I have an incredible book recommendation to share -- you must read the graphic novel Vietnamerica, written and illustrated by GB Tran. It's a beautifully rendered true account of the author's family's harrowing departure from a war-torn Saigon, into the strange land of America, and the separate journeys of different generations years later as some seek to rediscover what was left behind and others seek to rediscover a place only vaguely known through others' recollections. The story is told in segments, from the different perspectives of myth and memory, transitioning between past and present, introducing people that become as close to the reader as their own family by the time the tale is told.
The illustrations are exquisitely rendered by hand, including the text. Washes of foamy sea greens and sky blues on a textured watercolor paper depicting more idyllic times are in sharp emotional contrast when the blood-red hues and hard brushstrokes depict hardships of war invading the quiet village life of GB's mother and father. He tells their story with intense emotion and raw honesty. It feels like a sacred act, reading such personal accounts of several generations of his family, the loved ones that were left behind, and the private struggles what it means to be a refugee in a strange new country.
This is truly an American story in that while the specifics may not mirror everyone's family, it is a complex and familiar experience that so many families have experienced in their arrival to the New World. There is a collective ordeal in coming to America, being integrated into a nation of interwoven ethnology and backgrounds, and a feeling of fear, wondering if one's own cultural history will somehow be erased over time.
Don't let the term "graphic novel" dissuade you of its literary and emotional gravity. The drawn pictures from the person whose life is being shared makes the experience that much more personal and intense. Having the historical power of Art Spiegelman's Maus series and the intimacy of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, Vietnamerica is a story that speaks to the heart of the American cultural émigré, one who lives within multiple worlds and struggles to make peace with one's identity.
I would have loved Vietnamerica no matter what, but the adoration of the book is punctuated with the fact that the author has been a friend of many years -- GB and I went to college together. I am constantly in awe of GB's talent, he has always been an artist who has inspired me towards doing something meaningful, and my biggest regret is I'm totally missing the chance to see him in Seattle, as he'll be at the Emerald City Comic Con in March. How many ways can I say: AAAAARRRRGH!! And so I ask anyone who reads this, if you have the chance to see him in person at ECCC, please do so -- he's an outstanding and quite funny human being -- and more importantly, get a copy or twelve of his new book. It is absoultely the story of a quintessential American family, crystallizing the book's theme of the Confucious quote: A man without history is a tree without roots.
Jaunty Fine Print: image of Vietnamerica cover from GB Tran's website