The refuse of a nation

A new work from Brooklyn-based illustrator, painter, and animation artist Matt Huynh dramatizes a moving piece of fiction by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and critic Viet Thanh Nguyen.

matt huynh animation viet thanh nguyen

“The Ark,” which was published in May by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, is an adaptation of a prologue to Nguyen’s forthcoming novel The Committed, a sequel to 2015’s The Sympathizer.

For 20 years following the fall of Saigon, nearly 800,000 refugees attempted an incredibly perilous journey from Vietnam in overcrowded fishing boats. Nguyen, who was born in Vietnam and fled the war with his parents as a child, tells the story in “The Ark” of refugees escaping—amid harrowing circumstances by way of boat—conditions similar to those that threatened his own life and that of his family’s before they made their way to a Pennsylvania camp in 1978.

The vacationers gathered on the railing to stare at us, our spectacle set to the beat of their dance music. We mustered ourselves for one last supplication, but when the cruise liner passed us by, buffeting our dreadful imitation of a yacht with its wake, we knew at last how the world saw us: A flotsam of flesh and the refuse of a nation.

Huynh’s adaptation is awash in dark and murky watercolored textures. They take the shape of storm clouds, blooming flowers, and menacing cruise ship shadows that unfurl over the faces of the displaced figures at the center of Nguyen’s potent story. The score, composed by Kevin Shea Adams, is a sometimes-bombastic mesh of crunchy percussive thrusts, synths, sound collages, and warm guitar lines. 

matt huynh animation viet thanh nguyen

Sydney, Australia-born Huynh, like Nguyen, is the son of Vietnamese “boat people,” and has recently won a number of awards for his interactive comics adaptation of author Nam Le’s “The Boat.” I wrote about the plight of Vietnamese boat people and Huynh’s work at Hyperallergic back in 2015.

See “The Ark,” and visit Matt Huynh’s site. Learn more about Viet Than Nguyen.