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Saigoneer Bookshelf: Finding Hong in Gangster Noir Thriller ‘Dragonfish’

For those of us who have read countless books by Vietnamese authors and members of the diaspora, the novel Dragonfish is not just one more installment of ethnic literature or postwar fiction.

The central conceit of Vu Tran’s debut is refreshing: it sets a contemporary gangster noir in Las Vegas as a device to probe the secrets of a trauma that continues to haunt a family that has left Vietnam.

First, a reading note: the narrator is Robert, a white cop in Oakland who gets drawn into Vegas’ criminal underbelly after the disappearance of his ex-wife, Hong. I admire Tran for making the uncommon decision, as a Vietnamese American, to write about a refugee experience through the lens of a white man — and a figure of authority, no less. But it does make for some jarring reading. I had to remind myself constantly that it was a white American narrating.

Hong left Robert two years ago and now the mysterious woman has left a second husband, Sonny, a Vegas crime boss who blackmails Robert to help find her. But the hunt for Hong is a veil over the real hunt for answers about who she was before she became “Suzy,” about the tragedies on board a refugee boat and the struggles with loss and loneliness that leaves her — excuse the word choice — adrift. 

All the violence and vengeance that entangle the lives of the cop, the gangster, the immigrant, and their supporting cast were not entirely believable. It might just not be my cup of tea. But even I can’t deny that the mob-drenched thrill of an early scene will hook readers. Robert pulls up to his home one evening, still in his uniform, when a teen approaches to slip him a note: "Leave your gun in the car and come into your apartment. We just want to talk.”

The boy disappears. And we are left with curiosity before meeting the thugs waiting inside and later following the search for a daughter we didn’t know exists; the elements that propel us through the plot. The scintillating reveals are necessary because Dragonfish is a chore to read at times. I’d even forgotten about it for a while, leaving the book half-read, until it popped up again in my e-reader. 

A major weakness of the book is not that a Caucasian speaker labors to tell the story of Vietnamese Americans, but that a man labors to tell the story of a woman. Hong is the central character. She never really appears in the narrative, except in memories and letters, but she is the hub that explains all the other characters’ connections.

Throughout the story, I was not very convinced about a lot of what was told about Hong. (The narrator uses her “American” name Suzy, I suppose to make some point about feeling forced to assimilate or to keep her at a literary distance, but it seems more genuine to stick to “Hong.”) In particular, it was hard to accept her unexplained, manic episodes, as well as her decisions to abandon her family.

Only later while reading did I start to think, these details might not be convincing because they came from a male author. I would point to Alice Fishburn, who wrote in the Financial Times that she spent 2018 reading solely works by female writers. This was after realizing that, even for someone who calls herself a smug feminist, her prior-year of reading “could be summed up in two words: Victorians and testosterone.”

At the end of the year, she noticed something about reading these works by female writers: “No one is trying to explain women to me. Female characters and viewpoints suddenly simply exist: whether flawed or flaming, badly drawn or richly nuanced. There they are without spin. Unexplained.”

I have long looked askance at male authors’ poor treatment of women characters. Tran does not reach the shallow level of the worst offenders, but in his attempt to shed light on the many corners of refugee trauma, too much of Hong as the enigmatic mother remains in shadow. 

Where he is more successful is in the various truths that Tran captures. Take the code-switching of bilingual speakers. Hong’s daughter, Mai, is standoffish when she meets Robert, in English, but he also can tell how warmly she greets Hong’s best friend, Lucky, in Vietnamese, not because they love each other, but because this is intrinsic to Vietnamese terms of endearment when they call each other “chị” and “em.”

More importantly, Tran gives us a glimpse into the psychology of a refugee who has lost her moorings. Hong severed ties with her homeland, never really coping, and arriving in the United States without ever finding help to cope. Despite all the trauma and post-trauma of the Vietnam War, the diaspora, as with so many other minority communities, have yet to bring its attendant mental health implications into the mainstream.

As Dragonfish winds down, we become the typical audience for this crime mystery, we root for the heroes and anti-heroes, we want them to escape with the suitcases full of money. But really it is not the criminal underground that makes for such a compelling story, so much as the undercurrents of a family, and a people, grappling with its past.

Find Vu Tran's Dragonfish on Amazon here.

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