Vu Tran, assistant professor of practice in the arts in the Department of English Language and Literature and the Committee on Creative Writing, published his debut novel in August 2015. A noir hybrid of crime thriller and immigrant story, Dragonfish tells the story of police officer Robert, his ex-wife, Suzy, and her new husband, Sonny. The New York Times named it one of the year’s Notable Books and praised it for “its risk taking, for its collapsing of genre, for its elegant language and its mediation of a history that is integral to post-1960s American identity yet often ignored.” Tableau is pleased to include an excerpt of the book, which came out in paperback in August 2016.
Our first night at sea, you cried for your father. You buried your face in my lap and clenched a fist to your ear as if to shut out my voice. I reminded you that we had to leave home and he could not make the trip with us. He would catch up with us soon. But you kept shaking your head. I couldn’t tell if I was failing to comfort you or if you were already, at four years old, refusing to believe in lies. You turned away from me, so alone in your distress that I no longer wanted to console you. I had never been able to anyway. Only he could soothe you. But why was I, even now, not enough? Did you imagine that I too would die without him?
Eventually you drifted off to sleep along with everyone around us. People were lying side by side, draped across each other’s legs, sitting and leaning against what they could. In the next nine days, there would be thirst and hunger, sickness, death. But that first night we had at last made it out to sea, all ninety of us, and as our boat bobbed along the waves, everyone slept soundly.
I sat awake just beneath the gunwale with the sea spraying the crown of my head, and I listened to the boat’s engine sputtering us toward Malaysia and farther and farther away from home. It was the sound of us leaving everything behind.
The truth was that I too thought only of your father. On the morning we left, I held you in the darkness before dawn and lingered with him as others called for us in the doorway. He kissed your forehead as you slept on my shoulder. Then he looked at me, placed his hand briefly on my arm before passing it over his shaven head. I could see the sickness in his face. The uncertainty too, clouding his always calm demeanor. He had already said good-bye in his thoughts and did not know now how to say it again in person. I did not want to go, but he had forced me. For her, he said, and looked at you one last time. Then he pushed me out the door.
If you ever read this, you should know that everything I write is necessary to explain what I later did. You are a woman now, and you will understand that I write this not as your mother but as a woman too.
On that first night, as I watched your chest rise and fall with the sea, I wished you away. I prayed to God that I might fall asleep and that when I awoke you would be gone.
Excerpted from Dragonfish: A Novel by Vu Tran. Copyright © 2015 by Vu Tran. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.