I don’t normally read memoirs, but I did recently for a book club. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed it! We read Phuc Tran’s Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In, a coming-of-age memoir in which Tran describes his life growing up in the small town of Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His family, having fled Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, came to Carlisle as refugees and immediately faced difficulties in adjusting to their new country.
Tran shares his very first memory about this struggle to adapt to start the book: a conversation with his father about his name. Vietnamese is a language which relies on very subtle tonal shifts and pronunciation (the rising/descending pronunciation of a vowel, for example) to communicate exactly what is being said. English does not rely on these subtleties. So, at four years old, after a kid at the playground asked what his name is, Phuc asked his father, “What’s my name?” Is it pronounced Fook, like Luke? Or should the kids at the playground call him by the Vietnamese pronunciation, which sound like “fuhp”? (Tran tells us it sounds like a baseball hitting a glove, the ‘u’ has an upward lilt to it.) His father ended up telling Phuc to use the Americanized Phuc (like Luke) pronunciation. “Fook. I guess your name is Fook… in English” he tells his son. A first calculation in the game of survival, Tran says. Not that it helped much, he adds.
Tran goes on to discuss the many other “calculations for survival” he made during his childhood and his time in school. Each chapter of his book borrows the title of a classic book, like The Scarlet Letter and Crime and Punishment, to introduce the theme of the chapter and to let him explain why loves these books. In these chapters he describes the casual racism he faced from his classmates and teachers in school in affecting, bracing detail, the abuse he suffered from his father which caused rifts between them, and his attempts to fit in his American classmates while also meeting the rigid expectations of his parents at home, all with an 80’s backdrop. Sometimes he succeeded, earning acceptance as a punk in high school, sometimes he failed, taking a friend to see “Chariots of Fire” with his father because the name sounded awesome. At times sad, at time hopeful, at times triumphant, this book is for anyone who ever felt that they did not quite fit in growing up.