In-depth interview with GUY DELISLE on The Daily Cross Hatch

Interview: Guy Delisle

The Daily Cross Hatch    |    Brian Heater    |    October 12, 2009

There’s a constant commentary coming out of Guy Delisle’s mouth as we walk down 22nd st. in Manhattan, on the way to a lecture for Matt Madden’s SVA class. “Do they have iPod parties here in New York?” he asks Drawn & Quarterly’s Peggy Burns and myself.

“iPod parties?” Given the bizarre nature of the project he’s just outlined for us involving none other than Lewis Trondheim, I’m almost afraid to ask.

It involves spontaneous parties in the street, a group of kids all hooked up to the same iPod, dancing to the same, otherwise inaudible music. “It’s big in Jerusalem,” Delisle tells us.

“No,” I answer, “they don’t have iPod parties here. Yet.”

Delisle, it seems, is forever destined to remain a stranger in a strange land–and from the looks of things, he wouldn’t have it any other way. The cartoonist was born in Canada–a native French speaker from Quebec. He’s spent much of his adult life living in Europe–that is when he’s not traveling to exotic locales like Shenzhen and Pyongyang for animation work, or to places like Myanmar and Israel for his family (Delisle’s wife works as an administrator for Médecins Sans Frontière).

All the better for us, of course. Delisle’s travels have given rise to his three strongest works: Shenzhen, Pyongyang, and The Burma Chronicles. The aforementioned trip to Jerusalem, meanwhile, provided ample fodder for his wonderful visual blog, Jerusalem, A Canadian Wandering in the Holy City.

We’re incredibly thankful for having been able to catch up with the jet-setting cartoonists on one of his rare stateside visits.

When was your last visit to the States?

I was in Montreal for a visit and I came here, so it must be four or five years.

So it was ostensibly a trip home?

I came first when I was a student to visit some museums, and I had a great time. and then I came later as a tourist.

So they haven’t brought you out on a proper book tour, yet?

No. I’ve never gone on a book tour. I’ve been to the San Diego Convention, and now I’m here for the event. But I’ve never done what you would call a tour, where you go from place to place.

Does that interest you at all?

Sure. When they ask, I’ll say “yes,” but for some reason…last time there was a crisis.

A crisis?

Well, they canceled the whole thing because I was supposed to go to Chicago, but they said it was a crisis time, so they canceled it. I suppose I could have come here after going to Toronto and Montreal, but it was canceled as well.

There’s a bit of a time delay for you, though, right? These are books that originally came out a few years ago, that you’ve since promoted. This is another wave, when they come out in the States.

Yeah, yeah.

Is it strange to revisit the works?

Well, no, not really, because they are following me a lot. Even in France, as of today, Shenzhen—which is my first comic—is selling more nowadays than when it was first released, because it was released in a period of time when comics and graphic novels weren’t so well known, and the distributor wasn’t as big. Now things have changed a lot. it’s quite funny. Now people have read The Burma Chronicles and they go back and for all these reasons, it’s selling better than it did before. Slowly but surely.

But I don’t mind. It’s part of my material. For me, Burmese Chronicles is my last book. Since I’ve been away, I didn’t participate in any signings. Even in France, I think I did just one signing for the book, so me it’s kind of new.

When it’s been a few years since you finished the book, do you feel the need to go back and revisit it?

Yeah, I should do that. I haven’t done that because I think it takes time. I’m going to have to do that with Pyongyang, because they might make a film based on that. I’m going to have to re-read it—I’ve never done that. Now it’s been more than ten years. I think now I can read it as a normal reader. If it’s too fresh, I just see mistakes in the details.

Don’t the mistakes become even more clear, as you grow as an artist?

Yeah, yeah. My perception of graphic novels is much more sharp nowadays than before. I remember in Shenzhen, I was including lots of memories that were not in the frame of the place I was. I had memories of Montreal, and I’m talking about them in Shenzhen. Today I wouldn’t do that, because I think it’s irrelevant. If I’m talking about Burma, I wouldn’t talk about old memories. It was a different process. Now I’ve done three books, so I know more about what I want to include.

