by Terry Hong
“This man who once saved your life, he is not a bad man. Nor a good one,” a mother writes her daughter. “I have long given up on what it means exactly to be either. But I am confident now that you must know one to know the other.”
In Vu Tran’s debut novel Dragonfish, released this week, the gray zones of uncertainty loom large for six characters— all linked to one woman, a Vietnamese refugee who, almost two decades after arriving in the U.S., still hasn’t found firm ground. These tenuous connections will cross paths over her disappearance: the protagonist, a white Oakland cop who was once her husband; her current gambler husband, his protégé son, and one of their henchman; her former best friend; and the intended recipient of the letters she writes so longingly throughout the novel. From Oakland to Las Vegas, from Vietnam to Malaysia, Tran creates a world of contrasts and challenges, of rebirths and loss, of resonance and disconnections.
Born five months after the fall of Saigon in 1975, Tran lived his first five years with his mother and older sister, but without his father who, as a South Vietnamese Air Force captain, was forced to escape his homeland. Tran, his mother, and sister fled Vietnam by boat in 1980 and spent four months in a Malaysian refugee camp before being sponsored by his father, who had settled in Oklahoma.
Throughout his childhood, Tran’s family stories and his community’s collective history loomed large. And so Tran trained to give voice to those narratives, earning an MA in English from the University of Tulsa, an Iowa Writers’ Workshop MFA, a PhD from the University of Nevada, and now his creative writing professorship at the University of Chicago. All converged on the page to produce Dragonfish, an indelible love story about the connections we make and sever, the rules we break, and the longing that never dissipates.
Terry Hong: So dragons are not really your thing – “too generically Asian,” you’ve said. I’ll just mention I write a little blog called BookDragon for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center and leave it there. How did you end up with a debut novel with ‘dragon’ in the title?
Vu Tran: Well, let me first say that BookDragon is both an excellent and an apt name for your blog. Let me also admit my sensitivity – perhaps oversensitivity – to the way Asian culture is often represented in America and that I kinda had my defenses up going into the marketing stage of the novel. It was important to me that it not be presented in a way that felt limiting. But I soon realized that I only had so much control over this process, and that ultimately people were going to like the novel not because of the title or the cover, but because of the story and the writing.
That said, Dragonfish came out of a short story I wrote for Akashic Books’ Las Vegas Noir anthology called “This Or Any Desert,” and that was actually the title of the novel up until the editing stage. Though my editor liked it, she didn’t think it was right for the book and suggested I change it. I balked at that, not only because I was close to “This Or Any Desert,” having lived with it for 5 years, but also because I’m horrible at titles and couldn’t really think of a new one. That’s when she proposed “Dragonfish,” which appears in the second chapter and is the nickname for Asian Arowana, a rare exotic fish. And while I did initially have some reservations about it, I’ve since become a fan of the title. I just like the sound of it. A character explains in the chapter that Asians believe dragonfish “bring good luck, keep evil away, [and] bring the family together.” I kinda love the fact that they do none of those things in the book.
TH: Before the novel, your other publications have been literary short stories. What prompted you to try the longer form? How different was the writing process?
VT: Before Dragonfish, I’d always fancied myself a “literary writer,” but I had also always loved the noir genre, in film and in literature. Looking back, even at the fiction I wrote in grade school, I’d say most of my short stories have essentially been mysteries. So I jumped at the chance to write directly in that genre. I should say, though, that I don’t make too much of a distinction between literary and genre nowadays. For me, it’s simply about good writing vs. bad writing, good storytelling vs. bad storytelling.
It was only when “This Or Any Desert” was selected for The Best American Mystery Stories that I thought about turning it into a novel. Something about the characters felt incomplete, nascent, like they were waiting to be excavated. But until then, I’d only attempted a novel once, and that endeavor stalled at 90 pages, so I felt uncomfortable the entire time I was writing Dragonfish. I just didn’t know what I was doing. Writing short stories, no matter how much breadth or complexity I tried to bring to them, felt more manageable because the end was always in sight. With a novel, the end felt so far off, always beyond the horizon, and that was a terrifying feeling. Eventually, I had to teach myself to be okay with that, to turn the uncertainty and fear into a productive state of mind. I learned, for example, that I couldn’t plan too much with a novel, or at least with this novel, that I had to just write it sentence by sentence, chapter by chapter. The best stuff in the novel, I think, came out of periods of anxious fumbling in the dark and then sudden discovery, and I had to trust in that process because the results always felt more organic and convincing.
