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Beja Protner: We are very happy to have you join the Debordering Futures Conference – Carolina giving a workshop on collective theatre and anticolonial ethnography and Peter contributing to the visual output of the conference hosted by the other side of hope magazine. In this interview, I would like to discuss your past and present individual and collaborative work by focusing on the possibilities opened by the artistic exploration of personal and social histories of colonialism, migration, and race. Could you both first tell us a bit about your backgrounds and how you first started collaborating?

Peter Quach: Thanks so much to you and the organising team for inviting us to participate in this timely and important gathering.

I am a child of Vietnamese refugees who were resettled in the midwestern US after fleeing the war in Vietnam in 1975. Growing up in the interior of the US, I always felt different from the majority-white, majority-Evangelical-Christian people surrounding me, and this otherness made me question the status quo from a young age. Part of this questioning perhaps led me to seek alternative modes of self-expression like comics, which were one of my first loves. Even though the first comics I drew when I was five years old were nothing more than regurgitated X-Men stories, the ability to tell a story through pictures captivated me then and continues to captivate me to this day.

Carolina Alonso Bejarano: I was born and raised in Bogotá, which is the ancestral land of the Muiscas. I always loved to read and I studied Law and Political Science, thinking that I could help make the world a more just place. I left Colombia after finishing Law School, feeling very disappointed at how slowly and terribly the law worked in my country, quite differently from what the actual legislation dictated in the books. I moved to Paris at first, where I became interested in the Sans Papiers movement and started thinking about unauthorised immigration statuses, and then I received an MSc. in Gender and Social Policy at the London School of Economics. After writing a thesis on racial profiling against Latinas accessing healthcare in the state of Arizona, I moved to Brooklyn and attended Rutgers University for a PhD in Women’s and Gender Studies. I joined the immigrants’ rights movement and focused on exploring the struggles that undocumented Latinas face in New Jersey. I am currently an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Warwick, and I am a DJ as well.

PQ: Caro and I first met in 2011 in New York City, the ancestral land of the Lenape, and the place we both now call home. She was just starting the research for her PhD and what would become her book, and I had self-published a few comics and sold them at alternative comics conventions.

CAB: I remember you impressed me with those comics on our first date.

PQ: Yes, that’s the only rizz I had (as kids today probably wouldn’t say)! Our collaboration was born out of our then-romantic partnership. At first, Caro edited all my comics — I would run my script and thumbnails by her before drawing anything. She has been my sounding board for 13 years.

CAB: I disagree that that’s all the rizz you had (whatever that means), but I agree that we have always collaborated. Since meeting each other, Peter has edited all my work and I have edited all of his. Our more explicit collaborations started ten years ago when I had the idea to create a short serial webcomic about our life in Brooklyn in the style of Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. We decided on a one-to-four-panel format and a candy-colour palette. Gumdrops is usually about random moments in our lives (a naked conversation in the shower or a discussion in the back of a taxi), though we sometimes reflect upon the world at a larger scale. That is what I love about Gumdrops; it can be funny and cute, like the two latest ones about going to Mars and getting divorced. But sometimes we address social issues — I’m thinking of the Gumdrops we recently published about British colonialism or the one we made a while back about going through customs at the airport.

Comic strip from Gumdrops maagazine

PQ: In that same summer of 2014, when Israel was then attacking Gaza, we collaborated with Sangría Editora and edited a bilingual anthology, Not in Our Name: Against US Aid to the Massacre in Gaza. Along with original contributions by the editors and our comrades, we selected texts by numerous artists and thinkers of social justice (from Angela Davis to Toni Morrison to Noam Chomsky) and statements by various collectives, including the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions call by the Palestinian Civil Society. I illustrated and designed the cover. Gumdrops and Not in Our Name were the first of many works to come that credited both of us equally.

CAB: And long live Palestine. Ceasefire now. End the occupation.

PQ: Yes. Today and always, free Palestine.

