Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Wednesday, March 10, 2021: Maximum Shelf: House of Sticks: A Memoir

Scribner Book Company: House of Sticks: A Memoir by Ly Tran

Scribner Book Company: House of Sticks: A Memoir by Ly Tran

Scribner Book Company: House of Sticks: A Memoir by Ly Tran

Scribner Book Company: House of Sticks: A Memoir by Ly Tran

House of Sticks: A Memoir

by Ly Tran

In her phenomenal debut, House of Sticks: A Memoir, Ly Tran mines both trauma and love from her coming of age as a young Vietnamese immigrant to the United States. Tracing her arrival to the U.S. as a three-year-old through her tumultuous college years, Tran probes the various educations she receives and the evolving ways in which she comes to see the world around her. Her vivid, unadorned narration yields a painful but powerful exploration of the struggle to find a sense of self within a family at the cross-section of cultures, and Tran's story is impossible to forget.

The long shadow of the Vietnam War casts a pall throughout her family's journey. As a teenager, Tran's father served as a lieutenant in the South Vietnamese Army, plotting bomb coordinates for an artillery unit--then was held as a prisoner of war for nearly a decade, narrowly avoiding execution. Even when he was freed from the "re-education" camp, the government's grip on his livelihood--and that of his growing family--continues. In 1993 he applies to a humanitarian relocation program, and he, his wife and their four children--all under 10 years old, with Ly the youngest at three--start anew in the United States.

The Trans move into a small apartment in Queens, N.Y., and immediately begin eking out their survival. Their apartment becomes a veritable sweatshop: the whole family works, sewing ties, flight attendant scarves and cummerbunds. The pay is paltry and extreme thrift a necessity despite the family's tireless efforts. Tran paints their poverty with telling details: "We diluted our dishwashing liquid with water. We diluted our detergent with water. We bought two-in-one shampoos, and separated one roll of two-ply paper towels into two rolls." 

As the family works long hours, Tran watches her three older brothers' various models for assimilating, learning from them while growing increasingly aware of ways her gender impacts her parents' expectations of her. When it's time for her to begin school, the divide widens even further between the roles she plays at home and the ways she's expected to behave outside of it. 

At their father's behest, all the Tran children excel academically. His own aptitude for math, enabling him to avoid the battlefield, had literally meant his survival in the war--and he is dogged in ensuring his children be educated. Tran recalls, "When Long was six and I was only four, he made us recite the multiplication tables while we cut fabrics and pleated cummerbunds on the floor of our living room. In later years he'd beat us when we didn't understand our math homework. He'd give us equations to solve before we went to bed at night and test us on them in the morning. It wasn't just a question of understanding numbers. He was trying to save our lives."

Eventually, the "sweatshop era" gives way to the nail salon era. Tran's mother begins working as a manicurist and the family ultimately purchases a nail salon. Again, Tran works long hours in the family business on top of her schoolwork. In the salon, though, she and her parents find themselves confronting more explicit racism than ever. Not only is their work undervalued, as before, but many customers are outright racist and abusive.

Central to many of the conflicts Tran faces is her diminishing ability to see and thus contend with her surroundings. Her father's perpetual distrust of any government wins out for years after it becomes clear that Tran needs glasses; he believes her diagnosis is a government conspiracy. As her vision worsens and her grades slip, she is victim to his abusive flare-ups; his PTSD rears often. Tran also becomes increasingly burdened by anxiety, and is diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

Though mentors and helpers abound, and Tran's test scores land her at an elite high school, the stress becomes crippling. While some school programs offer support, more often the systems designed to protect struggling students wind up imposing further burdens upon Tran. Well-meaning teachers and counselors report her family to the Administration for Children's Services, who send caseworkers to investigate whether Tran's parents have been negligent. Tran manages to get the case closed but is required to see a psychiatrist for her remaining time in high school. Come college, she earns a full scholarship but finds herself spiraling ever deeper into her depression. Eventually, Tran cracks.

But hers is not a story only of pain. Tran is not passive. Akin to the sprawling Buddhist altar Tran's parents faithfully construct in their apartment, House of Sticks is itself like an altar--a tribute, built piece by painful piece, cloaked in love. Early in her memoir, Tran reflects on the bed her father constructs for her and her siblings, jury-rigging a third surface to a bunk bed with a mishmash of found materials and duct tape. It sounds rickety at best. And yet, she writes, "Despite the way it looked and felt, it was sturdy." So is the family's love. At its core, House of Sticks is a tribute to her parents, an exercise in mercy, powerfully wrought. Tran's courageous telling offers a vision of the myriad fragile and beautiful ways one can build a sense of home and belonging with love as a foundation--one that is, despite the way it might look or feel at times, sturdy. --Katie Weed

Scribner, $27, hardcover, 384p., 9781501118814, June 1, 2021

Scribner Book Company: House of Sticks: A Memoir by Ly Tran

Ly Tran: I Write for that Little Girl

(photo: Joseph Vidal)

Ly Tran emigrated with her family from Vietnam to the United States in 1993. In House of Sticks: A Memoir, Tran traces her coming of age at the intersection of multiple roles and identities, perpetually navigating shifting positions within her family and her broader surroundings. Tran graduated from Columbia University in 2014 with a degree in Creative Writing and Linguistics, and has received fellowships from MacDowell, Art Omi and Yaddo. House of Sticks will be published by Scribner on June 1, 2021.

