Layers to Life

Picture this, your mom introducing you to family and friends as her artist son living in New York City, and then finding out that your father was himself a painter. GB Tran only begins to dissect the memories that tell his story by the act of drawing and writing. The author takes this a step further by incorporating art into his art. I’m Vietnamerica, GB Tran presents readers with a compilation of layered history in his graphic novel, uncovering his experience learning about himself and his family. He highlights what is erased, forgotten and remembered by pulling it into the present.

When GB Tran finds his father’s painting in his grandfather’s home, Tri immediately tries to avoid further conversation by leaving the house. What GB does between pages 23-4 is show himself and his father interacting with art. After being denied an explanation from his father, the next three panels on page 23 show a close-up panel of GB’s face in between panels of his father’s painting also close up. This creates a sense that he is observing the art intensely, and trying to make sense of what just unfolded before his eyes.

The first half of the next page is filled with square panels describing Tri’s art, his success and the eventual destruction of it. The text narrates how his paintings were left behind and destroyed after fleeing Vietnam. The bottom half of the page continues in square panels but appears to show a backward progression of GB father’s life, followed by a forward progression of his mother’s life. The narration begins with “Sometimes doing what’s right means leaving things behind.” (24) In his father’s three panels, a watercolor impression of what appears to be Huu Nghiep is in the background. There is a clear distinction in the artistic depiction of GB’s father and grandfather, illuminating the continued absence of Huu Nghiep in Tri’s life. When Tri left Vietnam, he was not only leaving his art behind but also leaving a wider gap between him and his father. The narration on the rest of the page introduces a Vietnamese saying: “Our parents care for us as our teeth sharpen… So we care for them as theirs dull” (24). This gives light to Tri’s seemingly apathetic behavior towards his father. Huu Nghiep was not there to raise Tri as he vanished from Tri’s life very early on. Through the painting and GB’s artistic styles, we begin to see why Tri claims he didn’t reach out to his father for over 50 years.

GB Tran pairs words and art to tell a story of his experience visiting Vietnam. At age 30, he is only looking at his father’s painting, but by uncovering Tri’s past, he can observe what isn’t seen on the surface, all that his father does not tell him. Vietnamerica is like looking at a time-lapse of a mixed media painting. But while this graphic novel does not follow a linear trajectory, viewers are still able to see what it took to get to the present day. We see what has been erased, painted or drawn over, just like the memories of characters GB Tran navigates throughout this body of work.

Works Cited

Tran, Gia Bao. Vietnamerica. Villiard, New York, 2010.

 

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The Color of Family

The wisdom of market psychology tells us that colors affect how we feel about the world around use— for example, McDonalds’ signature red and yellow make people feel hungry and happy. Whether or not this pop psych explanation is true (do people also feel hungry and happy when they see China’s flag?), it points to the significance we assign to colors as conveyors of emotion. In the graphic memoir Vietnamerica (2010), G.B. Tran also makes use of the emotional significances attached to colors by selecting particular colors in conjunction with specific characters, settings, and types of scenes.

Between pages 5 and 39 of his graphic novel, Tran depicts his family arriving in Vietnam for his grandmother’s funeral, then flashes back into his mother’s memories and depicts the lives of his two grandmothers, Thi Mot and Le Nhi. During Tran’s reunion with his extended family, the sky, the ocean, and sometimes peoples’ clothes are light but vibrant shades of blue. This color evokes a sense of peace and carefree joy, like the sky on a day free of worrisome clouds. The blue is complemented by the delicate yellows of buildings, some clothing, food, and incense smoke. The yellow in these scenes, like the sun in the blue sky, communicates straightforward warmth. In combination, these colors suggest a happy and loving atmosphere among Tran’s family.

When Tran’s father, Tri Huu, visits his own father’s widow, Tran complicates the color palette to reveal the pain and conflict of family. In these scenes the yellow darkens and shifts to the sky, while buildings and clothing become gray. Only the sweater of Tri Huu Tran’s father’s widow remains yellow, and this yellow echoes the only other yellow in the room, the star on the Vietnamese flag. The flag evokes the fact that Tri Huu’s father abandoned him to fight for the Vietminh, and the widow becomes a reminder of this. The continuation of yellow in this scene reminds us that the widow is family, but works to emphasize conflict rather than warmth.

Finally, Tran reveals that the family’s blues and yellows represent the confluence of two women’s lives and choices. When he flashes back to the stories of Thi Mot and Le Nhi, Tran depicts Thi Mot’s experiences in blue and Le Nhi’s in yellow. These colors not highlight the personality differences between the two—bold yellow shows how Le Nhi “wasn’t the type to give up without a fight” (37) and calm blues represent Thi Mot’s peacekeeping nature (33) — and represent the women as the family’s origins.

 

Works Cited

Tran, G.B. Vietnamerica. Villard, 2010.

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