So that was something of a crutch?

Well, if I were to do it again, I wouldn’t put that in the book, and lots of details like that, storytelling-wise. I can’t rush too much. Now I take more of my time when I need it. It’s nice to have one or two or four or five frames a page just to slow down, because something important happened. While I’m in the process of doing it, sometimes I think it’s too much. But when I read back, I think I should have put some time in and relaxed the whole thing at that point with more of a sense of rhythm.

When you’re referencing something from your former life, does that make the piece too much about you rather than the place you’re attempting to describe, be it Burma or Shenzhen?

Yeah. Well, the books are very different. I was in Shenzhen at a certain age. I know today I would be in China and I would talk about China—I would probably talk about the human rights aspect of the country, but I was 20-something when I was there, and I didn’t have that in my mind, that much. Nowadays it’s much more important to me. So that would be one difference. Shenzhen is about me being lost in translation, basically. Pyongyang is much more about that regime, and me, I’m a part of that, and I try to explain how the people around me are carrying that burdon. For Burmese Chronicles, it’s mixed, because I talk about the ex-pat life, all of the ex-pats that are there, me and my son, and all of these are one against each other.

I was in Burma for one year. I was in Pyongyang for two months. If I had been in Pyongyang for one year, I would talk much more about the ex-patriots. They are a different time, and they were different in my life, as well. If I were to go to Burma today, I would do a completely different book, because I would meet different people and have different experiences. It’s really very subjective, and it’s like a big postcard that I would write to my family and explain to them what I’ve experienced.

When you’re writing a postcard, it’s a very personal experience. You’re writing about your life for the benefit of someone you know. When you write a book, do you ever find yourself pulling back because it’s becoming too much about you, rather than the country?

Well, I use myself to convey my story. If you talk about Burma, you have to talk about Aung San Suu Kyi and what she represents for the country. So if you go to page 51 and see her there, it’s going to be boring. So somebody told me that she lived in a house just around the corner. I thought she was in prison. But I don’t want to just say that I thought she was in prison, but she lives there. I go with my son to try to get in front of her house, but it was impossible. So I kind of play around with that. In the end, the reader gets the information about where she is and what she represents, and I can do that two pages after I have that presentation. That’s how I use myself to convey the story and represent the country and all that.

I don’t like to be very personal about my family life. I just talk about the situation with the kids and the difficulty, but that’s just because of the situation with the country. We were there and it wasn’t that easy. Sometimes when I read Joe Matt, or even lighter stuff than that, to me it’s too personal.

Joe Matt’s stuff can be almost painfully personal.

Yeah, yeah. In an embarrassing way. For me it’s too much. When I read those type of personal stories, I quickly feel like I shouldn’t read that, even when I’m having a good laugh with Joe Matt. But when I read David B., for example, and he talks about his family and all of that, I just have the feeling that I shouldn’t be there. “I’d like to go home now. Okay, I’ll leave you, take care.” I’m not going to go into that, because I’m not very fond of that, as a reader. I don’t think it’s interesting to talk about my own personal life.

Yours specifically?

Well, to some extent. I feel embarrassed quickly when I read it, so I’m not going to do it.

When you visited Aung San Suu Kyi’s house in Burma, did you go because you were a tourist and you it’s something to do as a tourist, or were you conscious of the fact that you might be writing a book about this some day, and this would be good material?

No, because at that time, I didn’t know I would be doing a book. She was a neighbor, and I thought, that’s amazing. During the day, I was taking care of my son, so I thought I would give it a try and see if I could get right in front of the house. Six months after I was there, I was supposed to write another book, but it was impossible, so I just put it aside and I said, “well, maybe I can do something on Burma.” It was not a good idea to work on the book while I was there, because I read back on my notes, and I did a lot of stuff that I removed after, because on the spot it worked, but when I came back and read it, the stuff I had done while I was there didn’t work too well.

You had to scrap it all?

Yeah. I took like 15 pages out. I should have taken more out, when I read it.