Not in our name poster

BP: I agree! Your widely accessible work on colonial histories and present colonialism in Palestine is ever more important now, when the people of Gaza are facing genocidal violence from the Israeli state, supported by other states with their own, very much entangled, colonial histories. It is work against historical amnesia, which is being imposed on us today by the dominant discourses that legitimate ongoing colonial inequalities, interventions, and annihilations, as well as the anti-immigration discourses. This brings me to the question of knowledge production and research. For me, as a sociocultural anthropologist, trained in both non-Western (Slovenia, Turkey) and Western (UK) institutions, the questions of coloniality have always been strongly present in my thinking about research contexts, institutions, and methodologies. This is how I came across Carolina’s collaborative book project Decolonizing Ethnography. I find the way you deployed collaborative politically engaged ethnographic research with grassroots organising around migrants rights very inspiring. Could you tell us about this project? How did this methodology develop and what are its main takeaways for decolonial research and also some of its challenges?

CAB: Thank you for bringing up the book. Let me start by quickly addressing the need to decolonize ethnography (if possible) as a method of knowledge production for anyone who may be wondering. Ethnography emerged in Europe when Europeans were colonising and consolidating their control over non-Western territories. People in these lands became ethnographers’ objects of analysis, and anthropology became the discipline in the Western Scientific Academy dedicated to the study of non-Western peoples. In this vein of anthropological research, which Arturo Escobar and Eduardo Restrepo call “dominant anthropology,” the researcher can build a career and enjoy a comfortable middle-class Western lifestyle, while those who provide the raw materials for research remain in the often precarious conditions in which the ethnographer first encountered them. Within this paradigm, many scholars, uncomfortable with the inequalities of ethnography, have developed approaches that challenge the field’s colonial character while maintaining its intellectual insights and critical edge. These approaches informed and inspired our book. (The images in the following section are all from the book and Peter created them.)

Decolonizing Ethnography book cover. Person holding up a sign.

CAB: Decolonizing Ethnography: Undocumented Immigrants and New Directions in Social Science discusses the rights of undocumented workers in the United States in the context of the immigrants’ rights movement in the state of New Jersey. It explores what a decolonial approach to ethnography might look like based on four years of ethnographic research among undocumented immigrants in a New Jersey town we call “Hometown.” Decolonizing Ethnography was written by two academics with legal immigration status in the US and two undocumented women day labourers from Guatemala and Mexico. It discusses our research methods and proposes ethnography as an anti-colonial tool, despite its colonial roots and character, and it explores what undocumented immigrants themselves think about their experience of legal status through the perspectives of my undocumented co-authors, Lucia López Juárez and Mirian Mijangos García. The book closes with a bilingual play in Spanish and English, offering theatre as a fruitful ethnographic method.

I arrived in Hometown in the summer of 2011 as a second-year doctoral student working for anthropologist Daniel Goldstein as his research assistant doing ethnographic work at an immigrants’ rights centre called Casa Hometown. At the time, I was participating in the Occupy Wall Street movement in NYC’s Zuccotti Park, and was learning much about organising and anticapitalist values. When I arrived in Hometown, I learned that in 2003 the Hometown Council tried to stop undocumented Latinx immigrants from waiting for work outside using anti-loitering laws that were historically used to criminalise Black Americans, and in reaction to this Black Hometown residents formed a coalition with the Latinx community of the town, creating Casa Hometown. I decided to write my dissertation about the town because this history sparked my interest in the overlap and interaction between the oppression of African Americans and Latinx undocumented immigrants, and it also highlighted the liberatory potential of their solidarity and joint struggle.

Men wait for work outside a Hometown convenience store, beneath a “No Loitering” sign.
Men wait for work outside a Hometown convenience store, beneath a “No Loitering” sign.

