In America, most of the movies, novels, and comics about the Vietnam War are told from the perspective of the American soldiers. But in his autobiographical graphic novel Such A Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63 (paperback, digital), writer and artist Marcelino Truong explores what it was like for the local Vietnamese people during the two years when President Kennedy escalated the U.S.’s involvement in the conflict.
Photo Credit: Sébastien Ortola
To start, what is Such A Lovely Little War about?
Such A Lovely Little War is about the early years of the Vietnam War, before it hit the headlines practically everyday and became the “living-room war” for a solid ten years.
It’s about the still limited but growing conflict, which expanded during the Kennedy years, and escalated hugely under JFK’s successor Lyndon B. Johnson.
It’s about the way in which my city dwelling, Saigon-based, middle-class family experienced the war. War, of course, does not only affect front-line soldiers. It changes the lives of civilians, both young and old.
Such A Lovely Little War is about my often happy, never dull, sometimes dramatic childhood in Saigon. It’s tells the tale of my family life in Vietnam, at a time when the non-communist Vietnamese where trying to build an independent nation, in South Vietnam, after a hundred years of French colonialism.
It’s about a divided people, a torn-apart country — Communist North versus Nationalist South — each side competing to impose its ideology and way of life on the other. Each side claiming to “liberate” the other.
It’s an autobiographical graphic memoir about two short, but very eventful years, in the days of “King” John F. Kennedy’s “Project Beef-Up,” an ambitious aid-plan designed to boost South-Vietnam’s military and economic forces in order to help contain the Communist North’s endeavor to bring the South to heel. It’s about revolutionary war, and conventional war. It’s a very hot theater of the Cold war, too.
What prompted you to write it?
For many years I had wanted to tell this story. This 1960-65 period is much less well-known than the later years of the so-called “American War.” There was so much to say, things few persons in the West had heard of, as in those early years, this distant strife was still a small exotic but deadly war in a picturesque and beautiful land. All that haunted me for years. It was the most spectacular event I had lived. It had shaped me, I believe. Made me who I am. So when my French publisher Jean-Luc Fromental, head of Denoël Graphic, offered me an opportunity to write and design a graphic novel, I went for it.
Since this memoir not only deals with what happened to you at this time, but also what happened to your parents, how involved were they in its creation? Like, did you ask them all kinds of questions when you were writing it? Or did you maybe decide not to ask them anything so it would just be how you remembered events?
In Such A Lovely Little War, I describe the everyday life of the Truong family. My father was a French-schooled South-Vietnamese diplomat. My mother was oh so French. My parents met and married in Paris, after WWII, while students at the Sorbonne. I was the third child, with an elder sister and brother above and a younger sister born in Saigon.
I didn’t ask for their permission to write our story. I just went ahead with it, determined neither to paint them black, nor to idealize them. But they were very helpful. They patiently answered all my questions, in long chats about our Vietnam years.
It seemed a great challenge for me to tell this story, as I was only six years old when we left Saigon in 1963, so I couldn’t remember everything, of course. I had some clear and striking images, but also great blanks, as when you wake from a dream. But, fortunately, those were the distant days of letter-writing and, luckily, the many air-mail letters our mum had written to her parents in France had survived. Thanks to these detailed and often witty chronicles kept by our often harassed housewife mother, I was able to reconstruct our family timeline.
I also did loads of reading, of course. This reading about Vietnam had started very early on, when I was still a boy. I just read anything in French or English I could lay my hands on, though my Vietnamese is poor, I’m afraid. I also saw all the films and documentaries, many of which can now be viewed on YouTube.
In terms of the way Such A Lovely Little War is written, what writers and books, comic or otherwise, do you feel were the biggest influence on how you told this story? Like, did you look at any other graphic novel memoirs for ideas about structure?
The list of history books is too long to go through, but I was much influenced by works such as Once Upon A Distant War by William Prochnau, a book about the reporters who covered the Vietnam Armageddon. My uncle, professor Truong Buu Lam, now retired in Hawaii, wrote a very insightful book — often based on first-hand experience — called A Story Of Vietnam, a full chapter of which is devoted to the early Vietnam war years: 1955-65. That was for the background. To get the facts right. Oh and importantly, I also talked with many persons, family or wider, in Vietnam. I listened to both sides, as our Vietnamese family was divided, as were so many Vietnamese families. That was crucial. It’s always important to hear what the other side has to say. We knew our opponents well. They were our uncles and aunts, our brothers and sisters, our cousins….
As for graphic novels, ones like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, or French author David B.’s graphic novel L’Ascension du Haut Mal, or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, or Joe Sacco’s great work on Footnotes In Gaza, or Dancing With Bashir by Ari Folman, all these showed me the way.
But I must confess that I’m unfortunately not a huge reader of comics. Growing up in England from 1963 through 1972, I’ve read far fewer comics than my French colleagues who were raised in France. I mostly played it by instinct, fearing all along the way to be unequal to the task.
Well, you not being a big comic guy makes this next question all the more interesting: What about the art in Such A Lovely Little War, who do you see as the big inspirations for the art in the book?
