A misfit’s memoir of great books, punk rock, and the fight to fit in.
Genre: Non-Fiction Biography
Books have the ability to transport you and take you away to a foreign place, from the sweeping castle grounds of Hogwarts to the looming skyscrapers of the Capitol.
Phuc Tran’s Sigh, Gone! transports the reader to the terrifying landscape of suburban Carlisle, Philadelphia, New York, where our hero protagonist finds himself facing the greatest villain of them all – racism and puberty. With the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, racism towards Asian-Americans have been a hot-button issue in the media. It is vital that real life accounts that shed light on the treatment of Asian-Americans before COVID-19 be shared and this book accomplishes the task beautifully.
In the late 70s, a young Phuc arrives in the suburbs of New York after his family made the harrowing journey of escaping from war-torn Vietnam to find a new home. Villains are everywhere in this book – from his classmates calling him a “gook” from a young age to his father’s colleagues at the tire factory.
Readers follow Phuc as he grows up, evolving from a grumpy kid to an even grumpier teenager as he attempts to assimilate into American culture and find his place during his formative years. Significant events from childhood are presented from the naive perspective of a growing Phuc, interspersed with reflections in hindsight from his matured adult perspective.
Phuc writes with so much honesty and charm, leaving readers rooting for our misfit hero in this coming-of-age story.
The chapters of the non-fiction biography are loosely structured around well-known literature classics that have influenced Phuc’s life (ie: The Scarlet Letter, The Iliad – book titles you would reference to flex your intelligence).
I love the irony in the fact that Phuc, an immigrant Vietnamese teenager, identifies so closely with these novels and their protagonists in which he was clearly not the intended audience. It really celebrates the universality of reading and the saving grace of books that help readers feel less alone.
However, this could be a double-edged sword for readers of Sigh, Gone! who shy away from classic literature.
On one hand, Phuc’s references to these texts could be a good introduction to their themes, thereby enticing readers to take them on in the future. On the other hand, some literary references to the plot may go over the reader’s head.
The zeitgeist of 1980s America is captured effectively in Phuc’s family’s interactions with Vietnam war veterans who approach them in the supermarket and the reader is forced into the shoes of a family who are inevitably seen as symbols of the war. Phuc provides an insight to his experiences as a second-generation Asian-American, tackling a variety of issues – the disconnect between English and one’s Mother Tongue, the struggle to identify with one’s native name and even the misrepresentation of Asians in the media that resulted in a warped perception of himself as a child.
Most interestingly explored in this novel is the relationship between Phuc as an Americanised teenager and his Vietnamese parents. It’s heartbreaking to read about the growing disconnect in this important familial relationship, as both parties long for the other person’s acceptance and love but are unable to express it – a trait long associated with Asians. It is frustratingly inevitable that a tradeoff had to occur between Phuc’s connection to his parents or to America, in which teenagers would tend to choose the latter.
In this novel, the tension between Phuc’s Vietnamese and American identity is exacerbated by the tension of finding an identity in teenagehood. Phuc’s evolution from a naive child to cynical teenager is recounted with honesty and grace and personally, I resonate deeply with the final chapters as Phuc enters the stage of transition between high school and university. As I’m in the midst of undergoing this transition in my own personal life, it felt reassuring to have someone else express similar trepidation to the future while knowing that he turned out fine.
Reading Sigh, Gone! felt like I was having a conversation with my best friend and it made me feel less alone in my experiences and emotions. More importantly, it reminded me to be more appreciative and forgiving to my parents and the people around me.
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