House of Sticks by Ly Tran

House of Sticks by Ly Tran

“We arrive in the blizzard of 1993, coming from rice paddies, mango trees, and the sun to February in the Empire State.”

That’s how Ly Tran’s transportative and heartbreaking memoir “House of Sticks” starts off. Tran traces her childhood from the age of 3 when she comes to the US as part of a resettlement program. Tran and her 3 older brothers and her parents live in a little apartment and try to build a life. Their father finds a job sewing cummerbunds and the entire family gets involved in the painstaking work. The more they deliver, the more money they get. Later on down the road, her mother opens a nail salon where Tran works during holidays and in the evenings. She starts off as the translator for her mother but soon becomes an apprentice, as well. Eventually, Tran enrolls in college, overcoming challenges that she never foresaw. But there were more to come. 

Tran’s memoir is deeply emotional. Many of her traumatic experiences are a result of behavioural issues stemming from her father’s PTSD due to years spent in prison in Vietnam. And then, there’s racial discrimination she encounters quite frequently – when people mock her mother’s English, when people tell Tran that her ‘English is so good’.

By the time Tran reaches college, her past is a minefield of shame, guilt, masking, anxiety, and, finally, deep depression. Through the kindness of strangers, people who saw her potential, and friends who did not give up on her, Tran manages to rise through the very darkest depths and find light. 

Tran excels at introspection, consistently telling us how it feels to navigate belonging and finding an identity in America. At its core, “House of Sticks” is a profound meditation on otherness and the malleable, ever-evolving nature of identity shaped by displacement. Tran explores this with incredible nuance, whether describing her father’s refusal to accept her need for glasses, or her hesitation to correct the million little microaggressions she encounters like mispronunciations of her name out of a need to prioritize others’ comfort. 

I also loved the simple, conversation writing which evokes the struggles and small victories that defined her family’s early years. 

Such an elegiac read. I couldn’t put it down.

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