Thien Pham Talks with Roger

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When I Zoomed up comics artist and high-school art teacher Thien Pham to talk about his new graphic memoir, Family Style: Memories of an American from Vietnam, he was on his break, knocking back Pop-Tart Bites and beef jerky in the office of the school library. Library-supplied snacks, I must add, in the hope that library directors nationwide take note.

Roger Sutton: That sign behind you looks like Gene Yang’s work.

Thien Pham: Yes, Gene used to teach here. We’ve done comics together, and Gene actually got me my job as an art teacher here. He was teaching computer science at the time. We taught together for a long time, and then he did comics full-time, and I stayed.

RS: For the snacks.

TP: The library keeps snacks under the desk, because the kids can get hungry during the day, or their parents are late picking them up. Today, the kids are going to come in here and say, “I’m hungry, and Mr. Pham ate all the snacks.”

Photo credit: Briana Loewinsohn

RS: Maybe you've already answered this question, but what caused you to structure your book around food?

TP: I’ve always wanted to tell my story about coming to America, and Gene encouraged me every time he heard me tell it. For years and years, though, I couldn’t figure out an angle on it. There are so many books about the Vietnamese diaspora, and people coming to America from Vietnam. My story is not that much different. During the pandemic, however, I had a chance to talk to my parents a lot. Finally, at forty-six, I was able to say, “Mom, you’ve never really told me this story. You always kept it from us because you wanted to protect us, but I want to hear the story. Tell me about how we came to America.” I was five, so I don’t remember a lot. As they told me, I kept thinking, this story’s so exciting. They revealed all these details, and I thought, that happened? That’s crazy! They asked me what I remembered, and I said, “I remember being on the boat, and you gave me a rice ball that had fish in it. I remember the boat got picked up by a Scandinavian ship, and they gave us watermelon and grilled squid. And I remember being at the refugee camp.” I realized that every single one of my memories was tied to something that I ate. It went from there. I thought, that’s my in. That’s my angle. I love food.

Phams now. Courtesy of Thien Pham.

For a while I had a comic in a weekly newspaper, the East Bay Express, called “I Like Eating.” I would review restaurants in comic-strip form. I’ve always loved food, but I had never thought to connect that to a memoir of my emigrating from Vietnam. As soon as I said that to my parents, it kind of clicked and I started writing. As soon as I had that, coupled with talking to my parents, the story poured out of me.

RS: Like Proust’s madeleines? It’s one of those images we all use, but I’ve never read Proust, so I don’t know if I’m using it correctly. But the idea that you taste something, and boom, your past comes to life.

TP: Yes. It really was an eye-opener. As soon as I added up what I remembered, it was all food-related too. It makes sense to me now because that’s how I think. When I remember last week, I think, what did I do on Wednesday? On Wednesday I made spaghetti and meatballs. My pin is always the meals that I have. If someone asked, “How was your interview with Roger?” I’d say, “It was great. I had Pop-Tart Bites.”

RS: What led you to comics as a way to tell your stories?

TP: That was the only way I could tell my story. When I came to America, I had a real struggle with the English language and with communicating in general. I tell this all the time, because all of us comic nerds have the story of our very first graphic novel or comic book. I remember I was in third or fourth grade. I was at 7-11, and I saw a Marvel Team-Up comic with Spider-Man and Moon Knight in it. I thought, this is amazing, and I grabbed it. I had a little money saved up from birthdays and had gone in to buy candy. Instead, I decided to buy this comic. If you know me, you’d know that was a big sacrifice. I didn’t really expect to understand anything in the comic because it was all in English. As I was looking at it, though, I felt like I did understand. When I didn’t know a word, I looked at the pictures, and I thought, oh, this word must be this, because the picture is doing this. I finished the entire comic, and I understood it. From there, I fell in love with comics and with the juxtaposition of words and pictures.

Working at school. Courtesy of Thien Pham.

I love cartoons. I love comics. I read comics, all kinds. When I went to art school, all I wanted to do was draw comics there. At that time, comics weren’t a very valued art medium. Not everybody was going into graphic novels like they are now. But I found a group of comics friends; I met Gene Yang, Lark Pien, Jason Shiga, and Derek Kirk Kim — all these people who loved telling stories in comics. We did it even though we were not making any money with it. We were spending pretty much all our free time and our extra money to draw, write, and print these comics that nobody else cared about. There was a small group of people who bought non-superhero comics, more like the graphic novels you know now. Raina Telgemeier was one of them. We all formed this community; we’d travel to these little conventions like SPX [Small Press Expo] where people would be doing this type of storytelling. My resolve for drawing comics never wavered, but my resolve for making money drawing comics — I never thought that we would ever see our books in print. When Gene’s American Born Chinese, Raina’s Smile, and Jason’s Meanwhile were published, I thought, whoa, this is a thing.

RS: It’s funny, I did an interview last week with Eoin Colfer and Andrew Donkin from Britain. We talked about how children’s literature, children’s libraries, were in many ways a reaction to comic books, because adults wanted children to read respectable literature, not that “trash” that they could buy on the corner. And now comics are central to children’s literature. I’ve seen that shift in my forty years in the field. It’s amazing.

TP: I read a lot more now, but I’m still not as big a reader as a lot of my friends. During junior high and high school, I was a very reluctant reader. I’d never heard of that term before — reluctant reader — until I published Sumo with First Second in 2012. I’m not as good a writer as I am a cartoonist. My comics are not wordy; the words support the pictures. I remember a librarian coming up to me at ALA one year. She said that she had a student who loved my book because they were a reluctant reader. That was the first time I had heard that term.

