Lý Trần: House of Sticks

I am glad to see more Vietnamese-American voices in the literary world. The latest is from Lý Trần whose debut memoir is captivating, devastating, and moving. Ms. Trần writes with candid and vigor about her experience of growing up in America as a child of Vietnamese-Chinese immigrant parents, working in the nail salon, worshipping the Buddhas, and struggling with depression. From her complex relationship with her parents to her academic failures to her romantic relationship, Ms. Trần opened up about her incredible journey as she made the transition from an immigrant to an Asian American. Her prose is engaging and unflinching. The book is almost 400 pages, but it’s a fast read. Each chapter is a short story with a clear purpose of what she wanted to convey. Trần is a gifted writer. I hope more Vietnamese Americans will pick up this book. You will find it relatable.

Here’s a scene from the nail salon (p. 136):

I wanted so badly for my mother and me to disappear, to start over. It had started out as a new adventure but I didn’t want to be in a nail salon anymore. Seeing my mother, now in her fifties, hunching over the pedicure bowl, hands trembling, unable to understand, unable to communicate, was almost more than I could bear. I prayed silently for a return of the cummerbunds. Even that was better than this. At least we were all together and we had fun. Where were my brothers now? Where was my father?

“Lý!” my mother called again. “What are you doing? Daydreaming? Didn’t I just ask you to come here? I need help. I don’t understand what this woman is saying.”

I got up from my seat and walked over, reluctantly introducing myself to the client.

“I’m very sorry. My mother doesn’t speak much English, but I can translate for you.” As I apologized, I felt a burning sensation in my chest. This woman would never know who we were and where we came from. We were just a couple of clumsy immigrants working on her toes, not worthy of respect. I hated her. I hated her for sitting above us on that leather chair. I hated her for thinking that it gave her power over us. I hated that it did give her power over us. That money was power in this world and we would never be powerful.

Still, I translated.