There’s still stuff in there that you’re not happy with.

Yeah, a few pages I should have taken out. When I’m there, I’m too close to the subject. I get back home and realize that. Just like now, because I was just in Jerusalem. I was there for a year. After the fact I realized how strange it was and how scary it was.

You didn’t have those feelings at the time?

No, because you go there and you get used to it after a year. There’s the check point and the big concrete wall. You want to see your friend on the other side of the wall, so you line up for the checkpoint. But then when you explain that to a friend in France around the coffee table, it sounds pretty weird. You get the reaction of the people, and they say, “oh, that’s fucked up.” It is a really strange place.

That’s the process. I come back and I talk about it. The same with Pyongyang. I remember I was talking about it to the director of L’Association, and he said, “you should do a comic about that.” I was talking about the airport where they give me flowers and I have to go to the statue and pay my respect to Kim Jong-Il. He said, “that’s so crazy.” That’s how I work. But I’ve been in different places taking notes. I was in Vietnam and I said I was going to do a book. I had a good time and things were fine and I had conversations about it when I came back. People were just fantastic, and when I read my notes, it just wasn’t there.

Having a great time isn’t conducive to writing a good story?

No, not for me. For a lot of writers, you need some kind of a conflict. Like when I was completely lost in Shenzhen. It was a book on the difficulty of communicating with the Chinese because we don’t speak the same language, and even when I met a fellow Canadian, we had difficulty because we didn’t really connect. It’s impossible to connect well with a culture that is as different as China is. I need a direction and I didn’t have that for the Vietnam book. If I had stayed a year, maybe it would have worked. I don’t think just two months in Jerusalem, I would have had enough. But in a year, you have enough time to meet people and make different stories than the tourists get.

Sometimes by choice, but mostly by necessity, Guy Delisle’s travels have around the world several times, to war torn areas like Jerusalem and oppressive regimes like North Korea and Myanmar. When I ask Delisle how he consistently ends up in such locations, he answers dryly, “I don’t choose them. If I chose them, I’d go to Mexico.”

Fortunately for us, the artist’s travels, conducted largely for business (first his own, and then later his wife’s) have resulted in Delisle’s best works: Shenzhen, Pyongyang, and, most recently, The Burma Chronicles.

In this second part of our interview, we delve further into Delisle’s travels, and discover what kind of obligation–if any–he feels he has as a cultural ambassador for the rest of us.

[Part One]


The trip to Jerusalem and Burma were because of your wife’s job.

Yeah. I was thinking, after traveling for myself in Europe and traveling for my work in Asia, that I would just stay home and be really happy for the rest of my life, because now I’m really fed up with travelling, even though the experience is nice.

It’s nice when you get there, but the actual process of traveling is kind of a nightmare.

Yeas, that’s so true. And with two kids, it’s plus two. I must be born under the star of traveling, though, because my wife loves her job, and she wants to continue doing that, so I support her, because it’s difficult to follow what just one part of the couple wants to do. But since I have the ability to work on what I do wherever, we choose to do it. but I hope she gets tired of it, and wants to stay home, and have the kids at the school a mile away.

When you take your experiences in China, North Korea, Vietnam, and now places like Burma and Jerusalem, you seem to tend to these areas that are war torn or authoritarian, or otherwise just sort of alien cultures and governments where it’s sometimes difficult to get a good view from the outside. Is there something that attracts you to these places?

I don’t choose them. If I chose them, I’d go to Mexico. But the work for animation, they were going where it was cheapest to go, so they would go to China, Vietnam, and North Korea. And now, with my wife, it’s wherever they go…they don’t go to Switzerland… The funny thing is, we were supposed to go to Guatemala. Sounds good, you know? I thought it was good, learning Spanish, but they said, “no, it’s too dangerous, so we’re not going to send a family. You’re going to go to Rangoon.” I was remembering the movie, and I said, “Rangoon, that’s one of the worst dictatorships,” but it’s actually very calm.

Sometimes it’s really peaceful and clean under a dictatorship.

