Graduate Student Spotlight: Ann Tran

We’re excited to launch our new Graduate Student Spotlight series, featuring members of the APARRI graduate student community! To start off, we’re spotlighting Ann Tran, who recently received her PhD in Comparative Literature from UC Irvine and is now an Assistant Professor at Cal State University, Long Beach. Check out our interview with Ann below!

1) Tell us a bit about your research interests. How do the study of Asians and Asian Americans and the study of religion intersect in your work?

My research lies at the intersection of Asian and Asian American Studies, critical refugee studies, religious studies and archival studies. I had initially began my graduate studies in 2017 in the Comparative Literature PhD program at the University of California, Irvine with the drive to document my mother’s story as a Vietnamese refugee. Ling Thuy Legg was a single mother of three and knew only of one life, a life in constant search for refuge. I began an oral history interview with her to capture her story of having lived through the horrendous aftermath of the American War in Việt Nam, of over a decade of being separated from her mother after the Fall of Sài Gòn, of constant financial instability as a nail salon worker since her arrival to the US, and of over twelve years of domestic violence during her short time here. Though I lived through and witnessed the latter two, the only way I learned about my mother’s life in post-war Việt Nam was through the ghost stories she would tell me as a child – her horrendous accounts of spiritual possessions that reflected the haunting terrors of the war caused by US intervention and the enduring effects it had on the land and the Vietnamese people. While she was a bystander to literal hauntings, her postmemories of them haunted me. Her ability to see the many lost spirits of war was a gift, or curse, passed down from her grandfather who would tell her ghost stories, as she later did for me. These, what I refer to as ancestral epistemologies, undergirded my work, on haunting and intergenerational memories of war and trauma, well before her passing – until she, too, became my ancestor.

2) What drew you to study religion in the first place?

I have been brought to this work through the lived realities of Vietnamese refugee women, of witnessing my mother’s life of continuous struggle and precarity, and her untimely, unexpected death in 2021 at the mere age of 49. Though I began an oral history interview with her during my graduate studies, we never got to finish it before she passed away from respiratory complications exacerbated by COVID-19 and 15 years of daily exposure to toxic chemicals as a nail technician. In my fifth year of graduate studies, when I was left with an incomplete oral history archive and fragments of my mother’s life through her ghost stories and my own memories of her, I ventured into the study of religion and spirituality in order to piece together my mother’s life story. The concepts of haunting, ancestral spirits, and afterlives, all became less abstract upon her death. My research is now centered on the second-generation labor of comprehending the impossible realities that Vietnamese refugee women endure in the fragmented work of intergenerational healing — a labor not exclusive to those of us who have lost their mothers at a young age. Having been raised by familial ghost stories, and having seen how ancestral worship of lost spirits as well as the souls of our own family members, I learned that religion and spiritual praxis was often the only way refuge became possible for our people. I found no other place to make sense of the unfathomable life of my mother than in trying to understand the ancestral metaphysical realm of Vietnamese folk religion.

3) How have you grown – whether intellectually or personally – throughout your time in graduate school? What have been your most important takeaways from your experience?

In my fifth year of graduate study, when life threw me into the depths of grief, I learned the difficult truth of the limitations of refugee archives – that oral history interviews can be complicated not only by inaccessibility by death, but in secret-keeping, fear, hesitancy, and other omissions entrenched in traumatic experiences of war, brutality, violence and precarity. When I went back and read through the few interview questions I did get a chance to ask my mother, I realized that her answers were shrouded in pauses, elipses, and silences – it would have always been incomplete even if we did finish the interview. Her responses glossed over the conflict and complexity that I had personal bore witness to as her daughter. I became driven to seek out the ways that we must rearticulate and imagine otherwise; how we, the subsequent generations of Vietnamese and Vietnamese/Americans, radically heal from, or piece together, inaccessible, traumatic narratives through ritualistic diasporic ancestral veneration practices done in unexpected, often overlooked, digital and global storytelling. In one of my texts, for instance, I analyze the horror video game The Death | Thần Trùng, created by DUT Studios based in Việt Nam, and the horrific storytelling of a house in modern day Hanoi haunted by a woman and her daughter, who both endured pyschological and physical abuse by their husbands. These womens’ hauntings through their disembodied ghostly forms, religious symbolism, and ancestral altars, utilize spiritual haunting to urge for their stories to be heard and remembered in order to break free from the curse of intergenerational trauma and abuse. Through The Death | Thần Trùng, I trace the diasporic connections between women in Việt Nam and Vietnamese refugee women in America in their search for refuge from domestic violence, in which this shared tragedy among Vietnamese women expands what constitutes refugeehood beyond the war. Graduate school has thus been both an intellectually and personally challenging experience of uncovering the depths of my mother’s experiences, as well as my own journey of understanding her as a hollistic being who tried her best despite the cards stacked against her.

