Depicting heroic lifes of the Vietnamese Diaspora, interview with Clement Baloup

On Thursday, December 3, 2020, I had the pleasure to discuss with Clément Baloup, cartoonist, illustrator, graphic novelist and author of a series of graphic novels dedicated to the stories of the Vietnamese diasporas. As a PhD student interested in memory dynamics within families of Vietnamese origin, I take this opportunity to interview him about his personal experience, but I am especially interested in his work as a researcher. The author, who has just published his fifth book in that series, shares his work process, his encounters with the protagonists of the stories but also with his readership. The discussion is therefore structured around the idea of telling good stories that are inspired and documented by the lives of those who have made and are still making history. His latest album – which you must absolutely get to complete your collection – “Les Engagés de Nouvelle-Calédonie”, is published in French by La Boîte à Bulles.

Screenshot from the online conversation

The making of a graphic novel

Could you share your work process? Do you do surveys, interviews, historical research?

It’s an artist’s thing, there’s a part where I let myself be carried along a bit by the flow. When I feel that at one point it goes one way, I let myself be carried away. I’ve already been asked this question several times : why deal with the subjects of immigration, of cultural diversity? In fact, that’s not my starting point, it would be a big mistake because it would be didactic and, in the end, quite painful to read. What interests me is to find one or more good stories and after that the more engaged side is that there is a core message and there is something revealing, in particular on the Vietnamese culture, diaspora and history but also something universal. These are personal destinies.

But it still has to be a good story. My first concern is to transcribe moments when I was surprised, when I was moved. It happened to me with my father: I’m in my twenties and I ask him to give me details about when he left Vietnam, and I discover something that I had never heard of before, I’m flabbergasted and so I tell it in “Leaving Saigon”. Another time, for example, I met with someone in the United States, a lady named Anh, who told me about her journey as a boat people, in the refugee camp, how she arrived in the United States. It moved me, it touched me. Those are the emotions I try to convey in the book. Sometimes there is a bit of chance. I also sometimes meet people who tell me interesting stories but that don’t touch me, or not as much as others.

On the other hand, in order to meet people, you have to be a bit organized. So I try to rough out, I do research before meeting them so that they don’t have to explain everything to me again, about their lives or historical dates.

I also try to have a good grasp of all the dates and places.

I made Leaving Saïgon about the Vietnamese diaspora in France, and I realized that in the United States there are 2 million of them, that is huge, I really had to go there. I have an aunt there, it’s a good starting point to try to talk to them. So there’s a research process at the workshop, where I look for all the books that have already been made, films if there are any, documentaries. I also try to have a firm grasp of all the dates and places so that people don’t need to explain to me again what the fall of Saigon was, or the liberation, depending on the point of view. I try to get my reference points. Then I try to contact people I know to see if they know other people who are willing to talk to me. So there’s a lot of preparation, it’s not too intense. I read, I send emails, I call people, I see if they call me back. At a certain point, I feel that things are falling into place, that I have enough contacts, that I have a budget too.

After that, there is a rather funny, rather adventurous moment, where I take my backpack and go where I think I can talk to someone, to find some interesting information. Whether it’s talking to someone or a representative of an institution, a cultural association, a veteran organization. The South Army Veterans Association for example, which is quite developed in Australia. After that, there are associations such as the France-Vietnam, Vietnam-New Caledonia, or America-Vietnam Friendship Groups, and there are relays. And the journalists too, who have worked on the subject, who may be of Vietnamese origin or not at all, Pierre Daum is one of them. He is not Vietnamese at all, but he has worked on subjects that interest me, so I contact him. Then I try to glean information.

Sometimes you travel hundreds of kilometers, you meet someone, and actually the chemistry isn’t right.

When you say it that way, it sounds very organized, but in reality, people are quite free, and they do so, to say “yes” to me and later say “no” to me. They are not forced to do that, so there are quite a few people who change their minds. That’s the exhausting part, it’s all part of the adventure, you have to be able to bounce back.

When I arrived in New York, I had a number of people to contact, and they all dropped out one after the other so I had to bounce back and find something else. There’s a little bit of adventure, you have to be ready to say “Hey, tomorrow there’s someone who wants to talk to me but he/she is on the other side of the country”. It happened to me in the United States, to be told of jumping on a plane, on a bus that crosses the country from one end to the other, you have to be ready to move your schedule constantly and it’s a bit of an adventure to go and meet people. Sometimes you travel hundreds of kilometers, you meet someone, and actually the chemistry isn’t right. For one reason or another, after fifteen minutes, the interview is over and I can’t really get anything out of it for my work. And sometimes, this is the opposite, there is the right chemistry and we’re going to spend hours or even days together. Sometimes I see people several days in a row, for a week, to have a more constructive dialogue.

