It was safer to put your head down

Named for the suburb of southwestern Sydney, Australia, where his family settled after having fled their war-torn homeland of Vietnam, a black and white autobiographical comic from Matt Huynh called “Cabramatta” draws on the artist’s experience as the son of refugees and a childhood spent near an open-air drug market. The eight-page, ink and watercolored strip appears alongside similarly themed essays and illustrated works in October/November’s special edition of The Believer called “The Borders Issue” (cover art: Carina Guevara). An interactive version of this work now appears at the magazine’s website.

Matt Huynh Cabramatta believerWhile he’s now based in Brooklyn, New York, Huynh’s childhood took shape in Cabramatta—his parents were among the roughly 800,000 refugees who arrived on Malaysian shores between 1975 and 1995. The term “boat people” is commonly used to refer to migrants such those that make up Huynh’s family—it’s ugly shorthand for the thousands who fled the bloody conflict in Vietnam on overcrowded fishing vessels that weren’t initially intended for such a journey.

But even as Huynh’s parents have more solid footing when the “Cabramatta” comic opens—following “two years in…refugee camps,” they’re finally in an apartment in the Aussie suburb—the comic’s first page has us eyeing their front door’s four locks. Televisions carry the message of xenophobic politicians, Huynh recalls racist encounters of his youth, and the streets are awash in drugs.

Huynh cites Sydney’s high unemployment rate and traversing mountains of hypodermic needles on the way home from school (“It was safer to put your head down,” Huynh recounts). In the 1970s, Cabramatta became a distribution center for drug trade, which spurred the formation of gangs, thanks mostly to the American servicemen who introduced heroin to the suburb as well as the air of desperation for Vietnamese youth and the intense racism they faced, explains the University of Technology Sydney’s Andrew Jakubowicz in this New York Times piece. Gang members are seen engaging in violent intimidation in Huynh’s comic, and a pair of striking panels juxtaposes an initiation of sorts with a harrowing street scene, both dependent upon the involvement of a needle: Lean, rubbery-limbed gangsters get tattooed in one, while an addict gets his fix in another.

“Those teens that our own representatives regarded as jungle animals were my classmates and neighbors,” writes Huynh in a caption that follows an image of politician depicted on television, threatening deportation for Cabaramatta’s Vietnamese population. “Their gang, 5T, burgled homes, laundered money, and extorted local businesses, but they were most notorious for transforming Cabramatta into Australia’s heroin capital.”

Matt Huynh Cabramatta believer

Huynh has long focused on articulating the refugee experience in his work, and he’s told stories about Cabramatta before. Last year, he produced a dark and murky animated dramatization of a short story by Pulitzer Prize-winning author and critic Viet Thanh Nguyen about a journey that mirrored those taken by boat people decades ago. Similarly, as I wrote for Hyperallergic in 2015, the artist produced a 20-minute “interactive comic,” like the version of “Cabramatta” at The Believer‘s site, that melded audio, the animation of hundreds of illustrations, and text for an immersive adaptation of author Nam Le’s award-winning 2008 story “The Boat.” While Huynh’s arresting drawings for “The Boat” occasionally exude a bleary, appropriately nightmare-like quality or a sense of weightlessness that owes partly to their sparse backgrounds, the panels for “Cabramatta” feel hectic and are crammed with information. Each elaborate building facade or monument in the town square gets ample detail, while commuter trains pull away from the station, which teems with addicts and “a hundred dealers.” The residents scurry about the marketplace, just before they’re locking themselves safely inside their apartments again.

“The train station was the very edge of our world,” writes Huynh. “We were warned against getting caught up with the dealers and the junkies, but it was also our way out.”

See an interactive version of Matt Huynh’s comic “Cabramatta” at The Believer, but do read the print edition. On October 22nd, The Believer‘s art director Kristen Radtke (author of Imagine Wanting Only This) will interview Huynh for a live presentation of his comic in Las Vegas.