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