Comics Review: Clément Baloup’s Mémoires de Viet Kieu

Over the last year or so, I wrote about Garry Trudeau’s coverage of the Vietnam war in Doonesbury. Trudeau broke new ground in mainstream comic strips by using satire to draw attention to the atrocities committed by the United States in pursuit of its war aims and by introducing a sympathetic enemy character in Phred the Vietcong Terrorist. While Phred allowed readers to develop a sense of empathy with a racialized enemy, he did not really represent a Vietnamese voice. As much empathy as he tried to display for the Vietnamese people, Trudeau was in no position to meaningfully document their experiences or the meanings they attached to them.

As I was writing about Trudeau’s take on the war, I read Quitter Saigon: Mémoires de Viet Kieu, Volume I and Little Saigon: Mémoires de Viet Kieu, Volume II, by Clément Baloup, a French-Vietnamese cartoonist who chronicles the experience of the Vietnamese people during the American war in Vietnam and its aftermath. (I read them in their original French: they are also available in English; also, there is a third volume in the series that I have yet to get my hands on.) The Viet Minh were the anticolonialist guerrilla army that liberated Vietnam from French occupation; the Viet Cong were South Vietnamese guerillas who fought the Saigon regime and its American allies in order to unify Vietnam as a communist nation. The Viet Kieu are people who were loyal to the American-allied government of South Vietnam and fled Vietnam to escape the abuses and oppression of the communist regime. Often known as “Boat People” in the West, the Viet Kieu have created a “Second Vietnam” that numbers over three million people in the United States, Canada, France, and elsewhere. Baloup has spent years talking to the Viet Kieu and presents their stories in a way that complicates an understanding of the Vietnam war that focuses exclusively on the mass violence and death inflicted by the United States on the Vietnamese people.

While my understanding of Vietnamese history is disproportionately focused on the American war of the 1960s and 70s, as Baloup writes, that was “but one episode in Vietnam’s violent modern history.” The first Jesuit priest to visit Vietnam, a Frenchman named Alexandre de Rhodes, arrived in 1620; shortly before the French Revolution, the Vietnamese royal family partially surrendered their country’s sovereignty to the French in exchange for a military alliance, thus beginning a history of nearly 200 years of imperialist occupation of Vietnam by the French, the Japanese, the French again, and then the Americans. What emerges from the stories of the Viet Kieu is that there is, in their eyes, a fourth occupying force joining the the French, the Japanese, and the Americans: the communists. The reunification of Vietnam under communist rule did not liberate the Vietnamese people from violence and deprivation: the stories that Baloup collects reveal the extensive suffering faced by many Vietnamese people after the victory of the Hanoi regime: the only difference is that mass violence was justified for reasons of ideology instead of to facilitate the political and economic objectives of a foreign power.

One aspect of Trudeau’s writing about Vietnam that I have yet to address is Phred’s post-war career as an instructor at one of the reeducation camps that the communist regime created as it consolidated power. The camps followed a Maoist principle that hard labour could transform reactionary elements into socialist citizens. Baloup documents the story of Mr. Nguyen, an electrical engineer who worked in Saigon when the South Vietnamese regime fell: because he worked for the Saigon government, Nguyen was deemed guilty of collaborating with the Americans and thus needed to be properly trained for life in a communist system. Not long after reunification, he was told that he would be sent for “training” that would last a week. The “course” turned out to be a five-year stint in a reeducation camp. The camp’s Orwellian “education” program based on confession and “self-criticism” was accompanied by a brutal work regimen, starvation rations, and disease. Inmates were given 400 grams of rice a day (500 calories) and 50 grams of meat a month. By the end of his sentence, Nguyen had lost 12 kilograms (25lbs) and five teeth. Others were less fortunate: many inmates died of illness and disease, and camp commanders regularly showed prisoners films and photographs of the executions of inmates who tried to escape.

The re-education camps were horrific, but the experiences of many who fled communist Vietnam were no less traumatic than what Nguyen encountered. Seeking refuge from a violent regime opens people up to new risks of oppression and violence, especially women. Women in refugee camps are at risk of sexual assault at the hands of both fellow refugees as well as by the “humanitarian workers who are charged with protecting and assisting them.” Much of the second volume of the Saigon books tells the story of Anh, whose experiences as a refugee reveal the extended suffering endured by those who attempted to escape the oppression they faced under the Hanoi regime and the particular abuse that women often encountered.

