Writers Respond: Vu Tran

PEN Center USA reached out to writers who have successfully sought asylum in the United States for our Writers Respond essay series.

Where, Then, Do You Long to Belong?

I started telling stories in the first grade—as soon as I learned how to read and write English. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this came soon after my arrival in the States, a refugee from the war in Vietnam. Five months before I was born, Saigon fell to the North, and my father—who fought for the South and with the Americans—fled the country. Five years later, my mother bought passage for herself, me, and my six-year-old sister on a small fishing boat, and with ninety other people, we fled. We spent six days at sea before reaching Kuala Lumpur, where we were settled in a refugee camp on a deserted island off the coast. Four months later, my father sponsored us from the States. It was in Oklahoma that I met him for the first time.

This is as dramatic a story as I might ever have, and even though I had no notion of writing about it back then in my first-grade reading group, the act of telling any story was, I know now, a way of creating order and meaning where there was none.

My upbringing in Tulsa was safe and relatively happy, but like many refugees and immigrants, I was stuck on the periphery of two vastly different landscapes. At home, our parents recreated the world they grew up in and had lost, and they imposed both that world and that loss on us. Once we stepped out the front door, we were again displaced; no one looked or acted like us, not our friends or teachers, or the people at church, or the customers at my parents’ barbeque restaurant, or, of course, anyone we saw on TV or at the movies. And the truth was, we didn’t always want these people to look and act like us because we were too busy trying to look and act like them.

At the same time, we felt far more distant from the very world our parents were so desperately preserving for us. Even after visiting Vietnam when I was nineteen, a place at once outrageously alien and deeply familiar, a place I would finally write about once I returned to Tulsa, even then, it felt as far away from me as those forgotten first years of my life. How could it not? I had discovered and cultivated all my desires, aversions, and beliefs in America. I belonged to America, even if America had never truly belonged to me.

And yet I wanted in some way to belong to Vietnam too, if not yet for my own sake, then for the sake of my parents, who had never really left. Why are some refugees unable to ever assimilate fully to the new world, no matter how long they’ve lived there or how old they were when they arrived? Because the ghost of who they think they are still lives in the old world, not yet aware that they are figments of history and the imagination.

It’s in this way that the act of writing, at least for me, is a kind of exile. You are necessarily removed from the world you write about, the world that most interests you, because it’s only from a distance, from this outside perspective, that you can see it more clearly, more critically, more honestly. You are also removed because you live in the books you read and write, and because you are tuned into a frequency that most people either have no awareness of or pay no attention to. The artistic sensibility is a stateless passport that gets you places you would otherwise never go, that most people never think to go. But there is aloneness there, a constant sense of being unmoored or cut off. And the question becomes, where, then, do you long to belong? On the inside, where one can be normal enough to not realize one’s normalcy? Or on the outside, where normalcy is the obscurer of truth and possibility? As a writer and as a person with all these different worlds in my life thus far, I think that messy space in between them all is as much a refuge as I’ve ever found.

PEN International’s Make Space Campaign seeks to create opportunities for writers living in exile, generate greater cross-cultural understanding, and combat marginalization and discrimination of displaced writers. In solidarity with Make Space, PEN Center USA condemns the U.S. government’s ongoing, illegal treatment of asylum seekers.

  • Advocate for displaced writers; sign PEN International’s Make Space mission statement and donate to the cause: http://www.pen-makespace.org



Vu Tran's first novel is Dragonfish. He is the winner of a Whiting Award, and his short stories have appeared in publications like the O. Henry Prize Stories and The Best American Mystery Stories. Born in Vietnam and raised in Oklahoma, Vu received his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and his PhD from the Black Mountain Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Practice at the University of Chicago.