by Andy Shi
Some choose the punk life, and for a few the punk life chooses them. Perhaps punk’s iconoclastic individualism was all that was left for Phuc Tran after an early childhood of trying to fit in as the son of Vietnamese immigrants in small-town PA. Phuc was neither white enough for his town, nor Vietnamese enough for his family. It almost seemed predestined that Phuc would take up with the cast of skateboarding, punk-rock blasting, white-supremacist-hating outcasts, the only people who would see Phuc as an individual.
But even then, Phuc was his own kind of punk. His academic excellence stood stark against the apathy his punk friends felt toward school. Ironic that his most distinguishing trait— his love for literature—carried little currency in the skate park but was his last tether to the wider community and the universal range of feelings and experiences that binds all of humanity, regardless of ethnicity. In his literary passions, we see a Phuc who still aspired to be understood and to belong; in his punk adoption, the dispiriting realization that not everyone else cared to understand him, and that the authenticity he sought demanded a rarer path.
Such paradoxes of personality are the hallmark of adolescence, which comprises the latter half of Phuc Tran’s memoir, Sigh, Gone. It would be a mistake to chalk up Phuc’s punk lifestyle to the behavioral churn of the teens. Now a Latin teacher and tattoo artist, Phuc has gone on to trail-blaze his own path, to uphold the values of punk rock. Even his road to publication, born from a viral TEDx talk, defies conventionalism.
Sigh, Gone, is an intrepid reflection on the author’s upbringing. It’s a frank missive to Carlisle and his family, a letter of gratitude to the teachers, friends and brother who valued him and encouraged him to value him as himself, and lastly an ode to the great literary works that always recognized his humanity. Indeed, each chapter in the memoir is defined by and dedicated to one of the books that carried Phuc through adolescence, and through which Phuc now understands his past: the stifled passion of Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, the isolation of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis. Through these works of literature, a young Phuc found commiseration and introspection; through these same works of literature, we understand a young Phuc in a way his parents and community never could; and through Sigh, Gone, perhaps others: the immigrant and their progeny, the young, the punk—truly anyone who has dared to live authentically, in opposition to the typecasts and prejudices of society at large—will find the recognition they crave, and the permission to chart their own path.
I had the chance to speak with Phuc about literature, how life has gone on since we left him in the memoir, and more about what living the punk life means.
Andy Shi: Sometimes a deeper appreciation for the complexities of literature evolves when one tries to write. Has writing your memoir led you to reevaluate any of the works you mention in your book or literature in general?
Phuc Tran: Yes and no. I’d like to think that I’ve been a pretty intense, recursive reader. When I was younger, I would re-read my favorite books over and over again. There’s a great quote from Flaubert about how great a scholar you would be if you just read the same few books over and over again, and I think there’s truth in that (the ol’ quantity vs. quality debate). Go deeper rather than go far.
The books that I really loved, I loved immediately because of their complexity, so embracing literature’s complexity wasn’t emergent for me—that was actually what made me love them right away even as a teenager/young adult. I was wrangling with so many paradoxical parts of my personality and my worldview that any work of art that reflected this paradox felt so resonant to me, so magnetic and irresistible.
I do, however, have a much deeper appreciation for the craft of writing now that I’ve done it. Writing Sigh, Gone was probably one of the most challenging things I’ve done partly because I didn’t really know what I was doing and I had high expectations for myself (that’s a cocktail for disaster if I ever heard of one). I have renewed awe for a book whose writing is graceful, smart, efficient—that kind of writing is incredible and looks so effortless. I can really, really appreciate that now.
AS: Great literature structures your memoir because of how you recognized yourself in its characters: the passion of Madame Bovary that compelled your own adolescence, the desire of Oscar Wilde’s Earnest to be accepted. Recognition was hard to receive from your immigrant parents and your hometown of Carlisle, PA, and you praise literature’s ability to open lines of communication between otherwise disparate people and communities. Are these purposes you hope your memoir will serve for others?
PT: Absolutely! I think any art form can be a vector for connecting people. That ability to connect makes for powerful art. I think that’s the magic of art and writing, honestly, but I don’t want to say too much about what my intent was in writing my book because A) if I was successful in my writing, then the reader will be affected as I intended, and B) I don’t want to short circuit the reader’s experience with the book. The thing that I can’t control (can never control) is what the reader brings to the reading experience. If you’re Viet, if you’re a refugee, if you’re a veteran, if you grew up in a small town, if you’re part of Gen X: these things can affect my book’s voltage and currency for you. I mean, even your mood can affect how you read a book (I know because I’ve been in a bad mood and thought a book was terrible only to realize later that it was I who was terrible). Heck, even the author photo can color how you read something.
But what I’m getting at is that the interaction between the reader, the book, and the author is really magical—electrical really. Readers bring a polarity to the interaction, authors bring their charge, and whatever happens in between them, the sparks that fly over the book: it’s fucking magic.
AS: So much of your relationship to your hometown was fraught with racism. How do you view the town now, after having left years ago? Do you imagine your hometown as the audience for your memoir? Perhaps this memoir is the speech you wish you could have delivered at you high school graduation ceremony?