Anh’s story, titled “Dangerous Beauty,” begins in a refugee camp in Malaysia. The title does not refer to Anh being some sort of femme fatale: rather, Anh’s beauty represents a danger to herself, in that it makes her a target for predatory men, be they camp police officers or her fellow refugees. “I was 17 years old when I discovered that I was ‘beautiful,’” Anh tells us, “and that is when my problems began.” Anh’s story not only paints a bleak portrait of the lives of women in dire circumstances, it also reveals how individual survival instincts can undermine empathy and group solidarity when people are living in desperate conditions. At one point, Anh is doing her laundry in the ocean. A wave sweeps away her clothes, leaving her with nothing but a t-shirt. Anh gazes at another woman’s spare pair of trousers; the woman immediately and disdainfully clutches her extra clothing, leaving Anh having to go back to camp naked from the waist down. Eventually, a boy in the camp witnesses Anh’s problem and gives her his shorts. While she is rescued by the kindness of an innocent stranger, she comes to understand that oftentimes “solidarity doesn’t exist in the face of deprivation.”

Anh eventually makes it to the United States, where she and her fellow refugees encountered new challenges that accompanied the new opportunities provided by life in America. America provided Vietnamese refugees with a level of security and a chance at economic stability that would have been impossible under Hanoi’s rule, and Baloup shows us how many of the Viet Kieu were able to work hard and build new lives and new communities in a new setting. But that process was not an easy one, as the deprivation and violence that defined much of life for the Viet Kieu in their home country and in the refugee system did not disappear when they landed on American shores. As one Viet Kieu puts it, Vietnamese refugees in the United States did not experience the American Dream, but were relegated to lives of “misery in abandoned slums,” where gang violence and criminality created significant challenges for them.

The gang violence and criminality experienced by the Viet Kieu are not distinct from the war – they are a psychological extension of it. As one Viet Kieu tells him, the crime and gang-related violence faced by many in Vietnamese communities in America was all too reminiscent of what they faced during the war. Yet these reminders of the past do not prompt the Viet Kieu to engage with the history and memory of colonial occupation and war: Baloup finds that they are typically silent about the past, instead looking forward to new possibilities.

But the trauma of the war is never far behind, representing what one Viet Kieu calls an “open wound” that may take generations to heal. One way in which that wound is slow to heal is a sense of connection that some Viet Kieu maintain with their identities as South Vietnamese citizens. Yen is a Viet Kieu who failed in several attempts to get out of Vietnam. She eventually makes it to the United States, hopeful to build a better life for her daughter, after Vietnam eased its emigration policies in the early 2000s. Yen’s daughter represents a new generation that has no real connection to a Vietnam where communism was not the national ideology. When she does not recognize the flag of the defunct South Vietnamese state being flown in a Vietnamese neighbourhood in Los Angeles, she is publicly shamed by a stranger. Later, she witnesses a small riot that breaks out after a shopkeeper displays a poster of Ho Chi Minh; the reaction of South Vietnamese loyalists to a picture of a man she had taught to revere as a wise and gentle national hero – “Uncle Ho” – was jarring given that had grown up under communist rule. After a generation, it would seem, the gap between different visions of Vietnam, and the pain caused by those differences, are no closer to being resolved.

I have one criticism of these books: Baloup’s depictions of women are often highly sexualised. The chapter on Anh focuses on how she feels that her beauty makes her a target, but Baloup reproduces the kind of male gaze that Anh is painfully aware of in his drawings of her. When we meet Yen’s teen-aged daughter, she is hanging out with her mother, wearing only a see-through t-shirt and a pair of panties, leaning against a wall in the infamous “brokeback pose,” a scourge of comics drawing, where both her breasts and her rear end are visible. Given the extent to which violence against women drive these stories, Baloup should have made more sensitive artistic decisions.

Notwithstanding that shortcoming, Mémoires de Viet Kieu is an important work that documents the pains and victories experienced by the Vietnamese people in the wake of one of the worst tragedies of the tragic twentieth century. It’s all too easy for left voices – like my own – to focus on the trauma that American intervention in Vietnam caused. But just because there’s a “bad guy” doesn’t mean the other side are the “good guys.” “Uncle Ho” was an image created by a murderous and despotic regime that often played on the naiveté of anti-war activists as it advanced an ideology that relied on horrific violence to establish and reproduce itself. These books give readers a poignant look at how one element of the Vietnamese people experienced, and are still working to overcome, tragedy.

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