In the situation of Taiwan, when I was there, there was a problem of denigration of Vietnamese, especially Vietnamese women, they are discredited in society, there is a kind of classification based on origins. As a Taiwanese, you’re at the very top, and then below there are the poorest Southeast Asian countries, they are going to serve as a service labour force, for the elderly, things like that. So the Vietnamese women were quite badly regarded. There are associations made up of lawyers, teachers. These are people more on the side of human rights, NGOs working to rehabilitate the image of Vietnamese women. Things have improved, but when I went there it wasn’t great. In Taiwan, most Vietnamese women are young rural women who married a Taiwanese man in a few days, without knowing him, because there are agencies that arrange marriages. And once in Taiwan, they find themselves a bit lost, and often under the control of the in-laws, so she is the wife but she is also the servant.

I have also met happy couples, but in fact it asks for effort, for the young woman to learn the language, because the Taiwanese are not going to learn Vietnamese language, let’s not fool ourselves. And then, you have to get the Taiwanese people to accept that your wife is a full-fledged citizen, so unfortunately, there are many cases where it’s more complicated than that. It is rather NGOs that guided me. There were Vietnamese men and women in these NGOs who had mastered the language, who had made their way and “got out of it” but if not Taiwanese, people like Human Right Watch who also helped me. Here too, it’s a bit strange, there are people who are normally on your side but who don’t have the same vision. These are parish rivalries, one could say. Sometimes there is not the right chemistry between us, even though we’re going in the same direction, but we don’t manage to get along, for various reasons. There are stories of territories too, not of struggles being appropriated, but they thought that it had to be like that and not otherwise.

And then, once you’ve collected all these testimonies?

After meeting people, I come back home to my studio, and there I have tons of little notebooks, sometimes audio recordings, a lot of photos too. So I have a lot of raw material and I have to do a bit like a filmmaker, I have to sort all that, I have to choose everything that is convincing, that serves my purpose, that serves my comic book narration. So it’s a big sorting job. And I do the storyboard, a first draft of the comic book, some rough sketches. Once the storyboard has been drawn up, what I often do at that point is to contact people I had contacted beforehand, or whom I hadn’t yet contacted, who will be specialists: historians, journalists specialized in this or that issue. Dominique Rolland, who wrote the preface to Little Saigon, is an academic at Inalco. I’m going to look for specialists. For the Engagés de Nouvelle-Calédonie, there is a post-face to Thèse Do, she is a university lecturer. I’m going to look for people who are a bit square on the question. I present my work to them, along the way, before the boards are made, and I ask their opinion. They’re people who are a little bit academic. They will read and reread carefully. Generally they make few corrections, more like reflections, but generally I’m pretty solid, it’s a good thing. Nobody tells me that I’m completely wrong or that it’s not that. They’ll say, “Watch out, there are different points of view on this, how do you stay objective” or they’ll say, “You know, this is one point you’re not sure about”. For example there, on the Engagés de Nouvelle-Calédonie, it is impossible to know the exact number of boat movements to repatriate the Vietnamese. There are 3 different sources, 3 different figures. It is not a big thing but one says that there were 6, the other 8, another 9. And we don’t know how many there were, we can’t find them in the archives. So I tell myself that I’m going to put what the person told me face to face. The direct testimony that I got, I was told 6, so I’m going to put 6 because at some point we have to decide. It doesn’t really matter, but it does give you a certain solidity of information that underlies the statement.

Then I tell a story. These are people who talk, who live, they cry, they laugh. That’s what the characters experience. There is information about dates where I try to be fairly square. So there’s this somewhat academic side that I ask specialists for. Pierre Daum played this role for the book we collaborated on, this is Thèse Do, from Melbourne, and I have another book where Pascal Blanchard was involved.

This is the whole process, and then there is the last validation by the publisher. I’m lucky to have a publisher who trusts me, so it’s going pretty well. He still has his say. He’s there at the beginning of the project when I tell him I want to make a book about New Caledonia. He’s going to ask me why I want to do it and I’m going to explain it to him. He gives me the approval and then he comes back when the book is almost finished and tells me what he thinks about it. He also has his say, so he asks me for touch-ups, which are generally related to the graphic design, because in the substance, as I explained, it’s quite strong. He asks me for adjustments and then the book is published. With the Covid I couldn’t do that, but usually when it’s published, there’s a tour.