TH: Your University of Chicago faculty page mentions that you have a short story collection, The Other Country. I couldn’t find any more information about it online. Is it out – or in the process of coming out soon?
VT: To be honest, I’m not sure at the moment. My agent went out with that collection first, with plans for a different novel to follow. But we couldn’t sell The Other Country, even though all the stories had already been published in magazines. That was in 2006, and it was really heartbreaking for me. I actually started playing poker in Vegas to distract myself from the disappointment, which partly led to the novel I have now, because Norton ending up buying the first 60 pages of Dragonfish in 2009 and putting The Other Country on the backburner.
For now, the collection is still a possibility with Norton, but I’m not sure if I want to publish it, at least not yet. Despite the constant terror the novel brought me, I enjoyed writing it tremendously, and now I feel a certain momentum working in this longer form. Also, while I’m still happy with the collection, if it were to come out, it would have to reflect the writer and person I’ve become, the different layers of maturity I’d like to think I’ve gained in the last 10 years. So I’d probably have to rewrite the collection, perhaps even rethink some of it. I’m an inveterate reviser, so I don’t think I’d be able to control myself.
TH: Does that mean you have a next writing project brewing?
VT: I haven’t put any new words on the page yet. I tend to think a lot before I write anything. I am playing with the idea of a novel centered around one of the characters in Dragonfish, who’s not Robert or Suzy [the main characters]. It wouldn’t be a sequel. It would simply take place in the same world, but with the center of gravity shifted entirely.
TH: So something like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead-Home-Lila series? I noticed her name in your ending “Acknowledgements” …
VT: Gilead was actually on my desk the entire time I was writing this novel! I’m an even bigger fan of Marilynne’s Housekeeping, but Gilead contributed a great deal to Dragonfish. It’s obviously a very different book from mine, and I won’t even pretend to compare my writing to hers, but the way it is structured – as a long letter written by the narrator to his son – helped me with my novel’s secondary narrative, which consists of Suzy’s letters to her daughter. That contemplative voice in Gilead, the narrator’s humanity and quiet working out of the world behind him and ahead of his son, has always moved me. Every time I was working on Suzy’s letters, I would open Gilead to a random page and read it to myself, just to put myself under the spell of that narrative voice so I could bring some of it to Suzy’s words.
TH: You chose a white officer as your protagonist. Could you talk a bit about that decision?
VT: The original short story – and therefore, the novel – came out of my memory of a close family friend who killed himself about 10 years ago. He was a white American, a Vietnam War veteran. After a tour in Vietnam, he never went back, but he spent the rest of his life thinking about the country and his time there. I think he only had Vietnamese friends. The Vietnamese community in Tulsa is not a big one, but he knew more Vietnamese than our family did. He steeped himself in the language and food and history of Vietnam, in the people. I’ve always been fascinated by him. It was moving to me how much he loved my homeland and my people, but there was also something sad and problematic about it – that almost desperate need to access a world that never truly belonged to him, something I think a lot of people do, Vietnamese people too.
My protagonist and this family friend don’t have much else in common, but I thought writing from a white person’s point of view would help me explore that need to access other people and their culture, and what it must feel like to be denied that access.
TH: The novel ends with a few answers revealed, yes – but inspires many, many questions, as well. So you’ve already said you’re mulling over a Robinson-style contemporaneous companion novel. Might you want to reveal a little more about that?
VT: I haven’t formulated anything in detail, and I can’t share very much without spoiling Dragonfish on some level. I do really like the idea of going back to the world I created in Dragonfish. And by ‘world,’ I don’t mean a specific place like Las Vegas or even Vietnam. I’m referring to the tone of the novel. I like being in that head space. I like exploring that emotional terrain. I want to continue doing that in my next work.
