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House of Sticks

A Memoir

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An intimate, beautifully written coming-of-age memoir recounting a young girls journey from war-torn Vietnam to Ridgewood, Queens, and her struggle to find her voice amid clashing cultural expectations.

Ly Tran is just a toddler in 1993 when she and her family immigrate from a small town along the Mekong river in Vietnam to a two-bedroom railroad apartment in Queens. Ly’s father, a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army, spent nearly a decade as a POW, and their resettlement is made possible through a humanitarian program run by the US government. Soon after they arrive, Ly joins her parents and three older brothers sewing ties and cummerbunds piece-meal on their living room floor to make ends meet.

As they navigate this new landscape, Ly finds herself torn between two worlds. She knows she must honor her parents’ Buddhist faith and contribute to the family livelihood, working long hours at home and eventually as a manicurist alongside her mother at a nail salon in Brownsville, Brooklyn, that her parents take over. But at school, Ly feels the mounting pressure to blend in.

A growing inability to see the blackboard presents new challenges, especially when her father forbids her from getting glasses, calling her diagnosis of poor vision a government conspiracy. His frightening temper and paranoia leave an indelible mark on Ly’s sense of self. Who is she outside of everything her family expects of her?

Told in a spare, evocative voice that, with flashes of humor, weaves together her family’s immigration experience with her own fraught and courageous coming of age, House of Sticks is a timely and powerful portrait of one girl’s struggle to reckon with her heritage and forge her own path.

This reading group guide for HOUSE OF STICKS includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.

Introduction

Ly Tran is just a toddler in 1993 when she and her family emigrate from a small town along the Mekong River in Vietnam to a two-bedroom railroad apartment in Queens. Ly’s father, a former lieutenant in the South Vietnamese army, spent nearly a decade as a POW, and their resettlement is made possible through a humanitarian program run by the US government. Soon after they arrive, Ly joins her parents and three older brothers in sewing ties and cummerbunds piecemeal on their living room floor to make ends meet.

As they navigate this new landscape, Ly finds herself torn between two worlds. She knows she must honor her parents’ Buddhist faith and contribute to the family livelihood, working long hours at home and then later as a manicurist alongside her mother at a nail salon in Brownsville, Brooklyn, which her parents eventually take over. But at school, Ly feels the mounting pressure to blend in.

A growing inability to see the blackboard presents new challenges, especially when her father forbids her from getting glasses, calling her diagnosis of poor vision a government conspiracy. His frightening temper and paranoia leave an indelible mark on Ly’s sense of self. Who is she outside of everything her family expects of her?

Told in a spare, evocative voice that, with flashes of humor, weaves together her family’s immigration experience with her own fraught and courageous coming-of-age, House of Sticks is a timely and powerful portrait of one girl’s struggle to reckon with her heritage and forge her own path.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Consider the Vietnamese proverb at the beginning of the book and compare it to the dedication. How does this help you understand Ly’s family dynamics as you read?

2. There are several chapters where water or oceans are featured, such as “Water and Angels,” “In the Swim,” and the final chapter, “Almost There.” What role do oceans and water play throughout the book on a metaphoric and literal level?

3. Ly’s parents tend to rely on Buddhism in their struggles and instruct Ly to pray when she faces difficulty. In what ways does Buddhism influence Ly throughout her life? How does her relationship to it change?

4. At one point early in Ly’s childhood, her mother takes on a nanny job for a Vietnamese couple with a one-year-old boy named Cuong. Ly and her brothers then see “how the other half lives”—very different from their own existence. What does this chapter add to the story?

5. What is the difference between the way Ly’s older brother Thinh deals with conflict with their father versus the way Ly deals with conflict? Why do you think this is?

6. Growing up, Ly struggles to understand relationships and sexuality. Initially, her mother tells her not to think about it, and Ly, as a young girl, says she will never get married. As she matures, she experiences sexual harassment, which further rattles her understanding of attraction. Can you describe Ly’s journey of understanding in regards to sex and sexuality?

7. Throughout the book, Ly’s mother seems to be a quietly stable character, supporting both her husband and children. The one moment she has an outburst is when she laughs bitterly when Ly’s father yells at them for calling the police on a customer who left without paying. What do you make of Ly’s mother as an individual? What do you think about the relationship between her and Ly?

8. In the chapter “Betrayed by Our Tongues,” Ly references the American dream after facing racism and harassment. She wants to promise her family will achieve it but is disheartened. Yet, in what ways is this experience, the immigrant experience, a quintessentially American story?

