Novelist Vu Tran was born outside of Saigon five months after the city fell to the North Vietnamese, immigrated to the United States when he was five, and grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Likewise, Tran’s debut novel, Dragonfish (W.W. Norton, 2015), begins in Vietnam and intersects American and Vietnamese cultures. The novel opens in italics with the voice of Suzy, a yet-unknown character, describing in first-person her escape from Vietnam with her young daughter. This voice from the past recurs through the book as a counterpoint narrative to that of the primary protagonist, Robert, a Caucasian Oakland, CA police officer, who is kidnapped in an opening scene by Vietnamese gangsters on orders from Sonny, their mafia boss. Sonny’s wife, Suzy, who is Robert’s ex-wife, has recently disappeared. Sonny enlists Robert’s help in finding her. Through smooth and powerful prose that alternates between Robert and Suzy’s stories, Tran creates a compelling mystery entwined with a complex immigration story. Dragonfish is a powerful noir mixed with sentimentality, heartache, and unanswerable questions.
Vu Tran teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago. He received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and his PhD from the Black Mountain Institute at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Tran was selected as a 2011 finalist for the Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Literature, and received the 2009 Whiting Writers’ Award, as well as honors from Glimmer Train Stories and Michigan Quarterly Review. His stories have appeared in The Best American Mystery Stories 2009, O. Henry Prize Stories 2007, The Southern Review, and the Harvard Review.
Vu Tran was interviewed via Skype by J. Sam Williams in February 2016.
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I met Vu Tran at Antioch University Los Angeles during the December MFA residency. At his residency seminar and reading, he struck me as calm and inviting, with a humble and fun confidence. And why not? Tran is a successful writer and—by reading some comments on other online interviews—a well-respected teacher. Tran brings a truthful voice and spirit to his work. During his reading, his performance gave each line of dialogue, description, and pause the perfect amount of emotion. The next day, Tran asked a room full of MFA students—and some faculty—to explore their own emotional connection to why we like the stories we like. He noted that there is a very human desire for narrative, and asked us “What does it say that every major religion, society, etc. has a creation myth?” He asked why the Paris attacks of the past year touched us, and ended with the assertion that stories are ways to organize our ideas of what it means to be human. He invited divergent views and welcomed discussion.
When the time came for the interview, despite my preparation, I found myself nervous. I started the interview with a mistake: In attempting to ask him how much of Tran’s personal life was reflected in Dragonfish I assumed he’d used the phrase “Write what you know.” He very kindly corrected me.
Vu Tran: I don’t like saying that, actually. Well, I never say that exclusively. I say a couple things: I say that sometimes you don’t know what you know until you write it. I feel like ‘writing what you know’ has become a bit of a catch-all phrase and people really don’t—it’s such a kind of easy, universally-accepted mantra that honestly people don’t think about anymore. […] I think some people have interpreted it as ‘write what you’ve experienced.’ And the thing is that, a lot of times we don’t know what we know until we write through it. And the other thing is that you don’t have to write about your life to write about yourself. I’ve always thought that you should write who you are. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re writing about yourself. There’s so many different layers in that comment that I don’t think people think about. People throw it out as advice, as a mantra, and the way people interpret it is simplistic.
Sam Williams: How much of your own personal experience, personal story, and personal narrative was reflected in the novel Dragonfish?
VT: Well, in terms of things that have actually happened to me, the premise of Suzy—her daughter [and her], escaping Vietnam by boat—I did that with my mom, my sister. We also spent six days at sea. We also landed in Malaysia, and also spent months in that refugee island. So all of that comes from my life. But for the most part, I tend not to write what people, I guess, would call autobiographical, but I think—and any writer would say this— that you become, your life and your personality become, a filter for the things that get on the page. So even if it doesn’t actually happen to me, I’m still the filter, so parts of me end up filtering a characterization of someone who would bear no resemblance to me. I think they might have, say, my selfishness, or they might have my obsessiveness, they might have my sincerity, whatever. You see? So the filter of who I am is always there. I feel like maybe other people are different, but I can’t help but write like that.
SW: How much do you think that experience of escaping Vietnam as a child has contributed to your passion toward the arts?
VT: That’s a good question. That is kind of hard to know, or know how to measure. I mean, I’m sure it has. The question for me has always been, “Well, if I had not experienced that, would I still be a writer? Would I still be the same kind of writer? If I had grown up in Vietnam, would I be a writer? That’s just something I’ve always been curious about. Of course that’s impossible to answer.
