"You should ask them about it sometime. There's a lot about your parents you don't know. And they won't be alive forever to answer your questions."
On April 25, 1975, GB Tran's family fled Vietnam, just days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army. A year later, he was born in South Carolina, and grew up a junk food-eating, video game-playing American kid with little interest in his family's history. However, when his last two surviving grandparents die within a few months of each other, Tran goes to Vietnam with his parents, and meets entire branches of his family for the first time.
"Born in America, I was clueless about their lives in that Vietnam," Tran writes. "Customs and shared history were being lost within the span of a single generation. But my decades of disinterest inadvertently provided them a glimmer of hope - that someday I'd want to learn."
This powerfully drawn and written graphic novel is Tran's exploration of that shared history, one that starts in Japanese-occupied Vietnam during World War II through the Vietminh's war for independence from France in the 1940s and 1950s, to the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
As Tran begins to ask his family questions about their past, he uncovers stories of unbelievable bravery and resilience, of friends and family members lost, and of lives that could have been. A father's political allegiances force him to abandon his wife and children. One mother goes months without knowing whether her children are dead or alive, while another is forced to pack her entire life in one suitcase, leaving the rest behind. And one family friend who spent six years in a North Vietnamese prison camp wonders who had a harder time - him, or the Tran family fleeing to a strange new country. "I just dug ditches for six years. But I can't imagine what your father went through," he says. "You guys had it really rough."
Tran's nonlinear storytelling might overwhelm the reader for a few pages, but it's ultimately very effective and allows him to unfold the nuances of some very complicated characters, story by story by story. And the artwork in Vietnamerica is every bit as striking and unforgettable as the story Tran has to tell. Tran works with different color palettes to convey sepia-toned memory, the bleakness of the family's early years in America, old photographs and movie reels, and the saturated hues of propaganda posters. But more importantly, Tran has a way with faces, conveying a photorealistic depth of emotion with just a few lines and strokes.