You structure House of Sticks in five sections, though at one point you had plans to structure the story through the steps of a manicure. How did you land on the final shape of the book?

When I first drafted the proposal for my memoir, I came up with the idea to conceptually link a set of chapters to a manicure step, born out of my time in the nail salon. "Remove Old Nail Polish," for instance, would be an exploration of my parents' past, all that they left behind to escape persecution and how we had to shed that past to adopt a new life here in America. "Cut, File, and Buffer" would be about our quest for assimilation into American society, changing our Vietnamese names into American ones and trying to fit in.

The structure was instrumental in helping me figure out the major themes and motifs of my memoir, but as my story eventually evolved beyond it, beyond the confines of the nail salon, I had to let it go and give equal weight to other salient parts of my life, choosing a more straightforward and chronological rendering to do so. 

House of Sticks is haunting yet overflowing with empathy. Trauma looms, but so do love and your lifelong desire to understand others and their actions. As you crafted the memoir, how did you approach this balance of the dark and the light, trauma and forgiveness? 

I began with the dark, because I was still, in many ways, emerging from darkness at the start of my writing journey. I knew that forgiveness and understanding were my destination, and I had to write my way towards that understanding. The very first drafts of my memoir were dark and oppressive, focusing only on the trauma, only on the sad parts. It was painful revisiting and working through those memories, but I kept thinking of where I wanted to end up. In fact, the final chapter of my memoir was one of the first chapters I wrote, knowing that that's where I wanted to end up, not just in the story but in my own life as I was living it. Once I'd gotten all the darkness out of my system and onto the page, I was finally able to infuse the narrative with light and humor, redemption and forgiveness.

You've long taken comfort in the idea of yourself as the light, first considering this expression of inner strength as a kid: "But Mom, what if I'm the light?" I was reminded of the conclusion of Amanda Gorman's poem "The Hill We Climb": "For there is always light, / if only we're brave enough to see it. / If only we're brave enough to be it." What, for you, does it mean now to be the light?

Perhaps shaped by my exposure to Mencius at a young age, I have always believed in the intrinsic goodness of humanity, and I have always believed in the power of love and compassion and forgiveness to heal even the deepest of wounds. I spent the last six years of my life working on my manuscript, and during this time, the world seemed to fall apart at the seams, culminating in an unprecedented year of pandemonium, with a deadly virus claiming countless lives, George Floyd's heart-shattering death exposing further the bigoted underbelly of our nation, and the chasm of our collective consciousness ever widening.

Your question is one that I often ask myself: What does it mean for me to be the light during these dark times? What does it mean to enter the scene as an artist, a writer? The answer I always come back to is love. To love ecstatically, to love uncompromisingly. To be compassionate towards those who are suffering. Being the light is to nurture compassion, first and foremost within myself, and then to imbue my writing with that fundamental mandate.

In a poignant section, you recall your hospitalization for hypothermia and your brother's developing Raynaud's disease from frostbite. You remember that the doctors "gently admonish my parents and advise them to bundle their child up more. As if they had the bundles to do so." What do you hope readers might learn from your sharing this part of your past?

I think it's so easy sometimes to fall into the trap of comparing our own lived experiences to that of others, applying judgment when we see others failing where we've succeeded. We say things like, "Well, if I was able to do it, why couldn't they?" This eventually becomes an attack on the other's character, accompanied with a sense of self-righteousness: "Must be something wrong with that person that they can't just pull themselves up by their bootstraps like the rest of us." I've unfortunately been guilty of it myself. But I hope that, by sharing my past, readers will be able to open their hearts and minds to realities different than their own, and to pass that torch of understanding to others so that we, as a society, can move towards balancing the playing field for the disadvantaged. 

House of Sticks stands out for its exploration and interrogation of silence. In what ways does this memoir, and memoir in general, combat silence? 

For a very long time, I was afraid to tell my story for fear that no one would believe me. Many times, I doubted the veracity of my memories because I had never met or heard of anyone else who had gone through what I went through. And it seemed every time I did try to speak up, every time I told the truth, some awful consequence followed. Of course, this would deter anyone who was already predisposed to silence from speaking up further, which is what I did. 

But there was a thought that entered my mind one day, a small, quiet thought that grew louder and louder as time went on until I couldn't ignore it anymore. And it was: What if there's another little girl out there going through the same thing I went through? And what if she was feeling what I felt? An inability to speak up because she didn't know anyone else who did? Because she didn't believe in the truth of her experiences or was made to distrust her perception of the truth?

I write for that little girl.

Who do you most hope reads this book?

Anyone on the brink of identities, anyone who feels alone and lost, anyone who is losing hope. --Katie Weed

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