“A man without history is a tree without roots.”
With just those eight words from Confucius, GB Tran went to Vietnam.
The comic book artist was, to follow the simile, a rootless tree; he had never been to the birthplace of his parents, never expressed interest in their history before coming to America. But that changed after he discovered the quote — which his parents had inscribed in the front cover of a book about the Vietnam War — as he moved into his Williamsburg apartment about 10 years ago.
Tran knew that his parents had escaped their homeland in the final hours of the fall of Saigon, but Tran soon realized that his family history was a lot more complex, including a grandfather who had abandoned his family to fight for the Viet Cong; a grandmother who had an affair with a French soldier; and parents that took one of the last planes out of the country.
It’s all heavy stuff, which Tran handles remarkably in “Vietnamerica,” out this month. Tran does more than simply explore his heritage, but he acknowledges his evolving relationship with it — from avoiding it, to confronting it, to finally embracing it.
Creating “Vietnamerica” was a journey in and of itself. In the two years it took him to write, pencil and ink the book, he hit upon myriad ways to tell the story. Parts are drawn like propaganda posters, others told in a Sunday comics style. Scrabble pieces spell out words such as “threatening” and “culture,” creating a new layer of context.
The styles may change from page to page, but “Vietnamerica” is honest throughout, down to the admission that Tran was a clueless teen so divorced from his own history that he passed up his first chance to travel to Vietnam just so he could stay home and play video games. But for the author, this truth was essential, no matter how much it hurt.
“Putting myself out there — and more specifically, my family’s personal history filtered through me — isn’t any concern,” he said. “I don’t have any say in how readers will respond, so this book’s most important goal was to preserve their story for me.”
“Vietnamerica” is available at Bergen Street Comics [470 Bergen St. between Flatbush and Fifth avenues in Park Slope, (718) 230-5600]; Desert Island [540 Metropolitan Ave. near Union Street in Williamsburg, (718) 388-5087]; St. Mark’s Comics [148 Montague St. between Henry and Clinton streets in Brooklyn Heights, (718) 935-0911]. For info, visit www.gbtran.com.