Like all memoirists, Ly Tran accesses her past through hazy and incomplete memories. The first chapter of her debut, House of Sticks, opens with Tran being treated for hypothermia in a New York City hospital because her family, recently arrived from Vietnam, has spent their first American winter in an unheated apartment. Three-year-old Tran and her brothers are chasing each other around the hospital room when “someone falls down and [cries], quite possibly me.” This scene, and the rest of Tran’s book, vividly depicts the challenges of her family’s immigration alongside her own developing American identity and independence.
With every story, Tran is transparent about what cannot be fully remembered. Her earliest memories are seen through a scrim of buoyant curiosity and delight, making the family’s in-home sweatshop labor feel like a game, and even softening their dire poverty and isolation. But there are other devastating reasons Tran struggles to see the past, one of them quite literal. Her eyesight begins to decline in third grade, a condition that her father dismisses. “No young person should be wearing glasses, and especially not my children,” he scoffs when she brings home a note from her school nurse. “Once you put on glasses, you’ll be blind forever.” In one of many episodes where her father loses himself to paranoia and rage, he beats and berates Tran for daring to ask for glasses. His eruptions, we learn, are rooted in his decade spent as a prisoner in a North Vietnamese reeducation camp. While conveying her father’s violence with visceral fear and confusion, Tran’s writing is also unfailingly tender toward him. What she wants most is to take away his trauma and its specter, which lives like an extra family member in their tiny Queens apartment.
Around the time she begins losing her eyesight, Tran also begins to dissociate, experiencing a split from herself that haunts the rest of her story. “I started making faces to see if I could find one that squared with who I thought I was, unable to shake the uneasy feeling that I was not the girl I saw in the mirror.” The girl in the mirror terrifies Tran with her unrecognizable face and shames her whenever Tran expresses a desire that doesn’t serve her family. Tran endures this interior split while navigating external ones that also threaten to divide her from her family: her eyesight continues to deteriorate, yet she must protect her parents from the school’s charges that refusing her glasses amounts to child neglect.
Not wanting to anger or betray her mother and father, Tran guards the secret of a sympathetic teacher who buys her glasses and later her eldest brother who, after leaving home, buys her contacts. She keeps many other secrets from her family—her in-school therapy appointments, sexual harassment from nail-salon customers, her psychic break and failing grades in college, falling in love at nineteen with an older man with a six-year-old son. Concealing so much of herself as she navigates her parents’ fear and her own desire to make her way in the world, comes at the price of her wholeness, which is already fractured and fragile. As she grows into adulthood, the split between Tran and the girl in the mirror grows sharper and more frightening than ever. “Was the whole of my existence summed up in the reflection that I couldn’t recognize as my own? Pressed so close against the glass, I could only see one part of myself at a time, and never the whole. The mirror wasn’t broken, but the result was the same.”