TU English student Caleb Freeman interviews author Vu Tran
Dragonfish is a beautifully written and deeply tragic narrative about displacement and both the individual and generational trauma of having to abandon one’s home. What about this story attracted you to the noir genre?
Noir fiction, at its core, is about the absence of light, the absence of truth and certainty and all the stories that reside uncomfortably in the shadows of the characters’ lives. That genre ended up being a good framework for my story about immigrants, because immigrants usually carry around stories from their past, from the home they abandoned to get to the new country. Refugees especially are often unwilling or unable to share those stories, and I’ve always been interested in their reasons for feeling this way. So much of who we are is made up of how we interpret our past, how we define ourselves in terms of what has happened to us, so it’s intriguing to place characters in circumstances where they don’t know how to understand or reconcile their past, or even how to be legible to the people in their lives who don’t know that past and are disconnected from them because of it.
One very interesting thing about your novel is its form. The bulk of the novel is told from the first person POV, but there are also three epistolary sections interlaced throughout the main narrative. What made you decide to use this form?
I originally conceived of the novel as a straightforward narrative, narrated solely by Robert, the white American police officer who is the “detective” or “hero” of the crime story. But 70 pages into writing the novel, that straightforward crime narrative felt insufficient to me in terms of plot, tone, and even the ideas at play. Once I devised the epistolary section—where Suzy is writing letters to the daughter she abandoned two decades before and recounts their refugee experience to her—I felt like I finally found the emotional foundation of the novel, the backstory that explains so much of the characters’ motivations and relationships to each other. That epistolary form gives the novel a tone of intimacy, retrospection, and melancholy that I wanted to resonate with the reader. Because more than anything, Dragonfish is about the things that bring people together but also tear them apart, even when they love—or at least should love—each other.
Readers see the story play out through the eyes of Robert, an Oakland police officer who is largely unfamiliar with the culture or history of the Vietnamese characters around him. What made you decide to tell this story from the perspective of an outsider?
First of all, I like the irony of him being the one white, non-immigrant character in the novel and being more of an outsider than anyone else. He’s an outsider to the Vietnamese characters, to Las Vegas, even in a sense to his ex-wife, who never truly let him into her life. What makes all that meaningful, however, is how it motivates his behavior, his good and his bad decisions. I think when you’re on the inside of things, you tend to be less cognizant of your environment and your privileges in it. When you’re on the outside, you tend to obsess over all those things and how to get on the inside, even to your own detriment. So much of human behavior, it seems to me, is predicated on that sense of alienation we all feel on some level and at various points in our lives. Even the best of us make poor decisions to lessen or eradicate that feeling, and I think Robert is definitely a person who is so desperate to understand his ex-wife that he ends up hurting himself and others to pursue that understanding.
Speaking of Robert, he is a deeply flawed protagonist, while Sonny, the antagonist of the novel, is somewhat sympathetic in the end. What was your experience like in exploring these two characters during the writing process?
Because I was working in such a familiar genre with such familiar tropes, one of the goals I set up for myself was to use those tropes in interesting and unexpected ways. So making the “hero” unheroic and the “villain” sympathetic was part of that. But it was ultimately about constantly complicating their characters in ways that felt compelling and believable, so that they’re fully human and not simply fulfilling a particular role or type in the story. Characters—whether they’re mine or from other people’s books—are usually interesting to me when I keep changing my mind about them, when their contradictions are hard to understand and to reconcile but are still wholly convincing. An important irony in Dragonfish is that Robert and Sonny—even though they work on different sides of the law and believes themselves to be morally distinct from each other—are actually more alike than they’d be willing to admit. That’s the central tension for Robert especially, this confrontation with his darkest self and the things he’s capable of doing to get what he thinks he wants.
The Fall of Saigon is the impetus to all the events in the novel, the starting point of the trauma that ultimately affects every character in Dragonfish. You were born five months after the Fall of Saigon and your family escaped Vietnam five years after its fall. How did your own story affect the writing of Dragonfish?
A lot of my own experience as a refugee definitely informed Suzy’s backstory in the novel. Like her, I too escaped Vietnam by boat and spent a week at sea. Like her, I too spent four months at a refugee camp on Pulau Bidong and was then sponsored to America. I didn’t witness the kind of violence or tragedy that she did, but my trip from Vietnam to America was just as dangerous and dramatic. But more than anything, what I brought to the novel of my own story was that feeling of being bereft, which all refugees feel. Once you’ve fled your home country, you will from there on live between two worlds without truly belonging to either, and what you will probably want more than anything is an ability to move fluidly between those two worlds, even as you know how difficult and even impossible that is. I think all the characters in Dragonfish, even Robert, struggle with this feeling on some level.