Writers often have core life experiences—formative moments—that show up again and again in their work. These might be traumas of some kind, or simply important moments when life coalesced into a single point of intensity. These moments don’t always appear in a writer’s work exactly as they happened in life. Sometimes a writer might mine a personal trauma for a few critical details while jettisoning others; other times a writer might base a piece on only a single sensory image from that core experience. But sometimes the experience comes through whole—or as whole as memory will allow.

Novelist Vu Tran mined one of his earliest formative experiences to write his recent mystery novel, Dragonfish. Vu was born in Vietnam, but emigrated in 1980, five years after his father—a captain in the South Vietnamese Air Force who fought alongside the Americans—fled the country. Along with his mother and sister and 89 other passengers, Vu—who was 4 years old at the time—boarded a small fishing boat bound for Singapore. Eventually they made their way to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Vu grew up: a refugee, an immigrant, an American.

Vu has written a terrific essay called “The Uncertain Memories of a Four-Year-Old Refugee” in the online publication Lit Hub about his real-life immigration experience and how it has informed his work as a writer. In his novel Dragonfish, you can see one way he has fictionalized that real-life experience, borrowing some details, changing others—all in service to the story. Vu Tran lives in Chicago and teaches creative writing at the University of Chicago.

Here it is, the opening pages of Dragonfish, A Novel by Vu Tran. Copyright © 2015 by Vu Tran. With permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Our first night at sea, you cried for your father. You buried your face in my lap and clenched a fish to your ear as if to shut out my voice. I reminded you that we had to leave home and he could not make the trip with us. He would catch up with us soon. But you kept shaking your head. I couldn’t tell if I was failing to comfort you or if you were already, at four years old, refusing to believe in lies. You turned away from me, so alone in your distress that I no longer wanted to console you. I had never been able to anyway. Only he could soothe you. But why was I, even now, not enough? Did you imagine that I too would die without him?
Eventually you drifted off to sleep along with everyone around us. People were lying side by side, draped across each other’s legs, sitting and leaning against what they could. In the next nine days, there would be thirst and hunger, sickness, death. But that first night we had at last made it out to sea, all ninety of us, and as our boat bobbed along the waves, everyone slept soundly.
I sat awake just beneath the gunwale with the sea spraying the crown of my head, and I listened to the boat’s engine sputtering us toward Malaysia and farther and farther away from home. It was the sound of us leaving everything behind.
The truth was that I too though only of your father. On the morning we left, I held you in the darkness before dawn and lingered with him as others called for us in the doorway. He kissed your forehead as you slept on my shoulder. Then he looked at me, placed his hand briefly on my arm before passing it over his shaven head. I could see the sickness in his face. The uncertainty, too, clouding his always calm demeanor. He had already said good-bye in his thoughts and did not know now how to say it again in person. I did not want to go, but he had forced me. For her, he said, and looked at you one last time. Then he pushed me out the door.
If you ever read this, you should know that everything I write is necessary to explain what I later did. You are a woman now, and you will understand that I write this not as your mother but as a woman too.
On that first night, as I watched your chest rise and fall with the sea, I wished you away. I prayed to God that I might fall asleep and that when I awoke you would be gone.