9. In the chapter “A Lazy, No-Good Daughter,” Ly’s teacher Ms. Walsh calls the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) to report Ly’s parents for child neglect since her father refuses to allow Ly to get glasses. This triggers Ly’s father’s PTSD, widens the rift between her and her parents, and worsens her own mental health. Still, Ms. Walsh says, “If I had to do it again, I would.” Discuss the source of the conflict here and if there could have been a better outcome. What would you have done in Ms. Walsh’s position? In Ly’s?

10. Though Ly is initially excited about going to college and finding new experiences, her mental health starts to decline because of her feelings of guilt for leaving her parents behind. Why do you think Ly struggles in particular with these feelings?

11. Think about the relationship between Ly and her brothers. Oftentimes when she cannot go to her parents, her brothers step in financially. At the same time, there is a certain distance between Ly and her brothers as they grow older. Why do you think their relationships fell into that pattern?

12. Ly experiences a second traumatic event at the hands of a well-meaning authority figure when she is taken to a psychiatric hospital without notice or explanation. There, she meets several people she makes a connection with, but is rattled all the while. Discuss Ly’s experiences and if anything surprised you. How might mental health patients be better served?

13. After Ly is dismissed from the Honors College, she meets Joseph and begins a romantic relationship with him, the first we’ve seen her experience. In what ways is Joseph a grounding and supportive figure for Ly? What does their relationship add to her life that she has not previously experienced?

14. Though Ly’s journey in education has its challenges, her efforts culminate in getting accepted to Columbia. She makes it clear she approaches her education there differently, prioritizing self-care over perfect grades. What can we, as individuals and as a society, learn from her experiences?

15. The defining conflict between Ly and her father is over her struggling eyesight. She must often resort to outside help and hide it from her father. However, in the end, her father offers to pay for LASIK surgery. Discuss this moment and what may have contributed to her father’s reaching this point of understanding. What does this do for your understanding of her father as a complex individual?

16. There are many voices featured in this memoir: Ly’s voice, her mother’s voice, and her father’s voice in particular. As Ly comes to understand her journey, she also moves from a position of voicelessness, where she struggles to articulate her experiences, to a place where she can speak freely about the events of her life. Which of the voices in House of Sticks resonated with you the most? Can you think of a turning point for Ly in being able to speak or write about her journey?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. There are several monuments around the world and within the United States commemorating the perilous journey and the people who died escaping Vietnam. Do your own research and try to find one near you, if possible. Interesting fact: There is one in Des Moines, Iowa!

2. Try taking a practice nail tech and/or manicurist exam online. You can find one for your state or a general practice exam. For example, you can try the New York Nail Technician state board exam here: https://cosmetologypracticetest.guru/new-york-nail-technician-license/.

3. For more information about Ly Tran, visit https://www.lytran.me/.
Photograph by Joseph Vidal

Ly Tran graduated from Columbia University in 2014 with a degree in Creative Writing and Linguistics. She has received fellowships from MacDowell, Art Omi, and Yaddo. House of Sticks is her first book.

"[An] unsentimental yet deeply moving examination of filial bond, displacement, war trauma, and poverty. Ostensibly an immigrant success story, Tran's narrative power lies in its nuanced celebration of filial devotion that withstands the enormous cost of the American dream ... The dilapidated nail salon in a racially volatile Brooklyn neighborhood that Tran's parents came to own after the end of their sweatshop era — with its filing sticks as tools of the trade — witnessed their stark tribulations as well as the wondrous resilience of their immigrant selves. In the end, Tran's empathy and her parents' appreciation of her filial love cemented the emotional bricks that steady their seemingly tenuous hold on this unaccustomed earth."
NPR

House of Sticks is a book that will assault and warm your heart at the same time—a classic immigrant tale, told from the perspective of a Vietnamese child who settled with her family in New York City in the early ‘90s with little to no knowledge about life in America… But it is also much more: a coming of age story, A New York hustle, a battle with a father who not only maintains an ironclad sense of filial duty, but also, fueled by his paranoia, exercises irrational control over things like vision correction. (In another elegant examination of absence, the book recounts what a fundamental challenge it is to move through the world without basic ability to see.)”
Vogue, Best Books to Read 2021

"A moving recount of how Tran and her family immigrated from a small town in Vietnam to a two-bedroom railroad apartment in Queens, and how she forged her path in a new culture."
Marie Claire, 20 New Books by Asian Authors to Get Excited About

"Tran found herself pulled in myriad directions by her desires: to please her family, to fit in with her friends, to chart her own course, to belong. She tells her own coming-of-age story in House of Sticks."
Bustle, 44 New Must-Read Books Out This June