Daniel and I worked together for two years as volunteers and ethnographers in Casa Hometown and in 2013 we were awarded a National Science Foundation grant that allowed us to hire Lucy and Mirian (both of whom we had already known as members of the Board of Directors of Casa Hometown). For us, learning the history of ethnography and colonialism meant understanding that the dichotomous distinction between the “subject” doing the research and the “objects” of such research is a fictitious European creation exported to the rest of the world, used to objectify colonised peoples across the globe and justify their exploitation and dehumanisation. This knowledge highlighted for Daniel and me the need to include Lucy and Mirian in our research team, not as “assistants” but as collaborators.

Lucy and Mirian’s theorizations about their status as undocumented women organisers, what we call in our book their “undocumented activist theory of undocumentation,” recognizes the agency that undocumented immigrants have in the United States as political actors. Lucy and Mirian took the tools of ethnographic research (writing fieldnotes, doing participant observation, running focus groups and conducting interviews) and used them for the purposes of their community organising efforts in the movement for the rights of the undocumented. Thus – if “decolonial” stands for the disassembling of the onto-epistemological paradigms that came into being or found new forms of expression with the colonisation of the Americas, perpetuating the continuation of human/sub-human and human/non-human hierarchies, in particular through conceptualizations of race and racial difference, gender and gender difference – then it is a decolonizing move when the traditional objects of ethnographic research use ethnography as a tool of empowerment to fight against their oppression.

The research team: Lucy, Caro, Mirian, Daniel, circa 2014.

The research team: Lucy, Caro, Mirian, Daniel, circa 2014.

Decolonisation is a highly contested term, and one of the main challenges for us has been coming to an understanding of it and placing our work within its history. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang famously argued over ten years ago in “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” that decolonial projects are only those particularly oriented around stopping the further settlement of indigenous lands and towards the restitution of land to colonised indigenous peoples. From this perspective, folks can use the language of decolonisation in the metaphorical sense to refer to general issues around diversity or equity or social justice, without addressing the decolonisation of indigenous land per se. In this way, talking about decolonisation without addressing indigenous people’s rights to their ancestral lands is what Tuck and Yang call a “settler move to innocence”: relieving the settler from feelings of guilt or responsibility regarding the continuation of the colonial project, without her giving up her power or land or privilege.

So, we must ask, given this co-optation of the decolonial struggle, what is the relation between the decolonisation of methods and the decolonisation of indigenous lands? I have talked extensively with Lucy and Mirian about this. My coauthors and I are referring to the decolonisation of ethnography as a method, yet, it is written from the perspective of four ethnographers operating within the settler colonial context of New Jersey, who are not directly working towards the restitution of land to Lenape people. And then we also must not flatten the category of the settler. We should consider that Lucy and Mirian are women of indigenous descent themselves who were forced to migrate to the United States from Central America due to the 200-plus years of colonial dispossession enforced by the US in their countries of origin. The very presence and lived experience of Mirian and Lucy on US soil represents a somatic and material challenge to the borders imposed by the settler colonial order of the nation-state, and we believe that despite the contradictions inherent in attempting to do decolonising work while operating within colonialism and coloniality, in writing an academic book, Lucy and Mirian asserted their right to think freely, to speak publicly and to exist in a world that denies their humanity on an everyday basis.

BP: Thank you for sharing with us the details about this important contribution to decolonizing anthropological knowledge production and the complicated and intertwined layers of coloniality it pushes us to consider. As you have mentioned, this project included a theatre play, which will be a part of the workshop you are holding at the Debordering Futures Conference on the 16th of May. Carolina, could you tell us what pathways performative art can open in collaborative ethnographic research and as a medium of representation of what we usually call “data”?

CAB: Thank you for also bringing up our play, Undocumented/Unafraid. Mirian, Lucy, Daniel and I, sometimes along with other members of Casa Hometown, wrote a one act play in eight scenes to explore the reality of life with no documents in the US and also the rights that immigrants have in the country. The play is inspired by the true story of the work accident that Mirian suffered in a horse farm in New Jersey and her legal battle against her employer while being away from her children, who were in Guatemala. Each scene ends with a short caption about workers’ rights in the United States and reminds undocumented people that these rights apply to everyone, regardless of their immigration status.

