For the Traveler’s Tale series, we ask fiction and non-fiction writers to share one of their most indelible travel memories. The author Viet Thanh Nguyen on what he’s learned about traveling from his 6-year-old son—and his 90-year-old father for The Wall Street Journal
I HAVE SEEN the City of Light, many times, and the killing caves of Battambang, once. I have returned to Saigon, from where my family fled as refugees, and passed a summer in the air-conditioned city of Singapore. I traveled through Japan by bullet train with my wife, and took my devoutly Catholic parents on a tour of Western Europe’s Catholic shrines. But I hope I will never forget the time I went on book tour with my 6-year-old son.
When Ellison was five, he wrote and drew his own comic book. “Chicken of the Sea” tells the story of bored chickens escaping from a farm to become pirates under the command of a rat captain. I posted the comic book on Facebook, where an editor asked if she could publish it. I could make money off my son? Yes!
My name appears on the cover of the book as my son’s co-author. He and I are united by our love of adventure stories and of roaming, both in our imaginations and in our travels together. I have taken him to Saigon, Hawaii, Mexico City, Singapore, Rome, Milan and Paris, where we spent four summers.
Every time I go on a trip with him I am reminded that one of the most important reasons for traveling is to learn something about ourselves, not just about our destinations. With Ellison, the most important trip has been through fatherhood, a journey I never thought I would take. Earlier in life, I doubted that I would have the ability to love a child, to give up that much of myself. It was a discovery I would not have made without the epic journey of fatherhood and the small journeys we undertook together.
Viet Thanh Nguyen and his son, Ellison, at a book launch event in Pasadena, Calif. PHOTO: CHRISTINE NGUYEN
And so upon the release of his book, Ellison and I hit the road together to promote his opus. The pandemic cut our tour short, but not before he experienced Seattle for the first time. We stayed in a suite at the Sheraton, where he began to develop his love for room service and his opinions about finer hotels (“the Westin is the Bestin,” he once observed). Our visit coincided with a lecture I delivered at a scholarly conference. As I spoke to several hundred academics about Very Serious Things, he sat in the front row with headphones on, dancing in his seat as he watched cartoons on his iPad.
Then I took him to the legendary Elliott Bay Book Company for his reading. Do you know, I asked him, how many writers would kill to have a chance to read at this bookstore?
The weight of literary history did not faze him. Although I named him after the writer Ralph Ellison, who was himself named after Ralph Waldo Emerson, he only cared about the Marvel comics universe. An unselfconscious writer, he wore red pants and Batman rain boots as he read from his book before the Elliott Bay audience with aplomb. Then he signed books for his fans, providing each one a custom illustration featuring violent, embattled chickens. Afterward we saw the usual Seattle fare: the aquarium, Pike Place Market, the Space Needle, the Children’s Museum. I snapped a picture of him on the grounds of the Seattle Center, gazing into the distance, fashionable scarf around his neck, and sent it to my father.
Ellison Nguyen signs copies of ‘Chicken of the Sea’ at a stop on the book tour. PHOTO: CHRISTINE NGUYEN
It was January 2020. My father emailed me back enthusiastically. He then printed the email with my son’s picture and taped it to his closet door, where it remains. I saw my father the day before I wrote these words. He is 90, and his decline during his pandemic isolation was fast. He can no longer write emails. Nor can he recognize me, or the grandson he loved—loves?—so much.
Twenty years ago, I took my father to visit Fatima in Portugal and Lourdes in France. I thought he’d remember the shrines devoted to the Virgin Mary. But as his memory faded, and as he sat in his living room, a widower, he focused on the sunlight coming through the golden curtains he had made himself on his return from Europe. We had stayed at a hotel in London with golden curtains, and he loved them so much, he replicated them. He remembered nothing of Fatima and Lourdes, but he has spoken wistfully, so many times, of those curtains.
What Ellison will recall of his childhood, and what I will conjure of my life when it comes to an end, I do not know. But journeys make memories, which is one reason why those of us who love to travel undertake so many excursions, anticipating that something will stick with us over the decades until the most important trip of all—life—concludes.
When we think about why we travel—where we venture, how we make the trip, what we do at our destination—we cannot forget who we choose to journey with. My father has forgotten almost all his companions on his epic voyage from childhood poverty in Vietnam to middle class comfort in California. And yet I hope, perhaps foolishly, but with optimism and love, that I will not forget, that my son will not forget, and that a fragment of our trip to Seattle—of me—will stay with Ellison until the end.
Viet Thanh Nguyen is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Sympathizer,” and, most recently, the memoir “A Man of Two Faces” (Grove Press, October 2023).