A Thousand Pictures Tells a (Epic) Story: Interviewing GB Tran

How to write with pictures and draw with words: GB Tran accomplishes this in his graphic novel, VIETNAMERICA: A Family’s Journey. Last month, diaCRITICS featured a review of the graphic novel. Here, Ky-Phong sits down with GB Tran for an intimate conversation on the process and the creation of his (epic) story.

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Where did your idea to create VIETNAMERICA first come from?

Since visiting Vietnam for the first time in 2001, I knew I wanted to intimately explore my family’s history and how they got from there to here.  But that illuminating trip “back” also occurred when I just moved to Brooklyn from Arizona so the project got put on the back burner as I tried to find my footing in a strange new world. With the exception of a 2004 short comic based on my Mom’s memories of leaving Vietnam, it wasn’t until 2006 that I was able to return to the material and start seriously thinking what I could do with it.

Two of the most interesting themes of the book are self-discovery and reclaiming history.  What spurred you to want to discover your Vietnamese background?   There seemed to be a period in your youth where you were disinterested in your family’s history.   Was that because of teen apathy, a desire to “just be American,” or a lack of your family “talking stories” because maybe those stories were too painful to talk about?  Or maybe a combination of the above?

Definitely a combination of all the above.  On one hand, I repeatedly turned down my parents’ earlier offers to go visit Vietnam before 2001, and on the other hand, they never talked about their past.  It’s one thing to tell your kid they should fly to the other side of the world to meet their family, but another thing when you never talk about this family to your kid in the first place.  It was important that I included my phase of disinterest in the book because it helped ground it more in reality.  I think any adult that denies they ever went through a period in their youth where they couldn’t care less about their family’s roots is lying through their teeth, so it was my attempt to make my journey more relatable to the reader.

How would you describe the visual style of this book?  There seems to be a very conscious effort to elevate this book from a comic book to art and literature.  You use a lot of figurative and experimental single page or double page panels.  What motivated that artistic direction?

As with every comic I do, I just try to tell stories that use the medium’s strengths.  For VIETNAMERICA, I really tried to maintain a balance between the varying visuals and story, hopefully not sacrificing the latter for the former.

After moving past that, actually illustrating it was pretty straightforward.  I think my art leans towards detail and rendering versus a looser, more expressionistic line, so that created an emotional fence that prevented me from getting too wrapped up in what was happening in the scene I was drawing.

I must say one of the biggest challenges wasn’t art-related at all:  it was dealing with the fear of all the potential criticism.  The Vietnam War affected millions of people in countless polarizing ways and to explore it in my own voice opens me to the criticisms of others who have as much, if not more, to say and invested in it than I could ever have.  Are historians going to poo-poo it because I didn’t draw things perfectly accurate?  Are Vietnamese ex-pats going to condemn my portrayal of the war?  Are anti-war protesters going to object to this?  Are veterans going to hate that?  I came to the conclusion it was silly of me to worry about reaction from such a wide range of people, and if any of these people actually read it in the first place then that would be an accomplishment in itself.

From VIETNAMERICA. Image Courtesy of GB Tran.

When did your family first come to the United States?  Where did you first arrive and where did you grow up?

My parents and siblings migrated to the US in April 1975, and they were the last wave of our family that fled Vietnam.  They landed in Camp Pendleton for a few months, and then found sponsorship in South Carolina, where I was born and raised until 14, after which we relocated to Arizona.

Who makes up your family and where are they now?

My parents are in Arizona; my eldest sister is in Brooklyn just a few blocks away from me, my brother’s in Florida, and my other sister is in Texas.  If you include the next ring of relatives–uncles, aunts, and cousins–that spans anywhere from California to Toronto, Switzerland to Vietnam.

This book is a graphic novel that you wrote and illustrated.  What are the advantages to telling this story—about war, refugees, loss, memory, family, self-discovery—in the graphic novel medium?

I really enjoy a comic’s ability to suspend stories in time.  I think this allows for a unique experience specific to each reader depending on what they were paying attention to, how quickly/slowly they were reading it, and how they processed the constant interplay of words and images.  I don’t think it necessarily has an advantage over exploring these themes in other forms like film or prose, but does make for an audience experience that, when at it’s best, can’t be duplicated in other mediums.

We talked about the disjointed nature of the book and how that is supposed to mirror the experience your family went through and also how you learned this history.  Can you please explain how you wanted to balance the visual and literary storytelling and how it favored the visual and thus the finished product?

Well, the goal was that both would reinforce the other.  That is, the more visual storytelling would liven up the literal stuff, and the literal storytelling would ground the visual stuff.  I tried not to make it a graphic essay with facts and details crammed into every panel and page, nor an experimental pictorial narrative that meandered with no dramatic story arc.  As much as a comic is driven by its interplay of words and images, I think VIETNAMERICA’s storytelling is driven by the interplay of literal and imaginative visuals.

From VIETNAMERICA. Image Courtesy of GB Tran.

What were some challenges that came in the process of making VIETNAMERICA?  Was it hard talking to so many people and then consolidating all that information into one story?  What were the hardest parts to illustrate?

As I sifted through all the stories and details gathered from my family, the advice of “Tell the smallest story possible” kept running through my mind.  Once I decided on what the story’s climax would be, it made the rest fall into place organically, and the editing process pretty easy.

I had to accept that no matter how hard I tried, it wouldn’t be complete. Trying to piece together a single history from family and friends is a very inexact science.  When half the people involved in those stories are already dead, and the other living half each have their own different version of the same experience, getting things “right” is impossible.  Despite all the potential problems that may arise after committing the story to paper, it was the best I could do given the information and resources I had to do it.