Members of Casa Hometown protest in NYC’s Union Square.
Members of Casa Hometown protest in NYC’s Union Square.

PQ: I was there when they performed the play at Casa Hometown in August of 2015 in celebration of the closure of their four-year ethnographic study in Hometown. Caro translated the play from Spanish to English, and it is included in both languages in the last chapter of the book.

CAB: I treasure our play because it is an accessible way to disseminate the findings of our research and because it is the part of the book that we all wrote together in Spanish at the same time. Also, I performed and rehearsed many times the role of an undocumented woman from Perú who works with the protagonist in a horse farm and helps her escape their abusive employer. That helped me understand at another, more embodied level, the struggles of living undocumented with the constant threat of violence and deportation. That is why I often ask the audience to perform a part of the play in my talks about ethnography (like I will do for my workshop on May 16), and also why I encourage folks to produce and perform our play as a pedagogical tool for spectators and actors alike.

The original cast of the play Undocumented/Unafraid in 2015.
The original cast of the play Undocumented/Unafraid in 2015.

PQ: Collectively writing and performing a play as an ethnographic method is a way to challenge the dichotomy between the object and subject of research that Caro was mentioning before, since, traditionally, “data” is supposed to be extracted from the objects of the research.

CAB: Exactly. The play closes our book, and, to me, it was the best way to end the book and also a great place to start my new line of research. Following my work with Decolonizing Ethnography, I am conducting research on art activism by undocumented immigrants in the Northeastern United States. And this is because I believe that transdisciplinarity is crucial for challenging the colonial character of ethnographic research. Today, 13 years after first arriving in Hometown and as I have argued elsewhere, I am convinced that art is an essential part in the project of imagining anti-colonial futures and the possibilities of a decolonial ethnography.

Mirian singing an original song at the 2015 premier of Undocumented/Unafraid.
Mirian singing an original song at the 2015 premier of Undocumented/Unafraid.

BP: This is also the ground on which we put this conference together. I really look forward to putting this method of theatre performance into practice and further discussing it at Carolina’s workshop on May 16. Peter, given that you also contributed to the Decolonizing Ethnography project with illustrations, could you share your experience working for this project?

PQ: At first, my work on this project solely consisted of supporting Caro. As part of being Caro’s partner, I had actually travelled to Hometown myself and met Lucy, Mirian, and their families, but otherwise my contributions at that point consisted of reading Caro’s drafts and cooking dinner and generally helping her succeed in any way I could (reproductive work is vital though it is often looked down upon). When one day Caro suggested I contribute illustrations for the interior and cover of the book, I was more than happy to help.

Part of the reasoning for having the book illustrated instead of including photographs was to protect the identities of the undocumented people and their families mentioned in the book from any repercussions, legal or otherwise. Having everyone illustrated, just like renaming the town Hometown, introduced a level of insulation. In addition, similarly to how performing in a play challenges the dichotomy between subject and object, seeing people as illustrations instead of photographs introduces a level of iconicity to the work, as per Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. My illustrations were not photo-realistic and thus, readers may find themselves more likely to identify with, or at least empathise with, the people depicted in the illustrations, versus photographs.

BP: Yes, there is something about the genre that gives a sense of universality and relatability. Peter, you have used comics as an artistic medium to engage with issues such as identity, racism, sexual violence, and immigration before. Your comics convey feelings of ambiguous (non-)belonging and experiences of violence in subtle and relatable ways through everyday experience, and encourage people to think about current politics, social problems, and historical processes related to colonialism, migration, gender, and race. What is the potential of comics to address and communicate these difficult topics—in ways that perhaps other mediums fall short of?