There are still a lot of people who read it but you still have to bring the book to people.

If I mention it to you it’s because it’s really part of the job, because they’re not super mainstream books but there’s still an audience. There were 5 editions for Leaving Saigon, 4 editions sold out, so there are still a lot of people who read it but you still have to bring the book to people. For me it was catastrophic with Covid, because with Les engagés de Nouvelle-Calédonie, I could not do a small tour, generally in France and a little in Belgium. So it’s clear that if there are Vietnamese associations that are interested, it’s immediately easier, because there is a public that will be receptive, and if not, it’s more in bookstores, festivals that I tour and often there is a diverse public. That is to say that there are people with your profile, of Vietnamese origin, who are interested and open to the comic medium. Because beyond a certain age I have the impression that… Comics will only reach a certain category of people, even if there are old comic book readers, they are still less numerous in proportion to the younger age groups. So there I see a rather varied audience, but in this audience, there is always a part of people who have a very strong connection with Vietnam, either because of their origins, or because of their partner, boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse. There are also people who are fairly well versed in French colonial history and the history of Indochina, often with a very open vision, a rather internationalist vision. They are rarely people who are nostalgic for Indochina but they are interested in it.

 

Comic Strip as a medium for our memories

Some books that inspired the author

What graphic novels authors inspired you?

To stay on the Vietnamese side, there’s Marcelino Truong, when I was younger I used to read his comics or look at his illustrations, I used to say to myself “there’s a guy who does stuff about Vietnam, but in a modern style, halfway between the European and Asian style” So that already made me think that it’s possible to talk about Asia or Vietnam, there are people who publish it in France, and who read it. It was already a first encouragement.

Then I read, when I was 14, Maus, by Spiegelmann, it’s a boy who tells the Shoah through the eyes of his father and asks him to tell what he lived through. So it’s very close to the process I used. I read it when I was 14 years old, it’s a complex work, I didn’t know what to do with it and it took me a long time to decant it, to make it help me in my practice.

Another interesting graphic novel, in the range of testimonies collected, is La Guerre d’Alan, by Frenchman Emmanuel Guibert. He met an old American who had landed in Normandy in the Second World War in 1945. He asked him to recount his memories. He remembered very, very well what he had done. We see the present, we see an old man recounting, then his voice-over and we immerse ourselves in the flashback, in 1945. What struck me most about this story is that it’s a war story, but it’s very sensitive.

Instead of focusing, like many war stories, on the moments of action, we see all the moments of waiting, moments when nothing happens, in any case when they don’t get attacked, they don’t attack, and it’s logistics, people wondering what they’re doing there, people discovering landscapes, places. The guys are 20 years old, they couldn’t imagine what Europe was like, all of a sudden they landed there. So he takes the time to tell all the human side, the feeling. So I was much more interested in these two books, La guerre d’Alan and Maus in their structure, and so I was inspired by them to do my job. Then I read a lot of comics, manga, comic books, so I pick up a little bit everywhere, in what I like, anyway.

 

My father, my aunts and uncles first thought about surviving, and then eventually we talked about it.

 

What surprised you in the discussions you had with the people you interviewed? Taboos, silences, any specific reactions?

In terms of silence, there is something that came up several times. There were people who wanted me to interview them, but when I started asking them some rather specific questions, they didn’t feel like talking anymore. The interview was over. It wasn’t bad but it’s the case that it happened several times, for me it’s a bit of a waste of time, as I was telling you, it’s kilometers and kilometers covered, scheduled moments, but well, it’s not serious, it’s part of the game.

But on the other hand, regarding silence, there are people who have remained silent about their history for 20 years, 30 years, and they only open the valves when I ask them the questions. And I’m the one who’s going to teach their own children what happened. I’ve seen some really strong things where people have never had time to talk, to tell their stories. Or they really never had time because they had to work, they had to feed the family, there were priorities. I understand that and I think that was a bit the case in my family. My father, my aunts and uncles first thought about surviving, and then eventually we talked about it. But for some people, speech was completely blocked, stuck, and when I say “open the valves” I also say open the valves of sensations, of feelings, because some people told me things, you see it in the comics, extremely hard, horrible things.

I tell myself that it’s terrible because even if I’ve met a lot of people, expatriates who have a background a bit like that, there are millions of them and I tell myself that there are a lot of people who must have their words stuck until the end, stuck, buried, or repressed, I don’t know which term suits best according to each individual, but there really is this thing. There’s really something there, is it a taboo? It’s a lead cape anyway.

