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GRAPHIC NOVELIST BREAKS BOUNDARIES
A Q.&A. with artist Nguyen Khoi Nguyen

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Editor’s Note: A multimedia graphic novel seems to be a paradox. In a medium dominated by the various ways you can shape a book—everything from tiny, hand-inked folded paper to massive cut and build your own stories—how can you infuse a novel with more than text and drawings, but music and animation as well? Enter Nguyen Khoi Nguyen, a multidisciplinary artist working on the cutting edge of art and design, and his newest project, The Gulf—a digital, multimedia graphic novel inspired by Nguyen’s experiences and family in Vietnam.

Born in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam and currently living in Washington D.C., Nguyen has a rich artistic career, from performing as a jazz pianist/vocalist lead of the jazz trio Superior Cling, to serving as the Video and Multimedia Editor for Science Magazine, to creating new pieces of work as a fine artist in residence at Strathmore. We had a chance to ask Nguyen about life in D.C., The Gulf, his artistic inspirations—and even his favorite Vietnamese food.

What are your strongest memories from each of the places you hail from – Vietnam, Florida, and Washington D.C.?

I was only a year and half old when my family moved to America, so I don’t have memories of Vietnam as a child. But I do have many vivid memories of Vietnam when I returned for the first time in 2005. I spent seven months there discovering the country for myself. I traveled very widely throughout the country and documented everything with my camera. City life, the countryside, religious life, weddings, funerals… I soaked up everything.

I grew up in Florida so that landscape is burned onto my brain. The flatness of everything, the scratchy dryness of the flora, the flooding when the rains come, and the uniform architecture of suburban gated communities.

What made you decide to stay in D.C.?

I’ve been in D.C. for eight years now. I’ve experienced my 20s and now my 30s in DC. When I think of the District I think of the constant state of construction and the funny hybrid feeling of urbanization and small town life. I move to DC on a lark. I traveled for a year as a Watson Fellow after undergrad and was planning to actually remain in Vietnam but first I had to report back to the states and then I took a little holiday visiting my sister here in DC. While I was here for about a month I substitute taught a film and video class and when they asked me if I was interested in remaining for the year, something compelled me to say yes and I’ve been in DC ever since.

Tell us about The Gulf. What inspired it (both in content and form)?

“The Gulf” is a multimedia graphic novel about a Vietnamese American Family. It is inspired by my family history and my childhood. The title of “the Gulf” refers to the Gulf Coast of Florida (where my hometown is situated) and also the divisions that I traverse in my life: adulthood/childhood, my Vietnamese/American identity. The first three chapters are currently available on iBooks.

“The Gulf” has been a long time coming for me. I loved comic books as a kid. But in Art school I was occupied with painting and film and other diversions so it took me a while to circle back. I don’t think I wouldn’t have actually attempted to draw a comic again if I hadn’t taught a drawing and painting class two years ago. That’s when I began to really draw again and feel confident about my drawing. Also, right around that time I had just digested a bunch of fantastic graphic novels which really inspired me.

Since the novel is 3/10ths released, what do you have in store for the remaining 7/10ths?

I’ve completed three chapters of “The Gulf” so far and I’ve set a goal to make ten. I’ve spent a little over year and a half working on it. In these first three chapters, I have established different characters, time periods, and landscapes. I’ve had a great time experimenting with form, structure and layout and I’ve made an explicit effort to keep the reader on his/her toes. My plan is to elaborate on this world while continuing to bring the unexpected to the work.

How exactly does a “multimedia graphic novel” work?

The multimedia aspect of the “Gulf” is that there’s music and animation which is embedded within the chapters. I don’t treat these elements as add-ons but as integral parts of the story. Composing the music and drawing the animation does make everything take longer so even when the comic is written and drawn I still have so much more work to do to finish a chapter! But I recognized early on that my priority is to make the best work I can, work that could really put a smile on my face, that pushes me forward, so if it takes a little longer so be it. Realistically, I’ll be done in three more years.

What is your advice for other young artists and creators?

My advice to aspiring artists is to just do the work. There’s just no way to get better unless you just keep working. You have to put in the time, you have to get the experience.

And finally… what’s your favorite Vietnamese food?

My favorite food is my mom’s Pho.

 
 
 
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