Sometimes by choice, but mostly by necessity, Guy Delisle’s travels have around the world several times, to war torn areas like Jerusalem and oppressive regimes like North Korea and Myanmar. When I ask Delisle how he consistently ends up in such locations, he answers dryly, “I don’t choose them. If I chose them, I’d go to Mexico.”
Fortunately for us, the artist’s travels, conducted largely for business (first his own, and then later his wife’s) have resulted in Delisle’s best works: Shenzhen, Pyongyang, and, most recently, The Burma Chronicles.
In this second part of our interview, we delve further into Delisle’s travels, and discover what kind of obligation–if any–he feels he has as a cultural ambassador for the rest of us.
The trip to Jerusalem and Burma were because of your wife’s job.
Yeah. I was thinking, after traveling for myself in Europe and traveling for my work in Asia, that I would just stay home and be really happy for the rest of my life, because now I’m really fed up with travelling, even though the experience is nice.
It’s nice when you get there, but the actual process of traveling is kind of a nightmare.
Yeas, that’s so true. And with two kids, it’s plus two. I must be born under the star of traveling, though, because my wife loves her job, and she wants to continue doing that, so I support her, because it’s difficult to follow what just one part of the couple wants to do. But since I have the ability to work on what I do wherever, we choose to do it. but I hope she gets tired of it, and wants to stay home, and have the kids at the school a mile away.
When you take your experiences in China, North Korea, Vietnam, and now places like Burma and Jerusalem, you seem to tend to these areas that are war torn or authoritarian, or otherwise just sort of alien cultures and governments where it’s sometimes difficult to get a good view from the outside. Is there something that attracts you to these places?
I don’t choose them. If I chose them, I’d go to Mexico. But the work for animation, they were going where it was cheapest to go, so they would go to China, Vietnam, and North Korea. And now, with my wife, it’s wherever they go…they don’t go to Switzerland… The funny thing is, we were supposed to go to Guatemala. Sounds good, you know? I thought it was good, learning Spanish, but they said, “no, it’s too dangerous, so we’re not going to send a family. You’re going to go to Rangoon.” I was remembering the movie, and I said, “Rangoon, that’s one of the worst dictatorships,” but it’s actually very calm.
Sometimes it’s really peaceful and clean under a dictatorship.
That’s right, that’s right. Some guy from the ICOC, was saying, “I can name you ten countries today much worse than Burma.” But that’s of course from an ex-pat’s point of view. For the Burmese people, life is not that fun. But then again, if you think of Liberia or Somali, it’s probably worse than Burma.
You’ve inevitably got an outsider’s perspective when you write about these places. Do you feel a need to have a certain level of sympathy for their residents? Do you need to shed light on their point of view?
I don’t really think like that for Burma. I had that feeling when I was in North Korea, because it’s such a strange country. I still have some contact with some Burmese people, but in North Korea, it’s just impossible—the Internet, the mail, it would be dangerous for them if I just tried to contact them. You leave the country and you say you’re abandoning them to the country. It’s a real sad feeling, because after two months, you have some friendships. I felt really sorry for them. In the book, I wanted to have that feeling. At the beginning, they’re sort of annoying, because they bug me all the time, but after two months, you have some friendships going on. I wanted to have that in the book.
In Burma, I didn’t want to go specifically on that, because I met Burmese people, and the only thing we say about Burmese people is that they’re going to die in the field, being raped and we’re going to burn their village—which is terrible and which happens, of course, but me, I talk about the people that I see. The Burmese people that I met are graphic artists. Some are doing comic books. I thought it was interesting to talk about that, because we have an image of Burma being super-poor, but these guys were working on Photoshop and stuff.
We had a discussion about what kinds of brushes you use on Photoshop and things like that. We were on the same level, because we were just two artists. They were saying that they would like to do more comics, because they would like to make a living, but they have to do illustration. It was exactly the same conversation that I had with my friends in Paris, except that they are much poorer. I described that in the book—not so that you feel sorry for them or feel pity. Not at all. Because they were poor, but they weren’t miserable.
Ultimately you’re not given the opportunity to interact with the people in the fields.
Yeah, that’s right. Because I don’t go there and I don’t talk to them. But my book is about Rangoon. It’s not so much about Burma, because I spent most of my time there. But you can’t really go in these places anyhow. It’s completely forbidden, even for journalists. There’s no way you can see these things. So, yeah, it depends on who I meet and who I talk to. I’m going to put that in the book and leave the stuff I don’t think is interesting out.
Do you feel a certain obligation to be a source of information for people who don’t know about the country?
No. Frankly, no. I don’t feel any obligation at all. Again, if I were to do the book today, I would get completely different information. It would be a completely different book. But then I discovered things. I felt I was bringing something new and interesting that people might be interested to read. I did the signing in Paris, and there were some Burmese people doing their study there, who said they liked the book. That was kind of scary, because you really never know.
And probably not a lot of North Koreans have read Pyongyang, I imagine.
No, they have! I’ve never met them afterwards, though.
It doesn’t get into the country thought, right? They’ve got to read it when they’re abroad.
Yeah, but I think some of the guys know about the book and have read it, the big shots, like my boss. But the Burmese people who came to me said they liked the book, because, for once, someone is talking about Burma and every day people who are not miserable. They were so glad, I was so happy to have that comment, because I guess it’s really tough, because, when, say you talk about Africa in France, it’s always miserable and poor, and they feel very sorry about that, and it’s very frustrating for them. So, for once, they were very happy about it.
So you consider the cultural and historical asides a way of informing your own narrative about the place?
Yeah, if I have to explain. Like in Pyongyang, I was talking about the NGO that left the country, so I have to talk about why they left the country and the famine. And then to explain that, I have to explain how they were distributing food, according to the regime. So I’m not afraid to put that graphic stuff in and explain it, because at that point in the book, the reader wants to have the information. If I need information, I’m going to do some research to find out how many people died in that famine and how many people are in the camps and stuff like that. It was hard with North Korea, but with Burma, it was easy, because much more people go in out of the country. It’s much easier to know the situation about the country there. I talked about the regime, but I know that the people that read my book aren’t going to read a book about Aung San Suu Kyi, because they’re not so politically involved.
And those books already exist.
Yeah, there’s a lot of them. And I’ve read a few of them for research. They’re very interesting, especially when you’ve been to the country. But when you haven’t been to the country, you’re not going to go and look them up. I think that with the book, maybe people know a little bit about Aung San Suu Kyi and what she represents and maybe the regime. So hopefully after that, people want to know more about the country and they’re going to go and read another book about Burma. I think my book can bring more people to Burma, like I’ve done.
Do you do this sort of research before traveling to the country?
I did for North Korea. I read all of the books I could find, because I knew that once I was there, there would be a filter, and they wouldn’t answer the questions I would ask. That’s why I brought 1984 with me. I was half-done with the book. Everyone was saying, North Korea, 1984, they’re the same. I had read it when I was younger. So I brought it with me.
To you this old Orwell book was research?
Oh yeah, oh yeah. Because I use it in my book. I was so impressed. He wrote that in ’48 and he had seen so precisely a regime like North Korea, and I think a regime like the Soviet Union and some of these countries. It’s amazing. You go in there and they have these two minutes of hate with America, but then America has the same with Bin Laden.
It’s a little less formal.
Yeah, but it works the same, in structure. He comes once in a while and he’s the big enemy, especially after 2001. Because i was in North Korea before September 11th. They stopped going there to to do animation stuff. And they went to China.
[Continued in Part Three.]