Sigh Gone: book review. Phuc Tran’s new memoir is a perfect addition to your secondary classroom. Read on for classroom use ideas, student recommendations, and potential discussion areas.
Spoilers! Phuc Tran came to America in the 1970s as a refugee. His method of fitting into a small high school was to loudly proclaim his differences through actions, appearance, and friends. Instead of putting his head down and excelling at school (which he sorta did anyway), Tran joined a skateboarding group, wore band t-shirts, and did semi-illegal things.
The memoir winds from his family’s escape from Saigon through awkward elementary and middle school years to Tran as a teenager. Each chapter is arranged around a book, play, or story that holds meaning to the author. He worked at a library and identified with the stories he purchased for mere cents. As you read the memoir, you’ll be rehashing your college reading assignments to analyze his motives.
Readers who felt like outsiders will relate to his awkward lunch containers (reused McDonalds packaging), to his attempt at a name change and subsequent ignorance of phallic nicknames, and to low family finances.
Today, Tran is a teacher, writer, and tattooist.
I am adding this book to my memoir literature circles for seniors. I lack a refugee’s story for that unit, and I’m excited to add a new perspective for my seniors. The story is interesting, and students will enjoy seeing a human side of teachers.
Tran graduated high school in the 1990s, and my students think that time period is “retro.” They wear t-shirts today that hearken back to Tran’s teenage years, and they ask me questions like, “Did you wear a plaid shirt and flowered skirt to school*?” The time period is far enough away from today’s students that they will find the dated instances and culture intriguing. Tran shares tapes with his friends, and an appropriate classroom activity will be looking at the music’s lyrics, studying the artists, and applying information to the story.
Teachers, especially language teachers, will enjoy this story. Tran is about four years older than I am, and I identified with his recollections of fashion, bands, and culture. He is a teacher, and I immediately related to the stories he assigned to chapters. It’s hard not to like a guy who finds symbolism from “The Metamorphosis” in his own life.
Then, through his intro I learned that he had delivered a “nerdy” TEDx Talk. (Me, searching for his Ted Talk: please let it be grammar, please let it be grammar. Yes.)
I probably will not recommend this book to freshmen and sophomores, and Phan has forbidden his own children to read the book until they are sixteen. This book could work for mature juniors. Seniors can handle the topics maturely and have enough retrospection to not be offended by an adult’s recollections of his childhood. The first word of the book is the F-word, but the author doesn’t heavily rely on cussing to prove his points.
Tran’s first sexual experience is detailed, and when I teach this book, students and I will discuss the necessity of including it. (It’s a memoir primarily focused on teenage years, so I understand the authenticity of including this segment.) Still, that is my immediate idea for addressing that section with students.
One of Tran’s elementary teachers spoke with his parents after a severe incident of child abuse. That description might be triggering for some students, and teachers should prepare students.
Finally, the author is a refugee, and he faced racism in his small Pennsylvania town. He honestly discusses assimilation and his struggles to pinpoint slights. “A Raisin in the Sun” is already in my curriculum with my seniors, and I see an essential question forming between Sigh Gone and that play. In his chapter “The Importance of Being Earnest,” he hones in on racism, and pairing that chapter with a video or narrative would inspire discussions with students.
Overall, older students and teachers will enjoy Sigh, Gone. This book would also be appropriate for incoming college freshmen or students who enjoy tough books like Native Son.
*Indeed, I did wear a skirt, plaid shirt, and work boots during high school.