PQ: Historically, the medium of comics as a whole has been looked down upon as a lesser art form compared to other media such as paintings or novels. An explicit part of choosing to dedicate my life to creating comics has been rejecting this paradigm and asserting that comics are not only a valid medium, but also might offer a worldview free of the burdens and assumptions that have accumulated in other media around what counts as a valid object of art and who counts as an artist.

For example, in one of my first comics, Freedman, I wrote about a formerly enslaved Black man’s experiences at the end of the US Civil War. I decided on this topic not only because I wanted to draw guns and duels, but because I felt there needed to be a corrective to the common trope of the sympathetic white ex-Confederate soldier, who abhorred slavery but fought for the Confederates to defend the honour of his home against the tyrannical Northern aggressors. This trope has its roots in the Lost Cause myth, which was promulgated after the Civil War to delegitimize efforts to enfranchise African-Americans and to justify white supremacy. Under this paradigm, the war was never about slavery but about the North bending the South to its political will. In my view (and the view of most historians), slavery was actually at the centre of the war, and so I wanted to create a story about the Civil War that centred the experiences of an enslaved man.

Comic strip, Freedman

PQ: Producing this work as a comic allowed me the freedom from budgetary and financial considerations that might bend and constrain a work in a more costly medium — perhaps a movie even — and force said work to have a white co-lead who actually frees the formerly enslaved person, teaches them how to fight, and is responsible for killing the main villain of the story. Of course, I can’t imagine anyone would write a story about a freed Black man but actually have Christoph Waltz be the real lead instead. Can you?

Actually, you may know that movie exists and it’s Django Unchained by Quentin Tarantino. I think a comparison of Freedman (which I wrote completely unaware of Tarantino’s work) with Django encapsulates some of the advantages of comics as a type of outsider art versus something like film. Both stories actually feature remarkably similar endings, in which the formerly enslaved person kills someone and burns down a building. Whereas Django ends with the former slave saving his romantic interest from slavery and escaping together triumphantly, Freedman, by contrast, ends with the former slave failing to save an old Black couple from being murdered by white terrorists. When the main character of Freedman exacts revenge by killing the white murderer, the formerly enslaved man says, “There ain’t no freedom for us, Exter. But there will be justice.” Instead of it being a triumphant moment, the ending is ambiguous. Has justice actually been served? And what does freedom mean, really?

BP: Yes, there is no catharsis. It implies the continuation of the struggle for justice and freedom.

PQ: While part of the differences in our stories may just be attributable to the difference in authors, I really do believe a large part of the difference is dictated by the fact that movies require budgets in the tens to hundreds of millions of dollars, and are thus held captive by the needs to provide a white lead character and a clear resolution to the (majority white) audience so they feel satisfied in having spent $10-20. Comics, by contrast, only require a budget for ink and paper (at the bare minimum) and therefore allowed me to end my story more ambiguously. This ambiguity more accurately mirrors what I, as a non-Black person of colour, have learned about the past 150 years of anti-Black racism in the United States.

Another example of the particular power of comics to address difficult topics such as racism can be found in my comic, I Am a Racist (And So Can You). The United States is a society built on white supremacy, and even a person of colour such as myself will have internalised its tenets. After Barack Obama was re-elected President in 2012, I realised I needed to analyse my internalised racism more deeply, so I wrote this comic to delve into the history of racism in the state I grew up in, Indiana. As part of this comic, I chose to portray my internalised racism as a miniature Klu Klux Klansman, who grotesquely crawls out of my mouth. This was in fact the very first image I conceived of when I wrote this story, and I believe this imagery is only achievable in the medium of comics.

Comic strip

PQ: All I have to do to create this image in a comic is to think of it, and put pen to paper (or now, put digital stylus to screen). One of the virtues of comics as outsider art is that the barriers are low (or almost non-existent) to becoming a comic artist. Can you draw a box, put something in the box, and then draw another box with something slightly different inside? Boom. You’re now a comic artist. And if you have access to a printer or a Xerox machine, you can print out a zine and sell it on a street corner or at a convention. Something like this image of a KKK member jumping out my mouth may be achievable in a film or animated movie, but what studio is going to put millions of dollars on the line to fund radical art like this? There is a long history in comics of transgressive works that would only be producible with the freedom that comes from comics’ status as outsider art.

