By Danielle Maddox
Diversity is something I crave when reading, which is why I often turn to small presses—a hotbed for up and coming new authors—when scouting for new books. Recently, I found "Meditations on the Mother Tongue" (C&R Press, 2017) by An Tran, a competitive powerlifter and strength & conditioning coach based in Washington, DC. Tran’s debut collection of short stories relate culture and identity, with each story building upon the last to create one grand narrative about the immigrant identity.
In the title story of the collection, the main character, Bao uses the language and history of his Vietnamese heritage and his love for Parkour—an increasingly popular adventure sport, which has its origins in Vietnam—to connect with his dying mother. Using the Vietnamese he has learned, Bao shows his mother video clips of people skillfully traversing different terrains as “she lies on the couch, the television on, and he kneels on the ground like a knight, holding his laptop atop one knee.”
Though not conventionally Vietnamese, through Parkour Bao has found a way, despite his limited grasp of the Vietnamese culture, to connect with his mother in the final days of her life. In this scene, his mother lovingly corrects his pronunciation, as Bao finds a way to communicate his need to be closer to the cultural identity he and his mother share. The story ends with Bao and his mother in a hospital. As he steps into the room to greet her, he performs a veneration ritual to signify he is ready for her to leave, telling her: “Your child is right here” in Vietnamese, suggesting that both of their journeys are complete.
Though not a long book, "Meditations on the Mother Tongue" does make for a complex read. While the stories are grounded in reality, there are also moments that feel mystical or fantastic. Another story in the collection, “The Dharma’s Hand,” follows two brothers, Phong and Thanh, as they hike and camp in the Vietnamese mountains with their conjurer father, who has agreed to be their guide, per their mother’s request. Their mother is concerned about a curse that has been placed on Vietnamese American men who travel to Vietnam.
The story oscillates between the camping trip and Thanh’s failing marriage back home in the States. In his quest to try and achieve “the traditional American family,” Thanh has unwittingly created a rift between himself and his wife, distancing his current identity from the Vietnamese culture he grew up with. This clash comes to a head in the midst of the trip, when Thanh becomes sick from touching a poisonous flower, causing his entire body to become wracked with pain. To heal him, Thanh’s father cuts lines into his skin, asking him, “How long ago were you poisoned?” He places a firm hand on his son’s stomach and Thanh focuses on the sensations flowing through his body, feeling “[his] father’s magic flowing into [him] and out of [him].” It’s an epiphanic moment for Thanh, who finally answers, “I was always poisoned,” accepting his fate—whatever that might be—while also admitting the life he has created in America is not his own.
Tran’s ability to write familial relationships from the perspective of the second generation is a compelling glimpse into the dual identity of immigrant identity and it’s moments like these that harken back to the central thesis of the book: that we can always find ourselves in our culture, language, and loved ones. Each character in Tran’s collection is on a unique journey, guiding the reader through their struggles to find the thing that keeps them tethered to their heritage and to their own personal truths.