That’s right, that’s right. Some guy from the ICOC, was saying, “I can name you ten countries today much worse than Burma.” But that’s of course from an ex-pat’s point of view. For the Burmese people, life is not that fun. But then again, if you think of Liberia or Somali, it’s probably worse than Burma.

You’ve inevitably got an outsider’s perspective when you write about these places. Do you feel a need to have a certain level of sympathy for their residents? Do you need to shed light on their point of view?

I don’t really think like that for Burma. I had that feeling when I was in North Korea, because it’s such a strange country. I still have some contact with some Burmese people, but in North Korea, it’s just impossible—the Internet, the mail, it would be dangerous for them if I just tried to contact them. You leave the country and you say you’re abandoning them to the country. It’s a real sad feeling, because after two months, you have some friendships. I felt really sorry for them. In the book, I wanted to have that feeling. At the beginning, they’re sort of annoying, because they bug me all the time, but after two months, you have some friendships going on. I wanted to have that in the book.

In Burma, I didn’t want to go specifically on that, because I met Burmese people, and the only thing we say about Burmese people is that they’re going to die in the field, being raped and we’re going to burn their village—which is terrible and which happens, of course, but me, I talk about the people that I see. The Burmese people that I met are graphic artists. Some are doing comic books. I thought it was interesting to talk about that, because we have an image of Burma being super-poor, but these guys were working on Photoshop and stuff.

We had a discussion about what kinds of brushes you use on Photoshop and things like that. We were on the same level, because we were just two artists. They were saying that they would like to do more comics, because they would like to make a living, but they have to do illustration. It was exactly the same conversation that I had with my friends in Paris, except that they are much poorer. I described that in the book—not so that you feel sorry for them or feel pity. Not at all. Because they were poor, but they weren’t miserable.

Ultimately you’re not given the opportunity to interact with the people in the fields.

Yeah, that’s right. Because I don’t go there and I don’t talk to them. But my book is about Rangoon. It’s not so much about Burma, because I spent most of my time there. But you can’t really go in these places anyhow. It’s completely forbidden, even for journalists. There’s no way you can see these things. So, yeah, it depends on who I meet and who I talk to. I’m going to put that in the book and leave the stuff I don’t think is interesting out.

Do you feel a certain obligation to be a source of information for people who don’t know about the country?

No. Frankly, no. I don’t feel any obligation at all. Again, if I were to do the book today, I would get completely different information. It would be a completely different book. But then I discovered things. I felt I was bringing something new and interesting that people might be interested to read. I did the signing in Paris, and there were some Burmese people doing their study there, who said they liked the book. That was kind of scary, because you really never know.

And probably not a lot of North Koreans have read Pyongyang, I imagine.

No, they have! I’ve never met them afterwards, though.

It doesn’t get into the country thought, right? They’ve got to read it when they’re abroad.

Yeah, but I think some of the guys know about the book and have read it, the big shots, like my boss. But the Burmese people who came to me said they liked the book, because, for once, someone is talking about Burma and every day people who are not miserable. They were so glad, I was so happy to have that comment, because I guess it’s really tough, because, when, say you talk about Africa in France, it’s always miserable and poor, and they feel very sorry about that, and it’s very frustrating for them. So, for once, they were very happy about it.

So you consider the cultural and historical asides a way of informing your own narrative about the place?

Yeah, if I have to explain. Like in Pyongyang, I was talking about the NGO that left the country, so I have to talk about why they left the country and the famine. And then to explain that, I have to explain how they were distributing food, according to the regime. So I’m not afraid to put that graphic stuff in and explain it, because at that point in the book, the reader wants to have the information. If I need information, I’m going to do some research to find out how many people died in that famine and how many people are in the camps and stuff like that. It was hard with North Korea, but with Burma, it was easy, because much more people go in out of the country. It’s much easier to know the situation about the country there. I talked about the regime, but I know that the people that read my book aren’t going to read a book about Aung San Suu Kyi, because they’re not so politically involved.

And those books already exist.