“In this moving debut memoir, Ly Tran recounts emigrating from Vietnam to the United States with her family in the early 1990s. It’s in New York City that she comes into her own, at once attempting to fit into this new world as well as honor deep traditions, the need to contribute to the family and her father’s resistance to new ways.”
Ms. Magazine

“A special memoir in which, though circumstances are difficult, love wins out…beautiful and inspirational.”
Fredricksburg Free-Lance Star

"In this coming-of-age memoir, author Ly Tran recounts how her family immigrated from Vietnam to Queens when she was a child, along with their troubles trying to make ends meet."
—NBCNews.com,10 Best Beach Reads for Summer

“[Tran’s] deeply compelling memoir tells the story of growing up torn between two worlds: that of her hardworking Buddhist parents with sky-high expectations and the one she wants to discover for herself in America.”
—HelloGiggles, 10 Best New Books to Add to Your June Reading List

In her phenomenal debut, House of Sticks: A Memoir, Ly Tran mines both trauma and love from her coming of age as a young Vietnamese immigrant to the United States … Her vivid, unadorned narration yields a painful but powerful exploration of the struggle to find a sense of self within a family at the cross-section of cultures, and Tran's story is impossible to forget.”
Shelf Awareness

"[An] emotional experience in the form of beautifully heartbreaking prose."
Off the Shelf

"Tracing the paths of immigration and poverty, Tran’s moving and exceptionally readable memoir is at once heartbreaking, shocking, and hopeful ... Tran is exceptional at telling her story with honesty and without judgment. Readers who loved Tara Westover's Educated (2018) will find a similarly compelling memoir of resilience in a not-often-seen America."
Booklist, starred review

“At the heart of Tran’s story as a Vietnamese refugee, a young woman, a daughter, a sister, and much more, lie the intimately drawn portraits of the people whom she loves despite their imperfections and the people who love her—despite hers. House of Sticks is a vibrant reminder of the ferocious courage it takes to love and to be loved, and how that courage is the first step toward finding your place in the world.”
—Phuc Tran, author of Sigh, Gone

"On the landscape of nail salons and her family’s sweat shop, Ly Tran paints the songs of her courage, dreams, and her fight for sanity and humanity. This is the story of a magnificent lotus who rises up from a pond of mud – the mud of poverty, racism, inherited trauma, depression – with the power and radiance of her storytelling. This is a book that demands us to look beyond just the name of each and every war refugee. This is a book that gives us light.”
— Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, PhD, bestselling author of The Mountains Sing

"I guarantee that you will never see the nail salon technician in the same way after reading Ly Tran’s memoir. House of Sticks is a powerful report from the trenches of the immigrant experience and what it really means to become an American. It’s Tran’s story, but it’s also the story of this country—and in this day and age we would do well not to forget that."
—Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, author of When Skateboards Will be Free and Brief Encounters With the Enemy

"Like Tara Westover's memoir, Educated, this book is a record of resilience. A story about finding a place in America and about finding a voice, Ly Tran's House of Sticks is destined to join the canon of refugee literature."
—Amitava Kumar, author of Immigrant, Montana

"In this remarkable memoir, Ly Tran tracks trauma and resilience with deep generosity for all the people in her life. Her prose is spare and unflinching, but the story she tells is layered and rich. This is an America we all need to know."
—Cris Beam, author of To The End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care

"With the trenchancy of a social novel, Ly Tran’s House of Sticks tracks the cost of arriving and surviving in America. Hours of labor. Rent, food, square footage. Growing up between worlds that increasingly diverge, she explores with striking honesty and tenderness the family ledger, where the burden of payment and repayment is constantly being calculated, and where love is recorded as both debt and wealth. A completely unprecedented book."
—Heidi Julavits, author of The Vanishers

“Ly Tran’s struggles to locate and nurture her essential self as a Vietnamese immigrant, a woman, an American, and a young writer offer an essential window into hitherto unseen lives. Spare, devastating, and redemptive, this book will open your eyes and heart.”
—Julie Metz, author of Perfection and Eva and Eve

“The soaring blue tarp of a vast tent in a Thai refugee camp is Ly Tran’s first memory. Age 3, she travels from a nhà lá in verdant Vietnam to an unheated railroad flat in snowy Queens with her parents and brothers. Ly’s inspiring memoir unforgettably expresses the internal cost of the immigrant success story, particularly for those ambitious, gifted daughters whose triumphs are so hard-won. House Of Sticks, a gem to “be the light” on every bookshelf, should be required reading for Americans anywhere.”
—Jayne Anne Phillips, author of Lark & Termite, Machine Dreams, and Black Tickets