‘House of Sticks’ is an immigrant success story with family ties at heart
House of Sticks: A memoir, Image by Ly Tran: Scribner
Memoir of Ly Tran Stick house recalls both the history of The three little pigs and the myth of the unassimilated other in François Truffaut The wild child (The Wild Child), in his non-sentimental but deeply moving examination of filial ties, displacement, the trauma of war and poverty.
Seemingly an immigrant success story, Tran’s narrative power lies in her nuanced celebration of filial devotion that stands up to the enormous cost of the American Dream.
The first chapter of the book, “Awake” – on the author’s first memory of waking up in his mother’s arms in a refugee camp in Thailand – represents the thematic arc of Stick house. Tran’s sensory knowledge of the tent’s blue blanket tarp, the tangy and creamy taste of the soy sauce-dipped eggs she shared with her family – these are the bodily memories Tran would need to retrieve at the future as part of his essential education, to compensate for his family’s mode of survival which often made the body invisible.
Tran’s memoirs then proceed to the 1993 relocation of his family to Ridgewood, a community in the borough of Queens in New York. The long journey from his parents’ rural village in southern Vietnam was made possible thanks to the UN-sanctioned Orderly Departure Program (ODP). While trans immigrant status under the ODP required them to reimburse the U.S. government for the cost of their resettlement, their situation was arguably more analogous to previous waves of Vietnamese refugees who had been granted political asylum. While the ethnic Chinese were being transplanted to the Mekong Delta, Tran’s parents were discriminated against by native Vietnamese. In addition, Tran’s father, a former officer of the Republic of South Vietnam, was imprisoned by the Vietnamese Communist government for nearly 10 years in re-education camps and subjected to torture, starvation and forced labor. – deep psychological scars which would manifest themselves later in explosions and physical abuse on his wife and children.
Once settled in Queens, but for a time without social assistance or counseling, the Trans had to reside in an unheated railroad apartment, with little to eat in addition to rice porridge seasoned with soy sauce – difficult conditions that caused Tran to contract hypothermia and his brother. develop Raynaud’s disease. The family’s malnutrition literally turned them into sticks – hence the reference to the “house of sticks”. They were displaced people who were in constant danger of being swept from their fragile foundations.
Despite his Dickensian deprivations, Tran’s early years – as the youngest brother among three protective elder brothers – were happy. This sense of oneness with his family is exemplified by his use of the present tense in the early chapters – also a unique feature of Vietnamese that marks the time not through combined changes but through narrative context. This timelessness represents Tran’s linguistic innocence before English – a second language – crept in.
During Tran’s preschool years, his family found work through a shady network that paid contract workers extremely low wages to sew vast wads of men’s ties and cummerbunds. The work, while strenuous and exploitative, was considered ideal as it could be done at home, with all of the children – including Ly, 3 – helping their parents on the assembly line to meet the weekly quota. To combat fatigue and keep the workflow going, the Tran siblings would design creative games and periodically alternate their assigned tasks. The innocence, imagination and ingenuity of children reflected their victory of spirit over matter. For a time, their family bond protected them from knowledge of the physical harms resulting from sweatshop work: stress, weakened vision, poor posture, sleep deprivation, and deformed, callused hands.
It is both ironic and naturally poignant that the extreme poverty that attached Tran to physical labor also made her, for a time, unable to live inside her body. Tran’s memoir is unique among Vietnamese American narratives in that his identity crisis was not about breaking free from his parents’ past, but his reluctance to escape their suffering. She deeply understands her father’s post-traumatic stress disorder and her mother’s passivity – induced as a coping mechanism towards a mentally unstable husband and misogynistic cultural mores. Tran’s relentless struggle to form a coherent language to mediate his family’s history with his current life thus reminds me of Truffaut’s loaded cinematic treatment of the wild child. His assimilation myth becomes a relevant framework for assessing the cultural blind spots of well-meaning school administrators and psychiatrists whose Western training has prevented them from understanding Tran’s inarticulate needs and his porous identity which is in fact shaped by his family connections. complex.
Ultimately, the Buddhist teachings of courage and compassion that Tran’s parents instilled in their daughter succeeded in resisting the racist trope of an individual’s evolution from a dark and “savage” past to one. now supposedly sane and rational, giving Tran the tools to ultimately carve his own activist path. Tran’s perceived lack of identity therefore represents both his struggle and the key to his self-knowledge.
Tran wrote Stick house “for [her] mother and for [her] dad. “I read his dedication as a loving attempt at proxy – to make visible the faces and bodies of his ancestors – human beings long rejected as” stick figures “because they exist primarily to serve larger bodies. and privileged. The run-down nail salon in a racially unstable Brooklyn neighborhood that Tran’s parents owned after their sweatshop era ended – with his filing sticks as a tool of the trade – has witnessed their austere tribulations as well as the wonderful resilience of their immigrant selves.In the end, Tran’s empathy and appreciation of her parents for her filial love cemented the emotional bricks that stabilize their seemingly tenuous hold on this unusual land.
Thúy Đinh is co-editor of Da Màu and editor-in-chief at Asymptote Journal. His work can be found at thuydinhwriter.com. She tweets @ThuyTBDinh.
Copyright (c) 2021, NPR