Making Refugee Stories Visible: Matt Huynh’s Adaptation of “The Boat”

Editor’s note: Today’s guest post by Dr. Brandi Estey-Burtt is one I’ve been eager to publish since she first pitched me the idea back in September of 2021. Considering both the potential for who tells stories and the haptic possibilities of digital comics served to our phones and other devices in having readers engage with the stories even more deeply than comics already ask them to, will be increasingly important as this form of comics develops and more and more people are displaced globally by climate disaster and the geo-political actions of nation states in an increasingly volatile world.

While checking the relentless news about COVID-19 not long ago, I opened my usual apps to several powerful images flashing across my screen: Haitian migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border were being deported to Haiti by the Biden administration. It struck me that there has been little media attention to refugee and migrant issues throughout the pandemic, which has dominated the majority of political, news, and health attention since the opening months of 2020.

While the news cycle can barely keep up with these developments, I found myself thinking about how comics can offer a different kind of public record versus the transience of a news story. As Hillary Chute points out in 2016’s Disaster Drawn, comics have the capacity through drawing and writing—to make visible—people’s lives and experiences, which means that they provide a powerful avenue for witnessing (5).

But I’d been reading about the Haitian migrants on my phone—how can digital media work with comics to bring attention to the issues continuously faced by refugees and migrants? Can it offer a different kind of record or archive that doesn’t reduce people to nameless, faceless sound bites? And how can digital comics make use of other media—not just visual and textual—to build a compelling story?

I found one example in the work of Matt Huynh, a Vietnamese-Australian visual artist. In 2015, Huynh illustrated a digital comic adaptation of Nam Le’s short story “The Boat” from 2008, produced by Kylie Bolton and the Australian broadcast company SBS, with project development by Matt Smith and sound design by Sam Petty. The story follows 16-year-old Mai as she is put on a boat by her mother to seek safety after the fall of Saigon. She meets Quyen, a young mother fleeing the Communists, and Truong, Quyen’s six-year-old son; together, they experience a storm, a damaged vessel, and severe hunger and thirst before eventually reaching the shores of Australia.

Huynh’s version is easily accessible online and is mobile friendly. Its construction as a digital comic takes full advantage of the capacity of digital media to layer and stitch together various sensory and haptic modes of interaction, including drawings, sound, text, animation, and photos. Huynh incorporates these different modes to show how digital comics can expand the possibilities for reader participation and make refugee stories visible, humanized, and urgent. These strategies disrupt how readers consume refugee narratives: Huynh employs digital storytelling tactics to reframe reading not as engaging with a story as a commodity but as a cosmopolitan activity that demands the reader see how they are affectively implicated–and complicit–in Mai’s own struggles to survive. This kind of cosmopolitanism views all people around the globe as citizens of a shared community with moral-ethical obligations to each other.

Huynh’s adaptation of “The Boat” was released in 2015—a year marked by the 40th anniversary of Vietnamese resettlement in Australia and international attention to the Syrian crisis. That particular crisis has since generated a plethora of graphic narratives about refugees in general, such as Threads by Kate Evans (2017) and An Olympic Dream by Reinhard Kleist (2016), both of which Biz Nijdam, a lecturer at the University of British Columbia and a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council postdoctoral fellow, discusses in a forthcoming article in Crossings: Journal of Migration and Culture. As important as the two stories by Evans and Kleist have been in demonstrating the hardships refugees face politically and personally, neither of those narratives were written by refugees themselves.

However, as Huynh observes in an interview with Guernica, there can be “language barriers” and “trauma from reliving these experiences” for refugees and asylum seekers, which can make it difficult for them to tell their own stories. He further comments on the power imbalances that occur when others recount refugee narratives: “And so what happens is you have big media or government policy, these venues are telling [refugee] stories for them–they’re actually taking advantage of these vulnerable people. It’s important to tell and share your own stories.”

Comics publishing—both print and digital forms—must still reckon with its complicity in co-opting refugee narratives even as it provides new opportunities for creating and disseminating these stories by refugees themselves. As the child of Vietnamese refugees, Huynh sees himself as occupying a crucial space as an artist-activist who can bridge his own family’s history with “the desire to bring it into the current political climate and issues surrounding asylum seekers today.” In other words, he views “The Boat” as a critical engagement with the politics of representation for refugee stories that is still relevant in contemporary conversations. The adaptation’s multi-sensory and multimodal form pushes digital comics in exciting new directions for thinking about refugees’ embodied experiences and the reader’s affective response.

A comic panel is slammed around the screen by the storm.

