MA, a new graphic novel by artist Matt Huynh, traces the story of his family’s journey as they are displaced by the Vietnam War and flee to a Malaysian refugee camp.
Matt Huynh is a Sydney born / Brooklyn based artist whose work is influenced by sumi-e, shodo and comic books. His brush and ink illustrations are highly gestural, evocative and compelling. Huynh is the recipient of numerous awards, his work has been commissioned by the New York Times, Esquire, Lucky Peach, Rolling Stone and many others, and is represented in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Peril spoke with Matt recently to learn more about memory and his connection to the story of his family’s past, in-between spaces, the journey from past to future, refugees and asylum seekers, and the visual poetry of comics.
PERIL: Your graphic novel is prefaced with a page that lists four different meanings for the word ‘ma’ in Japanese, Sanskrit and Vietnamese. Can you tell us a bit about each of these and why they are important?
MATT: ‘Ma’ is a Japanese concept, the consciousness of form and non-form in an interval. An in-between space, or a gap.
Thematically, this refers to the specific time in my parent’s lives described in my book. They’re a young, married couple, moving from childhood to adulthood. They’re fleeing the only home they’ve ever known under their parent’s roofs to become parents of their own baby boys.
Geographically, the in-between space refers to Pulau Bidong’s refugee camps, a place of uncertainty and waiting for permission to start their lives and family proper in a new country. They’re on an island between past and future homes, surrounded by no hint of either, only sea and sky.
‘Ma’ is the stuff of comics, as a visual poetry. A comic’s value needn’t hang its hat on reference, narrative or description of an act of life, but is a phenomenal act of life in and of itself. Like space between stepping-stones conducting gait, a comic’s gutters, economy of word and elegant line offers an empty and silent space to occupy with consciousness.
This is a comic book about experiences spoken in hushed tones, as a way of understanding my parents, how I was brought up, my values, and detailing events before I was alive. And so, ‘ma’ – an active consciousness of a gap in memory, understanding, time, space.
In Sanskrit, ‘ma’ refers to ‘water’. The most obvious reference is the ocean that is the physical distance between the refugee camps and past and future homes.
In Vietnamese, ‘ma’ means ‘ghost’. Apart from including my mother tongue, I felt it appropriate to include a mysterious fourth option, foreshadowing a haunted, uncertain tone, as well as nodding to my mother’s enthusiastic interest in ghost stories. A hidden tribute.
PERIL: MA tells the story of your family as refugees, before they came to live in Australia, where you were born. There is a poignant moment in the comic where you describe, “Portions not nearly enough for today provide for unpromised tomorrows.” I’m interested in this idea of you as Matt today, imagining your family before you were born dreaming of a brighter tomorrow. Can you discuss these themes of past and future interconnected by hope?
MATT: There are sombre connotations to a refugee story, but my personal dissonance with that narrative happens when I drag stories from my parents from this time and they are rather romantic. They’re filled with having tailored clothes made, saving money for soda, walking on the beach. These were their legitimate experiences as young, silly twenty somethings early in their relationship. As an older man looking back at this younger time in my parents’ lives, it’s easy to reconcile that specific feeling in that time of my life with theirs, even in such extreme circumstances. I’m sure audiences will be able to empathise. But of course, it’s my parent’s omissions of horror stories that are more telling than the romantic details that they’ll allow me.
“Portions not nearly enough for today provide for unpromised tomorrows.” I could accompany this caption with a drawing of the rush hour crowd, the student too scared to leave his uninspiring course, the actress holding down bartending jobs, the boyfriend who won’t switch off his phone, the son who doesn’t call home enough, the rat racer eating at his desk, the online dater in the biggest city, the busker passed on the street. The story’s extreme conditions speak to any given number of battles to stay present and makes the constant fight to be fulfilled in the moment urgent.
A well-worn narrative of my second generation immigrant peers is that to best honor our parent’s history, we would defer to building a stable life. To stand on the shoulders of those growing up in the industrial age to become an academic success. I studied finance and law, at least for as long as I could. The alternative narrative is that to best honor my parent’s risk, sacrifice, bravery, is to leap as far as I can, with my own courage, with my own work. To leave studies for a job, to leave the job for an illustration studio, to leave the studio to work for myself, to leave my hometown for the other side of the world to do it all again and make comics.
Both are left struggling with personal fulfilment in the now. Both are emboldened by appreciation or enslaved by resentful discontent for our history. Both ennoble our view of our personal identity, or who we should be.
There is an aspect of my comics that is musical, dancing around repetition, choruses and refrains, to find the kind of tingly serendipitous patterns that appears when we are paying close attention to our lives. In the careful, demanding, time consuming immersion of making a comic, I had the opportunity to find connections with what might seem like an impossibly distant experience and time. I had to infuse all I could never know about my family history and my parents with my own personal history. The resulting union services the story of Australia’s first ‘boat people’ as a poetic work and point to empathise with refugees and boat people, rather than strict historical memoir or reporting.