That sounds vague, so maybe I can mention other artists who work this way. Kazuo Ishiguro is an example. There’s a deep, thematic arc that runs throughout his work, even though the environment and subject matter is different from novel to novel. His books all also share a consistency in tone: melancholy, nostalgic, quietly anxious. The filmmaker Wong Kar-wai is similar. His work, too, has a tonal and thematic consistency that I’m drawn to: deeply romantic and yet inevitably pessimistic. I feel like my favorite artists – musicians and painters too – keep returning to certain ideas, to particular voices and emotions, risking repetition, because those are the things they struggle with most and they’re trying to work them out in their art, deepening and expanding them with every new work. I really value that as their audience.
TH: Your bio mentions that you met your father for the first time when your mother, your older sister, and you arrived as refugees in 1980 in Oklahoma. You were just 5 then. Do you have memories of that reunion? Is this something you’ve written about in your stories?
VT: When I think about that time, my memories are funny. All my memories before America are fragments. My very first extended memory, however, is of that first day in America. I remember my dad taking me to the kitchen in the morning and making me a bologna sandwich. He microwaved it, which is gross actually, but I had never had one before and thought it was great. He also gave me sour-cream-and-onion Ruffles chips, and 7-Up. To this day, I still love all three things. I also remember him taking me to the spare bedroom where I rode a giant plastic duck with wheels. There was also the toilet, which scared the shit out of me.
VT: Ha, yes! We didn’t have those sorts of toilets in Vietnam, at least where I lived.
I also remember being a little afraid of my father. I’d only known him as a bald stranger in a black-and-white photo, wearing a military uniform. My sister had at least spent two years with him before he was forced to escape the country without us. I had nothing to go on.
I’m not sure how long it took me to stop thinking of my father as a stranger. Interestingly, I never thought of him as an outsider. I always considered my mother, my sister, and myself as the outsiders. It took a while for me to feel like we were all a family. It wasn’t that it took that long for me to love him, but I’d lived my first five years of life without him, and now I was meeting him in an entirely alien world. I felt like an outsider, twofold. I can’t tell you when that changed. I know it did eventually, but I can’t say how or why.
TH: What hopes do you have now that it’s about to hit shelves?
VT: I don’t know really. Here’s what I’ve been telling people so far – I’ve been living in this golden window of time for the last year. Writing the book was the hardest, scariest thing I’ve ever done. Just getting it finished felt like such a major accomplishment – I never expected that finishing could feel like that much of an accomplishment! So this golden window has been me basking in that feeling and also seeing this world of possibility ahead, because there really isn’t any failure or disappointment yet.
I do have two other specific hopes for the book. I hope that fans of crime fiction will read it and respect it, that they’ll feel like it’s a great crime novel. I have a crime writer friend, Tod Goldberg, who told me Dragonfish was the best crime novel he’d read in 15 years. That’s the best compliment I’ve had so far, because it means I did the genre right. But my second hope is that readers of literary fiction will also respect and enjoy the book, and think of it as a literary novel. That would mean a lot to me, too.
TH: Now that you’re about to meet hordes of fans in livetime, I have to ask – especially since this is BLOOM – what took you so long to get this first book out?
VT: Well, since the first grade, I’ve never not been writing or not wanted to be a writer, so it hasn’t been for lack of desire or trying. I just think it was a combination of things that I couldn’t, could have, or didn’t know how to control. And because this is the publishing industry, some of the reasons elude me entirely. Why didn’t that first collection sell? Was I just unlucky, or could I have made it better? Could I have written something else entirely that was better? I have no idea at this point. But I think hindsight has allowed me to think of the last 35 years – since the time I was in first grade and first wanted to be a writer – as a necessary course of success and failure, personally and artistically, that enabled me to write Dragonfish, which I’m very proud of and is the best thing I’ve written.
I’ve always been very impatient and ambitious, a toxic brew, so I can’t say I’ve enjoyed that course. But I do feel lucky that I’ve had some measure of success over the years that counteracted the perceived failures – that everything worked together to give me a healthy perspective on the whole enterprise of being a writer. Which is to also say that finally publishing a book is no endgame in my mind. Hopefully, it’ll bring more good than bad, but my greatest hope, no matter the outcome, is that it will lead to an even better book.
Click here to read an excerpt from Vu Tran’s debut novel Dragonfish.
Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book review blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
Author photo credit: Chris Kirzeder