Are there any other mechanisms related to memory dynamics that you may have seen during your encounters?

In my comics, there are a lot of food moments. I think it’s really something very strong in the Vietnamese culture. . Often the interviews I’m going to have, it’s going to be around a meal. That’s what will allow me to initiate contact. Very concretely, when I was in Australia, because I’m going to do a book on Australia too, I would meet people, I would contact them and then often the conversation would drift, I would ask them the best address for a Bun Cha, Banh Cuon and I would ask them to show me the restaurant.

So this is the moment when I meet people, and we’ll talk, either before or after and we’ll have this connection to the food, really strong. I think it’s something important. My father taught my mother [French] to cook Vietnamese, I learned to cook Vietnamese. I’m going to make a caramel pork, I think tomorrow. It’s something that seems a bit anecdotal but it’s important. I have made this observation that people who have left their countries, who have not been able to take anything with them, who have nothing left, who find themselves in another country, what they have left is the know-how. And Vietnamese cuisine is a precious know-how. You can reproduce the gestures even you don’t have exactly the same ingredients and anyway it’s very good.

 

Readers watched with their parents…and a discussion that had never happened before began.

 

What feedbacks do you get from your readers about what your books can trigger as memories or discussions in their families? Do these stories and testimonials serve as supports in these dynamics of memory that we are talking about?

That’s exactly what you’re describing. At book signings, festivals or bookstores, there are people who have come to see me, they have already read the previous books. Several people have told me that by reading the comic book they discovered periods of history, and that they had gone to their parents and gently confronted them with the comic book and asked them “Were you, Mom / Dad, a Boat People? Did you live that?”. As the comics are quite complete, they’re graphic novels so there’s a lot of information, what I was told is that the readers would look at it with their parents and they would say “Well, when the government fell, when it happened, were you there? “and the parents would respond and a discussion that had never happened before would begin. So there’s that moment, that I find it quite magical, it’s kind of my pride.

Afterwards, there are families where the speech, the family history had been told, and there, the readers come to tell me “I have found things that look the same”. They have a kind of distorting mirror when they read the comic book: “I found things that I was told about, that I knew about” and basically they tell me “it’s funny to see them put into images, it’s good to have a representation of what had been transmitted orally”.

Then, there is another case, they are perhaps the most specialized people on this subject, the most in demand, who know this history, historical and family history, and who come to look at it with a scrutinizing eye, but with pleasure, and come to compare with their own archives, to complete as I complete my puzzle with different stories and different eyes.

It’s right that for some people, the book, the object was really the trigger for the speech and I see that people, when they tell me that, are extremely moved to have been able to learn things about their parents or grandparents. The book was a pretext.

So there are several degrees. To put it very simply, there are some who really don’t know where they come from, they’re lost, and the comic book is a first light in the night to begin to orient oneself. And others, I even came across some who are really young but who were already pretty cultivated, who already had a lot of elements. These are all encounters that I like very much.

The book was a pretext.

And outside the Vietnamese community?

As the history of Cambodians is quite close, for example I have a friend of Cambodian origin, my books resonated a lot with her because it’s parallel. It’s not the history of Vietnam, but there are a lot of common points, common trajectories even if there are different things because, obviously, the Khmer Rouge revolution has nothing to do with what happened in Vietnam. Sometimes, from afar, the two are associated, but it’s not the same thing at all. On the other hand, there are parallels in terms of the process, the parents immigrated for political reasons, for war, so my books also speak to people of Asian origin, but also to people from former colonies, from the Maghreb, Africa, the Caribbean, and so on. I see that they like it too, that it speaks to them. It speaks to them less, but I feel that there is a fiber. It seems to me that the journalist was of Caribbean origin and I could see that he found in the stories I told, in the comic books in any case, bridges to be built and so he was interested.

And then, there’s the reader who is not connected in any way to the story and that reader appreciates the aspect “it’s a story, an adventure, we follow characters”, there’s empathy and also the fact that we learn things. These people don’t have a direct connection but they appreciate the book for what it is in the first place – what I was saying: I try to make good stories – so just a good story.

Exactly, it is interesting to have on the one hand the support of a graphic novel, with the images, and it is a novel and not an illustrated history book. It’s not didactic, but perhaps it has a greater impact because it’s embodied stories.

Contrary to what my early art teachers reproached me for, there is a substance to it. And even if it is not didactic, one can draw from it a didactic knowledge.

So you’re not trying to turn your books into materials or memory media?