PT: Oof. I don’t have a strong connection to Carlisle. I don’t even use the phrase hometown (that word implies a lot), but I also recognize that I just felt so alienated, so othered, as a kid. And to be totally clear, I had some great, great friends, amazing teachers, and generous neighbors (they all saved me), but everything was stitched with the bigotry that we faced as a family and as individuals—that small-town American kindness was always coupled with the xenophobic, prejudicial/racist side of things. That was a paradox that I haven’t been able to reconcile, and it’s not just a small-town paradox—I dare say, it’s a national one. I’m not sure how my memoir will be received by people who live/lived there and/or grew up with me. I’d suspect it will be a shock to some and an affirmation to others. And you’re right, the memoir is a coda in some ways to my graduation speech, but it took thirty years for me to metabolize the experience, to process it in a way that yielded nutrients and not toxins. No one wants to read a memoir that’s just trauma, trauma, trauma without the salve of retrospection and wisdom.
AS: A central conflict throughout Sigh, Gone is the inability to communicate with your parents. This is a problem that your younger self becomes more conscious of in adolescence. Have you and your parents been able to understand one another better since? How have they received your memoir?
PT: We haven’t, and it’s okay for me. It wasn’t okay for a long time, and then I did a lot of therapy, and now our relationship is less volatile, less reactive. I can’t ask them to be people that they can’t be, and vice versa. I have the relationship that they’re able to give, and I can also be sad about its shortcomings at the same time.
They haven’t read the memoir yet, but we had a fraught conversation about it while I was in the midst of writing the book. The short of it is that they were nervous about my embarrassing them and our family by airing our dirty laundry. I think the memoir could be embarrassing (from their perspective), but I don’t think that it’s for me to reckon with. All I can do is write my story, bear witness to my lessons and experiences. I would love to talk with my parents about the book more, but I think the language, cultural, emotional, and generational barriers are too high at this point in our lives, and I can’t do all the work to scaffold those barriers by myself.
AS: It seems common for many children of immigrants to reject in some measure their ethnic identity in order to conform to the majority, only to strive to rediscover that neglected heritage later in life. Much of your story is about trying to fit in, even after you become a punk, and throughout the story you allow much of your Vietnamese language to fall into disuse. Since your teenage years, have you sought to reconnect with that part of yourself at all, or have you been able to feel complete without it?
PT: That’s such a tricky question because of the framework that we live in (cultural, familial, systemic, etc.). I’m not sure that we, as a country, are consistent in what we ask of first-generation immigrants (and specifically brown immigrants). On the one hand, we want them to be part of the American experience, to thrive and succeed because their success confirms that the American experiment works and it is meritocratic (it isn’t). And yet, we also want immigrants to be proud of their roots, to maintain ethnic or linguistic ties to the original country. Why? Why do we want even second or third generation immigrants or refugees to keep some tie to the old world? Is it a romantic idealism? Is it a way to arbitrate who is more and less American? Is there some hierarchy of acceptable countries of origin? Do we just want their cuisine? And who decides when that old-world connection is too much or not enough or the right amount?
I think that this was the best thing about discovering punk rock as a teenager—it was really a mechanism for me to name and reject the parts of my environment that were limiting, abusive, and corrosive (whether they were aspects of my family, town, church, etc.), and punk rock told me that it was okay to fight back and claim my own humanity and dignity. The most rebellious thing that I could do was to assert my own value and worth in the context of a family and larger culture that tightly circumscribed who I was and what I could be.
I have maintained a pretty close relationship with some relatives (my brother, of course), but I’m not sure how essential being Viet is to my sense of who I am. I understand why being Viet is important and how it affects my life in America, but I think my study of the Classics or love of motorcycles or excitement for books are more engaging facets of myself than being Viet (on a daily basis).
I do feel complete and whole, but I attribute that more to having an amazing spouse. And I did a lot of therapy (I’m a big fan of therapy!).
AS: Besides, perhaps, for your family and town, is there anyone in particular you hope will read your memoir, and anyone you hope will not?
PT: Hahaha, well … I have to say that the person I was most nervous about reading my book was my brother because we shared almost all the same experiences. I was worried that he was going to read it and say, “What the fuck, dude? That was not how it was at all!” but he read an advanced reading copy a few months ago. It was such a relief (massive relief) when he texted me and said that I had nailed it, that I had captured our childhood, our town, and our family dynamics. If my brother feels like I captured our truth, then I think whatever else happens—however else the book lands on other readers—that’s out of my control.
While I was writing, I taped a little reminder to my notebook: “Whatever you’re afraid to write—write that.” It kept me honest and pushed me to place of candor and even audacity. It’s what I would have wanted to read because there’s nothing worse than reading a memoir with no risks taken.
AS: If you could have included one more chapter in your memoir (regardless of congruity), which work of literature would you have chosen to encapsulate it? Similarly, which books would best describe your life since leaving Carlisle for Bard College?
