The Classics as Teen Survival Guides

Artist unknown

Wednesday

Last week I wrote about the early chapters in Phuc Tran’s memoir Sigh, Gone: A Misfit’s Memoir of Great Books, Punk Rock, and the Fight to Fit In (2020). Landing in Carlyle, Pennsylvania after he fled Saigon with his parents, Tran would later find refuge in a “great books” list. Seeing literature initially as a ticket to acceptance and assimilation, he eventually discovered that literature gave him a framework for navigating his identity confusion.

In other words, literature did indeed provide him with a special key. Just not in the way he thought.

In his memoir, Tran uses different works to capture different moments of his experience. I wrote last week about how Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment helped him deal with family violence and Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter with the racism he encountered. Here are some of the other works he mentions:

Madame Bovary

Tran notes that, the first time her read Flaubert’s novel, “I knew immediately that she and I had shared a passion”:

In Flaubert’s novel, Emma Bovary yearns for a life that is beyond her grasp. Her desire for a grander existence burns from her love of romance novels, and her devouring of these bodice-rippers enflames in her an unyielding desire.

It doesn’t matter that her novels are trashy, Tran says, and he quotes Flaubert: “Emma tried to find out what one means exactly in life by the words bliss, passion, ecstasy, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.”

For Tran, comic books served this purpose:

But if literature moves you deeply, does it matter where it comes from? Does it matter that it’s trashy or lowbrow? Isn’t that emotional connection one of the purposes of art? To make you feel—really feel—emotions? To resonate with your life? And perhaps, in that connection, to introduce you to a world that lies beyond your own perspective, the utopia beyond your myopia.

Pygmalion

Shaw’s play hit home because Tran, in high school, felt that, like Eliza Doolittle, he was trying to pass himself off as someone he wasn’t. How else would he escape the racist bullying and fit in? This had some good effects in that he found a gang of boys that accepted this new self. But he also encountered Eliza’s crisis at the end of the play and describes what many immigrant children have experienced:

At the end of Pygmalion, Eliza laments that she cannot go back to her old life, to her old ways, and she cannot find a place in her new world, either. In the currents of fitting in, in the push and pull of Americana that was sweeping me and my brother away, I could no longer communicate deeply with my parents. I had begun to forget my Vietnamese, and that act of forgetting was my Vietnamese forfeiture for my future in America…. Sometimes, in annoyance, I chose to answer my mother in English, bypassing Vietnamese altogether. I didn’t bother to consider what was lost in the undertow of the flood.

I was in the waters of America, and gasping, dying. I chose to survive.

I held my breath and dove deeper.

The Metamorphosis

Kafka’s famous story about a man who wakes up one morning and discovers that he has metamorphosed into a giant roach captures, for Tran, his experience of being an alienated adolescent in a family that did not—could not—understand what he was going through:

You read The Metamorphosis and you realize: it’s his family’s ugliness toward Gregor that moves the story. Gregor is now a giant roach, and he cannot do anything about it. His family, instead of acting with compassion and kindness, sends Gregor to his room and locks the door.

What’s worse that turning into a giant bug? Turning into a giant bug and having your family act like a bunch of assholes.

Tran’s framing of the story makes one realize that it addresses adolescence in general, not just the experience of immigrant teens:

And isn’t that adolescence? A biological change over which we have no control? And then our family, like a bunch of assholes, treats us like an insect in the midst of a metamorphosis that we ourselves hardly understand. Suddenly, with a different focus, from the perspective of a bug, we see who they are.

The Importance of Being Ernest

Wilde’s play for Tran worked as a sequel to Pygmalion: one thinks one is faking an identity, only to discover that one really is that person. Or as Tran describes the ending,

In the course of lying about his name being Ernest, Jack finds out that his real name is Ernest at the play’s end….Truths and lies are the same.

After trying out alternative names, “Phuc” having an obvious drawback, Tran concludes,

Phuc. That was enough to be the sum of who I was and who I would be. And it would never be a lie. I just had to find the courage to be him and ask myself why I was afraid to be Phuc.

The Iliad

The final work Tran mentions is the Iliad. Having established himself, by this point, as a standout student in his English classes, he finds himself relating to Achilles–which is to say, the best warrior in the Greek army but put down by the Greeks’ insecure leader Agamemnon. As he finds himself explaining to the other students in class,

“Achilles’s conundrum is complicated because he is the best fighter on the Greek side but not the leader of the Greeks and then he’s shamed in front of the whole group. The MVP on the team but not the captain of the team….Achilles can’t figure it out—the system seems rigged. I mean, maybe it is all rigged.”

Fortunately—this is one thing that America does better than many countries—the system is not so rigged as to entrap Tran for ever in lower-class status. His academic success in his public high school earns him a substantial scholarship from a very good liberal arts college (Bard), and he goes on to major in classics and become a high school Latin teacher. He has also given a TED talk and, according to his bio, is a “highly-respected tattooer.”

As someone who used the great literature in a similar way in high school, although my challenges were nowhere near as great as Tran’s, I can say that he is no anomaly. Give teenagers substantive works and a number of them will rise to the occasion.

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