iowa, the University Nevada, Las Vegas, and the University of Chicago, where I’m currently an Assistant Professor of Practice in the Arts.
My short stories mostly take place in contemporary Vietnam and deal with Vietnamese characters, but I finally moved my setting to America in my novel, which deals with both Vietnamese Americans and white Americans. Despite my focus on the Vietnamese diaspora in my work, I’d say my fiction is fundamentally concerned with romantic love and familial love and how similar their emotional contours can be: how damaging the fractures, and how lasting and far-reaching those damages can be, even long after the relationship has been broken.
AC: The narrator in your debut novel, “Dragonfish,” is a white male, but nearly all the other characters are of Vietnamese descent. Did you intend for this book to be viewed through the lens of “Asian American literature”? What does the term “Asian American literature” mean to you?
VT: Asian American literature, in my view, is more a marketing label than a meaningful literary category. Plenty of books about Asians are written by non-Asian writers, and plenty of books written by Asians do not portray Asian characters. And of course, the word “Asian” itself describes a wide range of nationalities, cultures, and experiences. So, Asian American literature, as a term, says very little about the content of the books being described or about the writers who write them.
In the case of “Dragonfish,” I was much more mindful of the traditions I was working in, namely crime fiction, immigrant fiction, and fiction about Vietnam and the Vietnam War. My main narrator is a white male because I needed him to embody the typical hero in detective fiction, except in my book he would be deprived of agency and heroism—the ability to solve the mystery or save the people he wanted to save. I also wanted him to be the outsider in the story, a stranger to both Las Vegas and the other Vietnamese characters, especially Suzy, the woman he desperately loved but who never gave him the access to her that he wanted. I was interested in that popular narrative where a white, Western hero enters a foreign land and not only becomes one of the natives but also ends up saving the native community from an outsized threat. I was interested in what that kind of hero would do when he’s been stripped of power, when his desire to be the hero is obstructed. Who does he end up hurting? How much does he end up hurting himself? What kind of alternative narrative does he end up creating to steel himself against failure?
AC: “Dragonfish” was met with glowing reviews and made the The New York Times “100 Notable Books of 2015,” San Francisco Chronicle “Best of 2015: 100 Recommended Books,” and The Kansas City Star “Best Fiction of 2015” lists. Does your perception of your story and/or its characters change when you see people respond to your book?
VT: Writers, like all artists, are sensitive creatures, so I think it’s inevitable that our own perception of our work is affected by how people respond to it. I was lucky to have mostly good reviews of my novel and that did reinforce my sense that I had made the right artistic decisions. I’m honestly not sure how my perception of the book would have changed had it received mostly bad reviews. What did strike me was how certain reviews treated it exclusively as a crime novel and others treated it more as a literary novel, and how different the response could be according to the expectations the readers brought to the novel. A lot of this has to do with how the novel has been marketed, of course, and so the differences in how it’s been treated is not that much of a surprise to me. But I am more aware now of how something like the likability or flawed nature of a character can significantly affect a reader’s reaction to the book overall, depending on what kind of book they think they’re reading.
Libraries offer this opportunity to everyone, no matter your financial, ethnic, or social status, and I can think of no better place in the world where you can start to engage with the diversity of humankind.”
AC: Your bio says you were born in Saigon five months after the city fell to the North Vietnamese, and when you were five years old, escaped Vietnam by boat, spending five days at sea, and settling in a refugee camp in Malaysia. In what way did this experience influence the scene in “Dragonfish” where Suzy/Hong also escapes Vietnam with her young daughter by boat and ends up in a refugee camp in Malaysia?
VT: For that part of the novel, I definitely drew upon my own experience escaping Vietnam with my mother and sister and our time on Pulau Bidong, the same refugee island the characters in the novel lived on. I was too young back then to retain much of anything, so my mother became a vital source of information and verisimilitude for me in the writing of the book. Suzy’s experience, however, is much more dramatic and traumatic than my own. In many ways, we were very fortunate in our journey to America. If anyone suffered the terror and uncertainty of an experience like that, it was my mother, and I wanted to bring the emotional weight of her memories to that part of the story. I’ve always imagined that there can be few things more terrifying than fleeing the land of your birth with no hope of returning, across waters that could kill you in so many different ways, and doing so with the life of your young children in your hands. So yes, I used the basic facts of my escape from Vietnam for Suzy’s story, but what really framed it was my imagining of my mother’s emotional and psychological experience of our escape. Without that, I actually don’t think the novel could have worked.
AC: When Suzy/Hong’s daughter is an adult, she has almost no memory of this experience from her childhood. Can you tell us about this literary decision?