You know, everything I went through, I don’t remember any of it. Which might be a good thing. I suspect, though, that it had to have been traumatic in some way. The only way I could put it—for lack of putting it a better way, is—I feel like the shadow of that experience has been following me, and I’ve always been propelled by it in some way.
“I don’t feel like anyone wrote a great novel because they heard a great piece of advice. I think it just has to do with you, and writing, and you sitting down at your damn desk, and reading.”
I think the other thing that is clear in my mind is less that actual experience of escaping Vietnam, but more my experience of growing up as an immigrant and as a refugee, you know when you—in many ways everyone feels like an outsider on some level—but when you are clearly an outsider in the sense that you are raised one way and in one world at home and another way at school and in the world around that you see on TV and everything—you inevitably do feel that you are on the outside of things. And I think that has, more than anything, informed how I write. If you’re on the inside you have no reason to be uncomfortable, no reason to really observe. But when you’re on the outside, you’re desperate to get in. You have, in a sense, a more artistic and critical eye. And I think that has really informed me as an artist, writer, whatever you want to call it.
I wanted to further discuss Dragonfish’s epistolary sections in which the details of escaping Vietnam were described.
SW: What about the letters and memories were attractive to you? What was attractive about these devices to you as a writer?
VT: I’ve always liked writing in that mode, and especially when I was writing my short stories, I felt like I was at my best when I was writing in this kind of melancholy tone. If you’ve seen the movies of Wan Kar Wai, or you’ve listened to Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys, it’s that kind of melancholy that I’m talking about. I always end up, whether I want to or not, going to that voice, that tone. […] When I really found the novel, it was when I figured out the letters. I was 70 pages into the novel before I figured out, “Oh let’s do this thing here.” And then I wrote all the letters. Only when I had written the letters did I go back and kind of return to the so-called crime narrative, because it informed—I think it was the emotional foundation for all the character’s behavior, and it was the emotional foundation for the story itself. And it worked! I found that voice pretty quickly because it is a voice of not just melancholy, it’s a kind of working out of things that can’t be worked out, which is inevitably a sad enterprise, because you’re trying to figure out, you’re trying to answer these questions that you’ve always struggled with, and you know no matter how well you articulate that difficulty you’ll never actually answer the question. Which, in this case, was “Why did I leave my daughter?” “Am I a bad person?” “Why did I do that?” and “What do I do now?” And those are questions that Suzy can never ask herself. And for some reason I just kind of knew how to write that voice of someone asking those questions.
SW: What was the process for finding that voice? Was it a bumpy road for the novel until you found that voice?
VT: It was very bumpy. You know, I sold the novel in May of 2009 and I had 60 pages, so it was a partial, which was great but I spent the next two years applying for jobs, which was very time consuming. I was doing all of these other events. Suddenly I was leaving the country and leaving town a lot, and that distracted me. And then I moved to Chicago with a girlfriend, which, that was difficult, and being in a new city, starting a new job, all these things became excuses for kind of procrastinating on the novel, because I couldn’t figure it out—something felt missing. I felt like all I had was a premise. I felt like I couldn’t go beyond the premise. Once I figured that sort of epistolary structure and the purpose of why [Suzy] was writing the letters, it all came together. Now it still took forever to write, but I felt like I had something, and up until that point I was afraid I didn’t even have a novel.
SW: That was the point where you were hooked in. Where you knew you had it.
VT: Yeah, and I think most readers, when they tell me about the novel, that’s when they say the novel came together for them too. So that makes me happy because that means I can trust in my instincts.
I wanted to ask Tran about his experience in the publishing world—specifically as a Vietnamese immigrant. My nervousness returned, because as a white man I try to be careful and as considerate as possible when discussing race. I still feel as though I can’t be too careful. It goes without saying that I was relieved when Tran was more than happy to talk about issues relating to his ethnicity.
SW: I was hoping you could comment on the writing and publishing world as a man of Vietnamese descent. Have you faced any difficulties?
VT: [A long pause] I have, but I’m hesitant to say that those difficulties are directly connected to the ethnicity that I am. I don’t know. Which is not to say that agents don’t… My difficulties have been most people’s difficulties. But yeah, I remember when I was trying to find an agent, when I only had my story collection and I was very conscious about not making—even though those stories were all set in Vietnam—I didn’t want to make them too overtly about the war. I had agents who would tell me, “Oh, that one story with all the war stuff—you need more shit like that.” That happened. But no—and it’s not a comment on other people’s experience at all—just mine, but I don’t feel as if I’ve experienced anything specifically connected to my ethnicity, negatively speaking. I think that’s partly because maybe I’ve been lucky, but also because I almost don’t want to notice those things. I want to have the right to not give a shit.
