Cambodian artist Vannak Anan Prum has an incredible story to tell ― even before being forced into slavery. In this image rich book, Prum’s story is told simply and supported by related materials brought together, in part, by Jocelyn and Ben Pederick, who have been reporting his story for Radio Free Asia. The memoir is book-ended by texts from a slavery researcher, a comic’s journalist, and a Human Rights Watch expert. These accounts contextualize Prum’s experiences in light of historic Cambodian visual arts traditions and larger contemporary trends in labor slavery.
The account is chronological, beginning when Prum is a child, living in a Cambodian village during the Cambodian–Vietnamese War. His life is marked by poverty and a love of art. He carries this hobby from his first home, where he draws Bruce Lee in the dirt; through enlistment in the army, where he becomes popular for his drawings of bar girls; to domestic life on his in-laws’ farm, where he sculpts for a living. In between, he spends time at a monastery Angkor Wat, at Siem Reap, where he’s inspired by religious art.
Once Prum’s wife, Sokun, becomes pregnant, the couple decides he needs to find other work in order to support their family. So Prum sets out in search of employment away from the farm.
The descriptions are matter-of-fact, while the naive-style drawings are vivid. This is partly due to the bright colors of clothing and of landscapes, and partly due to the uncomplicated pen and pencil lines. Violence is understated and never dramatized, even when depicting beatings from his stepfather, or death on the battlefield.
This is especially true in the case of scenes of enslavement, which begin with Prum being tricked and coerced into crossing the border into Thailand, along with other Cambodians in search of work. Where the previous drawings have been bright and sun-lit, the scenes of captivity and border crossing are literally, and effectively, dark.
For the three years that follow, when Prum is enslaved on fishing boats, the dominant visual impression is of space — lots of open space framed by the rich blues of the sea, contrasting sharply with his confinement on board. Prum and his shipmates, who are from other Southeast Asian countries, catch fish, store it below deck in the freezer room, and offload each month’s catch onto a larger supply ship, in an exhausting cycle. This is lightened by Prum’s discovery that he has a talent for tattooing. Again, his artistic skills draw attention.
As in earlier stages on his journey, life onboard is portrayed without visual tricks or embellishments. Facial expressions are muted, and even horrific scenes — including a madman’s beheading and a captain’s whippings — are drawn with restraint. The impact of the casualness of these visuals underscores the harshness of Prum’s enslavement, where violence is routine.
Eventually Prum and a friend manage to escape, still, obstacles abound. Corrupt police and avaricious enslavers put Prum to work on a Malaysian palm plantation. It isn’t until he’s injured and hospitalized that he finally believes he has a chance to go home. Immigration issues complicate his return home. And even though aid workers pledge to help, Prum is imprisoned for months on charges of illegal migration.
Even, when upon finally reaching home, in Cambodia, to be reunited with his wife and to meet his daughter, the experience is fraught. Five years have passed since he left, looking for work, and Prum’s wife Sokun is angry and confused.
Reintegration into his family and his society is challenging. But in this difficult situation, as in his periods of captivity, his art helps him through. Prum begins to draw his story, a story his wife witnesses in his drawings. She learns about the terrible circumstances behind his absence, and comes to trust him again. As Prum writes, “I drew my way back into my family home.” Whether it’s tattooing other enslaved men aboard a fishing boat or drawing the details of his past, the power of art and narrative shine through The Dead Eye and the Deep Blue Sea.
Vannak Anan Prum, The Dead Eye and The Deep Blue Sea: A Graphic Memoir of Modern Slavery, as told to Ben Pederick, text by Jocelyn Pederick, is scheduled to be published by Seven Stories Press in July 2018.