VT: Originally, the decision wasn’t literary so much as practical. I was the same age when I escaped Vietnam and I have hardly any memory of what I went through. Fragments of things, yes, like standing in the ocean up to my neck or napping under swaying palm trees—but there’s no cohesive emotional or psychological memory of the experience. For my portrayal of Mai (Suzy’s daughter), however, I soon realized that giving her no memory of anything exacerbated her disconnection from her mother. It gave her this dramatic alternate life, if you will, that she has no access to, even though its shadow still touches her and affects her in ways she can’t understand. I have the benefit of a mother who’s spent the last 35 years telling me stories about that time in my life, both good and bad, so that her memories have in many ways become my own, filling in the blanks of a time that would otherwise be lost to me. To know that you went through something like that but to have no one to connect you to it: that’s Mai’s dilemma, and it’s a deprivation that is as significant as her mother’s abandonment of her.
AC: How do you think your personal identity influences your writing and/or the diversity of your readership?
VT: That’s a tough question. To answer it, I’d have to first define myself for you, and I’m not sure I can properly do that even for myself. That said, the most basic part of my identity is that I’m a Vietnamese American who grew up in a very white part of the country, in an environment where my friends, mentors, and cultural touchstones bore hardly any resemblance to me, and also with parents who raised us in a very Catholic, strict, and traditionally Vietnamese household. The ambiguity and indecisiveness of that upbringing—the need to belong to the dominant culture, the obligation to remain in the culture I was born in—has always shaped what I’ve written. For example, I only recently realized how many of the stories I wrote in elementary and middle school were about characters travelling back and forth from their normal world to an alternate one, like they do in “The Narnia Chronicles,” my favorite books as a child. I only truly connected to Vietnam when I returned to visit in 1996, and since then my writing has directly confronted the culture I essentially left behind when I was five. At its most basic, “Dragonfish” is about that abandonment, metaphorically and literally, reluctantly and intentionally. I’m very happy that the novel has resonated with readers whose background is similar to mine, but I’m even happier to know that it has resonated with readers who simply know what it’s like to live uneasily on the border of something or someone. Everyone is an outsider on some level, I think, and it’s always interesting to me how that alienation—whether significant or not—ends up affecting the decisions we make.
AC: Your website has a list of nearly two dozen of your favorite books. Can you highlight five authors you think we should be reading and tell us why?
- John Fowles, whose critical esteem and popularity has sadly waned a bit in the last few decades, but I can think of few other writers who can blend experimentalism, intellectualism, and good old-fashioned storytelling as effectively as he does.
- Alice Munro, who has enriched and expanded the form of the short story immeasurably. Throughout her long career, she has chosen to stick to this form and to stick mostly to her terrain of domestic realism and Canadian soil, and yet you read her fiction and see that she’s portraying the entire range of human experience, and doing so in endlessly inventive and surprising ways. So much feels possible reading her work.
- Edith Wharton, because few writers have written about American life and its slow movement away from the Old World as astutely, insightfully, and movingly as she did.
- Graham Greene, who wrote about so many different parts of the world and yet presented such a precise and cohesive view of human nature that you can’t help believing that we are all the same at our core, as damaged and imperfect as we’ve always been. Plus, he blurred the lines between genre fiction and literary fiction long before it was cool to do so.
- Peter Carey, whose novels cover such an impressive range of subjects, settings, and styles. There’s always a weirdness to his characters that feels convincing, not manufactured; an intellectual playfulness to his stories that never feels pretentious; and a virtuosity to his prose, no matter how lyrical or straightforward it happens to be from book to book. He’s also utterly readable, which is probably the least appreciated skill in our great writers.
AC: You’re being interviewed by a librarian, for an audience of progressive Asian American librarians. What are your thoughts on libraries, and their place in building diverse communities?
VT: Andy Rooney, may he rest in peace, once did a “60 Minutes” segment on how libraries should carry no fiction, because it’s a place where people should learn about reality, not indulge in fantasy. I’ve always disliked him for saying something so silly and narrow-minded. Libraries are, of course, the place we go to for research, to cultivate our knowledge of facts; but fiction offers us truths that facts sometimes cannot express, and it also teaches us everything that nonfiction can teach us, with the crucial benefit of moving us so that we can feel the truth in a way that lingers. Libraries offer this opportunity to everyone, no matter your financial, ethnic, or social status, and I can think of no better place in the world where you can start to engage with the diversity of humankind.
AC: What advice would you give young professionals, especially those from diverse backgrounds, who are interested in a career in writing?
VT: The only advice I ever give to young writers is to be wary of all good advice, especially the kind that feels universally and earth-shatteringly true. It might very well be true, but everyone writes differently, just like everyone reads differently, and the truthfulness of that good advice—and its usefulness to you—will evolve over time, and sometimes holding onto it too adamantly or blindly can hamper your growth as an artist.
My advice for writers from diverse backgrounds is to embrace the fact that you’re coming from a place of outsidership and uncertainty. I used to think that my upbringing was an unfortunate struggle for me, but I’ve now come to see it as a crucial source of understanding and inspiration. When you’re on the outside of things, you tend to look at the inside with a more critical and thoughtful eye, and that liminal space—that amorphous border between two or more places—is the most compelling and productive space to be in, especially as an artist.
This interview was conducted by current APALA Secretary, Anna Coats, with editing assistance by Alyssa Jocson Porter.