A new graphic novel is bringing Cambodians face to face with crimes against Cham and Vietnamese minorities under the Khmer Rouge regime.
A graphic novel launching today in the Khmer-language uses twin narratives to convey the experiences of the Cham and Vietnamese ethnic minorities under the Khmer Rouge regime, a topic now under the microscope at the Khmer Rouge tribunal.
Dubbed Your Story, My Story, the 90-page book from peace-building NGO Kdei Karuna uses comic-strip storytelling and interviews with Cham and Vietnamese civil parties to bring to life the tales of a Khmer-Vietnamese mixed marriage and another relating the persecution of the Cham minority.
The Swiss embassy in Thailand funded novel’s stories begin during the relative freedom of the Sangkum period, continue through the upheaval of the Lon Nol era and the horrors of the Khmer Rouge regime, and end in the present day, with civil parties testifying at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
“We interviewed [ethnic] Khmer, Cham, and Vietnamese Cambodians to contribute their painful experiences, such as the torturing of their sisters and brothers or in-laws who married different ethnicities. It is a part of their family story,” says Kdei Karuna project office Ly Rattanak.
The content, says Rattanak, relates to the substance of the genocide hearings heard over the past two years for Case 002/02 at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC).
The project itself is, in fact, part of the court’s reparations for civil parties.
“We decided to produce this graphic novel as a different strategy to inform the public,” Rattanak says, adding that the work will be part of a mobile exhibition that will travel to various communities in different provinces.
“This novel is a new strategy to integrate information to young people . . . because Cambodian people don’t like to read too much text,” he adds.
Putting it together took six months of interviews and writing. The resulting graphic novel, illustrated by artist Sao Sreymao, has a specific focus on ethnic and racial discrimination.
“In spite of the hardship of discussing it in the community, this gives a chance to survivors to discuss in detail their painful memories and convey the history to the public, especially the youth, because people rarely talk about the Khmer Rouge history and in particular what happened to [specific] ethnic groups,” he says.
Khmer Rouge senior leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan currently stand accused of perpetrating genocide against the predominantly Cham Muslim ethnic minority for the suppression of culture, language and religious practices as well as the bloody quelling of Cham uprisings in Kampong Cham province in 1975. Genocide charges against the Vietnamese relate to evidence of forced expulsion, persecution and the killings of ethnic Vietnamese and Khmer-Vietnamese mixed couples and children that escalated in 1978.
Another aim, Rattanak says, is to raise awareness about racism and its dark history in Cambodia, and how racism still exists within the Kingdom to this day.
ECCC Civil Party Mat Keu, a 65-year-old Cham survivor contributed his experience to the creation of the graphic novel.
“I was 22 years old at that time, when me and my villagers fought with Khmer Rouge soldiers who carried guns to kill our people, and forced us to betray our religion,” he says, adding that many in his family were killed.
“Today, I am pleased to share my experience during the war, because it is really important to let [the youth] know the real history,” he says.
Ethnic Vietnamese community leader Vin Yang Min, who himself escaped with his family in 1973 and returned to Cambodia in 1980, says that many of his relatives were not so lucky and that many of his villagers were subjected to persecution and torture.
“Young people should know about those experiences during war, the violence and discrimination, it helps to avoid racial discrimination [now],” he says.
For now, Kdei Karuna plans on publishing 2,000 copies in Khmer and in January will print some 180 copies in English to distribute to partner organisations, donors and target communities. Eventually, they hope to sell the books to the public.