Yeah, there’s a lot of them. And I’ve read a few of them for research. They’re very interesting, especially when you’ve been to the country. But when you haven’t been to the country, you’re not going to go and look them up. I think that with the book, maybe people know a little bit about Aung San Suu Kyi and what she represents and maybe the regime. So hopefully after that, people want to know more about the country and they’re going to go and read another book about Burma. I think my book can bring more people to Burma, like I’ve done.

Do you do this sort of research before traveling to the country?

I did for North Korea. I read all of the books I could find, because I knew that once I was there, there would be a filter, and they wouldn’t answer the questions I would ask. That’s why I brought 1984 with me. I was half-done with the book. Everyone was saying, North Korea, 1984, they’re the same. I had read it when I was younger. So I brought it with me.

To you this old Orwell book was research?

Oh yeah, oh yeah. Because I use it in my book. I was so impressed. He wrote that in ’48 and he had seen so precisely a regime like North Korea, and I think a regime like the Soviet Union and some of these countries. It’s amazing. You go in there and they have these two minutes of hate with America, but then America has the same with Bin Laden.

It’s a little less formal.

Yeah, but it works the same, in structure. He comes once in a while and he’s the big enemy, especially after 2001. Because i was in North Korea before September 11th. They stopped going there to to do animation stuff. And they went to China.

In this third part of our interview with The Burmese Chronicles author, we explore the similarities between George Orwell’s “science fiction” and the current state of North Korea, and discuss why all of the independent cartoonists in France are getting really into kids’ books.

One of the pivotal moments of Pyongyang occurs when the North Korean guide hands back your copy of 1984 and says, “I don’t like science fiction.”

Yeah. I was glad to get rid of that book, because everyone was giving away their books, things like detective stories. These guys learn French, but with the classics, not the books we read today. They are quite boring, so they were very happy to have a magazine or a different book. I said, “I have a book, it’s called 1984.” He didn’t react, so I said, “well, if you want to read it,” and he said, “yeah.” I gave it to him and said that it’s kind of science fiction, just to see if he would go for it. He said, “yeah, okay, I’ll try it.”

A few weeks later I had to ask—I was waiting for his feedback. He said, “no, I didn’t read it. I don’t like these types of books.” Obviously he realized that it’s not a book you should have in your hands, being North Korean. He gave it to me, quickly, and he was quite nervous. I don’t know why, exactly, but it’s really interesting, because it says a lot about their situation, and we can fill in the blank space, easily. But I don’t want to answer all of the questions, because just exploring the situation is enough.

That’s the type of work you can do in a comic. If you’re a journalist, you have to tell what he’s feeling and all of that. When it’s just a few pictures, I can show that he’s nervous with just a few drops of sweat. And that’s perfect. It’s very efficient, and I can tell a lot. That’s why the comic book is such a powerful medium. When I have to tell these types of stories, I’m always amazed at how efficient it is.

Using that example specifically, do you get the impression that they have a similar view of their situation as we do?

Oh no. Well, that’s my interpretation. In the book with all of these details I tried to depict as much as I can how they live. I thought it might get back to them at some point, so I didn’t put their real names. But anyhow, one of these guys asked me at one point whether I had some medicine. His wife has some stomach pains. How can you answer that? I said, “I have some aspirin.” Can you imagine the situation? And these were the happy few. They were the translators for the foreigners. They won’t put foreigners in the hands of anyone. And he was asking for pills for his wife. George Orwell talks about “dual reality.” There’s their reality and then there’s another side.

Doublethink.

Doublethink, yeah. And it’s amazing, because it’s exactly that. I was asking why there are no handicap people on the streets. And he was saying, “our blood is not mixed at all. It’s strong, and one of the purest in the world.” Which is not a good thing to me… and then, because of that, they’re all born healthy, intelligent, and strong. He was saying that after almost two months. He knew that I wasn’t going to buy that. But he still told me that. He was in that dual thinking.