The comic Pinan, which I co-wrote with Caro and illustrated, follows the recovery of a young woman after a sexual assault, and as part of the story, she practices karate as a way to reclaim and feel safe in her body.

Pinan comic strip

CAB: How to represent the sexual violence was perhaps the most difficult question we had to deal with in creating Pinan, and in the end, we left much of the assault to the reader’s imagination for a few reasons: First, to avoid exploitation or retraumatization; second, from a narrative sense, the story is about the recovery, not the assault itself, so we limited our depiction of the assault to five panels because we felt anything more would have overpowered the rest of the story; and finally, in comics the reader fills in what happens between the panels with their imagination, and so we chose to dedicate only a few panels to the assault, which leaves the reader to imagine the rest. Often, whatever the reader can imagine is more powerful than what any artist could ever depict.

PQ: In Quach, I again turned inward to investigate the pronunciation of my own surname through the lens of coloniality and linguistics. I pronounced my name one way (incorrectly, you might say) for most of my life, and only in the last year did I decide to change how I pronounce my name to more closely match the actual Vietnamese pronunciation. This is both a common and a particular experience, shared by myriad immigrants caught between the violence of history and linguistics on the one hand, and shaped by the particularities of French colonisation and US involvement in Vietnam on the other. In Quach, I illustrate my nomenclatural confusion variously as a labyrinth, as words literally stamped on my face, and as colours printed out-of-register—which is a callback to the very history of comics, when they were printed with four different coloured inks that would sometimes fail to line up correctly and would thus create ghostly shadows or artefacts in the art.

Comic strip

PQ: The medium of comics allowed me to run free with my imagination in Quach and my other comics, to illustrate whatever crazed notion of which I could conceive, and to put it out there cheaply and free of the assumptions of other media.

CAB: Something to add regarding form and themes is that we have been experimenting together with a different format: we are now creating one-panel comics, or cartoons, for submission to The New Yorker. (And I am happy to say that last December, on PQ’s 40th birthday, they published one of our cartoons for the first time!). In most of them we make fun of ourselves, yet we have also covered important topics, including abortion access and workers’ rights.

Comic strip images

CAB: Creating a message in one image has brought its own challenges (different from those we face with longer format collaborations), and I see how cartoons are a very effective way to communicate with the reader, sometimes through humour. I look forward to our future creations and, in particular, I am thinking about issues that are important to me, such as the rights of immigrants, reproductive justice, and, increasingly so, prison abolition.

BP: You are currently collaborating on a fascinating project. If We Survive the Future is a graphic novel about an intercultural couple living in NYC that unfolds across oceans and generations. It touches on issues of mental health, queer relationships, and intergenerational trauma. Can you tell us more about the inspiration and idea behind this project?

CAB: We were considering what we could collaborate on after finishing Pinan, and we decided we could write a book-length project and thought it would be powerful to create a graphic novel about PQ’s relationship with his dad à la Art Spiegelman’s Maus or Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

PQ: While Caro grew up in Colombia, I was raised in the US and did not have a meaningful relationship with my father, so there are entire parts of my identity with which I have never had a connection. That’s where the idea for what eventually became this graphic novel came from. For our research we interviewed my mom extensively, and discovered that we wanted to tell her story as well. So our work went through many different metamorphoses. A key moment in defining the current shape of the graphic novel was working with novelist Scarlett Thomas, my mentor from when I studied abroad in the UK. With Scarlett we brainstormed the arc of the story and settled on focusing on our memories, joys and struggles as partners in life. Given what we had learned during our initial research into my family, we knew our story could not be told through focusing solely on ourselves, so we decided to expand the horizons of the story.