The foundation of “The Boat” involves panels drawn in a rich sumi-e, ink brush painting style in tandem with multimodal forms such as animation, sound, photos, and text to create a version of the story that focuses on sensorial immersion. Panels are actually animated and show the refugees in the over-packed hold of the boat, slammed around the phone or computer screen by the storm. The sinuous black lines in each panel emphasize the tangle of limbs and the forced intimacy of these circumstances. In another section, the sound of a haunting war song about waiting and loss emerges from the speakers to echo against a tableau of hibiscus flowers. Sometimes, the text breaks away and falls off the screen entirely, not even recoverable by returning to that point in the story. In all of these examples, the digital comic is augmented by other haptic and sensory strategies such as sound and animation.

Huynh’s decision to work with Le’s source text stems in part from their similar background and their approach to art as a form of advocacy: their families were part of the Vietnamese-Australian diaspora in the late 1970s, and both artists have used their art to highlight the physical and political vulnerability of refugees and persecuted minorities. In particular, Huynh notes on his website that his adaptation of “The Boat” was released in time to mark “40 years of Vietnamese resettlement in Australia,”  locating the project as both a piece commemorating the refugees themselves and as a critical challenge to the problematic history of Australian resettlement policies.

Huynh’s “The Boat” is a comic that plays with what the digital can offer comic storytelling not only in terms of multimodality but also the role of the reader. While comics have always been built on the necessity of reader participation to an extent, here the reader propels not just the story forward but the actual boat on which the refugees are traveling. The use of everyday forms of digital maneuvering—scrolling and clicking—here become powerful forces in the construction and momentum of the adaptation as a whole. At times, the reader’s actions produce effects on Mai and the others by shaking the panels and spurring conversations that had not previously appeared on the page.

Huynh uses these visual and participatory strategies to challenge the idea of distance between the content and the reader. If the reader is engaged not just in reading the story but in constructing it, it can upend how we interact with the work as a whole and make reading a perplexing experience. We don’t just read Mai’s story–we actively shape how Mai experiences her journey to Australia and to safety. In an interview with Kaya Press, Huynh talks about his career’s consistent emphasis on “entic[ing] audiences in surprising, novel, and challenging ways to empathize with characters and values that might not otherwise have a voice.” This element becomes crucial given how Huynh’s artwork renders the vulnerability of Mai’s and Truong’s young age. Though Mai is clearly an active agent on the boat itself, ultimately she and Truong are children undergoing a dangerous journey with only one adult (who is also quite young herself) to support them. The situation provokes the uncomfortable feeling that we as readers are responsible in some way for caring for Mai and Truong while simultaneously thrusting them into danger.

In an article for Crossings: Journal of Migration and Culture (2020), Mike Lehman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, terms Huynh’s aesthetic strategies kinotextuality: “an active mode of reading that engages the reader to reconceptualize notions of belonging.” Lehman’s terminology views readers as active participants in the story, an idea that resonates with multimodal narratives in general. Multimodal narratives foreground reader participation (see Christina Spurgeon and Jean Burgess’ 2015 chapter on “Making Media Participatory: Digital Storytelling”), asking questions of both creators and readers: how do readers become co-authors of the story being told? What kinds of affective identification do these types of narratives support and problematize? What kinds of practices and possibilities do multimodal stories enable for creators, especially those from marginalized and legally vulnerable communities?

The digital page blooms into color accompanied by the sound of a woman singing the lyrics on screen.

In her forthcoming article for the same journal, Nijdam writes about how recent comics and digital narratives use new media to communicate the lived experiences of refugees. Focusing on the smartphone in particular but also highlighting photojournalism, Nijdam observes that new technologies and social media play an important “role…in the lives of migrants” in terms of how they physically navigate their journeys. However, comics as an illustrative medium can also reference and mediate the “digital spaces” and technologies in which “[migrants] are archiving their lives, telling their stories, and bearing witness to the atrocities they experience.” Nijdam points to the ways in which contemporary comics authors and artists are attempting to humanize the nameless, faceless migrants in news clips: comics can literally portray emotion and character that are impossible to convey within a sound bite. For Nijdam, new comic narratives can offer “an alternative perspective on migrant experience that moves beyond the conventional categories of foreigners as either powerless, infantilised victims or dangerous invaders, positioning them as agents of their own stories.” This alternative perspective simultaneously asks for different responses from the reader—the person’s life on the page becomes an invitation to connect with them as human beings dealing with forced displacement. How is the reader going to respond in the midst of widespread political apathy?

This issue of how comics and art can be used to humanize refugee stories has been explored by Australian artist and graphic novelist Safdar Ahmed in the Refugee Art Project. He focuses on how refugee stories are made and works with refugees and asylum seekers in Australia’s detention centers to give them the artistic and digital tools to create their own narratives. Both Nijdam and Ahmed note the pervasive whiteness of digital spaces and across media platforms and argue for the central importance of refugees developing new visual vocabularies to produce their own stories (for more comics by and about refugees, Candida Rifkind has an excellent spotlight piece on migrant and refugee comics in Extra-INKS).

