Exclusive Interview: Saigon Calling Author/Artist Marcelino Truong

In his 2012 graphic novel Such A Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63 (paperback, digital), writer and artist Marcelino Truong recounted what it was like to be a kid in Vietnam in the early days of the Vietnam war. It’s a compelling story that continued in his 2015 graphic novel Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (paperback, digital), which is now being released in English in the U.S.

Marcelino Truong Saigon Calling

Photo Credit: Sébastien Ortola

 

To begin, what is Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 about, and how does it connect, both chronologically and narratively, to Such A Lovely Little War?

Saigon Calling takes up my family story where we left it in the first book, in London, where we arrived from Vietnam in 1963.

Saigon Calling is about the Vietnam War, which raged until April 1975, as seen by my multicultural family. My father was a junior Vietnamese diplomat, and my mother was the French housewife, caring for four children. But it’s also about the contrast between the swinging London of the ’60s and ’70s, and war-torn Vietnam. It is about the exciting cultural upheaval which took place in London from 1963 onwards, and which we witnessed full blast.

In many ways, like all those who were living in England in those days, we took part in it, and joined the fun. There were also dangers in all that reveling. It was an explosion of pop music, of pop fashion, of pop literature and cinema and architecture… A new youth culture was being born. Hedonism was in the air. “Make Love Not War” became the order of the day.

However, we Truongs were not totally in it, as in the background lurked the terrible Vietnam War. Our folks back in Vietnam were exposed to the war, on both sides of the fence. We worried about them. We watched the news anxiously of what was to become the first “television war.”

We were horrified by the violence unleashed in that distant war, but being on the non-Communist side, the side that so many called the “Saigon puppets,” we were often seen as the heartless baddies, henchmen, and lackeys of American imperialism, to use the jargon of those days.

So we were in the uncomfortable position of being young Vietnamese living in a Western democracy, and looking up to the West, whilst many progressive Westerners were completely enamored with our Maoist adversaries, the Vietnamese Communists lead by a wispy, goatee-bearded old man called uncle Ho Chi Minh.

Given that the events depicted in Saigon Calling happened after those of Such A Lovely Little War, I’m guessing your memory of that time is more vivid than from the timeframe of the first book. How did that impact the writing of Saigon Calling?

Yes, indeed, as I was six years old when I arrived in England in 1963, my memories of the place were far clearer and far more numerous. For the first part of the book, I still relied on my mother’s letters — letters she wrote to her parents in France — to reconstruct our daily life, in the early years after our arrival in England. But for my teenage years, I remember those quite well, and my accounts of them are based on my own personal recollections. My sisters also helped me reenact all our yesterdays.

In terms of the way it’s written, and what you wrote about, are there any writers, comics, or novels that were a big influence on Saigon Calling that did not have an impact on Such A Lovely Little War?

Well, I suppose a book like Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye must have been an unconscious influence, but I read it such a long time ago, that I have completely forgotten the novel.

Comics? I unfortunately read very few comics because I am always busy reading up on my favorite topic, i.e. Vietnam and its history, because to talk about something, you need to know quite a bit about it, if you’re going to say anything original or interesting at all.

While writing Saigon Calling, I kept recalling all the fantastic pop songs of those days. The Vietnam War was to the ’60s and ’70s what the Spanish Civil War had been to earlier generations. You took sides, even though most people were just armchair generals. During the Vietnam War, most of the songs were anti-war songs. Probably the most famous one was the FISH song [“I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag”] by Country Joe And The Fish, one of the bands appearing on the famous Woodstock album.

FISH stood for the four-letter word, obviously, but FISH was also one of the nicknames given to the VC, the Vietnamese communists. It referred to Chairman Mao’s famous saying: “The People are like water and the Army is like fish.”

This Maoist saying can also be construed differently. Many a time during the Vietnam War, our opponents mingled with the civilian population, using it as a human shield. Revolutionary war is not a pleasant tea party.

How about the art, is there anyone and anything that had an influence on the art in Saigon Calling but not Such A Lovely Little War?

I did try my best whilst illustrating the London or England scenes to conjure the atmosphere of the pop counter-culture revolution, back in the ’60s and ’70s. However, there was so much to say, and twelve years to cover, between 1963 and 1975, whereas in Such A Lovely Little War, I only had to tell about two very full and vivid years in Vietnam.