CAB: Yes. If We Survive the Future is an auto-fiction graphic novel about the cycles of love and violence that shaped our lives as romantic partners and the lives of both of our parents. In our graphic novel, we are portraying the various historical and cultural forces that shaped both Colombia and Vietnam’s histories and mine and Peter’s personal and creative DNA, as well as how they interact with each other. Vietnamese history has been shaped by ancient Chinese and Confucian traditions combined with French colonial influence and the more recent intervention by the US, and Colombian history has been delineated by Spanish colonisation of indigenous land, civil war and the War on Drugs. Our work is interested in the interplay between macro-scale global conflicts and micro-scale personal histories: Peter’s family fled Saigon as bombs were falling on the city in 1975 and was resettled in US refugee camps, and my family grew under the shadow of the US War on Drugs in Bogotá. We want to illustrate these histories and explore their lingering impacts across generations.

PQ: We believe that the best art reflects the full breadth of the human experience: our pains, our sorrows, our traumas, yes, but also our joys, our silliness, our triumphs, and our absurdities. We address these themes in the same way they are experienced in life: as a complex web, or a tapestry. In keeping sight of both our trauma and our joys, we hope to chart an escape from the cycles of violence that have shaped our families.

BP: The complex webs of histories and life experience within which a person subjectively inhabits the world becomes even more complex when these webs encounter each other and intertwine in an intimate relationship between persons with different backgrounds. Could you tell us more about the collaborative aspect of your work?

CAB: Our collaboration as an artistic practice challenges the typical conception of the artist as a solitary genius. By contrast, our co-creations are more than just the sum of PQ’s and my skills and ideas — together we are more powerful than we are apart.

PQ: I agree with you: collaboration as a method of knowledge production opens new possibilities for creativity. And I think that can also be said about our relationship, which of course highly influences how we create art together and also the content of our collaborations. How we relate to one another has morphed over the years, as we have gone from being romantic partners to divorced partners in life who wish to create cool comics together until we are too old to hold a pencil. This challenges typical expectations around relationships, where people are not intended to stay partnered with each other beyond the end of their romantic bond. And that is one of the central themes of the graphic novel for us: it is a love story where two out of three couples get divorced, yet their love bonds do not end there. Our work is an invitation for readers to consider alternative kinship structures outside of the capitalistic ideals of the nuclear family.

BP: You have both engaged with your personal questions of marginalisation and otherness in your works before. However, this graphic novel engages directly with your family members in new ways in the context of histories of colonialism and intimate experiences of immigration that are often silenced and suppressed. Did the personal nature of this work make it more challenging or different in any way compared to your previous works? What did you learn and how was it for you to collaborate with your family in a historical and artistic exploration?

PQ: We have both written about our personal lives before, as you say, in Gumdrops for example, yet this graphic novel is not just about our lives but also about both our families. That in itself is challenging because people have their particular sensitivities about how things should be depicted in a public forum. We are discussing difficult topics and events in the lives of our parents, and it is important to us to do it in a caring way. For example, just like in the pages from the graphic novel shared in the next section, Caro and I found out about my parents’ flight from Saigon on the same day. That first conversation with my mom was in many ways the catalyst for this whole project. When I pencilled the pages I showed them to my mom to ask for her opinion. She helped me be more accurate in my depictions of Saigon, but I was showing her my illustrations of some of the worst moments of her life. You have to walk a careful tightrope when you want to respect and honour your family and still tell their stories of violence and trauma.

CAB: I agree. And just like it is hard to know what to write and illustrate in our graphic novel, the research we have done for it has been challenging. We have done our interviews together and apart and have uncovered stories that are hard, especially coming from our loved ones. At times people may choose not to disclose things for fear of it being divulged in our book and at times it is difficult for us to ask certain questions. Our research has definitely changed how we understand our families, ourselves and our relationship.