4) What has it been like to transition from graduate school to your new position as an assistant professor? Have there been any surprises, challenges, rewards?

The transition from graduate school to becoming an assistant professor at Cal State Long Beach was incredibly fast. I do not think I fully prepared myself for the possibility of this transition to happen this year, but I have my ancestors, along with my fantasitic advisors and mentors, to thank for making this opportunity come to fruition for me. The challenges I experienced in this first semester are inevitably tied to the loss of my mother, of her not being able to physically be part of these major life transitions, but I trust that in she is witnessing everything in the ancestral plane. I am filled with happiness that I can finally teach classes framed around Vietnamese refugees, Asian/American spirituality, intergenerational truama and healing, and to offer my students the methods and tools to document their familial stories through oral history interviews, even while working through the silences of their parent’s answers. I am also in deep gratitude for ending up in the wonderful department of Asian and Asian American Studies here at CSULB, with colleagues who absolutely inspire me with their commitment to community-engaged research and teaching. I also want to continue collaborating with folks I have met at APARRI to share their illuminating work with my students here. I cannot wait to see what this next chapter continues to hold in store for us.

5) How has your experience with APARRI impacted you, whether professionally or personally? Are there any memorable experiences or moments that stand out?

I am lucky to have crossed paths with Dr. Jonathan Tan earlier this year who suggested I apply to the 2023 APARRI Conference: Envisioning Radical Futures in APA Religions and Communities, a theme in perfect alignment with my developing research trajectory in Asian/American religions. At the APARRI Conference at Berkeley, I met and learned the work of the most brilliant scholars in the field. As someone coming from the critical theory-heavy disciplines of Comparative Literature and English, I remember sitting in the audience of the conference wrap-up in deep gratitude that I had finally found an academic space that valued the confluence of spirtuality, personal experience, Asian/American identity, and research.

One particularly memorable connection I had made was in meeting Buddhist Chaplain David Woo of the University of the West and learning of his research, “Noble Truths of Asian American Addiction.” I was blown away by his life story and the passion in the work he does with Homeboy Industries and NaNoom in aiding and fostering pathways to addiction recovery for Asian American youth. The depth of our conversations in learning each other’s personal ties to our research has continued beyond the APARRI conference, and I am grateful to have had David Woo guest lecture for my Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies students at Cal State Long Beach. In their reflection responses, my students expressed how they had never seen their own familial struggles with addiction reflected in an educational setting. This connection and its ripple effects in the classroom would not have been possible without David Woo and I meeting at APARRI as a first-time participant this past summer.

6) Outside of your work and research, what do you like to do for fun?

Since graduating this past summer, I have come to realize how much I have lost touch with my my love for creative writing and art. I am only now able to read through the list of non-academic books that I have accumulated over the years but never intentionally carved out time for myself to read. I am currently reading Victoria Chang’s Circle and Time is a Mother by Ocean Vuong – both are ripping my heart apart in the best way possible. Next up is Chang’s Obit. I also missed visiting museums and the latest exhibit I got to experience was Yu Ji: A Guest, A Host, A Ghost, which was both beautiful and unsettling.

7) Lastly, do you have any advice for other graduate students studying race and religion, or anything you would like to go back in time and tell yourself?

Very simply, my advice for graduate students studying race and religion would be to attend the annual APARRI conferences and to become familiar with this wonderful community of scholars and friends there as soon as possible. Though my life panned out in such a way that I only came to the study of Asian/American religions in my final years of graduate school, after my mother’s passing, I truly wish I could have met the wonderful folks from the APARRI 2023 Conference – Dr. Tammy C. Ho, Dr. Carolyn Chen, Dr. Grace Kao, as well as Dr. Russell M. Jeung, Nancy Wang and Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo of Eth Noh-Tec, Dr. Justin Tse and so many others – much earlier in my academic journey. In doing so, I think I would have found confidence in my academic voice and conviction in my work much sooner. I have such deep gratitude for being in community with the warm and delightful folks in this space who really accepted me as a complete newcomer, and cannot wait for the next APARRI reunion!

Ann Thủy Ling Trần is an Assistant Professor of Asian & Asian American Studies at California State University, Long Beach. Her research interests are in Vietnamese community cultural identity, hauntology, and intergenerational trauma and healing through global Vietnamese digital archives.

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