SW: In literature, or, in fact, the entertainment world, do you feel like people with Asian phenotypes are still depicted in stereotypical ways? Have you seen any changes over time?
VT: That I am very aware of, and that does make me angry. The reason it makes me angry is not that it’s racist, necessarily, or that it’s offensive. What is offensive is creative laziness. So when I see that new show by Tina Fey, who I really love, that new show on Netflix, Kimmy Schmidt, and there’s an Asian character who is supposed to be Vietnamese, but it’s played by an actor who is not Vietnamese—he actually has a Japanese accent, not a Vietnamese accent, and they say his name means penis or something silly like that. That makes me angry because I feel that’s creative laziness. It’s not racist, it’s just lazy. All she had to do was look that shit up. I do find that Asian women tend to be fetishized. And Asian men tend to be completely nonexistent or sexually neutered. I think, especially in popular culture, movies, and TV, the depiction of Asians is, first of all, very narrow, and second of all, is still not much there. You see more and more of it, which is good. I know that this new show, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, has an Asian male lead, which is kind of stunning. I like the idea of having Asian characters whose prominent attribute is not that they are Asian. I like that idea. I see that a little bit more now.
SW: But it’s a slow process.
VT: It’s a slow process, but the thing is, I feel that Asian’s bare a responsibility as well. Yes, the opportunities are very, very slim for Asian actors, Asian writers, Asian artists, but when you get that chance, don’t be lazy. Don’t be creatively lazy. Be interesting. Do something unexpected. I hope that the more and more Asians there are, that have a voice, can do something unexpected and can know that that is their responsibility—to be creative and interesting, not to just be completely predictable.
It’s really nice to see Viet Thanh Nguyen with his novel The Sympathizer get so much notice and, you know, Nam Le with his book The Boat about six years ago. There are more Vietnamese-American writers now, there are more—the thing that really heartens me is that fact that Hanya Yanagihara got so much notice for A Little Life. She is, I believe, she is Hawaiian, but she is of Japanese descent. But the book has nothing to do with any Asian characters. I’m not saying that’s what we should be doing, I’m just saying it’s nice that that is a thing. That an Asian writer can write about something that has nothing to do with her ethnicity. And it’s getting a lot of admiration, and it’s selling well. Things like that really hearten me.
We talked a little more about his views on teaching, and that he thought it was very important to discuss the process of publication with his students. I asked Tran what is working on next.
VT: I don’t know yet. I need to be writing. I haven’t written anything new in about 16 months. I’m getting kind of antsy. But I tend to really work it out in my head before I commit pen to paper, if you will, even though I don’t write longhand. I’m fancying the idea of writing a Vietnamese Gothic novel, where the French colonialism characters in there are a comparison of the French influence and American influence on Vietnam and the Vietnamese people, though I think the novel would take place in America. But I kind of want to tell that story in the framework of a Gothic novel. I’m still working that out in my head. That’s the best I can describe it. Hopefully I can start on it sometime soon. Hopefully it won’t take as long, though it probably, most definitely, will.
I wondered why was it that Tran’s residency presentation felt like a conversation and not a lecture. I discovered the answer as we wrapped up the interview:
SW: Any advice to students everywhere in MFA programs?
VT: I only ever have one piece of advice—and I really mean this—that people need to be wary of all good advice. I feel the MFA world is just full of people who love to feel wise, and love to give these nuggets of wisdom. And it’s well intentioned, often. But when you’re a teacher, when you’re a writer—but especially when you’re a teacher—you end up having to kind of create a system of thought, and you have to be confident in it if you’re teaching it. Too often that ends up being just a reflection of your own experience.
The thing about it is that sometimes people in the MFA world, they hear a writer and they hear something they think is so profound, so earth-shakingly true, that they end up taking it as gospel. I say, yeah, if it sounds great, take it. But every once in a while, question it. Because everyone’s different and I think it’s just fucking boring to hear the same things over and over. At the end of the day, I don’t feel like anyone wrote a great novel because they heard a great piece of advice. I think it just has to do with you, and writing, and you sitting down at your damn desk, and reading.