Alumni Profile: From Refugee to Author

Within a mosaic of fragmented memories, TU alumnus Vu Tran (BA ’98) attempts to remember his refugee voyage from Vietnam to Malaysia. His identity as a Vietnamese refugee serves as a catalyst to his writing career.

Vu TranAt the age of 5, Tran along with his mother and siblings fled south Vietnam following the occupation by the north Vietnamese. His father, a captain in the South Vietnamese Air Force, was forced to leave the country. Later, it was his father, whom Tran had never met, who sponsored his family to live in Tulsa. Images of the beach and sleeping on thatch mark his early memories, but his first extended memory was his father fixing him his first meal in America — a bologna sandwich. Waiting for five years to meet his son, “I imagine for my dad, he felt like he was interrupting a family in many ways,” Tran said. “He was meeting a brand new child.”

In first grade, when students were tasked with writing a short story and reading to the class, Tran discovered not only his inclination for writing but also performing. Storytelling allowed Tran to create order in his own narratives. “You are making the world clearer to you because the world can be very confusing, but you’re also in control,” he said. Inevitably, as a young immigrant, Tran was making sense of his new Oklahoma surroundings.

In his first novel, Dragonfish, Tran explores the smoky backrooms of Las Vegas searching for a missing Vietnamese woman. Her ex-husband, an Oakland cop, struggles to find her, but what he uncovers is her dark, secret past. “Because of the direction of the story, I decided to dip back into their background, which involved them being refugees,” Tran said. The novel features some menacing characters, but Tran ensures they are multifaceted. “When you see people out in the world, they are giving you a very simplified version of who they are,” he explained. To breathe characters into life, an author must probe their complex inner life.

At TU, Tran’s writing career was shaped by his favorite English professor, James Watson, who not only served as a mentor but also introduced him to William Faulkner. Tran says Watson taught him “to approach the world with confidence and a sense of self,” he said.

As an assistant professor of English at The University of Chicago, Tran helps his students discover their voice. “The transition from becoming an apprentice to becoming a really good writer is a process of constantly asking yourself, ‘Do I really believe this?’” he explained.

Tran found his own voice after returning to Vietnam at age 19. He met his family, who shared their stories of him as a child. “It was an outrageously alien but at the same time deeply familiar place,” he said. In his next novel, Tran examines the road not taken. The book depicts his life if he never left Vietnam. Tran questions, “Would I still be a writer? Would I be a duck farmer, which is what my grandfather did?” As a writer, Tran is perpetually changing his perspective. “Just push yourself to see the world in a light you hadn’t seen before, and you’ll find something worth pursuing there.”