No, once again, if I start with that intention, it might be boring. Given that the theme is very serious and that I do it with an attempt to be cautious, this aspect of a memory resource does happen. It comes into play afterwards, deeply. This work is tiring, it’s exciting but it’s tiring. And often, when I finish a book, I say to myself “well, it’s the last one”. When I did Little Saigon there were 250 pages, I told myself that it was the last one, but then I did 3 more. Finally there is a driving force which is about the mission, the quest, there is something very strong, which finally animates me and allows me to start a new project. But if I tell myself at the beginning that it’s for the cause of something, it’s never going to work, it’s going to be painful for me and horrible for the reader.

But it is more a deep desire that must remain a driving force, but it must not be the ins and outs. After, I’m aware of it, I’m happy and I cultivate it, but when I launch into the project, I tell myself that I’m going to go to New Caledonia, I’ve heard about guys digging mines by hand, digging mountains with pickaxes to extract minerals that were going to enrich I don’t know who, companies that were going to sell them to the Japanese. I hear that and I project myself into an adventure, I live it as an adventure and I try to make the comic book, for the reader, have a soul. And afterwards, it’s only during the analysis, afterwards, that I try to make sure that the core message is there, and that it’s still strong.

To give you an example, in Les engagés de Nouvelle-Calédonie, it’s really fresh in my mind, there are interludes that are written. I drew from archives of original documents to support my story, I put like that, in key places, different visions, of the oppressor, of the one who helps, the vision of the main people involved to establish my story that can be taken, again in a very novel way, but to establish it in a reality that has existed. So to come back to your question of the memory duty, that’s where I tell myself, when I finish the book, that I have to rub it in, to make the readers understand, that they can learn things and that there’s a reflection on my part about that period.

You were telling me that before this memory duty, what you were interested in were those stories that were not or barely visible. Is that it?

In my first thoughts, I said to myself, “Oh it’s incredible what my father went through, or it’s incredible what Mr. Nguyen went through.  In fact, I tell myself that we see him as a good man who is here, and he had a story that is heroic, that is tragic, edifying, well… So it comes back to this emotion, it’s the fact of having a very strong emotion and telling me that it’s a bit unfair this invisible side, that we don’t notice. And I feel like, almost a little bit, not to correct the situation but to say that behind this person who looks like nothing, who is doing his little bit of work quietly, there’s an incredible story behind it.

Another thing is that often, the people I’ve talked to give off something positive or combative, and that too is something that will touch me and will bring inspiration and hope. I remember very well a man who told me about the re-education camps he had been in and who ended his story with a joke saying “well, that’s it, I’ve moved on, it’s done”. So there is hope. And I have the impression, afterwards it may be a fantasy, that this is the Vietnamese spirit: to look forward, to move forward, to know how to leave the wounds aside. Sometimes it becomes a heavy silence, but sometimes it’s also telling yourself that you know what happened without sticking to it. 

So, there is a message of hope in the interviews that I have had  and myself when I think about what our elders have gone through, when I see my own problems, it allows me to put them into perspective and tell me that I am fine. There’s that heroic side of hope too, it doesn’t mean that people aren’t hurt or that everything isn’t fine, but there’s still that light at the end of the road that is clearly expressed by people I’ve met. Not all of them though, some have remained traumatized, have not found the promise of the host country in Europe, in the United States, in Australia. But I have the impression that people who are disappointed or traumatized remain a minority. The majority have been able to overcome the difficulties. That also motivates me, because if I only heard stories of people telling me “it was horrible and now my life is horrific”, I wouldn’t necessarily want to make comics out of them.

***

This interview is part of a research work on the memory dynamics among the Vietnamese diaspora. To support this project, you can take part in the online survey :

Vietnamese identities and family memories dynamics – Online Survey

To share your stories, if you have any questions, feel free to consult the other articles on this site and write to at the following address: vietnamese.origins[at]gmail.com

We also have a Facebook page:
fb.me/vietnamese.origins

Ressources and links:

[FR] L’éditeur de la série Mémoires de Viet Kieu : https://www.la-boite-a-bulles.com/

Humanoids : https://www.humanoids.com/

Clément Baloup’s blog : http://electricblogbaloup.over-blog.com/

Other artists mentionned:
Marcelino Truong : http://www.marcelinotruong.com/

Art Spiegelman (wikipedia): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Art_Spiegelman

Emmanuel Guibert (wikipedia) : https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmanuel_Guibert

 

Transcription : Julien Le Hoangan
Translation : DeepL, Julien Le Hoangan
Proof-reading : Matthieu Lec’hvien


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