One difference is that Saigon Calling is in full color for all the European scenes. The Vietnam sections of my book are in a sort of sepia to distinguish them, a bit like the notorious Vietnam War photos that many of us have seen.

Marcelino Truong Saigon Calling

And how about non-literary influences; are there any movies or TV shows that had an impact on either the art or the writing in Saigon Calling?

I am an avid reader of books on Vietnam and its conflicts. I also read many articles on the Internet. Some are passed on to me by friends who share the same interest, often via Facebook. I’m also eagerly awaiting the release of a new ten part/eighteen-hour long documentary series by Ken Burns, The Vietnam War, that will air on PBS this September.

Of course, I’ve also seen most of the films on the Vietnam War. My favorite of all time remains Apocalypse Now by Francis Ford Coppola. The only problem with these films is that they only give you the point of view of the Americans. The Communist regime of Vietnam has also produced many feature films on their own Vietnam War, many of which are of good quality, but still reek of propaganda. It seems to be something they just cannot help producing: Propaganda. You can see many of those films on YouTube.

What’s badly missing are films made by the Vietnamese about the non-Communist side, often caricatured as the Saigon Puppets. This is because the Vietnamese non-Communists are almost all living abroad, in the USA, Canada, or Australia. There is reluctance among many of them to speak about the past. This is a pity, because if they don’t do it, who will?

Many, when they arrived in the West, were busy building a new life from scratch, getting menial jobs, sending their children to school to get an education. There was not much time and energy left for artistic creation. Hopefully the new generation will have the knowledge and the energy to tell our story. It is a sad but powerful story that has all too often been forgotten or misrepresented.

I’m trying, with my own modest means, to give a voice to the non-Communist Vietnamese, the side to which I belong, for better or for worse, because I believe our cause was legitimate.

Now, when Saigon Calling was originally released in France in 2015, it was called Give Peace A Chance. Which is why, I assume, the cover resembles The Beatles’ Abbey Road. So why then was the title changed for the American version?

My publishers at Arsenal Pulp Press in Vancouver warned me that there was a risk that The Beatles’ record company would pounce on us for using the title of such a well-known antiwar hit by John Lennon, and being a disciplined kind of guy, I immediately understood their request.

I also liked the idea of having a new title for the English language version. My editor is the one who came up with the fine idea of Saigon Calling. A great idea, which I welcomed at once, having really racked my brains in search of an alternate title. Saigon Calling really conveys the sense of an S.O.S. signal sent by us non-Communist Vietnamese to the Western world. A message of distress; a call for help, which was not heard.

When the title got changed to Saigon Calling, did you consider changing the cover art so it would look like the cover of The Clash’s London Calling?

No, not at all. It didn’t even occur to me to change the cover. The cover of The Clash’s album wouldn’t have offered me the same possibilities for interpretation, as it shows Joe Strummer smashing his electric guitar on stage, rather like Jimi Hendrix used to do, or the guy from The Who. A sort of childish rage, which I can understand, but that isn’t really my cup of tea. There was plenty of violence in the Vietnam War, of a much more lethal nature. Joe Strummer looks rather like a spoiled or unhappy child smashing his toys. Which I did quite a bit myself, to tell the truth.

I also rather like the existing cover illustration showing us four Truong kids crossing a London Street in 1972, with a napalm explosion in the background. Napalm was never dropped on London of course, but there were the occasional IRA bombings in those days.

Is there anything else that got changed about Saigon Calling? I mean, obviously it got translated into English, but were there any other major changes to the text or art?

I had to alter a few of the frames slightly, modifying speech frames, or adding a television anchorman when I needed a television set to be animated, to indicate that the news was being read on the BBC. All this required a bit of careful nit-picking.

Marcelino Truong Saigon Calling

When we talked before about Such A Lovely Little War [which you can read here], you said you’d been approached about doing an animated adaptation of it. Has anything progressed on that?

Yes, I have been approached by a young and enterprising producer in France named Faustine Zanetta-Moretti, who created the production company Al Di Sopra. She would like to make an animated adaptation of Such A Lovely Little War. But it is a long process to finance an animated film. It is a very expensive enterprise employing hundreds of people, and it takes at least three years to achieve such a project. So, Faustine has begun this long march, but she is still at the beginning of her huge task. One has to be very determined and patient.

