Author-illustrator Marcelino Truong has penned a follow-up to his critically acclaimed graphic memoir, Such a Lovely Little War. Picking up in 1963, Truong again blends personal narrative with an incredibly well-researched account of the Vietnamese side of the Vietnam War, a history that is little-known inside the U.S. While the first book focused on Truong's early years in Saigon, Saigon Calling finds his Vietnamese diplomat father, French mother and his siblings on the move to London in order to escape the escalating conflict in Vietnam. This poignant, honest account chronicles Truong's early teen years, his search for belonging and understanding, his experience caught between very different cultures and their disparate views on the war.
We asked Truong a few questions about sifting through his memories and filling in the blanks, becoming a self-taught artist, his next project and more.
When you began writing your first memoir, Such a Lovely Little War, did you already have this follow-up planned, or did you discover that you had multiple books worth of material during your writing process?
At first I don't think I had a follow-up planned. My two years in Saigon at the beginning of the 60's, as a child, seemed to me by far the most striking and thrilling period of my childhood. It seemed comparable to me to J.G. Ballard's accounts of his childhood in Shanghai, where he witnessed the Japanese occupation and was fascinated by the Imperial Japanese army.
Only gradually did it occur to me that there might be the material for a follow-up. Probably this realization was helped by the fact that I did quite a few talks and interviews after the first graphic novel was published, and it became clear to me that many clichés formed the mainstream view of the Vietnam war. Also, the first book deals with the early days of the war which was much less known than the American Vietnam war which really began in earnest in 1965, when President Johnson sent the conscripts. Before that, Vietnam had been a professional soldier's war.
It became clear to me that a second book was a good idea, because there was so much to say about the point of view of the non-communist Vietnamese, all too often dubbed the "Saigon puppets" by the Vietnamese Communists and many Western progressives, to our dismay.
As you sifted through your memories and your childhood experiences during your writing process, did you have any surprising or unexpected revelations about yourself?
I began to wonder what I had found so nice about Saigon and life in South Vietnam because the situation was already very grim. The revolutionary war conducted by the Viet Cong, remote-controlled by Communist Hanoi, and the counterinsurgency warfare it triggered in retaliation was killing about 1000 people every month, most of them civilians.
Of course most of the killing took place in the countryside, but Saigon and other cities of South Vietnam had their share of bombings, grenades thrown in cinemas or restaurants, assassinations, and the occasional coup d'état attempts. I discovered there was probably something in my personality that found some sort of interest in such uncommon, disturbing situations.
When we arrived in England in 1963, at first I found British life rather dull and tasteless. Things picked up later with the pop counterculture revolution, but even though that revolution was flowery and hedonistic, somehow I preferred the atmosphere of Saigon, which was both martial and addicted to pleasure.
What sifting through my memories in Such A Lovely Little War and Saigon Calling revealed to me is how far the war has shaped my life and my psychology.
Alongside your personal history, you offer a very detailed timeline of the events of the Vietnam War that is truly eye-opening for Western readers. How much historical research did you have to do for this book?
I did lots of research, but you know, the Vietnam war started around 1957, the year I was born. I heard about it at home: My father took part in it in his own way, as a civil servant, and many of my uncles and aunts were involved in that conflict, on both sides. So they are an invaluable source of knowledge about the Vietnam War. They will tell you more about the reality of war in five minutes than many lengthy books written by journalists or academics. Although I greatly enjoy reading the works of journalists and academics, being an academic myself through my training, I must say that firsthand witnesses have a blunt way of putting things that provide many shortcuts to understanding history. But I do like academics and journalists. I was groomed become an academic. I have never been to art school. I am a completely self-taught artist. I went to law school in Paris and then to the Sorbonne, to study English literature. This training helps me a lot with my research. I have no fear of reading dry articles and dense essays.
You spent many of your formative years living amongst very different cultures—Saigon, London, Saint-Malo. How did this shape the way you see the world today?
I am a strange product of three different cultures: the Vietnamese culture, the British culture and the French.
This shapes the way I see the world in that I cannot help seeing the differences in attitudes and thoughts between Europe and Asia, and between Protestant and Catholic countries, or northern and southern Europe. There is also an undeniable mutual fascination between East and West, and many bridges between North and South. I like both and tend to think I'm getting the best of both worlds. But I feel really privileged to have lived in all these different countries and to have friends and family all over the world.
You've said in previous interviews that you're a completely self-taught artist. When did you start drawing? Did your artistic brother Dominique spark your interest?
Oh it's a long story. To put it in a nutshell, let's say I slowly drifted towards the world of illustration, painting and comics after having had no idea for years that this was what I was going to be doing as a job.
I started illustration work and comics at the age of 25, with only a few pencil or color drawings I'd done in my spare time. Dominique influenced me indirectly with his bohemian way of life. He was a hippie, an outcast. I felt very square and straight compared to him, and choosing the life of an artist, after having achieved all the studies that were expected from me, was, I suppose, my way of being bohemian and slightly rebellious in my turn.
My mother was also an influence. She painted, drew and had a passion for ceramics, and later enamels, and was really good at sewing and music. She could play Chopin's Nocturnes perfectly. Unfortunately for her, her manic depression hindered her considerably in her artistic undertakings. I think she was an artist at heart, but in those days, when you came from the modest lower middle-class, it wasn't easy to come out as an artist. It seemed like a futile thing to do.
"Graphic storytelling allows you to do stuff you can't do in writing. Graphic novels are easier to read, I suppose, and more forthcoming."
Which artists have had the most influence on you stylistically?
My mother used to love Gauguin, who almost went to Vietnam instead of the French islands in the Pacific. He is indeed an artist whose works I really admire.
Hergé is also an obvious influence, because there weren't that many comics around in London, in the 60's and 70's, and I really enjoyed Tintin. One of my favorite illustrators is a Chinese artist called He Youshi.
But I'm basically a book guy. I studied English and American literature quite a bit at the Sorbonne, and we read novels, or plays or poetry, which we studied in depth, many of them great classics, and none of them were comics of course. So that sort of shaped me.
When did you first discover your love for comics and graphic storytelling?
For me the graphic novel is a great way to tell a story. The pictures make the story easier to grasp. The visuals allow you to get an immediate impression, whereas a book, well you have to read it, don't you?
I suppose I could have written Such a Lovely Little War or Saigon Calling as regular memoirs, but graphic storytelling allows you to do stuff you can't do in writing. For instance, the graphic novel genre allowed me to inject a dose of humor in my storytelling. Written in prose, the book may have been too serious. Graphic novels are easier to read, I suppose, and more forthcoming.
Graphic novels are usually less stuffy than some very learned academic essays.
What are you working on next?
My new project is a fiction graphic novel, or one might call it a "faction" comic, meaning a mix between fact and fiction, covering the end of the French Indochina War as seen from the Viet Minh side. The Viet Minh was the name of the coalition of Vietnamese nationalists and patriots fighting for independence under the banner of uncle Ho Chi Minh. Uncle Ho's Vietnamese Communists, supported by the Soviet Union, and especially by Maoist China after 1949, very quickly dominated this coalition of patriots.
My story will begin in Spring 1953, just one year before the end of the war, which was marked by the famous battle Dien Bien Phu. My main character is a young Vietnamese artist from Hanoi who is press-ganged, so to say, or conscripted into the People's Army. We follow him through the war.
Author photo by Sébastien Ortola.