Before taking a position at the University of Chicago in 2010, novelist Vu Tran spent eight years in Las Vegas, where he earned his Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute. During that time, he was asked by Vegas Seven contributor Jarret Keene to write a story about Chinatown for his story anthology, Las Vegas Noir. The story Tran gave Keene, “This or Any Desert,” would stick with the author—after he moved away from Vegas, it blossomed into Tran’s debut novel, the recently released Dragonfish.
A literary crime novel, Dragonfish (W.N. Norton & Company, $27) tells the story of Robert, a worn-out white Oakland cop who’s still in love with his Vietnamese ex-wife, Suzy. She, in turn, has moved to Las Vegas and remarried Sonny, a violent crime boss. When Suzy goes missing, Sonny blackmails Robert to help him find her. The secrets Robert unearths in the course of the search reach several decades back, to the fall of Saigon and a refugee camp in Malaysia.
Recently Tran shared his own refugee story with Seven, while expounding upon his writing process and his great love for Las Vegas.
You’re primarily a literary writer. Was it difficult to adapt to conventional crime writing?
It was difficult in the sense that I had never written such a plot-driven narrative. I really enjoyed creating a heightened storyline that forced the characters to react. The key for me was to make them behave as convincingly and as compellingly as possible in the world I had created.
After a while, that was really the only thing I was concerned with. When I turned the short story into what is now Dragonfish, I found that the genre boundaries kind of slipped away.
Dragonfish became a hybrid of sorts, wherein Suzy’s refugee backstory, told in literary form, interweaves with the crime narrative. Did it concern you that readers might object to this?
I was aware that there are literary aspects to the novel that a reader who reads only a certain kind of crime novel might be impatient with, and that certain literary writers wouldn’t like some of the crime conventions, but I never felt like I was borrowing from an inferior genre to make something superior. And this background story complicated the crime narrative, creating conflict and depth.
How much of Suzy’s refugee story mirrors your own?
Like Suzy, I escaped Vietnam on a small boat—90 people in a boat that was meant for, like, only 20. And I also escaped with my mom. We were on the boat for seven days, just like Suzy, and we arrived in Malaysia and settled for four months in Pulau Bidong, the refugee island. All of that I experienced. Everything else is basically imagined.
Robert narrates the main crime story. How difficult was it for you to rediscover the Vietnamese culture through his Anglo-Saxon eyes?
I’ve been here since I was 5. All of my memories are in America, actually. In many ways, the Vietnamese culture and the Vietnamese people are as much of a mystery to me as they would be to a non-Vietnamese person. So I just brought that kind of lack of knowledge to Robert’s character. I share with him a curiosity for the Vietnamese culture and a sense of outsider-ship that was a motivating engine for a lot of his behavior. And, frankly, a lot of my behavior.
Poker plays an instrumental role in the book. Do you play?
I ended up playing a lot of poker when I lived in Vegas. I found the world and the people very fascinating. With every hand you’re telling a story. It’s either a truthful story or a false story. To play your opponent, you have to tell that story convincingly. It’s about having control. A lot of poker players are control freaks, and it’s ironic that you’re playing a game of chance to gain control.
Once you left Las Vegas, were you tempted to change the story’s setting?
A noir novel is all about shadows and vagaries and things that are hidden, in the same way that the immigrant narrative is often one of ambiguity and uncertainty. The idea that you’re an alien in an alien country often has you withholding things, especially stories or secrets. The immigrant narrative, the noir narrative and Las Vegas all felt like it fit for me. It would not have fit as well in any other city.
What challenges did you confront in setting the story here?
Almost every American has an idea of Vegas, whether they’ve been to Vegas or not. And, of course, it’s been portrayed in a very specific way in pop culture. You can’t dispense entirely with these ideas because many of them are true, but at the same time you don’t want to be cliché. And you definitely don’t want to be reductive about a city. Vegas is so much more than what most Americans see.
How much do you miss Las Vegas?
Tremendously. Even though a lot of my friends have left, it still feels like home to me. I’ll be reading at the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV on September 3. In my entire schedule, that is the one event that I have an emotional anticipation for, because it does feel like home.
Vu Tran will read at UNLV as part of Black Mountain Institute’s Alumni Reading Series at 7 p.m. on Sept.3. Click here for more information.
(Quotes from Dragonfish)
“The sun had barely risen, but it was already a hundred degrees outside. Not even a wisp of a cloud.”
“I walked down Spring Mountain Road and quickly regretted not taking my car. Vegas, beyond the Strip, is not a place for pedestrians, especially in summer … the Vegas Chinatown was nothing more than a bloated strip mall—three or four blocks of it painted red and yellow and then pagodified, a theme park like the rest of the city.”
“A casino, I’d always thought, was a carousel of hope and hopelessness.”
“Around me, the air felt artificial here too. No windows or clocks. No sense of progression outside of what you gain and what you lose.”
“I wandered through the throng of afternoon gamblers, bunched over table games amid a cigarette haze, the air alive with their chatter and the melodic chatter of slot machines. Nearly every dealer I passed was Chinese, Filipino, Vietnamese…. I wondered how many of them had actually come from somewhere far away, and how many were right at home.”