All human beings are born free
and equal in dignity and rights.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 1
On 27 September 2013, 80 asylum seekers were on board an
Australia-bound boat, which capsized and sank in the rough seas off the coast of Java, Indonesia. There were 31 confirmed deaths at the time of writing, many of them women and children, and at least 30 more people missing. Far from an unusual story, such human tragedies have become a regular phenomenon. Over the past decade, thousands of lives have been lost at sea en route to Australia. When first approached by reporters seeking information on the incident, the response of the newly elected Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was to ignore all questions. Several weeks prior, his Government pledged immediate action to ‘stop the boats’, including a new policy of turning back boats to Indonesia. In the lead-up to the 2013 federal election, Abbott’s predecessor, Kevin Rudd, put forward Labor’s policy of denying any asylum seeker arriving by boat the chance of settling in Australia. A ‘race-to-the-bottom’ demonisation of asylum seekers has become deeply ingrained in the mainstream discourses of Australia’s politics and media.
Matt Huynh’s moving tale of his family’s journey to Australia as ‘boat people’ from Malaysia in the 1980s is a profound juxtaposition to the widespread political scaremongering over asylum seekers. This story is beautifully and vividly illustrated, with an eye for the humour and humanity of an otherwise fraught and difficult passage in their young lives. It is a unique glimpse into the Huynh family’s struggles and hopes, their courage and inspiration, their dreams for themselves and for their children, and the love that binds them together. It provides us with a timely and sober reflection on the responsibilities of our nation towards the protection of the human rights of those fleeing their homes due to persecution, risking their lives in desperate journeys in the hope of finding a safe haven for their families.
12 October 2013
Mimi Zou is a Chinese Australian lawyer and Commonwealth scholar at Oxford University, where she is Junior Dean at St John’s College, and edited the Oxford University Commonwealth Law Journal. Mimi is a consultant for the International Labor Organisation’s China and East Asia projects. She is also a visiting research fellow at the Netherlands School of Human Rights Research and at the Centre for International Governance and Justice.
Interview with Matt Huynh: MA
By Owen Leong, Peril no.16/17 (Nov 2013) - Dualities/Binaries
Peril spoke with Matt 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.
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?
‘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 o f 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.
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?
There are somber 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 something’s early in their relationship. As an older man looking back at this younger time in my parent’s 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 make the constant fight to be fulfilled in the moment urgent.
A well-worn narrative of my second-generation immigrant peers is that to best honour 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 honour 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 fulfillment 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 parent’s recent history, who are now of an age and ability to speak to immediate developments in refugee policy for the welfare of the next.
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?
‘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 ominipresent 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.
Owen Leong is a contemporary artist and curator based in Sydney, Australia. Owen uses the body as a medium to interrogate social, cultural and political forces. Owen has been the recipient of numerous awards from the Australia Council for the Arts, Art Gallery of NSW and Asialink. He has held residencies at Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester, Cité Internationale des Arts, Paris, and Tokyo Wonder Site, Japan. Leong’s work is held in galleries and private collections across the world. Visit www.owenleong.com.
Matt Huynh is a Vietnamese Australian artist based in New York City. His comics and illustrations are informed by sumi-e, shodo and comic books. His clients include the New York Times, Esquire, Men’s Health, Bloomberg Business Week and Adobe. Creative Sydney Festival named him one of Sydney’s most innovative cultural contributors for his graphic novel work. His work appears in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection and his comics have been presented on the Sydney Opera House stage.