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10 Questions for Matt Huynh

You know what we used to do? When we had a questions that we couldn't answer? We carved them into bones. To ask the king. Will we be visited by sickness? Will we be visited by disaster? By harm? By evil?—From "Oracle Bones," Winter 2018 (Vol. 59, Issue 4)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
It was a surrealist adventure comic, because I didn’t see that available on comic book shelves and it was what I wanted to read. It may seem quite disconnected from the work I make now, but it was the first step in a pattern of creating work that I felt was underrepresented and that begun for an audience of one. Quickly, my work shifted to answering that same prompt by creating comics about my immediate migrant community, my hometown Chinatown, my family history and stories of asylum seekers and refugees.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I was very influenced by the heavy ink and brush line of comic artists and illustrators like Paul Pope and Yuko Shimizu. Both were informed by a melding of Eastern and Western experiences and influences that I connected to as a Vietnamese-Chinese Australian growing up in an Australia grappling with post White Australia Policy multiculturalism.

What other professions have you worked in?
A lot of jobs that I ultimately quit in my search for what I could bring value to—I was an editor, I worked in law and finance, I worked as an illustrator in a commercial studio before striking out with my own representation.

What inspired you to write this piece?
My comic ‘Oracle Bones’ weaves together heroin in Cabramatta, a royal ritual for fortune telling, and the first evidence of written language.

The earliest evidence of language came from oracle bones discovered by Chinese
farmers digging for ‘dragon bones’ to grind into medicine. A diviner carved questions into the oracle bones with a burning metal rod. The King read fortunes from how the bones cracked, and his prognostication was added to the bones and the bones burnt in a pit.

I used this history to reflect on my own community’s lost historical record and ritual of burning and injecting white crystal. I grew up in a working-class migrant community with first generation kids in gangs in Australia’s heroin capital. If, like me, you managed to grasp some clue that you wanted to become an artist, there weren’t readily available mentors or audiences to guide and support your work.

If, like me, you managed to scramble and bumble your way into working as an artist and later in life had the opportunity to elevate voices from your community, you might turn around to find an entire generation of stories and artists that were sparsely recorded and lost to time. Young artists lost to gangs, drugs or, more ordinarily, mum and dad’s ushering you into stable office jobs. Trying to paint an accurate picture of our experiences is only further distorted by turning to ‘official’ records, because this history’s been told through the lens of hegemonic news and entertainment media, memoirs by lawyers and detectives and quotes from politicians with political interests.

I lament the loss of an entire generation of potential artistic expression and record. Not only of my own particular experience, but of any young migrant community and marginalized identities growing up without access to resources, a means to equally voice themselves and combating the same pressures to quiet their voices. It might be too late to excavate my own experience from beyond the ‘fiction’ category, but not too late to elevate and display today’s diverse, young marginalized migrant voices.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Right now, it’s the idea of ‘home’ and what that might mean. It’s my childhood home town, through nostalgic and faded memories. It’s a home I’ve never known but feel intrinsically connected to and my identity wound up in. It’s what makes a home, what I need to make a home in a foreign country, and what my parents before me needed to settle and build a home for themselves and for me.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I put on a lot of loud industrial music, lots of screaming, degraded digital glitches and percussion that could help me get outside of my head and drown out the world. Increasingly, if the music is too novel and there are too many lyrics, I find it too distracting. Music that is familiar helps because my attention is less likely to follow it.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I write about something not directly connected, and with low stakes. Maybe I’ll journal or write gibberish until I can’t write gibberish any longer and the thoughts start to put themselves in order. It’s a bit of a trick to get myself started, to get my body moving ahead of thought. Writing longhand is important for this, and having an artifact of my script with ink and paper. Everything flattens and disappears on a screen, but the idiosyncratic evidence of writing on pieces of paper helps me to keep my thoughts.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My partner. I’ll read it aloud to her which helps me feel out if I’m being too indirect or clumsy with my head voice, or I’ll send it to her without comment and see how she responds.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Music, or to make ingredients and tools. Maybe ink and brushes or musical instruments.

What are you working on currently?
A story about first generation migrants settling in a foreign country after war, second generation migrants resettling, and male relationships in Asian families and communities.

MATT HUYNH is a visual artist based in New York City. His bold brush and ink paintings are informed by Eastern sumi-e ink traditions and Western comics. His animation, paintings, and comics interrogate war, diaspora, asylum seekers, and migrant communities. Huynh’s work has been exhibited at MOMA, the Smithsonian, the Sydney Opera House, and the New York Historical Society.

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