Art? A big word! Dunno… I just try to produce pleasant to the eye and to the point images. Hergé — Tintin — was an obvious influence. I had also accumulated hard-won experience for just under thirty years as an illustrator/author of books for young readers, of illustrations the press or publishing, a painter, and also an artist of “bande dessinée,” the French word for comic, before tackling with Such A Lovely Little War.
So what art there is in my book comes from a long process of on-the-job learning. I have no academic art training. I completed studies in Public Law at Sciences Po in Paris, and later in English literature at the Sorbonne, only to change course dramatically at the age of twenty-five, to become a bohemian. I’m a self-taught artist.
(c) Arsenal Pulp Press
Obviously, you’re the only person who could’ve written this book, but you could’ve had other people draw it if you wanted. Why did you decide to draw it yourself?
That idea never really crossed my mind. I wanted to write this story, it’s my own, and to illustrate it as best I could.
A lot of people who read graphic novels, myself included, didn’t live through the Vietnam War, but they have been around during other wars, such as the U.S-led ones in Afghanistan and Iraq. What do you hope people like me will get out Such A Lovely Little War?
Well, I hope not to bore people like you into a deep coma, and I hope that reading my book will help to do away with persistent clichés about the goodies and the baddies in such complex conflicts. The Vietnam War was often depicted in the West as a duel between the valiant Vietnamese David and the evil Western imperialist Goliath. Ho Chi Minh, the Communist leader, became a sort of saintly icon for many radicals in the West. The non-Communist Vietnamese were just written off as puppets, despicable mercenaries, fascist henchmen of the West.
The “Saigon regime” was painted black as a corrupt Babylon. Okay, it had many flaws, but the Western press corps, flowing non-stop into South-Vietnam by the hundreds, were able to cover the war quite freely in the South, whereas the totalitarian North allowed only a handful of sympathizers behind the bamboo curtain to observe and mostly praise its “heroic struggle.” It was like a match in which the referee only whistles the fouls of one team only. Quite unfair. How on earth did they get away with it?
The North was a Communist dictatorship and it still is. Though it has turned to market economy — emulating its Big Brother China — it still remains a one-party system that has no intention of sharing its power and of allowing the emergence of an opposition.
If we could move away from such caricatures, I would be happy. I want our story — that of the non-Communist Vietnamese — to be heard. We weren’t nearly as bad as we were made to look. In fact, our imperfect regime was far more livable than Ho’s militaristic, Spartan, Stalinist paradise. In Ho’s goose-stepping legions, no long hair, no decadent rock-music, no pot smoking, no sex, no drugs, no hippies, no pacifists were tolerated.
On the flipside, there are people who do remember the Vietnam War, and for whom that war is still an emotional thing for a variety of reasons. What do you hope those people take away from the book? And I meant people on both sides of the conflict.
Many Vietnamese or French who lived in Saigon during the war told me I had brought their youth back to life. Many of us were very happy, strangely enough, in Saigon, during the war. Many foreigners who stayed in Vietnam during the war were happy there. For many of them, it was the most exciting time of their lives.
Of course, many suffered terribly, on all sides.
For the people who lived in the North at that time, or the young generations of today, it can be a way of discovering what life — middle-class life — was like in the South. Propaganda, more or less disguised, is still the State-controlled way of telling history in Vietnam. This is unfair, as there should not only be one official history of the war. The State cannot dictate what that page of Vietnamese history was. There are always two sides to a coin. Mine’s the flip-side. In Vietnam today, the official history, written by The Party, is that the whole of the Vietnamese people was with uncle Ho, and that those who opposed him were traitors, fascists, and mercenaries, unworthy to be called Vietnamese. That’s a load of nonsense! The Vietnamese were and are as divided as any other people.
Movies based on comic books are a big thing these days. Has there been any talk of making a movie version of Such A Lovely Little War?
Well, I have been approached by one young lady producer in Paris. for an animated movie adaptation project, but haven’t heard from her in a while. We’ll see. That’s a huge job. Maybe if the book’s a success in North America, something will cook up?
If given a choice, would you prefer the movie be animated or live action? And if the former, would you want to work on it in any way?
Oh, both possibilities would be terribly exciting, but a live action one would be so costly — animated films aren’t cheap, I know — and Saigon is changing so fast. All the scenery would have to be re-constructed.
If it was animated, I’d like a say as to the way the story’s told. Don’t know what function that would be. Director sound so grand. Dunno, mate! We’ll see.
Finally, if someone enjoys Such A Lovely Little War, which of your other books do you think they should read next and why?
Well, I’d suggest the sequel, of course — Give Peace A Chance, London 1963-75 — which was released by Denoël Graphic, on November 13, 2015, in France, on the traumatic day of the Paris shootings at Bataclan, etc. Give Peace A Chance follows up were the reader of Such A Lovely Little War got off, in 1963, and offers the continued story of the Truong family in England and France, with the Vietnam war always lurking as a backdrop. A fine English translation, skillfully and sensitively honed by master translator David Homel of Give Peace A Chance, will be available in the autumn of 2017 from Arsenal Pulp Press.