How long did it take you to complete the book?

That depends on what you consider what “working” on the book would be.  I can say that after collecting all the interviews and research, it took a year to develop the proposal, and then 2.5 years to illustrate once it found a publisher.

How many people did you interview?  What were some things that you learned in those interviews that surprised you?

I have on tape about six or seven people; then there are random notes and stories scribbled down through the years from more relatives as they caught my ear and family revelations would spring up in the most unexpected situations:  fixing the stereo with my uncle, having dinner with a cousin, etc.  I never knew what would trigger their stroll down memory lane, so I just tried to document it all with whatever means were available at that moment.  Considering how clueless I was, it was really all a surprise–each random anecdote leading to an even more jaw-dropping puzzle piece to my family’s history.

How did you get VIETNAMERICA published?

While it was still on the back burner and I was freelancing in commercial art, a friend showed my work to a literary agent.  Over coffee and tea, the agent asked if I could only tell one more story before I died, what would it be?   My answer was my family’s story of how they got through the Vietnam War and wound up in the US.  He said whenever I was ready to find a publisher, give him a call.  A year later I gave him a proposal and a title on a Friday, and on Monday he had an offer from Villard.

What was the editorial process like?  Did you have a lot of freedom or was there a more hands on approach by the editor/s?

I hope that my methodic work process lends itself to an easy and smooth editorial process.  I roughed out the entire book so my editor could provide feedback before starting the art.  Then I showed her the entire book again after it was inked (but before colors) for another round of edits.  I feel this minimized how much “back tracking” I had to do, which in turn made me very receptive to her suggestions and fixes.  Of course, you’d have to ask her for the other side of that coin–for all I know, I could’ve been the biggest pain-in-the-ass she’s ever had the misfortune of editing.  She still answers my emails, though, so that’s a good sign!

From VIETNAMERICA. Image Courtesy of GB Tran.

What was your first reaction to seeing the first printed editions of the book?  More importantly, what was your family’s first reaction when they saw the book?

Honestly, it was very anti-climatic.  My wife and I were both home when that first copy arrived and she was bouncing off the walls, but I felt very detached.  I had poured so much blood, sweat, and tears into making that book that all the thoughts of what I would’ve fixed or done differently given more time were still swirling in my head.

So far, my parents are the only ones to have received a copy of the finished book, and I think they’re proud in their own way:  my Mom’s telling her friends to pre-order it, and my Dad grunts approvingly.

How did you first become interested in drawing and comics?  When did you know you wanted to illustrate/draw for a living?

I’ve drawn for as long as I can remember, and that probably grew into doing comics when my brother let me read his UNCANNY X-MEN and TRANSFORMERS.  (Their influence seen in this early series I made at the seasoned age of 10.)   As far as when I knew I wanted to do it for a living, that didn’t occur until I graduated college with a BFA and was like, “What the hell do I do now?!”


What is your educational background? Did you study art in school?

I feel like I came late to the game–I didn’t start taking art classes until college.  Even then, I spent the first three years majoring in astrophysics so only could fit one art class per semester… and that was dependent on if I freed up enough room in my course load by taking summer school ever year to get rid of all my gen ed requirements.  When I switched to pursuing a BFA, the program was filled with courses that–at the time–I considered a distraction from what I really wanted to concentrate on which was illustration and comics.  Courses like 3D design, sculpture, typography, graphic design, etc.  On hindsight, I really value those diverse classes in rounding out my art education.  As far as my comics education, it really didn’t began until after I graduated and moved to NYC.

What was your parents’ reaction to your decision to study art and be a professional artist?

Well, their initial reaction is in VIETNAMERICA so I don’t want to spoil it–needless to say, they weren’t receptive.  Back then, I didn’t understand why not, but now after learning more about my father’s past I see why he in particularly was so adamant against it.  They still wonder how the heck I’m able to make a living, but have come to grips with their son scraping by as a deadbeat artist.


What is some advice you would give to a young person out there who wanted to pursue a career in art/illustration/comics?

Well, I’m still trying to find my way so please take whatever I say with a grain of salt.  I don’t remember who said this, but it’s stuck with me for a while:  “Learn from everyone and follow no one.”  More specific to making comics: finish as many stories as possible.  It’s easy to start a comic, but until you actually see it through and finish one, it’s not gonna matter how many bajillion amazing ideas you have.


What do you hope for VIETNAMERICA?  How would you like it affect the reader?

My biggest hope/goal with VIETNAMERICA was to preserve my family’s history, the story of how they got from A to Z, before those details and memories were lost in time.  In that sense, I feel I’ve accomplished that.

As for how it affects the reader, I’d just be happy with it affecting the reader at all in the first place.  Going back to what I said earlier about comics being a unique experience specific to each reader also means I have little say in how they’ll respond.  Just the mere fact that someone invested their time and energy in reading and absorbing my family’s journey is appreciated!

What are five must-read graphic novels?

At this moment in time, I’m gonna go with:

Otomo’s AKIRA

Bechdel’s FUN HOME


Smith’s BONE

Ellsworth’s CAPACITY

Ky-Phong Tran is a writer based in Long Beach, California.  He holds an MA in Asian American Studies from UCLA and an MFA in Creative Writing from UC Riverside.   He has been awarded a New America Media award and scholarships to writing conferences at Bread Loaf, Squaw Valley, Napa Valley, and Voices of Our Nation.   His short story “A Thing Called Exodus” was a finalist in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Short Story Contest and published in Hyphen Magazine.  His writing has also appeared in the Orange County Register, the OC Weekly, the District Weekly, and the Nguoi Viet Daily News.  For more info, visit www.frequentwind.com.

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