Small Presses FTW: Immigrant Identity In Modern Literature


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.

"Meditations on the Mother Tongue ,"  An Tran ( C&R Press , 2017)

"Meditations on the Mother Tongue," An Tran (C&R Press, 2017)

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. 


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Danielle is an undergraduate at
George Mason University
working towards degrees in
English and African American studies.
She is currently knee deep in unfinished stories. 

Origins of an Indie Press

A few months ago we posted an article from LitHub about the origin stories of several independent presses.  In the spirit of new beginnings, we have decided to reflect back on how our humble indie press first got its start. Not surprisingly to most of you who know us, it all began over a small batch whiskey and a serious love of books.

Relegation Books, est. 2012 by Dallas Hudgens

Relegation Books, est. 2012 by Dallas Hudgens

In Jan. 2014, George Mason University MFA alum Dallas Hudgens visited Creative Writing Professor Stephen Goodwin’s graduate-level class to talk about his own launch into small press publishing. Hudgens, who founded Relegation Books in 2012 after becoming disenchanted with his own experience publishing with a larger house, said he he was inspired by what he saw during his visit. “After I spoke, I had the opportunity to watch as the students gave publishing presentations for the class. They were so well prepared and had done so much good research... Afterward, I thought it would be a good thing if the students had the opportunity to apply their knowledge and creativity to an actual press,” said Hudgens. He sat down with Goodwin and GMU’s MFA Program Director Bill Miller shortly thereafter to begin scheming on how they might offer students the opportunity to begin a small press of their own.

From there things progressed quite quickly. The first meetings with students took place in late Jan. 2014 and by March of that year, Stillhouse Press had begun to take form, centering on the idea of “craft publishing,” which Hudgens and Relegation Books’ publicist, Lauren Cerand came up with one evening over a few glasses of whiskey. “Lauren and I were talking about whiskey and craft distillers,” Hudgens said, “and she said that we were trying to do the same sort of thing with publishing. It’s not about the number of books that you publish, but taking on projects that are important to you and doing the best possible job every step along the way and also being open to new ways of doing things.”

The idea of working hand-in-hand with authors to deliver a more personal publishing experience was one which attracted the attention of Stillhouse’s founding editors, Marcos L. Martinez and Meghan McNamara. “We really latched onto this idea that being small was actually a very good thing, because it meant we could create a more intimate publishing experience with our authors. It’s their art, and they should have a say in how it is presented to the world,” McNamara said.

It was only a matter of months before Stillhouse had selected its first book, the short story collection Helen on 86th Street and Other Stories (Oct. 2014) by the late Wendi Kaufman. Kaufman was terminally ill with late stage cancer when the book was contracted, therefore time was of the essence. GMU Professor Scott W. Berg, who had been a close friend of Kaufman’s and now serves as the editorial advisor for Stillhouse, worked as the managing editor, helping to move the book through publication in just under three months. “It was a very fast process, and the students involved, especially Marcos and Meghan, worked very hard and did a great job,” said Hudgens.

The staff would go on to spend much of 2015 fielding submissions, putting together the annual Mary Roberts Rinehart Contest, and contracting nearly a dozen new books. In just less than two years, Stillhouse is on the heels of publishing its second book, POP! (forthcoming March 2016 from debut author Mark Polanzak), with four titles close behind it, including Stillhouse’s first foray into poetry. Hudgens said he’s pleased with the direction Stillhouse Press is heading and sees the press as both an asset to students, as well an inspiration for his own work with Relegation. “I hoped it would give students practical experience in the world of publishing, whether that eventually led to a job with a publisher or simply knowledge that would help them when their own books were published… As time goes on, I'm sure that I will learn more from their approach and experiences than they have learned from Relegation.”

Of course, as with all things fluid, running a student press is not without its challenges. “Continuity is important as new students come aboard and others leave,” said Hudgens. “Also, maintaining a clear vision and quality in production and publicity. But I know that everyone involved recognizes those and other challenges and will be prepared for them.”

So pour out a few fingers of moonshine and raise your glasses, folks! It’s time to usher in the new year and all of the exciting things that Stillhouse Press has planned.