There’s a constant commentary coming out of Guy Delisle’s mouth as we walk down 22nd st. in Manhattan, on the way to a lecture for Matt Madden’s SVA class. “Do they have iPod parties here in New York?” he asks Drawn & Quarterly’s Peggy Burns and myself.
“iPod parties?” Given the bizarre nature of the project he’s just outlined for us involving none other than Lewis Trondheim, I’m almost afraid to ask.
It involves spontaneous parties in the street, a group of kids all hooked up to the same iPod, dancing to the same, otherwise inaudible music. “It’s big in Jerusalem,” Delisle tells us.
“No,” I answer, “they don’t have iPod parties here. Yet.”
Delisle, it seems, is forever destined to remain a stranger in a strange land–and from the looks of things, he wouldn’t have it any other way. The cartoonist was born in Canada–a native French speaker from Quebec. He’s spent much of his adult life living in Europe–that is when he’s not traveling to exotic locales like Shenzhen and Pyongyang for animation work, or to places like Myanmar and Israel for his family (Delisle’s wife works as an administrator for Médecins Sans Frontière).
All the better for us, of course. Delisle’s travels have given rise to his three strongest works: Shenzhen, Pyongyang, and The Burma Chronicles. The aforementioned trip to Jerusalem, meanwhile, provided ample fodder for his wonderful visual blog, Jerusalem, A Canadian Wandering in the Holy City.
We’re incredibly thankful for having been able to catch up with the jet-setting cartoonists on one of his rare stateside visits.
When was your last visit to the States?
I was in Montreal for a visit and I came here, so it must be four or five years.
So it was ostensibly a trip home?
I came first when I was a student to visit some museums, and I had a great time. and then I came later as a tourist.
So they haven’t brought you out on a proper book tour, yet?
No. I’ve never gone on a book tour. I’ve been to the San Diego Convention, and now I’m here for the event. But I’ve never done what you would call a tour, where you go from place to place.
Does that interest you at all?
Sure. When they ask, I’ll say “yes,” but for some reason…last time there was a crisis.
Well, they canceled the whole thing because I was supposed to go to Chicago, but they said it was a crisis time, so they canceled it. I suppose I could have come here after going to Toronto and Montreal, but it was canceled as well.
There’s a bit of a time delay for you, though, right? These are books that originally came out a few years ago, that you’ve since promoted. This is another wave, when they come out in the States.
Is it strange to revisit the works?
Well, no, not really, because they are following me a lot. Even in France, as of today, Shenzhen—which is my first comic—is selling more nowadays than when it was first released, because it was released in a period of time when comics and graphic novels weren’t so well known, and the distributor wasn’t as big. Now things have changed a lot. it’s quite funny. Now people have read The Burma Chronicles and they go back and for all these reasons, it’s selling better than it did before. Slowly but surely.
But I don’t mind. It’s part of my material. For me, Burmese Chronicles is my last book. Since I’ve been away, I didn’t participate in any signings. Even in France, I think I did just one signing for the book, so me it’s kind of new.
When it’s been a few years since you finished the book, do you feel the need to go back and revisit it?
Yeah, I should do that. I haven’t done that because I think it takes time. I’m going to have to do that with Pyongyang, because they might make a film based on that. I’m going to have to re-read it—I’ve never done that. Now it’s been more than ten years. I think now I can read it as a normal reader. If it’s too fresh, I just see mistakes in the details.
Don’t the mistakes become even more clear, as you grow as an artist?
Yeah, yeah. My perception of graphic novels is much more sharp nowadays than before. I remember in Shenzhen, I was including lots of memories that were not in the frame of the place I was. I had memories of Montreal, and I’m talking about them in Shenzhen. Today I wouldn’t do that, because I think it’s irrelevant. If I’m talking about Burma, I wouldn’t talk about old memories. It was a different process. Now I’ve done three books, so I know more about what I want to include.
So that was something of a crutch?
Well, if I were to do it again, I wouldn’t put that in the book, and lots of details like that, storytelling-wise. I can’t rush too much. Now I take more of my time when I need it. It’s nice to have one or two or four or five frames a page just to slow down, because something important happened. While I’m in the process of doing it, sometimes I think it’s too much. But when I read back, I think I should have put some time in and relaxed the whole thing at that point with more of a sense of rhythm.
When you’re referencing something from your former life, does that make the piece too much about you rather than the place you’re attempting to describe, be it Burma or Shenzhen?
Yeah. Well, the books are very different. I was in Shenzhen at a certain age. I know today I would be in China and I would talk about China—I would probably talk about the human rights aspect of the country, but I was 20-something when I was there, and I didn’t have that in my mind, that much. Nowadays it’s much more important to me. So that would be one difference. Shenzhen is about me being lost in translation, basically. Pyongyang is much more about that regime, and me, I’m a part of that, and I try to explain how the people around me are carrying that burdon. For Burmese Chronicles, it’s mixed, because I talk about the ex-pat life, all of the ex-pats that are there, me and my son, and all of these are one against each other.
