I don’t usually stop short at the sight of a book cover, but that’s exactly what happened at New York Comic Con this October.
A colorful illustration (below) caught my eye as I walked through a sea of comics and costumed Chewbaccas on the convention floor. In a twist on communist propaganda, the stars and stripes of the American flag were bathed in yellow and red.
This was my introduction to Vietnamerica, a graphic memoir by Brooklyn-based author GB Tran. The book follows his family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam to the United States, and is a great read for travelers and fans of graphic art.
Interview with the author
To create this compelling look at life during the Vietnam War, GB Tran traveled to Southeast Asia and interviewed family members who fought on both sides of the conflict.
I sat down with the author on a brisk winter day at Café Orlin in the East Village. We discussed his travels to Vietnam, his inspiration for the book and how he scored a publishing deal.
Read on for GB Tran’s insights and advice for up-and-coming authors, and don’t forget to check out Vietnamerica (available at local comic shops and on Amazon.com).
“Back” to Vietnam
Tran’s life is a classic American story. The youngest of four children, he was born in the United States a year after his parents left Vietnam. He spent his childhood in South Carolina, earned a BFA from the University of Arizona and moved to New York after college to start a career as an illustrator.
Given his background, I was surprised when he described going “back” to Vietnam in 2001. In fact, that was his first visit to the country.
“Doing this book, so many people have come up that have similar experiences. And we all say the same thing: the first time I went back,” Tran revealed at our meeting.
“And it’s just because [Vietnam] was so deeply rooted in our parents that it was always kind of considered our homeland. We had to go back sooner or later even though we had never physically been there before. I never realized I was saying that until someone else pointed it out to me and said, Oh, I say the same thing.”
Tran’s memoir clearly resonates with New Yorkers. At the book release party at SoHo’s Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art this January, every seat was filled and the crowd spilled into the hallway.
Not quite a tourist
Tran researched Vietnamerica during trips to Vietnam in 2001 and 2007. He traveled to both the north and south, visiting family and asking about their experiences during the war.
“I’m very fortunate that I still have a lot of family in Vietnam that cover a lot of geographical areas as well as social caste levels,” he explained over tea at Cafe Orlin. “Everything from my grandfather’s family, who basically are war heroes and are set up in the most posh, fancy, coveted part of Saigon, to the family that still farms in the Mekong Delta, in the rice paddies.”
Although he was asking about sensitive subjects, Tran was embraced by his relatives. “Even though these are people I never met before in my life, they really welcomed me,” he noted.
Vietnam is a popular backpacker destination, but Tran was not a typical tourist. Ever the artist, he spent several hours sitting on curbs, drawing street life. He met quite a few locals this way.
“I always had a sketchbook. Especially the second trip back in 2007, when I knew I was going to do this book,” he recalled.
“It’s just a way to feel another connection to the place you’re in. What you get when you’re sitting in a café and drawing the corner there for two hours, you notice all these small details that you normally wouldn’t notice because you’re busy going from one scenic stop to another. But when you sit there, and you’re really looking at the architecture, at the people across the street, at what they’re eating and doing—for me it’s a way to feel more rooted in where I’m at.”
As a Vietnamese-American in Vietnam, Tran found himself in an interesting situation. Locals often assumed he spoke their language, and talked to him in rapid-fire Vietnamese.
“I’ve traveled to places where I can’t speak the language, like Indonesia, and it’s a different experience. When you don’t understand the language, there’s no pressure to communicate, you can just enjoy being a tourist. One of the challenging things about knowing the language in Vietnam was that people constantly were talking to me,” he noted.
This complicated his trip; he wasn’t just a tourist, but was deeply connected to the people. After being immersed in the culture for several days, he began picking up the Vietnamese language.
“I started recognizing vocabulary in people’s conversations [and] I realized, how could I have ever learned what this word was growing up? I can’t imagine any context of my parents saying this, much less teaching me this word. But for some reason I would recognize the word.”
A bout of food poisoning turned out to be a breakthrough moment for Tran’s language skills.
“I got violently ill. Our tender American stomachs aren’t really fortified for that type of cuisine. So the best thing about getting violently ill for a few days—the whole vomiting, explosive diarrhea, fever, all that crazy stuff, was near the end of it, I started thinking in Vietnamese… When that happened, I was really excited, actually. Then unfortunately I left and it all disappeared overnight.”
His big break
GB Tran was discovered at San Diego’s Comic Con, when a Random House editor stopped by Tran’s booth and took an interest in his self-published comic books. After securing a book deal and advance for Vietnamerica, Tran was able to take two years off from his day job as a commercial illustrator to focus on the memoir. He calls this the best two years of his life.
“I woke up every morning and I got to draw. I’m sure my wife got sick of me just being in the apartment all day, but it was definitely the best two years of my life. Not only drawing all day but drawing about something that I was really passionate about,” he recalled.
During this time, Tran made several trips to Arizona to interview his parents about their experiences in the Vietnam War. They were skeptical about the project at first, but opened up after seeing Tran’s commitment.
The author turned to books, movies and Google images to ensure he got the period details right in his illustrations.
Any freelance writer knows it can be challenging to focus on assignments with distant deadlines. However, Tran maintained a daily routine that ensured he didn’t fall behind.
“I sketched the entire book first, before moving on to penciling, drawing, inking, coloring. So I knew every day, every week, what I was going to be doing for the next weeks or months. The longest stretch of doing the same thing day in, day out was inking, which took seven months… I would just wake up and ink for twelve hours.”
Tran wrote and illustrated Vietnamerica, and sees the two disciplines as being intertwined. “I think that’s the hallmark of a cartoonist, as opposed to a writer or illustrator,” he noted. “We can’t just write a story and we can’t just draw a story, we have to do it back and forth.”
Advice for aspiring authors
For Tran, writing a memoir about his family history was intense; he was essentially reliving experiences from a very emotional period in his parents’ lives. “I didn’t want to live in this space for an extended amount of time,” he revealed in our interview.
One of the key challenges of writing a book is knowing when you are finished. “You’ve got to be OK with letting go. This book has typos in it,” noted the author, who spotted a few misspellings after the book went to print. “I had to walk away at some point or another. I did the best that I could, given the resources and time I had.”
Tran is modest about his success; he concedes that he worked hard at comic conventions and events to get his name out and sell his work, but considers the book deal a lucky break.
When asked to give advice to aspiring authors and illustrators, Tran stressed the importance of following through on ideas. He advises other cartoonists,
“Just to finish a story. People who want to do comics, they have a billion ideas and they start a billion ideas, but until they actually finish one of them, it’s still kind of a pipe dream. I’m guilty of this too– just having a bunch of projects and starting them and after 10 pages, be like, nah, I’m bored. All the great cartoonists that I love, it’s not because they have great ideas—everybody has great ideas—it’s because they have the discipline to execute their ideas.”
Tran continues to show his work at comic conventions throughout the US. “If someone’s willing to spend their hard-earned money on my book, I’d like to thank them in person, or meet them, or shake their hand,” he said.
He’s also planning a second project that will take him back to Vietnam.
“This book is basically 20 percent of all the stories I heard [from family members]. The best advice I got was to tell the shortest story possible, so that meant constantly editing. If the event didn’t help propel this story, then I just had to leave it out… there’s a lot of stuff on the floor that I would like to go back and dig a little further on.”