He had been to Paris and Rome, and he knew about the reality there. He knew that the country was not the social paradise that they said it was. And this was the happy few, so if you think about all of the people in the countryside, or the people in Pyongyang that work in a restaurant, they don’t know what’s going on. They didn’t know about the football that was going on in South Korea, 15 kilometers away. And South Korea was doing quite well. They were in the finals, and everyone else was talking about thay, but they weren’t even aware of that.

You said before that you’re at a point in your life where you’d like to stop traveling.

[Laughs] Yeah.

You’ve obviously done other comics and a children’s book.

Yeah, I have two children’s books and then I did three other books that are detective stories—but they’re funny. It’s in a classic format, 46 pages in color. And it didn’t work so well, so they stopped it. It was more classic cartoony.

But people know you best for the travel books.

Yeah, yeah, sure.

Is there a fear that once you stop traveling, you’re going to run out of things to write about?

I was thinking about that, but I still have other ideas, and I think they would be as interesting. They might still have a little bit to do with traveling, though. For example, I’m doing these sorts of trips, here and there. And I’ve started to take notes about that, because, sometimes when you do signings, you have conversations with people. Sometimes it’s quite crazy. You have some moments at a book festival, or just in traveling. So I take notes. I could make a book out of that, and it would be fine enough for me. And I have a lot of projects. You never know if it’s going to work.

When I did Shenzhen, it took a long time for the public to read these sorts of books, and now it’s selling. Shenzhen was 2,000 in France in it’s first year. Burmese Chronicles in France was 40,000. Things have changed a lot in the past 15 years in France and I think around the world. Now the graphic novel exists and has its place in bookstores. In France they have a big space now in bookstores and festivals. It’s really changing quickly. You have more choice now.

It’s funny, because people here who are into independent comics tend to idealize France, things like the album system. There’s a great history there.

Yeah, I can understand that.

But it sounds like you’re like us in that comics haven’t been fully accepted until fairly recently.

Yeah, well, historically, L’Association was a mix of very successful authors. This doesn’t happen very often , and it could have happened in Japan, it could have happened in the States. But look at who it was—David B., Lewis Trondheim, and then people like Marjane [Satrapi] came. And then you take all of the independent comics, you’ve got a wave big enough to change things, because there was Art Spiegelman with Maus. Everyone read that and thought it was amazing. People like me said, “I knew this could exist.” And now, we have this type of book.

As usual, these guys were fed up with the system and they started publishing their own books. But historically in France, there’s been a constant evolution of children’s comic books and then teenager comic books with some very dark humor. And then there’s a little gap. At one point I stopped reading comic books, because it was too much science fiction and adventure. I couldn’t find exactly what I wanted. And then the independents came, five years after that.

We’re offering what people wanted—people of my age, 30, 40. And now these people have money, they love comic books. They want to read Marjane and David B. And they wanted to read more, so France is translating a lot. the situation was perfect, because we had bookstores like Forbidden Planet all over the city, and the one I saw in Brooklyn—

Rocketship.

Yeah, Rocketship. That’s a very nice store. In my town, we have two like that and a big one. So everyone is reading comic books. And it’s been a constant history, so that’s why we don’t have to call graphic novels or comics—it’s all comics. Except some are in small format and black and white, so they’re going to be more out in public. But the choice is really wide.

The kids stuff and teenage stuff is still there?

Yeah, it’s still there, which is good. And the funny thing now is that the independent artists are asked by the more classical people, “why don’t you do something for the children?” I was asked, so I did Louis au ski, which is like Aline et les autres.

Stylistically?

Yeah. It’s one drawing per page, about one day in the life of a little boy. So I did that and I mixed my independent influence with the stuff I read as a kid. Now there’s a lot of that today. There was a magazine called Cosmic Planet that had a lot of people from the independent world doing stuff for children. And there’s a lot of great stuff in there. And now they are going in other directions for children. I buy a lot of their stuff for children.

You’ve got children of your own now.

Yeah, so I buy them for them.

It’s for you and the kids.

Yeah, that’s right, because look at Lewis [Trondheim]. He does independent stuff for certain book, but then he has some books that are just for children. I read them with my kids, and they’re fantastic.



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