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Writers on Campus: UMass Lowell welcomes Phuc Tran

(Photo courtesy of: Maine Magazine) “Phuc Tran will visit UMass Lowell this week to discuss his varied career.”

Kimberly Mai
Connector Editor

Phuc Tran is widely known for his memoir, “Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In”, being a Latin teacher for over 20 years, a writer for HBO and a sought-after tattoo artist in New England. “Sigh, Gone” received the 2020 New England Book Award for Nonfiction and the 2021 Maine Literary Award for Memoir.

“I didn’t really have clear aspirations to be a writer,” said Tran about the beginnings of “Sigh, Gone”. In 2012, Tran gave a TEDx talk in Maine and said that it was the first time he ever publicly talked about his Vietnamese refugee background and his upbringing in a small town in Pennsylvania during the 70s and 80s.

When he received a positive reception for his TEDx talk, Tran gained an interest in live storytelling, performing around Portland, Maine, in the style “like The Moth Radio Hour.” Tran said that once or twice a year (from 2012 to 2016), he “would write a 7-minute true story about [his] life” and would read those stories on stage, often gaining a positive reception. “That was sort of when the seed was planted in my brain,” said Tran, who considered saving writing those stories for when he was “retired, or … when [he’s] 80 years old and [has] nothing else to do.”

In 2016, Tran was approached by a literary agent in New York who had seen his TEDx talk and asked Tran if he was interested in writing a memoir. Seeing it as an “incredible opportunity that doesn’t fall into people’s laps all the time,” Tran took on the offer and started writing his memoir that year. “I sort of just fell into writing the memoir by accident,” said Tran, by “saying ‘yes’ to opportunities.”

Tran had always been an avid reader before writing “Sigh, Gone” and had read plenty other memoirs. When the people around him knew that he was writing a memoir, Tran had received many memoir recommendations, but had saved them to be read after he was done writing. “I didn’t want to have those books influence how I wrote my book,” said Tran. He also mentioned that he “plowed through” the stacks of memoirs once he did finish writing “Sigh, Gone”.

Tran says that he “appreciates the limitations” that the memoir has, as he’s currently working on a fiction piece, which “feels more daunting to write.” He likes that memoir is like “literary cosplay” in trying to recreate a true experience for the readers. However, Tran says that he’s not a “serial memoirist” like Joan Didion and that he hasn’t “lived the life that deserves one more memoir.” For those who do write more than one memoir, Tran said, “I think that’s a function of the publishing industry more than it is sort of, like, people’s proclivities.”

The advice he gave to aspiring memoirists was that of “many, many great writers before [him].” Tran says, “‘[You] want to write the book that you want to read’ … I believe Toni Morrison said that…[That] is great advice because it forces you to sort of write in a way that is authentic and true to you instead of trying on different personas”

In his experience as a writer, Tran says that his background in live storytelling “forced [him] to be economical in [his] storytelling.”

“[As] a live story-teller,” said Tran, “you’re trying to craft a 7-minute story that’s really going to grab the audience very quickly and take them on this … sort of rollercoaster journey in seven minutes that has a beginning, a middle and an end, and, at the end, the bars come up and [the audience is] like, ‘Whew! That was a ride.’”

When it comes to “Sigh, Gone”, Tran says that he structured the book in chapters that focus on a “lens book,” where each chapter has a focus on “great literary works from the Western canon that had … a profound impact on [him] as a young person.” The idea stemmed from the first thing Tran wrote for his agent, which was a short essay that turned into the prologue for the book. He used Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” as a lens through which Tran talked about his relationship with another Vietnamese kid he knew when he was younger.

He says that his lens books were what hooked his agent and Flatiron Books. Tran said, “I think … at least in the publishing world, they’re always sort of looking at your memoir and thinking, ‘Okay, it’s a memoir but … on what other level is [your story] functioning?’”

He goes on to say his structure for “Sigh, Gone” was like a “lowkey love letter to books” but hopes that readers would think about “what [it] means to be in love with the Western literary canon … a.k.a. … dead white [male] writers and to sort of wrangle with that … because it’s complicated, and I hope that readers can walk away with some sense of that complexity.”

As aforementioned, Tran is currently working on a fiction piece, but he will be coming out with a children’s picture book trilogy starting on Feb. 6, 2024, with “Cranky,” illustrated by Pete Oswald. “I’m not writing for tenure,” said Tran. “I’m not writing for a paycheck … I’m writing for the love and the challenge of it at this point.”

“I like to joke that it makes me the most dangerous person to be writing a book, because… I have zero [expletive] to give about writing the book,” said Tran, feeling excited about his writing. Although he jokes that his literary agent would like him to write more, Tran says that there are “no external pressures” for him to write, so it’s only his own “desire … for [the] challenge … and the pleasure of writing ” that motivates him.

Tran will be featured in the Writers on Campus event on Tuesday, Nov. 7, at 5:30 p.m. in O’Leary Library, room 222. The UMass Lowell English Department sponsors this free event and it will be open to the public. He will be reading an excerpt from “Sigh, Gone” and will talk more about his craft.

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