With Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In, Phuc Tran has written the great punk rock immigrant story. Or should that be the definitive refugee punk rock story? Or a story about how punk rock and great books helped a Vietnamese kid in small-town America fit in by standing out? Whatever order we put the words in, Tran’s book is my pick for the best, the funniest and the most heartfelt memoir of the year.
Currently a high school Latin teacher and a tattoo artist, Tran honed his unique blend of intellectual misfittery in blue-collar Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where his family settled after evacuating Saigon in 1975. Tran and his brother, initially the only Vietnamese kids in school, learned to punch first when dealing with racist bullies on the playground and in the streets. Star Wars, skateboards and punk rock later offered Tran a haven where friendships were formed through shared mixtapes and band T-shirts.
Code-switching between hardcore shows and life at home with his Vietnamese-speaking parents was not easy. With grace and clarity, Tran writes pivotal scenes involving the sometimes violent disconnect between his traumatized refugee parents and their Americanized children—a testament to the sensitivity and balance he brings to his exploration of generational and cultural conflict.
While it might seem ironic, literature and punk subculture equally teach Tran about universal themes like existentialism, displacement, alienation and community. Hilariously, quite a few of Tran’s high school literary choices are occasioned by his love of Morrissey and the Smiths. As someone who also had a poster of Victorian bad boy Oscar Wilde on her high school bedroom wall (next to the Smiths poster), this rings so true as to be uncanny.
Sigh, Gone filters the archetypal high school misfit story through the lens of immigration and assimilation, building it into a larger narrative about the ways music and books can bring us together, even when the larger world threatens to tear us apart.