PQ: Something else about our graphic novel is that, like all couples that have been together for over a decade, we have had moments of intense conflict. Part of the exercise of writing If We Survive the Future necessarily involved reconciling multiple versions of the truth and coming to one common story about our lives together. And we did not always see eye to eye in regard to what happened between us. We have had to iron out these disagreements as we write the story, and I believe that has been very healing for us.

CAB: And talking to our families has been healing as well, I think. Asking hard questions can be scary, but once you create space for a candid conversation about the past it is easier to understand the context of your family and your place in it, and that cuan be very empowering. The stories we have learned in the five years since starting the research for our graphic novel have always affected us, however we did not consciously know about them. Now we are in a better position to directly engage with and break some of the cycles of violence that we have identified. And we have also been able to see how those cycles intersect in expected and unexpected ways: we are talking about countries on opposite sides of the world and with different contexts, yet there is a level of commonality to some of the themes that have emerged in our research. US imperialism is a good example of this.

BP: Thank you for sharing with us the details of this process. It really shows the presence of global histories in family histories and how they both shape us as persons and our intimate relationships. They shape who we are as researchers and as artists, and I think that this project is both courageous and powerful in revealing what most conventional engagements with histories of coloniality conceal. We are excited to see this work being published. Can you share with us a few visuals from the graphic novel, either work in progress or finished parts of it and give us some insights about the creative process?

PQ: Thank you for the opportunity to share our work in progress. Our process emerged very organically, and it has flowed easily most of the time. When we begin work on a new comic, be it a gag cartoon for The New Yorker, a new four-panel comic strip for our webcomic Gumdrops, or a new graphic novel, we brainstorm ideas together. We contribute an equal amount to the writing of our projects and share a live document. Once a script is written, I will thumbnail the pages, which is my process for designing the page layouts. Carolina will review and edit the thumbnails. The next step is for us to get feedback from our mentors and colleagues on our script and thumbnails. Once we have incorporated the feedback into the work, I pencil the pages. After the pencils are completed, I ink, letter, and colour the pages in succession. After each stage of the artwork, Caro reviews the work to catch any mistakes and make sure the art follows the script and communicates the narrative clearly. She also has a great sense of style so she does a lot of the set and character design in our collaborations.

CAB: These eleven pages (below) come from the middle of Chapter One. Immediately before these pages, Binh and his new wife Libertad fly to Indiana to meet Binh’s mother for the first time. These pages have been fully inked and lettered, but have not been coloured. When finished, the colours in the scenes set in Vietnam will reference traditional Vietnamese silk painting and Communist propaganda posters. We hope you love it and we thank you again for your invitation!

BP: I thank you both in the name of the Debordering Futures conference organising team for this insightful interview and for your participation at our conference. We look forward to Carolina’s workshop on “Collective theatre and Anti-colonial ethnography,” in which Peter will participate as a visual notetaker, the outcome of which will be published in the other side of hope magazine. Thank you for all your contributions and for sharing with us your groundbreaking critical anti-colonial and imaginative works, employing interdisciplinary, multimedia, and collaborative methodologies that open pathways beyond borders and boundaries that seem to constrain us. I wish you all the best in your future projects and hope that our paths meet again.

Interviewer biographical note:
Beja Protner, co-organiser of the Debordering Future conference, is a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. Her current research explores time and space in political exile, based on ethnographic work with Kurdish and left-wing political refugees from Turkey/North Kurdistan in Greece. The areas of her interest are displacement/emplacement, temporalities, memory, belonging, subjectivity, affect, emotions, and revolutionary movements. In the past years, Beja has worked with the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) in London (2018), Border Violence Monitoring Network (BVMN) in Greece (2020-21), and took part in the grassroots struggle against border violence and for migrant rights as an activist and organiser in Athens. As an anthropologist, she is interested in alternative, collaborative, engaged, and decolonial methods of ethnographic research and writing.

Click the image below to view the 11 page excerpt from If We Survive the Future.

© Peter Quach and Carolina Alonso Bejarano from Carolina and Peter’s in-progress graphic novel, If We Survive the Future.  


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