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Matt Huynh: Drawing Between the Lines

Michelle Chen interviews Matt Huynh about adapting Nam Le's Vietnamese refugee story into an online graphic novel.

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Image courtesy of Matt Huynh.

Matt Huynh’s art has always lived in the in between spaces. A child of Vietnamese refugees, the Australian-born, Brooklyn-based graphic artist bends genres as easily as he blurs the lines of light and shadow in his playful chiaroscuros. The wind-swept mane of a wild horse mirrors the straggly locks framing a young woman’s tragic smoke-rimmed eyes. He inked the now-iconic Occupy Wall Street broadsheet displaying rabble-rousing placards that memorialized a movement that anticipated its own nostagia; and he’s applied the same irreverent brush to the concrete wall along a suburban highway to create a roadside celestial landscape.

Huynh’s latest graphic project, The Boat, combines the moving image and the digital ether in an interactive comic narrative based on Nam Le’s acclaimed short story of a Vietnamese refugee family adrift at sea. As he reshaped the story into comic form, he uncovered a facet of his artistic lens that is reflected in his hybrid identity: he realized he was drawn to the story, because, in his words, he was suspended in a “middle limbo period, out at sea,” where he was “curious enough” yet not so distant from his history, to rediscover it in a new way, for himself and for a global audience.

At his loft studio in Greenpoint, he spoke with me about tracing the dark wave of the Boat People’s passage, and locating his artistic calling.

Michelle Chen for Guernica

Guernica: What inspired you to adapt the story The Boat into an online graphic novel?

Huynh: The Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) approached me to do it. It’s quite a revered piece of work that came with a lot of pressure to not get it wrong, so they wanted me to turn it into a graphic novel to experiment with building an interactive platform for it, which is a bit of a challenge because it’s tricky enough to adapt from an existing prose work for the comic’s language, and on top of that to build a language and a platform for it for the screen. I don’t think we found all the answers, but we had to look at what was going on out there and then had to look at digital features and interactive features from news outlets and journalism magazines, along with other adaptations of the short story form, and cherry-picked the best parts and tried to make our own version with comics.

Guernica: Walk us through the plot and talk about what intrigued you about it.

Huynh: We chopped and changed and got rid of entire subplots and characters to make it suit the online space. But at its root it’s pretty simple. It’s just following a young teenage girl named Mai who escapes Vietnam after the Vietnam War on a fisherman’s boat and encounters a young mother and her son and builds a relationship with them on the boat. The entire story happens at sea before the characters reach their new home and after leaving their old one. So a lot of the story takes place in this “in-between nothing” space where it’s just vast ocean and vast sky. What attracted me to it was the obvious connection to my personal history. And then there was the desire to bring it into the current political climate and issues surrounding asylum seekers today.

It’s a miracle that I’m even here to do this, let alone to be making comics about it.

Guernica: What parallels did you see between the plot of The Boat and your own personal journey?

Huynh: This adaptation project was an excuse for me to look directly at that history, and look at it from another perspective with the benefit of someone else’s imagination and research and craft. I couldn’t access that directly just by talking to my immediate family, because it’s something they wanted to move on from.

Guernica: Though there is some historical explanation provided to the reader outside the comic’s narrative, in the story itself, the role of the Australian state is absent from it as is the violence that they came from. How did you balance the historical and political aspects of the story with the more creative aesthetic narrative you wanted to present?

Huynh: I am less interested in doing a historical retelling or a Wikipedia entry. But we included an outline of historical background because for the people we’re collaborating with, that’s the world they’re from. That’s why we use archival footage in the film, and that’s why we went to that level of research. It ends with a description of what happened, and Australia’s role, with prose right at the end, to bring it back to our reality. Whereas my instinct is a lot more poetic, and I very much hesitated to include any of that. I would much rather leave it to the wide expanse and the analogy of the space with a boat that has an eye painted on its front.

When depicting the characters, I have some creative license: I can confuse you, and have faces look like other faces and a stranger’s son look like her dad, and draw those kind of parallels. I can disorientate you that way. But for me it’s less about just retelling history, even though it’s of great great personal weight and currency to me, personally. I think the greater ambition is to bring it to what’s happening to me in the present. And the same with the medium itself. I’m less into making a traditionally ‘good’ comic, than doing something where a reader says, ‘Hey, there’s a bird flying by when I scroll down,’ or something weird that surprises the viewer. So that level of innovation carries across from the form to what I want to do with the narrative.

It’s disappointing to see how some artists keep out of the activist realm — anything to do with humanitarian issues and politics — because they see it as a debate where maybe it’s not their place, or they need to be an expert in the issues in order to engage in these conversations.

