Read Around the World: Marcelino Truong, Illustrator and French-Vietnamese Author (long version)


My name is Marcelino Truong. I’m an illustrator, author and a painter in my free time. Read Around the World with Marcelino Truong Did you grow up around books? Yes, I come from a family of academics and intellectuals, mainly on my father’s side. My father was a books bargain-hunter and a collector of old and new books alike. So I literally grew up surrounded by books, lots of books on the past and recent history of Indochina. When I was younger, all these books were at my finger tips, and I often leafed through them and even read some of them. What were some of the first books you read that made an impression on you? As a child living in Saigon, I have the distinct recollection of reading many things. My parents had bought an illustrated Bible, La Bible en Images, by Desclée de Brouwer published in 1953 in France. I found it again by chance. It was translated from English to French. I read this Bible a lot, and I was interested in it But we also read two American comic book series called Classics Illustrated. It was great classics of international literature in comic book form in English that we had bought in the US around the end of the fifties and brought to Saigon with us Classics Illustrated were my first readings. So great classics like Robin Hood, or Ivanhoe, I did not read in their original form, but I read their adapted version: comic strips in English. Towards adolescence, I particularly liked people like Saint-Exupéry. I really liked these humanists authors from the forties and fifties, like Camus and so on. I’d say the Humanism, present in a large part of French literature from this period, really resonated with me. As of the age of 16 my father encouraged me to read both left and right wing authors. He’d say to me, “In order to form an opinion you must read both.” I think he was right. Have you always wanted to write? I can’t say that I considered it seriously. I had chosen to be an illustrator. Moreover I was self-taught. It took me years of hard work to acquire a certain ease when drawing. And for years, I put writing aside. Of course I read, but I didn’t feel mature enough to write yet. It was only ten years after I began my career, that I allowed myself to write short texts. Each year I’d produce a children’s book. The text wasn’t longer than two pages, which in itself required great precision. So little by little, I turned towards writing, and I felt the need to write the plot before illustrating it. When you’re an illustrator you spend lots of time illustrating other peoples’ texts, and that’s very altruistic, it’s fine, but there comes a time when you’d like to compose the music before playing it. How important were your mother’s letters when you wrote your graphic novel? The letters that were handily found in Saint-Malo, Brittany. were an enormous help in reconstituting our daily life at the end of our stay in the United States and during our short, but very full two years in Saigon. Without these letters it would have been very difficult because I was only six years old when we left. So I had memories, but many blanks. My memories of Vietnam were similar to when you wake up from a dream and try to remember it, but you only remember 10% of your dream. It was the same for me. Thanks to mum’s letters, which were very detailed, and in which she wrote about both her daily life as a mother of three, as a wife of a senior government official. She also described her husband’s job and the political and military backdrop of the time; for example she would warn my grandparents not to worry if they had heard about such and such an attack in the French press, and that we were safe. Letters are an important source of information throughout history. Historians today really make use of people’s letters. It’s often in letters that you discover people’s state of mind. It’s not only inscribed in international treaties or official documents. Are you ready to write fiction now? My Parisian editor, who runs Éditions Denoël Graphic is encouraging me to go towards fiction. He is discouraging me from autobiographical writing, and is encouraging me to write fiction. I’m doing it a little reluctantly but I think he’s right. I have to take the bull by the horns, so here I am up against the wall, and I’ve been thinking about it for months. I want to write a fiction-based graphic novel about the war in Indochina, that’s not surprising. It’s a subject that few people talk about in France. It’s still a controversial issue, and for that reason I’d like to put my foot in it. Are you moving away from writing for children these days? In this field, just like in music, or sports, or all fields that require manual practice I worked hard at it, and I actually got my training in children’s literature. I’m only moving away from it because I’m treating subjects in my graphic novels that are fairly complex, involving lots of politics, history and sometimes much violence – not that I am advertising it, it’s just that I’m relating events that were violent: those involving decolonization. You can write about these things for children, some people do it very competently. Even though children’s literature is wonderful, there are still a few constraints. What has been the greatest challenge in your artistic endeavors until now? The most recent challenge for me was to write and complete my two graphic novels because I was so nervous about getting started. I didn’t know if I was capable of writing a script contained within two hundred and sixty pages, which is no small feat, and in which I could summarize two years, in the first novel, and twelve years in the second. When it comes to writing, I am much less used to writing than illustrating. In regards to illustration, I now know that I will always be able to illustrate any text handed to me, by making the necessary efforts All you need is the proper research, take photos. And if I do get stuck I know I will manage However, to write a script, it’s similar. You have to take the plunge, and you’ll get there step by step. But I was far from being self-confident when I began, and now that I have to start a new fiction project, I’m equally nervous. Are you inspired by a particular country or culture when you write? Since I have been an illustrator, it’s true that much of my work has been oriented towards Asia, particularly Vietnam. It is a field in which people like to label you. In any case, I sought this as well because it is an area that I have done much research, I am an ethnic mix; my father was Vietnamese. So I think it’s fair to say I know a little bit about Asia, mainly Vietnam, because Asia is so vast. I continue to forge ahead with the history of Vietnam because there are still so many stories to be heard. My interest is never satiated, and I’m always surprised by what I hear. I have lots of conversations with Vietnamese, particularly Vietnamese from France, who are sometimes older than me, and I’m always surprised by the stories they tell me. Do you think about your readers when you write? When I recount my childhood memories in Vietnam, in England and in France, I often ask myself, will anyone be interested in this today? Because I regularly visit secondary schools thanks to these two books, and I’m astonished to see that most middle school students and even high school students have never heard the name Ho Chi Minh for example. It’s unbelievable. In our generation, or at least in my own, Ho Chi Minh was the cri de guerre along with Guevara. It was, “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh! Che Che Guevara !” Everyone had heard of that. It was at the heart of all debates in the West during the Vietnam War. And now, today’s youth has never heard of Ho Chi Minh. So I take note of this, and make a precautionary effort when I’m tackling a subject, telling myself, “Well, the average reader has never heard of all this. So I have to find a way to communicate this in an attractive and comprehensible way.” Can books change people? Everything begins with the written word. The great ideologists of our century started by writing entire volumes that few have read, but their ideas and ideologies often brutally shaped our civilizations and transformed our societies. We constantly see this happening — people who, via their books, wish to change society. And it started a long time ago with the Bible, the Koran or the Talmud. A book’s purpose is not just to distract and entertain. For the most part books try to guide people for the better or for the worse. So yes, I believe in the power of books One has simply to look at reactions that some books illicit. People are ready to kill authors of certain books. So often times, writing, is like manipulating dynamite. Produced by Bookwitty Empowering curiosity Find out more about this interview and learn about other authors on bookwitty.com

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