Huynh demonstrates the hardships of the journey by focusing on different features of Truoung’s ravaged face.

Similar to Nijdam and Ahmed, Huynh’s adaptation considers the dynamic relationship between creator, text, and reader, including one notable example at the end of “The Boat.” While the story focuses on Mai, she quickly becomes friends with Quyen, a woman who’s not much older than Mai, and Quyen’s young son Truong. They offer advice and care for each other throughout the hardships at sea. Near the end of “The Boat,” Truong dies from a sickness caused by a combination of heat, starvation, and dehydration. Mai looks away as Truong’s body is thrown overboard, just after the moment when they finally sight land. Unlike Mai, we as readers are not permitted to look away, as Huynh draws several panels successively following Truong’s body as it hits the water and then disappears underneath.

Huynh exerts authorial power here in directing and holding the reader’s gaze to make visible what all too quickly becomes invisible–Truong’s lifeless body sinking beneath the waves. The digital comic takes up Nguyen’s emphasis on making refugee lives visible because of its relentless focus on drawing refugee bodies in motion as they are affected by each other and by their experiences of hunger, loss, and war. This foregrounding of the physical body gives a heart-wrenching material quality to their stories while at the same time critiquing the role of the transnational reader interacting with the story–how is the reader reacting to and consuming the comic as a whole? How do we respond to those bodies in pain?

This issue of how readers consume texts was certainly on Nam Le’s mind when he wrote the original, text-based version of “The Boat,” which appeared in his 2009 short story collection of the same name. The opening story of that collection “Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice” comments on “ethnic literature’s” (9) appeal to Western audiences, noting that it is often the type of fiction that sells well and is nominated for literary awards.

Huynh uses sumi-e inking techniques and aesthetics to portray 16-yr-old Mai.

Le’s consciousness of how affluent (white) Western readers interact with “ethnic” stories problematizes how people are reading: do they understand themselves as possessing any kind of responsibility to the writer or to the stories being told?  In an article for the Journal of Asian American Studies, Donald Goellnicht, a former professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, was concerned that the appeal of ethnic lit demonstrated how these audiences “fee[l] no obligation to the dead” when reading it and “will co-opt, appropriate, and transform the memory into entertainment” (2012). This theory of consumption co-opts affective response—including empathy for Mai’s traumatic experiences surviving on the boat—as an experiential commodity to be consumed and then forgotten rather than a call to responsibility to act to help Mai and other refugees.

Huynh’s interactive comic demonstrates this tension between response and forgetting when Mai is put on a bus by her mother. She looks for her mother’s face as the bus pulls away, but her mother disappears into the crowded street. At this point in the story, the panel of the street holding Mai’s mother flickers and sputters before fading into blankness. By scrolling through the comic, we as readers become complicit in the act of forgetting and erasing the families of those affected by the war.

Goellnicht does see potential for a mode of consumption that re-envisions affective engagement with a text not as a commodity but as a powerful indicator of how reading is entwined with responsibility and connection in significant ways. His hope is echoed by award-winning Vietnamese-American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, who in the introduction to the 2018 collection The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, emphasizes the necessity of visibilizing refugee narratives as they seek safety. He wants such stories to remember and materialize experiences of the displaced so that they’re not forgotten once refugees cross a geopolitically defined border.

Huynh’s digital version of “The Boat” takes up Nguyen’s imperative to remember by layering different types of media alongside his artwork: he includes photos and short films of actual Vietnamese refugees to not simply show their suffering but to claim an archival space for witnessing their very existence via comics. For example, one scene of “The Boat” melds Huynh’s drawing of the crowded ship with a photo of a multi-generational family. Huynh’s artwork joins the historical record of the photo to provide a new kind of graphic witness that builds on other forms of documentation.

Photo of a multi-generational Vietnamese refugee family (one of 11 historical photos in addition to one video interspersed throughout the story) overlaid with Huynh’s artwork of the boat on which Mai is travelling.

This intense concentration on particularity—particular lives and experiences—means that the space of the boat and the bodies of Mai, Truong, and the other refugees become the central focus rather than political or legal issues related to asylum claims. It’s one approach among many to make refugee narratives visible, as Huynh’s own body of work demonstrates. For example, his 2018 illustrated adaptation of Nguyen’s “On True War Stories” for the Massachusetts Review contains much more specificity than “The Boat.” It concentrates on Vietnamese refugees who do make it to places such as San Jose, California, only to continue to face the ramifications of war. Nguyen describes a war that doesn’t have soldiers but in which daily violence such as exploitative work conditions, loss of family back in Vietnam, and racism and discrimination have become normalized. In that text (and more clearly outlined in Nguyen’s original piece), Americans like the ones who read literary magazines such as the Massachusetts Review are the ones who wage war against the refugees by not facing the uncomfortable truth of how war stories are thrilling and entertaining but often end up erasing the lives of immigrants displaced by conflict because they focus instead on soldiers and battles.