ម៉ូដសក់ និងរូបភាពរបស់តារាកូរ៉េ តុបតែងលើជញ្ជាំងហាងកែសម្ផស្ស ខណៈភ្ញៀវជាច្រើនរងចាំធ្វើសក់។ ជាងកាត់សក់ធ្វើការយ៉ាងប្រញាប់ប្រញាល់ កាត់សក់ និងតុបតែងម៉ូដសក់ថ្មីៗឲ្យ ភ្ញៀវ ដែលភាគច្រើនជាក្មេងជំទង់។ ភ្ញៀវប្រុសៗ ជា ពិសេសយុវវ័យ ដែលបានផ្លាស់ប្តូរម៉ូដ និងរូបរាងរបស់ខ្លួនរយៈពេលប៉ុន្មានឆ្នាំថ្មីៗនេះ បានឲ្យដឹងថា សុខ ចំរើន អាយុ ២៩ឆ្នាំ មានទឹកមុខញញឹមពព្រាយ និងមានលាបម្សៅលើមុខនោះ ជាម្ចាស់ហាងកែសម្ផស្ស ជាស្ទាយ (Chea Styles) រយៈពេលជិត១០ឆ្នាំហើយ។
MY PHNOM PENH: John Weeks
John Weeks: Artist and comics curator John Weeks first arrived in Cambodia in May 2000, curious to research Cambodian comics. In 2006, he co-founded the local NGO Our Books, which helps source and promote Khmer comic art. He also publishes a daily web comic at QuickDrawComics.net. This week John spoke to Harriet Fitch Little about some of the best artists working in his field
Phousera ‘Séra’ Ing
I had the good fortune to meet Séra during one of his many teaching stints at the French Cultural Center. Séra’s L’Eau et la Terre (Water and Earth) may well be the first proper graphic novel that dares to focus on the Khmer Rouge era. Despite the great effort that’s gone into his sublime full-colour comics, they always appear “cut from whole cloth”, zooming from geopolitical context to intimate, heartbreaking moments. Séra’s work to cultivate a new generation of artists is an inspiration. One effort worth noting in particular is The Memory Workshop, which was done in collaboration with S-21 survivor and painter Vann Nath at the Bophana Center. It speaks rather poorly of the English-language comics community that no company has stepped up to translate Séra’s vital works.
The departed and missed Svay Ken is well known for Painted Stories – a family history and homage to his departed wife, published in 2001. Since they are pictures that form a narrative, I’ve always seen his collections as comics. My favourite Svay Ken memory is of an exhibition at Java Cafe. We were watching some performance art, peeking into a crowded room. I thought, “Hmm, this might be worth a sketch,” and hunted in my pockets for pen and paper. I looked over and Svay Ken was already on the job, putting pencil to paper, nearly finished. As an artist, he painted what he knew and drew from a life richly lived – a monk as a youth, a member of Sihanouk’s ‘Chivapol’ militia … His stuff was termed naive and it was anything but. If he’s naive then I’m far further down the scale.
Tian Veasna first came to the public eye via the French-language travel memoir Seven Months in Cambodia, a teaching collaboration in 2001. I interviewed Tian and his collaborators for The Comics Interpreter, an obscure US magazine that folded shortly thereafter. His current series [also in French], The Year of The Hare, draws on family experiences to create a portrait of the fall of Phnom Penh and the Khmer Rouge years. Using a fictional family’s experiences as the focus, the reader accompanies them through a vivid chronicle of the challenges “New People” faced. Cartoonists are as unique as fingerprints, and Tian’s approach is deeply personal, a reminder to us that there is no one correct way to express and examine Cambodia’s troubled past – the work is necessary but the paths are many.
Sin Yang Pirom
Sin Yang Pirom reappeared during research for the 2004 Bande Dessinee au Cambodge exhibition. During the small boom of publications during the middle to late 1980s, she produced illustrated novellas that evolved into comics. Like many of the ’80s-era creators, the majority of her work has vanished with the passage of time and needs to be addressed via interviews and archiving. As one of the few women in a male-dominated field, she developed work to her own standards on her own terms, and found a market for it.
Sao Sreymao’s comic style is characterised by a thick brush line and has a strong personal style. She’s a good example of someone contemporary, young and attempting to express her own opinion. She initially studied at the Phare art school and also under Séra. Her depictions of contemporary Cambodian life are seen in commissions, commercial publications and books. Her most recent work can be seen in illustrations for Home, with writer Andy Gray – a book critiquing the approach of local “orphanages”. It’s nice seeing her getting paid for her art.