These stories were obviously something I long carried, but the very recent demonization of asylum seekers and boat people in Australian politics and media ignited an urgent need to tell the story today with a hope that simple, direct connection to an asylum seeker was a warm voice and worthy reminder to have in today’s debates. I am part of a generation with the nebulous benefit of an acute personal awareness of our parents’ recent history, who are now of an age and ability to speak to immediate developments in refugee policy for the welfare of the next.
PERIL: Water is a powerful symbol in MA that seems to divide the past and the future. Halfway through your book you describe “The sky meeting itself in the ocean”, and this is later depicted graphically as two blank comic cells that gradually meet as a single brush stroke of ink. Can you talk a bit about the importance of water in MA?
MATT: ‘Water’ was the means by which my parents as boat people were carried to Bidong Island, and it’s quite literally what encompasses and traps them. It is physically the body between their past and future lives, from moving on or back. As it appears in a rare cola bottle, it’s celebrated. As it appears in a makeshift shower, it’s negotiated, immersed in and battering their bodies. As it settles under sunset, it is surrendered to.
My comics are capital ‘R’ Romantic in its humility before nature, in both its direct medium (pulp, mineral, water for paper and ink) and effort towards a transcendent sense of nature with both a fatalistic and environmental awareness.
The book has an omnipresent reminder of being out of reach of one’s own fate, whether that is if they’ll eat tomorrow, or if their families are ok, or if they will leave. ‘The sky meeting itself in the ocean’ is a collapse of the way things were and hope for the future for an immersion in the moment, all they have. To cease postponing their love for ideal circumstances or a return to normalcy for the moments they have on the beach together. Gazing out to an uncertain horizon changes meaning to become only the horizon and it is beautifully enough to gaze into it for itself.
It is my challenge for my comics to be ‘for’ themselves, like the difference between music and sound or silence, dance and movement. Not a song telling a story or a dance about a myth, but a force in themselves. If an elemental characteristic of comics is ‘ma’, then I wanted an awareness of sensing the void that the audience has been reading all along. The other side of your observation of two panels meeting as a single brush stroke is that the brush fills the exact gutter where the panels once were. If you were to hold the comic pages up to the light, you might see the brush stroke creating a positive void to flesh out where once was negative space.
PERIL: It seems as though you’ve made your own personal journey across the seas. Born in Sydney, you are now based in New York. Can you tell us about your journey and why you decided to live and work there?
MATT: Ultimately I followed a good friend to New York, one of the last few to leave Sydney after the mass exodus of a certain age in your early-mid twenties when every pair of feet around you grows itchy and hearts beat restlessly. It set me towards my new home faster than I had anticipated but I’ve long believed in standing in the warmest light, where I feel like I can be most engaged, surrounded by my most beloved and where I can be most loving.
I’ve long had eyes on New York as the natural next step in my comics and illustration practice. It was cemented for me after finding more about the city and community of creators there under a worldwide travelling scholarship, which let me work with the likes of Francoise Mouly, Art Spiegelman and Jillian Tamaki.
There is a lot to working as a comic creator in Australia. It’s a challenge to not have a richer comics history and hence existing audience, working infrastructure or industry, and context to work from, but the nascent audiences allowed me to build communities around new work and taste. I could build an experience like an exhibition in the Australian Museum’s skeleton gallery, or a party in a boxing gym, or a book or an online platform based around the geography of suburban Sydney, and introduce audiences to my work in a completely fresh way. It forced me, in the absence of traditional comics publishers, to find unlikely champions for my work, such as museums, schools, libraries, arts institutions, city councils and festivals.
PERIL: MA recently debuted at Comic Arts Brooklyn Festival. Tell us about how you got involved with the festival and what was the response to your work?
MATT: I had exhibited my work at Comic Arts Brooklyn’s previous incarnation, Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, and fortunately did well enough to be invited back for round 2. I’ve also known the organiser, Gabe Fowler, over some years having visited and stocked my books at Brooklyn’s favourite comic store with a Sicilian bread sign, Desert Island.
I’ve exhibited at a few select shows and festivals in New York and it can make me feel like an 18 year old starting to make my way from scratch. Putting together new work best I can, sitting behind a table, eating plenty of humble pie.
This festival was a great success for me. I sold out of my first print run of MA and was heartened by the warm response form local creators, new readers and audiences who had begun to recognise my work from around the circuit. I tabled between Michael Deforge of Koyama Press and Chris Kuzma of Wowee Zonk, which was stellar company to be in. It is still early days, and after nursing this story in my head and heart and working on it alone at my studio for so long, it’s both a relief and a great thrill to put it into warm, red-blooded hands of new readers.
MA is now available for purchase from Matt Huynh’s online store. You can also buy original sketches, comics pages and cover art packaged with the book.
For more information visit www.matthuynh.com