Both “The Boat” and “On True War Stories” address different dimensions of refugee experience and provoke different questions of how readers can participate in the act of remembrance instead of erasure. The comic form of “The Boat” employs different tools than the illustrations of “On True War Stories” to experiment with how digital media can immerse the reader into the immediacy of Mai’s experiences of daily survival in traumatic circumstances as well as her own struggles with memory. At the beginning of Chapter 2, Mai hears an old Vietnamese folk song about a soldier’s wife that her mother used to sing waiting for her father to return home. We follow the faint sounds of singing as we are plunged into Mai’s memories; the singing intensifies as she goes into the hold and finds Truong to be the singer. At the same time, the screen blossoms into coral-colored hibiscus flowers–the only use of non-black and white color in the entire comic. The use of sound and color are once again tied to the reader’s interactive reading of the comic through scrolling. Here, multimodality transforms cosmopolitanism into an art form by visually and haptically involving global readers in the process of remembering.

From Matt Huynh’s 2018 adaptation of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s On True War Stories.

The cosmopolitanism at work in both print and comic versions of “The Boat” is one that Goellnicht suggests sheds the concept’s early utopian leanings. Goellnicht sees Nam Le’s original short story collection as “reject[ing] the position of an earlier type of cosmopolitan writer who is detached from the world, transcendent, free of commitments and bonds.” Le also challenges the ethical and affective detachment of the reader who is consuming the latest popular incarnation of “ethnic Lit” for “entertainment” without recognizing that they too are not free of commitments and bonds to the text, its author, and its subjects.

Despite all the valid criticisms of cosmopolitanism (see, for example, Eddy Kent and Terri Tomsky’s 2017 edited collection Negative Cosmopolitanisms), Goellnicht still sees a usefulness for a revised idea of literary cosmopolitanism. He ponders how it can show that subjects are always multiply-attached rather than detached and how readers are implicated in “local-to-global networks of power and worldly interdependence and interconnectedness.”  This kind of cosmopolitanism involves acknowledgement of the individual reader’s positionality and their simultaneous entrenchment in international orders of imperialism and domination.

“The Boat” is one such example of a text that demonstrates a more muscular cosmopolitanism that interrogates the assumptions of the reader. In a 2020 piece for Verge: Studies in Global Asias, Mai-Linh Hong, a scholar of Asian diaspora and refugee literature, focuses on the compelling immediacy of “The Boat,” arguing that it embodies an emphasis on audience action rooted in affective acknowledgement of the suffering of others as one important part of a larger project of justice for refugees. Hong says, “Refugee art…demands that you be with others urgently: Act now, it says. Your fellow human is suffering” (emphasis original). Hong further places this call to responsibility within Huynh’s “transnational, transhistorical, intergenerational, and politically committed understanding of refugee experience.” Goellnicht might further describe this as an example of how we are all “multiply-attached” as subjects and as readers. The domestic, the personal, and the intergenerational tangle with the transnational and the political, as Huynh’s own family history in Australia highlights. His parents were refugees, and in an interview with Sub-Cultured, he comments on how this personal background led him to take on the project in the first place.

Reading is simultaneously an ethical, affective, and a material process of consumption, and I hope to find more comics that make use of digital tools and multimodality to get readers to think about how the three are always entwined. Sound, images, and animation are only a few options that creators can use to both disrupt and enrich comic narratives, unsettling the role of the reader along the way. Refugee narratives such as Huynh’s “The Boat” or those of the Refugee Art Project employ a range of media and artistic possibilities to specifically make visible refugee experiences while also questioning the cosmopolitan obligations and responsibilities of the global reader holding the phone or device on which the story is rendered. Perhaps in the future, we’ll see a digital comic by one of the Haitian migrants on the tarmac waiting to be deported rather than a news bite about them. The vantage point would shift dramatically, and we as readers would be standing by the plane with them instead of looking at them comfortably from the other side of the fence.

Brandi Estey-Burtt, PhD, is a research associate with the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Narrative at St. Thomas University. She has published in ARIEL and Literature & Theology and written for the popular culture website Women Write about Comics. She focuses on postcolonialism and religion, especially challenges to Eurocentric notions of secularism, and also researches digital comics and postcolonial children’s literature.

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