Retelling War Stories Through Comics: An Interview With Trần Hải Anh | Vietcetera
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Apr 06, 2023
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Retelling War Stories Through Comics: An Interview With Trần Hải Anh

Vietcetera’s recent conversation with Hải Anh looks into the work of art that she co-authored and the need to have an open attitude towards a multifaceted history of Vietnam during the war.
Retelling War Stories Through Comics: An Interview With Trần Hải Anh

Source: Trần Hải Anh/Photographer: Barack Huy

Trần Hải Anh is a young filmmaker in Saigon. She is the co-author of Sống, a French comic book that recounts her mother’s stories during wartime in Vietnam. This tale of a Vietnamese woman in an untold part of history doesn’t just depict what life was like back then; it’s also a tangible metaphor for the complex relationship that Hải Anh has with her mother and her roots.

Growing up in France, she spent more time with her father than with her famous mother, Director Việt Linh, the woman behind many awe-inspiring Vietnamese movies, who was going back and forth to Vietnam for work. But Hải Anh was an avid listener to her mother’s stories. Now at 30, she’s retelling them in her own words.

Hải Anh has strengthened her connection with Vietnam and the Vietnamese language over the years. But the most precious thing for her is the chance to understand and connect with her mother through an intimate process they are both passionate about: the arts.

Vietcetera’s recent conversation with Hải Anh looks into the work of art that she co-authored, as well as exploring the publishing industry in France and the need to have an open attitude towards a multifaceted history of Vietnam during the war.

Are you still in Saigon, or have you returned to Paris?

Yes, I’m in Saigon right now. I moved to Saigon in 2020, so I live here now. I go back to France from time to time, mostly for work. I’ll be traveling there next month to promote my book, Sống.

Can you briefly describe Sống?

Sống is a comic book, or a graphic novel, depending on what readers want to call it. I did it as a scenarist with my best friend, Pauline, a French illustrator. It’s our first graphic novel and it tells the story of my mom’s teenage years in chiến khu (war zone).

Cover of Sống | Source: Ankama Publishing

Sống revolves around a mother telling her daughter about her teenage years in hiding amidst the war in Vietnam against the US. From 1969 to 1975, the main character spent seven years with the communist revolutionaries, which introduced her to the resistance and filmmaking.

Sống is divided into two parts. The first part is about how a young teenager adapted to daily life in chiến khu. The second part is my voice explaining how it affected our relationship as mother and daughter.

What factors made the publishing house choose your project?

What makes Sống unique is that it’s a point of view we have never heard of or read before. Sure, we had a lot of great and inspiring stories about the Vietnam War through movies and books. The narratives from boat people and the Vietnamese diaspora in America also have their own stories. But there aren’t many insights about the people who stayed and saw everything.

This is also written from the point of view of a 16-year-old girl, which makes it unique and genuine.

How does the book provide a different narrative about the war?

What strikes people the most about the book is that the war is only part of a deeper, more intimate context. When you read the book, there’s nothing much about the war. My mom was not fighting; she stayed in the administrative quarter far from the frontline, so it’s more about daily life: how they ate, slept, grew up, and coped with both adolescence and a seemingly endless battle.

It’s not what you think when you think about war stories. It’s not epic or action-filled. It’s more about how a 16-year-old girl lived in the jungle.

Frames from the comic book. | Source: Ankama Publishing

How does your mother’s individuality contribute to the success of Sống? Do you think those stories represent Vietnamese women in that era?

I think the success of Sống is because people are curious about it. The first thing that attracts people to Sống is that it is centered on the perspective war of a young Vietnamese woman.

I don’t know if it’s representative of Vietnamese women. I think every family has different stories that are special in their way. Though I believe we have a lot of common points.

I recently met a woman who had also gone to chiến khu, and she was amazed that others were interested in this story and that someone made a comic book out of it. She never thought the French audience would like her story.

What does the French audience think of the story?

They find it refreshing to have this point of view, and liken the book to an important puzzle piece in understanding the war. People now realize that war is not black and white but contains multiple storylines and perspectives.

Which chapter in Sống is your favorite?

It’s tough to say. The exciting thing about Sống is that my friend and I decided that we would not do it chronologically but instead give every chapter its theme.

For every chapter, I keep a Vietnamese word; it starts with gặp, then you have tiếc nuối (to regret), nấu (to cook), yêu (to love), chạy trốn (to hide),... and I think people in France really like it. They think it's very fun to learn these Vietnamese words, some journalists even asked me to pronounce them.

Source: Ankama Publishing

I don’t have a favorite chapter, but I like a specific word: ‘thông cảm.’ It means ‘understanding and forgiving,’ which sums up the whole book. By understanding my mom and Vietnamese history, I forgave her for things that hurt me when I was young. That’s what I want readers to take away from the comic book.

How many voices are there in the book, and how do they interact with each other?

The book has three voices - that was really the plan from the start. I usually say that I’m not looking for the truth because when my mom told me the story, she already told the story she wanted. It’s probably not precisely what happened because she didn’t remember or want to tell the story her way. Her truth is the first voice, the first layer of the story.

But I know for a fact that my Vietnamese is not that good, so there were parts that got lost in translation there. I would write the story based on my understanding, and my friend Pauline, a hundred percent French, would illustrate and interpret my words. These three different layers make Sống a unique piece.