Guernica: The story you depict in the boat is also a human drama. Do artists often struggle with this process when they wrestle with deep historical issues?

Huynh: It can be frustrating but also an advantage both ways. A lot of the real tangible advantage to having this work in the world is that it can put me and my other collaborators directly in interviews like this, to speak towards these ideas, versus dealing with them on through artistic analogy or something abstract. The other side of that is that it can be reduced to, “Oh that’s a good news story,” and it can easily be sidelined. But it’s opened up who we can talk to about this kind of work and these kinds of issues.

Guernica: It’s made purely for this digital form. So it will never be film, or a regular book. This may grow outdated if it only lives online. Technology is always evolving, but you can always return to the book form as opposed to a traditional paper book.

Huynh: I love that stuff, you know? That’s the stuff I want to buy, that’s the stuff I grew up on. Even when we’re talking about an interactive comic which aspires to be innovative, it’s going to be outdated in a year. Even in that form, it still feels deliberately very traditional. You can see my brushstrokes. It’s not like a glossed-over, perfectly toned, perfectly lit thing. It’s deliberately using traditional, primitive tools and techniques — it’s grounded in ritual and tradition. I wanted the audience to see a human hand behind the slick screen and all the fancy effects.

I’m in a sweet spot working between full blown animation and comics, where I can try to keep it rooted in what I think is beautiful about the form. And in terms of talking about historical and social issues, being the youngest in my family and the only one who was born in Australia puts me in a different position. Or maybe it’s being a particular age and of a very particular moment in time, where, if I was any older, maybe I wouldn’t feel as curious or compelled to look at this history again, or just want to move past it like my elders want to do, or feel too close to it, like it’s too traumatic. And if I was any younger, I would feel too distant from it and feel like it’s irrelevant. I think a lot of why I do look at it is because I’m kind of in this middle limbo period out at sea. It’s curious enough, and it’s not too far away either.

I know now people are reaching out to me to speak about the refugee experience in general. For refugee and asylum-seeker artists, it’s a tricky position to be in, because, again, I’m in this unique position where I’m not an asylum seeker or refugee, but I’m the child of refugees, so I’m close enough to be real and have strength and not faraway enough to take it for granted. But having met and talked to a lot of artists who are refugees and asylum seekers, they’re in a tricky position because socially and economically, they’re starting over, they have language barriers, there’s trauma from reliving these experiences.

But I think that as an artist, you’re in one of the most powerful positions to influence people politically.

So in terms of representation, they’re muffled by their own ability, and their own experiences, and their own memory. And so what happens is you have big media or government policy, these venues are telling their stories for them — they’re actually taking advantage of these vulnerable people. It’s important to tell and share your own stories. And that’s a lot of the impetus for me. But there’s a freedom and a bravery that that takes, and it’s disappointing to see how some artists keep out of the activist realm — anything to do with humanitarian issues and politics — because they see it as a debate where maybe it’s not their place, or they need to be an expert in the issues in order to engage in these conversations. But I think that as an artist, you’re in one of the most powerful positions to influence people politically. The leadership role of an artist is to be fearless. But if you’re struggling to pay rent, or afraid that you’re going to be punished for saying what you say, or that you’re being watched or whatever it is — it’s hard to be fearless in that case.

Guernica: Do you fear being constantly identified as the spokesperson for an issue like Vietnamese refugees?

Huynh: It cuts both ways. I think people see things about my life and my work and influences that come out in it, and they assume it’s because of my background, my upbringing, or my race. The influences come from surprising directions. So let’s say, the Sumi-e ink and shodo calligraphy of my watercolors could be seen as an interest related to my cultural background. Well, there was none of that in my background. That came much later in my life from personal and spiritual practice and that kind of thing. Growing up, my family was completely agnostic — they’re not religious at all, I didn’t grow up around that.

I do like to tell stories about refugees and asylum seekers, because I feel fortunate and lucky about my own background. It’s a miracle that I’m even here to do this, let alone to be making comics about it. As a young kid growing up, these stories are things I would have loved to see. I think there’s power in being visible.

Matt Huynh is an Australian artist based in New York City. His comics and illustrations are informed by Sumi-e painting and shodo calligraphy. His clients include the New York Times, Esquire, Rolling Stone and Adobe. Creative Sydney Festival named him one of Sydney’s most innovative cultural contributors for his graphic novel, CAB, documenting true stories from suburban Sydney’s Cabramatta community. His illustrated reportage of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations appears in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection. His comic, Chinatown, was presented on the Sydney Opera House stage and exhibited at the Society of Illustrators.

Michelle Chen is a Contributing Editor at In These Times and an Associate Editor at CultureStrike, and studies history at the City University of New York Graduate Center.

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