PT: Well the memoir was originally twelve chapters but we had to cut one! I had Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” in the book as a middle school chapter (because I love that play so much). It was all about the idea of reinventing yourself for survival, but my editor and I realized that A) the book was too long and B) the ideas overlapped with Pygmalion. But I guess I would have loved to find a way to shoehorn “Twelfth Night” back in there.
AS: As a teenager, you aspired to pursue your passions for both literature and art, and since graduating from Bard, you have gone on to become a Latin teacher and a tattoo artist. How did you decide that these respective professions would best fulfill your passions? Is this how you imagined you would pursue your passions as a teenager?
PT: Not at all! I went off to Bard to double major in English and Art but dropped both majors in my first year there and signed on for Classics by the end of my freshman year. But the best thing that I figured out that year was that if I wasn’t loving what I was doing, I couldn’t do it. I’m not the sort of person who is great at phoning it in like a phony. Either I’m all in or I’m folding quickly. I really fell in love with Greek and Latin and ancient literature, and it became all-consuming for a long time. And same with tattooing—totally immersive.
I’ve tried not to be too dogmatic and rigid about what I should and shouldn’t do or what my passions should or shouldn’t be. That feels too restrictive and narrow for this rich, crazy experience called life.
AS: Does Sigh, Gone mark the start of your writing career? Tell our readers a bit about your journey to writing and publishing your first book. Are you working on another book?
PT: Maybe? Writing is HARD! And lonely! And time-consuming! Did I mention how hard it is? Hahaha…. All that said, I did love how hard it was (I’m a bit of a masochist). And I am curious about what else I have to say or write. Above all else, I don’t want to waste anyone’s time (my own or my readers’) because there are SO many other great books to be read (so many books). I’m open to writing more but only if it feels necessary and important for me to write it. That’s the best and most urgent place from which I should write. I’m not writing because I need a paycheck or tenure or fame or anything like that.
The short version of my journey to writing and publishing is that in 2012, I gave a TEDx talk. After it was released, it garnered some national attention (NPR’s TED Radio Hour featured it). I was so surprised by how many people were excited by the TEDx talk, and that enthusiasm made me think that maybe I had more to say. I remember saying to my wife, “I think I’ll write a memoir someday, maybe when I retire or something.” I was teaching during the day, tattooing at night and on weekends, working all the time (and we had two young kids at home). It didn’t seem like the right time to write a book, and I didn’t know anything about the process. In 2016, a literary agent cold-called me (via email) and said that she had seen the TEDx talk and wanted to know if I was interested in writing a memoir. I wrote a short piece, sent it to her, she loved it and signed on to be my agent. I worked on the proposal for the book for about a year (because I first had to figure out how to write a non-fiction book proposal and then wrote and re-wrote the proposal), the book went to auction in August of 2017 and sold to Flatiron/Macmillan. I worked on the actual memoir for a year, turned in the manuscript in August of 2018, edited it and did rewrites until May 2019.
AS: Lastly, would you say you have continued to live the punk life?
PT: This is totally a trick question!
There are a few contradictory tenets in punk rock—punk rock nowadays has specific connotations and definitions, and therein lies its contradiction. It’s too well-defined now (or at least by popular culture) and consequently, it’s not the big-tent cultural event that it used to be. Punk rock used to be the Island of Misfit Toys until it became too rigid about what makes a misfit toy. Even The Clash, arguably one of the most important punk bands ever, encountered this narrow, suffocating aspect of punk rock. By their second album, people were complaining that the sound wasn’t punk enough, and by their third album, London Calling, the diehard punk fans didn’t know what to do with the reggae, rockabilly, and Motown influences.
That iconoclasm—that rejection of norms and societal conventions in the pursuit of creative freedom and sociopolitical awareness—that’s punk rock. It’s the inherent challenge, however, of always positioning yourself as the antithesis (in that Hegelian dialectic way). Eventually, the antithesis becomes mainstream, and then you have to reject yourself and what you’ve become, too. And at that point, you have to grow and expand your definitions because it’s not all nihilism and self-destruction, either. (I mean, that was the tension between Nirvana and their success in a nutshell.)
And punk has philosophical and ethical forefathers like Thoureau, Emerson, Nietzsche, Marx, the Impressionist painters, et al. Rulebreakers and iconoclasts. I mean, Thoureau wrote a whole treatise on Civil Disobedience. He was totally punk rock for his time. Punk rock is about being true to who you are, being and living authentically, challenging the status quo and dominant power structures, and most important, challenging yourself. It’s just not about wearing Doc Martens and a leather jacket and a Misfits t-shirt anymore (as much as it used to be).
I think I’ve tried to do all that as much as I can, but I don’t know if I would say that it falls under the banner of punk. If the first rule of punk rock is to reject all labels and preconceptions, then the most unpunk thing I could do would be to proclaim that I’m a still punk, hahaha.
Andy Shi is a recent graduate from the Columbia University-London School of Economics dual MA/MSc program in International and World History.
Homepage author photo via phucskywalker.com