Between 1975 and 1995, following the South Vietnamese government’s surrender to the North’s communist forces during the Vietnam War, nearly 800,000 refugees fled their homeland in perilously overcrowded fishing boats. Headed for Malaysian coasts, these “boat people” boarded vessels that were not built for wide-ranging trips over open waters, facing a multitude of horrors along the way: punishing storms, starvation, disease. They were also vulnerable to piracy — pirate attacks resulted in torture as well as in hundreds of murders and rapes. “[Refugees] are first robbed of their meager material possessions, then of their human dignity, and, sometimes, of their lives,” wrote Richard Vine, the US State Department’s Bureau for Refugee Programs director at the time. And the horrors didn’t end when the boats finally arrived: In places such as Thailand and Singapore, anti-refugee crowds on the shoreline often pushed them back out to sea, likely sending thousands of people to their deaths.
For Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service’s commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, Sydney-born, New York City–based artist Matt Huynh adapted author Nam Le’s award-winning 2008 story “The Boat.” Huynh — like Le, the son of Vietnamese boat people — produced an interactive comic that melds audio, Le’s text, and the animation of hundreds of illustrations. It makes for an immersive, arresting 20 minutes.
Le fictionalized the conditions the boat people faced in the 1970s, tracking the passage of a teenage Vietnamese girl called Mai. The story opens with chilling imagery of a storm at sea and thrashing bodies stacked on top of one another:
Finally the storm arrived in force. The remaining light drained out of the hold. Wind screamed through the cracks. She felt the panicked limbs, people clawing for direction, sudden slaps of ice-cold water, the banging and shapeless shouts from the deck above. The whole world reeled. Everywhere the stink of vomit.
Editors of Bard College’s literary journal Conjunctions selected Le’s story for publication in 2008 before it was culled for a collection of the same name. The copy was edited considerably for the comic. Prior to pencil roughs, Huynh started with thumbnails, then clipped his early blueprint apart with scissors and glued the illustrations onto mood boards to draft his longform work. The type is strung between slim horizontal panels that shimmy and sway with the rhythmic tumble of cresting waves. Huynh split the comic into six separately titled chapters, each accessible from hyperlinks on the right side of the page.
Huynh had explored the story of Vietnamese boat people through comics before. He approached the development of a graphic novel in 2013 called Ma as both a painter and comics artist to relay what his family had undergone as refugees. It’s more linear than “The Boat,” but Ma was cast in lush ink washes, too, and confronts the same dire consequences that faced the parents of both men 40 years ago.
“I hadn’t read Le’s work prior to this project,” Huynh told me via email. “But it was something my friends and I had discussed given our interest in the subject matter, and because we were engaged in the ideas in our own work. Right down to the character archetypes and the Malaysian island the characters were fleeing to, Le’s fictional story rang very closely to my own family’s personal experience.”
The original opening paragraphs of “The Boat” are distilled into a curt play-by-play of Le’s violent storm. Rain streaks Huynh’s digitally layered files, darting over ashy gradients or flat petroleum-black swathes. Smudgy clouds float across the single wobbling backdrop frame, and while gales, a flashy title card, and thunder clamor for our attention, a struggling vessel fights raging waters at the center of the scene, nearly toppling before a backstory emerges and the core narrative takes shape.
Mai is smuggled out of a coastal city on the Gulf of Thailand by strange men under the cover of night. Cricket calls, splashing water, and frantic whispered conversation back images of a slender canoe carting a handful of people out to the glutted fishing vessel. Onboard, Mai bonds with a mother and young son, Quyen and Truong, and we later scroll past hand-inked lyrics from an old Vietnamese folk song as Quyen sings it to soothe Truong. The melody reminds Mai of her blind and bedridden father, who endured indoctrination and far worse in a communist reeducation camp where more than 1 million Vietnamese were incarcerated for their political beliefs after the war. Huynh’s fine art influences unfurl as painted peach-red flowers couch the verses, and sound design engineer Sam Petty slips in a performance of the song alongside whirring drones and the creak of the boat’s frame.
Following long slogs of heat and spoiled food, dead bodies are wrapped in blankets and thrown overboard. Stores of water are depleted, amounting “to a couple of wet mouthfuls a day.”
“On deck she shielded her eyes against the sunset,” wrote Le of his frail Mai in 2008. “An incandescent red sky veered into the dark ocean. Rows and rows of the same sun-blotched, peeling faces looked out at nothing.”
Above deck, Huynh’s charcoal haze sets in eventually around a twirling blot of white, the center of which cooks Mai’s fellow passengers sitting cross-legged in the early evening heat. Hopelessness shrouds everything. SBS producers employed sparse integration of black-and-white photos of actual refugees, while archival imagery of a Bidong Island refugee camp contextualizes Mai and her father’s relationship. Here are Huynh’s ghostly, translucent-looking figures, accompanied by the paper trail of the very real tide of people who set out on a journey that meant unspeakable suffering and often ended in death. It’s a sobering juxtaposition of art and history – something that can be said of “The Boat” as a whole, in either iteration.
The Boat by Matt Huynh, adapted from the story by Nam Le, is available from Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service.