Descriptions can be a tricky thing. Is Phuc Tran’s “Sigh, Gone” a memoir of a young Vietnamese-American man’s coming of age in a small and frustrating college town? Is it a testament to the transformative powers of punk rock? Is it an account of how certain books can change your life and shape you in unexpected ways?

Photo courtesy of Flatiron Books

Why not all three? After all, Phuc Tran is someone who manages a number of seemingly disparate occupations. Tran teaches Latin; he’s also delivered an acclaimed TEDx talk, “Grammar, Identity, and the Dark Side of the Subjunctive.” And he and his wife run a well-known tattoo space in Portland, Tsunami Tattoo. Is Tran’s memoir wide-ranging? Well, yes. But it is in a manner befitting its author.

“Sigh, Gone” follows its author from his early days living in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to his graduation from high school. He and his parents left Vietnam in 1975, a harrowing experience in which Tran’s father and uncles were separated from the rest of the family. “[S]omehow, 4,000 miles away and two weeks later, he arrives on the same island,” Tran writes. “In a refugee camp full of strangers, strangers uprooted by war, the splinters of our family were reassembled.” Shortly after their arrival in Pennsylvania, Tran’s younger brother, Lou, is born. His relationships with his parents and his brother form one of several points around which this novel is organized.

Tran’s relationships with his parents are fraught for much of the period covered in this memoir. (His younger brother emerges as more of an ally; in the book’s acknowledgements, Tran credits his brother for being the first person to encourage him to write a book, and dubs him “the Chewbacca to my Han.” Much of the tension comes from his father, who can be physically and psychologically abusive at times while also contributing in others to Tran’s own personal evolution. Specifically, it’s his father’s dedication to the local library that makes Tran aware of it as a potentially useful resource for a host of subjects.

As one of the only Asian-American students in his community – one where Tran describes seeing Confederate flags on a regular basis – Tran’s search for his own identity is an ongoing concern in this book. Neither his father’s anger nor his mother’s devout Catholicism is appealing, and as he grows older, Tran eventually finds his preferred scene in the company of punks and skaters.

It’s here, too, that Tran connects coming of age in a small punk scene with his lifelong love for literature. One of his friends lends him Albert Camus’s “The Stranger,” citing its influence on the music of The Cure, a favorite band of Tran’s. In doing so, Tran’s friend shows him that one can simultaneously rebel against constricting elements of society while still embracing books and art. Tran writes about that particular moment as a seismic one in his own development:

“It began here – a borrowed book because of a song. This was my invitation to be something more complex. This small, seedling moment would grow into my opportunity to change and flourish, to branch out with new ideas and shear away old assumptions.”

Each chapter of “Sigh, Gone” roughly corresponds to a book that made an impact on Tran when he was growing up. Some he discovered on his own; others he found through friends. He also talks about the role that several of his teachers had in encouraging him and recommending works that have continued to resonate in Tran’s life. Among many other things, “Sigh, Gone” is a testament to the positive effects the right teachers can have on the development of their students – and reading it, it’s not surprising to learn that Tran’s own adult life took him down a path of teaching.

Tran, as befitting someone with a classics background, cites both “The Iliad” and “The Scarlet Letter” here. Camus is also represented, with “The Plague” – one of two mid-20th century works that play a large role in the text. The other is “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” which helped to heighten Tran’s own awareness of the racism – both personal and structural – around him.

Near the end of the book, as Tran’s high school years wind down and he begins to take steps into the wider world, the tone of “Sigh, Gone” turns bittersweet. Some of Tran’s punk friends have themselves left town, whether for college or the military. And Tran wrestles with some of the contradictions of his own aesthetics.

“We didn’t want popular culture – we wanted rarefied culture, the scribblings in the margins that were more authentic and raw and rebellious,” he writes late in the book. “If pop culture was the lecture in class, we were busy reading and writing the graffiti on the desks.”

Sigh, Gone” can be seen as Tran’s attempt to synthesize a host of nominally conflicting impulses and show how, in reality, they’re not so far apart after all. With this heartfelt and ambitious memoir, he succeeds.

New York City resident Tobias Carroll is the author of the novel “Reel” and the short story collection “Transitory” and has reviewed books for Bookforum, the Star Tribune and elsewhere.


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