Definitely, maybe: Phuc Tran discusses Kafka, punk and identity in his memoir reading
October 14, 2022
Author, educator, classicist and tattooer Phuc Tran visited Bowdoin on Thursday as part of the Alpha Delta Phi Society’s Visiting Writers Series. After briefly overviewing his adult life and work, he read passages from his 2021 memoir “Sigh, Gone,” followed by a question-and-answer session.
The book and Tran were introduced by A. Leroy Greason Professor of English Brock Clarke.
“I don’t know of another book like it,” Clarke said. “A mashup of so many different kinds of stories with so many frames of reference and so many vocabularies, so many different registers … it is probably best to call it just one of a kind, which it is, as is the man himself.”
Tran first spoke about the way he has gotten involved in many of his projects.
“If there was a title to the intro of my life, the title would be ‘definitely, maybe,’” Tran said.
He gave a TED Talk entitled “Grammar, Identity, and the Dark Side of the Subjunctive” in 2013 and was involved in storytelling hours for four years after. Then, he was approached by a literary agent about writing a memoir. He sent an essay to her four months later.
“My mindset going into writing the essay, which ended up being the prologue of the book, was, ‘I’m just going to put it all out there and write an essay the way I would want to write it, and write it for me,’” Tran said. “If she likes it, great, and if she doesn’t, great … It’s like a prom equivalent of putting on the weirdest outfit you can, and showing up for your prom date, and you’ve got scuba goggles, a flower hat and a bathrobe. If your prom date still wants to take you to prom, despite that, then you know you’re going to have a good time.”
The agent was not deterred, and “Sigh, Gone” was awarded and celebrated. In the time since the publication of his memoir, Tran has authored and illustrated a children’s book series about Cranky the crane, to be published next year. He also helped write HBO’s potential future English-language mini-series adaptation of Bong Joon-ho’s film “Parasite.”
Tran read three sections of his memoir: the introduction, a scene in a Giant grocery store and his analysis of Franz Kafka’s novella, “The Metamorphosis.” In the introduction, he describes his hometown of Carlisle, Pa. as filled with “archetypes or stereotypes” and the “rainbows of caucasia.”
In the grocery store his family encounters a Vietnam veteran, an interaction he portrays with vivid descriptions of emotional tension, illustrated through intricate recognition of the subtleties of body language and expression. In this chapter, Tran exhibits a deep consciousness of both the man’s prejudice and how his brother must grapple with understanding the reasoning behind the question, “Where are you people from?”
In “The Metamorphosis” chapter, Tran compares main character Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a cockroach to the adolescent experience. Both are uncontrollable biological changes, and yet both result in ostracization and incompassion from one’s family for becoming too “difficult.”
In the Q&A portion, an audience member asked about how Tran’s experience with bilinguality informs his work. He responded that, while his Vietnamese has plateaued at a second grade level, he speaks German well and taught Latin for over two decades. However, he loves English the most.
“English is the hoarder of languages, it will not throw anything away. We have literally twelve words for everything,” Tran said.
Associate Director of Upward Bound Ginny Fowles Ward asked about Tran’s relationship with the punk community at his high school.
Tran described the punk community as his “found family,” crediting the LGBTQ+ community for the term.
“School was my safe place, and the punk scene was my community. That was the first place where I felt valued and seen and understood. I have thought about that a lot as a teacher, especially a high school teacher,” Tran said.
Ward appreciated the relationship she saw between Tran’s story and the students she serves as part of Upward Bound, some of whom are new Americans becoming the first in their family to attend college.
“I found his whole treatment of identity and the many facets of his identity really beautiful and complex,” Ward said. “I was curious about how [the punk] group managed to both embrace him and also allow him to have other facets of his identity. To want good things for him, to want him to pursue the things that would ultimately propel him to success and nourish his spirit, even if it wasn’t punk music or skateboarding.”
Tran answered other questions covering themes of his tattooing experience, how oral storytelling ties in with his written work and how to grapple with the racism and other forms of prejudice that are most prevalent in older books but are still present today.
Tran embraces the complexity and nuance of his life and the world.
“I have a Ph.D. in grappling with complicated things,” Tran said.
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