An exhibition opening at the French Institute on Thursday showcases the work and creative process of French-Khmer graphic novelist Chan Veasna – known as Tian – whose trilogy L’année du Lièvre (The Year of the Hare) recounts his family’s time under the Khmer Rouge regime.
But Tian’s art derives more from his meticulous research than his own memories. He was born three days after his family was ordered to leave Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, and was only five when he escaped Cambodia to France with his parents in 1980.
Tian didn’t return to Cambodia until 2001. He now resides primarily in Lyon.
“I realise, after all these years living in France, that I knew nothing about it: how they survived, what they suffered, how they loved through the Khmer Rouge,” the 40-year-old said.
His research included recording testimony from his father and reading as much as he could on the history of Democratic Kampuchea.
The first two parts of L’année du Lièvre, published by Gallimard in 2011 and 2013, follow his family’s forced evacuation from the city and subsequent arrest. The final volume in the series, which illustrates their life in the work camp, will be released early next year.
Tian brings familiar scenes to life in loose line and cartoonish detail: tanks rolling through the streets of Phnom Penh, hasty confusion, black uniforms and red-checkered kramas. He doesn’t portray violence directly with his pen, but he doesn’t need to – a sense of dread pervades almost every panel.
“I believe there are many ways to make people feel the horror of a situation; we don’t need to dwell on the image of death to express fear,” he said.
Tian first worked with graphic novels in art school before pursuing a career that has ranged from children’s publishing to illustration and teaching. To explore his family story and the history of his homeland in the medium came quite naturally.
Unlike that of a traditional novel, his narrative development is twofold – there is the creation of the story itself, and then the production of the art: drawing, colouring and revision.
It is this process that renders a familiar story new again.
“Telling a story with a graphic novel is like a music score, there’s a rhythm to respect so that the reader doesn’t get bored,” Tian explained.
As with any historically inspired graphic novel, L’année du Lièvre could easily be compared with Art Spiegelmen’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus, but Tian might have more in common with the French-Iranian graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi.
Satrapi’s successful series Persepolis — also published in French — recounts her childhood in Iran following the revolution, and later the refuge she seeks in Europe.
Like Persepolis, L’année du Lièvre emerges directly from an attempt to make sense of life in the diaspora, of his own fractured sense of place. “By trying to fit in [in France], I became aware of my origins … I had to go back to my country to find my memories and to reconnect with the land I was born in.”
The trilogy, once complete, represents the testimony of just one family, but it is one that will be understood by many.
“I hope this graphic novel will be translated in Khmer, because I’m eager to share it with Cambodian readers. It’s part of their story, too,” Tian said.
An exhibition on the making of L’année du Lièvre will run from December 10 until January 16. A discussion with Tian will be held on December 15 at 6:30pm at The French Institute, #218 Street 184.