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Vietnamese culture inspires refugee, first-time author

Vu Tran’s first full memory was just a few weeks before his fifth birthday.

After fleeing Vietnam in 1980, he arrived in Oklahoma to meet his father — who left for America in 1975 after Saigon fell at the end of the Vietnam War and sponsored his family to come over.

“My first extended memory was my first day in Tulsa and my dad making me a bologna sandwich with a 7UP and chips — Ruffles, sour cream and onion,” he recalls. “I just remember it being strange, whatever that means for a 5-year-old who just came to America.”

During the next few decades, he balanced adapting to his new life as an American while maintaining a connection to his Vietnamese culture.

That connection has manifested in his newly released book “Dragonfish” (W.W. Norton, $26.95), a novel set in Las Vegas, where Tran went to UNLV — and centered on multiple Vietnamese characters.

Like he and his mother, characters in the book escaped Vietnam by boat and settled in a refugee camp before coming to America.

Though it’s not his story, it is an experience that reflects deep connections.

Tran is returning to Las Vegas to speak about his book at the Black Mountain Institute inside the newly remodeled and renamed Beverly Rogers Literature & Law Building at UNLV at 7 p.m. Thursday.

“He was one of the first BMI Ph.D. fellows; he worked on earlier drafts of his book while he was here. I can’t think of a better way to inaugurate the new space than with an alumni reading like this — it’s symbolic of the way BMI has nurtured writers from the very beginning, and the way many of them still feel connected,” Maile Chapman, artistic director at the institute, says of Tran.

Tran is excited about returning to Las Vegas and the Black Mountain Institute, which he says is his home.

Though he doesn’t remember much about his life in Vietnam or even leaving, what he does remember is from an early age he wanted to be a writer.

“There wasn’t a definitive moment,” he says. “I just remember in the first grade, there was nothing more thrilling than writing a story and then having to read it out loud.”

All he remembers about his first years dabbling in creative writing is the cliche endings to his stories.

“The ending would be that the character woke up and it was all a dream,” he says.

Influenced by books such as “The Chronicles of Narnia” series, Tran spent most of high school writing fantasy.

“Not necessarily fantasy, but the stories had fantastical elements,” he recalls. “I found myself writing stories that centered around the scenario of entering an alien world. I was basically writing about being an immigrant on some level.”

Though he says his experience being a refugee will never compare to that of his parents who had to truly adjust to this country, Tran says growing up came with an uneasy feeling of trying to fit into two worlds.

Tran continued writing throughout high school and decided to go to college at the University of Tulsa, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English. He earned a Master of Fine Arts in fiction from the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

He pursued his Ph.D. at the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV and taught courses in literature and creative writing. Seven years ago, he moved to the University of Chicago to teach.

His writing evolved throughout this period. Reading literary icons from William Faulkner to Toni Morrison, he was challenged to make sure his writing style matched the content he wanted to achieve. He also discovered he enjoys teaching.

“Teaching has made me learn so I can better articulate about writing.”

While molding the next generation of writers, Tran spent nearly four years writing “Dragonfish.”

“I sold it after writing the first 60 pages,” he says. “I told my publisher I could have it finished in 180 days.”

Years later, the book has finally hit bookstore shelves.

“Dragonfish” follows the white protagonist Robert who is searching for his missing ex-wife Suzy, who migrated to the United States from Vietnam during the ’70s.

The novel is told mostly through the eyes of Robert, an Oakland cop who comes to Las Vegas to find Suzy, who moved to the city two years earlier.

Along the way, we learn more about her mysterious background and her journey from Vietnam to America.

“I’m a huge admirer,” Chapman says of “Dragonfish.” “It’s an organic book — a literary meditation on deep, dark, devastating truths about loss and regret, with a suspenseful plot that grows believably out of those same truths. Every element is necessary, taut, and earned. And Las Vegas isn’t just the setting — it’s integral.”

This isn’t the book he started out writing.

Before “Dragonfish,” he started working on another novel, but was never content with the progress being made.

When a local author asked him to write a short story — a noir centered on Chinatown in Las Vegas — he realized he liked the mystery genre.

The first thing he wrote for “Dragonfish” was from the perspective of Suzy. Throughout the book, the reader learns more about this character through a letter she had written to another character about her journey from Vietnam.

“It’s the part that came easily for some reason,” he says.

Tran’s mother helped fill in some of the gaps as far as descriptions of islands and fleeing as a refugee to help provide a certain amount of authenticity to the letters.

“It was the emotional backbone of the story,” he says.

Though he had the background pieced together early on, it wasn’t until another two years he started writing the rest.

“I’m not a disciplined writer,” he adds. “So I had to put myself on a schedule.”

Every night at midnight, after his then-girlfriend went to bed, Tran would sit at his desk with a thermos of hot water and ginger chew candies and write until 4 a.m.

Though he lived here for many years, he would occasionally fly back to Las Vegas to help him fill in elements of the setting.

“So if there are times you’re reading, and it feels like the descriptions of Las Vegas are sad, it is because I was missing the city,” he says.

Along with his love for Las Vegas, Tran put a lot of his personality in the book, from his love of poker to his childhood connection to “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

After 55 months of writing and three extensions, Tran handed over a draft to his publisher in January 2014.

Through edits, revisions, promotions and publicity, Tran has waited eagerly for “Dragonfish” to be released.

“I feel like by the time I was finished writing the book, I was ready to let (the characters) go,” he says — though he feels one character of the book might beckon another look.

He is brainstorming ideas for other novels. Though he might experiment with other genres, he can’t imagine not exploring the history and elements of the Vietnamese community.

“Not necessarily the war,” he adds. “But definitely about the community. I can’t see myself not writing about it. I can only write who I am.”

Contact reporter Michael Lyle at mlyle@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5201. Follow @mjlyle on Twitter.

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