RS: It’s a librarian term.

TP: I asked her what that meant, and she said, “They don’t read very often, but when they read your book, they really enjoyed it, and that got them to read more graphic novels, which got them to read prose as well.” That was probably one of the proudest moments of my life. I felt like I did it. I finally reached myself. I was that Spider-Man/Moon Knight comic for someone else. Maybe they’ll become a graphic novelist. They can see that you don’t have to have an amazing grasp of the English language to be active in literature.

RS: It seems to me like comics are a really democratic way to get into art. What do you need, bottom line, beyond paper and a pen? Or do you work on a computer now? How do you do it?

TP: I draw mostly on an iPad now, but I used to draw comics on paper with pen. It wasn’t until Apple introduced the Pencil that I was able to draw on the computer. The disconnect between your mouse hand and drawing on the screen is really hard for me. As soon as I was able to draw with a pen on an iPad — but still be able to undo and fix things — that changed my world. I did my first comic in fourth grade. I took the back of handouts from my teacher, and I would draw comics. I made my mom photocopy them at her work, and I would staple them together and sell them to my friends. You’re right. All I needed was a pen and something to draw on.

Workspace. Courtesy of Thien Pham.

RS: The sequence that impressed me the most in your book, is early on when the pirates attack, and we get this horrible violence going on, but in an almost abstracted way, so you don’t have to look too closely if you don’t want to, and then pages of complete blackness, with just your mother’s words, “I’m right here”; “I’m right here with you.” I can’t think of what other medium you could get that effect in. You need the page turns, the black pages. It was amazing to me. How did you think of that?

TP: I’m so flattered and impressed that you picked up on that. The page turn, to me, is the most important part of the comic. Leaving you on that last panel, and then — basically, a beat in a movie — turning to either reveal or take a breather. When I started this comic, it was on Instagram. You scroll pictures, and then the last panel left you hanging for another two or three days before I posted the next page. So that “page turn” was important. The page turn, the story between the gutters, the space between the two panels — that’s all inherent in comics. Going from one panel to another is a huge storytelling device. Going from the pirates — page turn — and then darkness. I came up with that sequence because that’s how I remember it. I remember it being very foggy because I had my eyes closed. I see fire, and I heard screams. My dad told me the story, telling me in full detail everything that happened, and I thought, I don’t remember any of that. I wanted to give the feel of being scared in a horrific moment but protected by your mom. That’s how I remembered it, so that’s how I wanted to represent it on the page.

Phams in the 1980s. Courtesy of Thien Pham.

RS: As you’re talking about it now, I thought of something else about the images of the pirates. The reader does the same thing you did, knowing you’re not supposed to look, but you open your eyes quickly, and then you close them, viewing what’s going on through a series of blinks. I do that when there’s something scary on TV.

TP: Yeah, that’s how I wanted it to come across.

RS: But ultimately, it’s a very hopeful and cheerful book.

TP: That was one of the big things I want to convey. Every story about coming to America seemed very heavy. Even the movies — for a long time, I said, “I don’t want to watch a movie about Vietnam. It’s going to be about war, it’s going to be about sadness, it’s going to be about destroyed families.” I never wanted to see Platoon. It was all so devastating. When I told my own story, I said, “This is about my parents, and they are heroes.” I love my life now in America. We went through a lot to get here, but ultimately this is a story of accomplishment. My life is filled with joy. It would be really hard for me to write a book that was not hopeful or cheerful. At the same time, I wanted to capture the struggles that got us to this moment. I don’t want you to cover your eyes. I want it to be something that people can read and feel hopeful and happy, for not just me, but all the millions and millions of immigrants that have to pull through that struggle to now live a good life, a better life.

Citizenship. Courtesy of Thien Pham.

RS: But you always stick with a kid’s perspective, even in the camp. You get the sense from some books, “Here I am, a member of the Vietnamese diaspora,” from the point of view of an eight-year-old, who wouldn’t have been speaking or thinking that way. Instead, your book offers that great detail about the kids throwing their sandals to make a game. That looks like fun. Or how obsessed young you was with winning the magnet. That’s very true to a kid’s point of view. You don’t pull away to show us, “Let us consider this historical moment in its entirety.” Because that’s not how children see the world.

TP: Totally. I also talked with my dad about it. I said, “Dad, what do you remember about our time in the refugee camp?” My dad said he remembered it was a lot of fun. That took me by surprise. “Really? We were living in basically poverty and squalor.” He said, “Yeah, but it was a community of all our people, and we were all sharing. We would do things to entertain ourselves and have fun; we were all trying to make the best of it.” He keeps in touch with a lot of the people who were in the camp at the same time. They have a yearly reunion, almost like a college reunion. I also remember a lot of fun. I remember things like making our own flashlights, hunting for crabs. I remember the slipper game. When I talk to other family members, we remember those moments. Yeah, it was a struggle, and we didn’t have a lot of things, but it was not a time of sadness for us. It was a time of growing and community and joy.

RS: And you had hope. You had escaped a bad situation to some place that was at least safe, even if it was a refugee camp, and you had something to look forward to.

TP: Everybody there was in the same boat. Pardon the pun. Everybody was in the same situation, and everyone was hopeful for one another.


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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978.

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