How about Saigon Calling? Has there been any interest in adapting it into a movie or TV show?

No, not yet. Maybe it’s too early in the day. We’ll see. I’m hoping the English language editions of those my graphic novels will attract attention in North America, for as you well know, the Vietnam war was a defining page American history.

As we’ve discussed, Saigon Calling is the follow-up to Such A Lovely Little War. Is there a third book in the works, one the picks up in 1975?

I did have plans to pursue this autofiction with a third volume, but my French publisher and editor, Jean-Luc Fromental — no, folks, that is not the name of a French cheese — suggested I give myself and my readers a break and try my hand at fiction. Autofiction can be a bit uncomfortable. You are sticking your neck out. You are disclosing yourself. You may have noticed this on social networks, such as Facebook, and the like. They are rather like kangaroo courts, these medias. They have the smell of people’s tribunals sometimes, where speedy justice is delivered with great cruelty.

So, I am now writing a fiction scenario about the end of the French Indochina War [1945-1954] as seen from the Vietnamese Communist side, also giving the Vietnamese Nationalist point of view, and of course, that of the French. The story begins in mid 1953, towards the end of the war, when striking events were to take place: the Land Reform revolution [1953-56], and the battle of the Diên Biên Phu [Nov 1953- May 1954]. This is a fascinating period, and I hope to capture my readers’ attention.

I noticed that Saigon Calling came out in France on the same day terrorists attacked The Bataclan and other places around Paris. Have you considered writing something about that event, and how it connects to what you went through as a kid? If, indeed, you do feel there’s a connection.

Indeed, Give Peace A Chance, the French edition, was released on the exact day of the Paris attacks, at the Bataclan and rue de Charonne. I happen to live right in the midst of where the vicious attacks took place.

It was quite a shock, and all of France was thunderstruck. Many Parisians knew someone who knew one of the victims who had been cut down. Indeed, such violence right in the middle of town, in a very trendy part of town, where youths congregate, reminded me of such attacks that had taken place, on a hugely larger scale, in Saigon or other large cities of South Vietnam, during the Tet 1968 offensive.

But no, I have no plans to write about the terrorist attacks in Paris. I must’ve done at least two or three press illustrations for the French left-wing daily newspaper Liberation, illustrating articles about the Paris attacks, but no, I don’t intend to write about them. Although the context is completely different and cannot be compared, the Paris attacks were very shocking, but amounted to almost nothing compared to the Tet 1968 Viet Cong offensive. Luckily, no one rejoiced about Paris attacks, except perhaps people supporting Daesh, but unfortunately, during the Vietnam war, many Western leftist progressives would rejoice and celebrate VC victories. There is ample photographic and written evidence of this. Very often, in the peace marches or mass demonstrations against the war in Vietnam, real, authentic pacifists would march elbow to elbow with leftists carrying pro Hanoi banners, NLF flags, and posters of Ho Chi Minh alongside effigies of Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, or Lenin. There are plenty of photos of that, too. Plenty of film footage too can be found on YouTube showing famous antiwar demonstrations at Trafalgar Square in 1969. They show this strange and unlikely combination of peace marchers and pro Hanoi demonstrators. Some of them were stars like Vanessa Redgrave, Tarek Ali, Jane Fonda, or Tom Hayden.

Marcelino Truong Saigon Calling

Lastly, if someone’s already read Such A Lovely Little War and Saigon Calling, what would you suggest they read next?

Well, hopefully they will feel like reading my next graphic novel. Faction is a mix between fact and fiction. It fits quite well the sort of work I do. I carry out a hell of a lot of research before writing anything. In fact, all my life I have been gathering info about Vietnam. Vietnam is not fiction for me, it’s real life. My whole life has been fashioned and modified by Vietnamese politics.

I suggest people who are interested in Vietnamese history read such new historians as Christopher Goscha, Alex Taylor, and Ed Miller, to name but a few. There is a new current — a breath of fresh air — flowing through the narration of Vietnamese history. At last, we seem to be moving away from a narration dominated by the antiwar movement, or by the pro-communist or anti-imperialist circles.

 

Please Leave A Reply