I was in Burma for one year. I was in Pyongyang for two months. If I had been in Pyongyang for one year, I would talk much more about the ex-patriots. They are a different time, and they were different in my life, as well. If I were to go to Burma today, I would do a completely different book, because I would meet different people and have different experiences. It’s really very subjective, and it’s like a big postcard that I would write to my family and explain to them what I’ve experienced.
When you’re writing a postcard, it’s a very personal experience. You’re writing about your life for the benefit of someone you know. When you write a book, do you ever find yourself pulling back because it’s becoming too much about you, rather than the country?
Well, I use myself to convey my story. If you talk about Burma, you have to talk about Aung San Suu Kyi and what she represents for the country. So if you go to page 51 and see her there, it’s going to be boring. So somebody told me that she lived in a house just around the corner. I thought she was in prison. But I don’t want to just say that I thought she was in prison, but she lives there. I go with my son to try to get in front of her house, but it was impossible. So I kind of play around with that. In the end, the reader gets the information about where she is and what she represents, and I can do that two pages after I have that presentation. That’s how I use myself to convey the story and represent the country and all that.
I don’t like to be very personal about my family life. I just talk about the situation with the kids and the difficulty, but that’s just because of the situation with the country. We were there and it wasn’t that easy. Sometimes when I read Joe Matt, or even lighter stuff than that, to me it’s too personal.
Joe Matt’s stuff can be almost painfully personal.
Yeah, yeah. In an embarrassing way. For me it’s too much. When I read those type of personal stories, I quickly feel like I shouldn’t read that, even when I’m having a good laugh with Joe Matt. But when I read David B., for example, and he talks about his family and all of that, I just have the feeling that I shouldn’t be there. “I’d like to go home now. Okay, I’ll leave you, take care.” I’m not going to go into that, because I’m not very fond of that, as a reader. I don’t think it’s interesting to talk about my own personal life.
Well, to some extent. I feel embarrassed quickly when I read it, so I’m not going to do it.
When you visited Aung San Suu Kyi’s house in Burma, did you go because you were a tourist and you it’s something to do as a tourist, or were you conscious of the fact that you might be writing a book about this some day, and this would be good material?
No, because at that time, I didn’t know I would be doing a book. She was a neighbor, and I thought, that’s amazing. During the day, I was taking care of my son, so I thought I would give it a try and see if I could get right in front of the house. Six months after I was there, I was supposed to write another book, but it was impossible, so I just put it aside and I said, “well, maybe I can do something on Burma.” It was not a good idea to work on the book while I was there, because I read back on my notes, and I did a lot of stuff that I removed after, because on the spot it worked, but when I came back and read it, the stuff I had done while I was there didn’t work too well.
You had to scrap it all?
Yeah. I took like 15 pages out. I should have taken more out, when I read it.
There’s still stuff in there that you’re not happy with.
Yeah, a few pages I should have taken out. When I’m there, I’m too close to the subject. I get back home and realize that. Just like now, because I was just in Jerusalem. I was there for a year. After the fact I realized how strange it was and how scary it was.
You didn’t have those feelings at the time?
No, because you go there and you get used to it after a year. There’s the check point and the big concrete wall. You want to see your friend on the other side of the wall, so you line up for the checkpoint. But then when you explain that to a friend in France around the coffee table, it sounds pretty weird. You get the reaction of the people, and they say, “oh, that’s fucked up.” It is a really strange place.
That’s the process. I come back and I talk about it. The same with Pyongyang. I remember I was talking about it to the director of L’Association, and he said, “you should do a comic about that.” I was talking about the airport where they give me flowers and I have to go to the statue and pay my respect to Kim Jong-Il. He said, “that’s so crazy.” That’s how I work. But I’ve been in different places taking notes. I was in Vietnam and I said I was going to do a book. I had a good time and things were fine and I had conversations about it when I came back. People were just fantastic, and when I read my notes, it just wasn’t there.
Having a great time isn’t conducive to writing a good story?
No, not for me. For a lot of writers, you need some kind of a conflict. Like when I was completely lost in Shenzhen. It was a book on the difficulty of communicating with the Chinese because we don’t speak the same language, and even when I met a fellow Canadian, we had difficulty because we didn’t really connect. It’s impossible to connect well with a culture that is as different as China is. I need a direction and I didn’t have that for the Vietnam book. If I had stayed a year, maybe it would have worked. I don’t think just two months in Jerusalem, I would have had enough. But in a year, you have enough time to meet people and make different stories than the tourists get.
[Continued in Part Two.]