Why comics? Isn’t it easier to tell stories through words?

I don’t know if it’s easier or not. For example, I’ve never seen Sống as a film, although all the women in this project are in the film industry. My mom is a filmmaker, I also study film and make films, and my best friend Pauline does animated movies.

But we saw these stories in comic form firstly because we love comic books. But also, because there are stories you can’t put words into, stories like this are better told in pictures.

Source: Trần Hải Anh

The idea came in 2018 when I read many comic books. I found Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Maus by Art Spiegelman truly mind-blowing, and they are both about wartime and family.

Maus especially struck a chord. It’s about the author and his relationship with his dad. It is complex, but by sitting down with him and listening to him tell stories about WWII in Auschwitz, he learned to forgive his dad. When I read Maus again, I knew I wanted to make a comic book about my mom’s stories.

Considering your film background, did you apply cinematography techniques to the project?

My mom is a director, so she has a very cinematographic way of telling stories. It’s very visual. She talks about the colors, the lights, the sounds,... When she tells a story, it’s like watching a movie. So it was enjoyable to write it again.

Since it was my first comic book with my friend, we didn’t have many skills in writing a comic story. I wrote Sống as a film script but we knew that the final output would be a comic book.

We would love to have Sống as an animated movie adapted from the comic book someday. But right now, we are just delighted to see the comic book we’ve worked so hard on. I think it’s perfect on its own already.

How would 12-year-old Hai Anh feel if she could read Sống?

She would be so proud because she loves reading comic books and was already friends with Pauline. So she will be very proud that she got to do comic books with her best friend and is still friends with Pauline at 30 years old. This whole project and this whole adventure are so beautiful because I got to do it with the people I love.

Trần Hải Anh and Pauline Guitton. | Source: Trần Hải Anh/Photographer: Olivier Clertant

She would probably be surprised because I don’t think she ever imagined becoming a writer. There were so few Vietnamese writers in France back then.

How has your perception of your mother changed over time and throughout the making of Sống?

The 12-year-old Hai Anh would describe her mother as a superwoman. I didn’t know or understand anything about movies back then. I just saw my mom going back to Vietnam a lot, and she looked so famous and fierce in my eyes. I looked up to her with adoration, so much so that I always thought I could never be like her.

Director Việt Linh during wartime. | Source: Trần Hải Anh

With time, I think I slowly understood my mom better. I got into the same industry and saw that we had another thing in common. Sống got us closer together and allowed us to do many things that would have been impossible.

I saw her struggles as a woman in this industry during the war and how difficult it was to travel back and forth. When I was younger, I thought it was fun for her, but it was tough.

So now that I’m 30 years old and having made Sống, I see her more like a different woman whose stories aren’t very different from mine, although we lived in different worlds in different circumstances. The book shows that women have so many things in common - like how it is to be a teenager, the first sign of puberty, first love, and first fight with a dear friend. It’s universal, but it’s also very special and genuine.

But it’s written in the war context, right?

Exactly! The context is exceptional. But the story is universal. That’s the beauty of Sống.

Were there any difficulties in the publishing process as a Vietnamese writer?

Promotion of Sống at The Angoulême International Comics Festival. | Source: Trần Hải Anh

We got lucky, I have to say. The publishing part was not hard for us at all. Usually, you send a proposal to the publisher, and you’re not supposed to write the whole book because you have to work on the project with the publisher. We had the idea since 2018 when we were still in school. Developing the project took two years, and we sent it to many publishers in 2020.

I’m not always confident about my project or work, but Pauline and I were optimistic about Sống because we trusted my mom’s story. It’s such a great story that French people would be interested in.

I also think it was a smooth process for us because France loves comic books and history, especially Vietnamese history. We knew we had all the elements of a good comic book and knew this story would find a publisher, and we were correct.

Would the book make the same impression on Vietnamese readers?

I don’t know how the Vietnamese would respond to this. Maybe people who have similar stories might not be so surprised. But I think something that is more French than Vietnamese is my relationship with my mom. I think she is open to talking, while in the Vietnamese family, the child doesn’t always talk to their mom openly.

Some Vietnamese people found the book surprising. I had some feedback from Việt kiều (overseas Vietnamese) in France who came to me and said, “Wow, I learned so much, but also, I don’t know how you did it, talking about these things to your mom because it’s so hard for me to ask questions and talk about it.”

Will there be a Vietnamese translation?

We are working on it. We have to work on this part with my friend, but I think there will be one.

Hải Anh during her book signing tour in France. | Source: Trần Hải Anh

Do you read any Vietnamese authors?

Yes, I do. I read them in French and English. I don’t read novels in Vietnamese yet. When I was a kid, I read a few books by Linda Lê. I am very curious about the Vietnamese diaspora, so I read a lot, like those from Ocean Vuong and Viet Thanh Nguyen. I also read comic books by Thi Bùi and Trung Lê.

Do you watch many Vietnamese films, and do you watch your mother’s movies?

I watch all my mom’s movies; I have to watch them all. About the Vietnamese film industry in general, I do watch a few movies here and there. I loved Song Lang in 2018 and recently watched Tro Tàn Rực Rỡ. That was great too.

Are you working on another book?

Not for now, as we are still promoting Sống. We got approached by a legendary Sci-fi comic magazine in France, to write a short story about Vietnam. That’s going to be our next project.