Thursday, April 24, 2014

Our Land: Berfrois Interviews Séra

August 17, 2012Print This Post         


Ing Phouséra

by Jason Dittmer

Ing Phouséra, or Séra, as he is known in artistic circles, is a French-Cambodian comics artist who evacuated Phnom Penh with his French mother in 1975. While the subject of his works range far and into other media, he came to my attention for his graphic novels about the Khmer Rouge period and its aftermath in Cambodia: Impasse et Rouge, L’Eau et la Terre and Lendemains de cendres. Visually stunning, Séra’s work is notable also as the first attempt to portray this tumultuous time in the format of the graphic novel. In July 2012 I met with him in Phnom Penh to discuss the intersection of his story with that of Cambodia, and how a commitment to the truth of the Cambodian story drives his work.

Dittmer

Let’s start with Paris. You moved to Paris when you were 14 or 15.

Séra

I moved to Paris when I was 13 and a half. I was born here (Phnom Penh) and I lived here.

Dittmer

Presumably it was after you moved to France that you became interested in comics?

Séra

I used to do some comics before. I mean, the first thing I played with was images, because my mother gave us some comics and I used to play with that. I read comics before I read anything. When I talk about comics, I talk about French bandes dessinées. At this time my mother was a French woman in this country [Cambodia] and her parents sent her some weekly magazines. Since I was able to take a pencil to do something with my hands it was with images. Since I was a young boy my ambition of my life was to become a comic writer. My father was not in agreement with that idea. That’s one of the reasons I was fighting with him a lot of the time. It was really hard to face after those events.

Dittmer

After the move you mean?

Séra

Yes. At the French Embassy he was Khmer, and the French people didn’t let the Cambodians stay at the Embassy. They dropped all the Khmer out of the embassy. And this was something very hard at this time, because I knew that I would not see my father again. It was something very hard to face. I was young but I realized at this time that my childhood was over the day I came into the embassy. When I came in I was a young boy. There was the war, there was everything, but I was a boy. When I came into the embassy I saw a French pastor. I felt so guilty because a few weeks earlier I had taken some weekly magazines from his church. I felt guilty because I hadn’t given his weekly magazine back. So I saw him and the first thing I said was “I apologize, I have not returned your magazine.” I was feeling really guilty. When he heard that he laughed and then I realized that what I was feeling guilty was nothing compared with what was happening. It was my first adult thought. I realized that now childhood is over.

Dittmer

What is it about bandes dessinnés that captivated you? You spoke earlier about the power of the image. Maybe it’s paradoxical to ask you to put some words to that…

Séra

For me, it is something with thinking through my culture and education. I used to say my culture is Khmer but my education is French, since I grew up in this country and I got my education from the Lycée Descartes. In the French education here they used to give lessons about the seasons. And so they talk about the spring, the winter, the autumn, but I didn’t understand what they are talking about. For me there were just two seasons: rainy and dry. The bandes dessinnés helped me a lot from this time in that. Most of what I learned about the Western style of life was taken from bandes dessinnés. It is something to have on my conscience, because here was a new fear in what people used to talk about and I didn’t realize that at all. And when I was almost 12 or 13 years old I read a bandes dessinnés talking about a French journalist who went to Japan and the representation of Japan and Asian people – to me it was a shock because the drawing was not something that I knew [gestures to indicate long fingernails and other stereotypical representations]. I lived in Asia at this time, and I knew Japanese faces. There were some Japanese here. And when I saw them, and I saw what the bandes dessinnés showed about these people, I thought that when I grew up I would not do the same mistake with the drawing. The mission of my life is trying to show the reality without caricature. I hate caricature. I cannot stand that, because it is so easy to laugh about anything. The mission I had at this time was trying to give right representation of the world. I was very young.


From Impasse et Rouge, Séra, 2003

Dittmer

Your work has a very distinctive look.

Séra

The first thing I tell my students is to work on their vision, because they have to open their eyes and look around them and catch the reality. Then, afterwards, you can do what you want with that.

Dittmer

Your choice of colours is very evocative to me. Lots of reds and oranges and browns.

Séra

Well, for the three books about Cambodia, but not for the whole body of work. You are right for my work that is based here, because when I began to work on the story of Cambodia it was the first project I had done, in 1987. And at this time I was so affected by the story, and by the event, and I was still full of hunger. When I was able to find the place where my father had been killed in 1978 by the Khmer Rouge, the week before the arrival of the Vietnamese – I found this place in 2004 and since this time I am more at peace. And now my work has changed. But for all those years, I had this anger within me and it was very terrible. I used that with my images, I want to show this point of view on things, and also because we are talking about something that came with my vision of the country. When you go to some destination in the provinces, the land is red and when you walk the dust will come onto you, and everything is red. You cannot escape it. Well, now it is different because all the roads are paved. But at the time I was young, the soil was something of this country, not in Phnom Penh of course, but it impressed me a lot and it is something that is in my head when I draw.

Dittmer

It suffuses your memory of the whole place. It is interesting listening to you talk about this, because as a geographer I think that you seem to have a real geographic sensibility. One of your works, L’Eau et Terre

Séra

L’Eau et Terre. I don’t care about land and water. In this country [Cambodia], when people talk about Cambodia, they say teuk dey. Two words. Teuk is water, dey is land. The meaning of these words together is the territory, and by extension the country; words to talk about this country, Cambodia. People used to say Kampuchea, because they are educated. But their grandfathers, when they used to talk about this country, they used to say teuk dey. So this is the meaning of the title in French, and if this book is translated one of these days into English, it could not be Water and Land, it would be something like Our Land.


From L’Eau et la Terre, Séra, 2005

Dittmer

That book has a number of maps and other geographic representations in it. What would you say is your relationship to Cambodia? Is it the same today as it was twenty years ago?

Séra

Yes. The mission of my work is trying to talk about this history, to talk about this country, and there are no main heroes in my story because the hero is the country itself. It is the main personality of the story. It is the story of this country. So I try to make some stories, some short stories, and I try to give some information – not to try to bore the readers but to understand more the reality of the story. From my point of view, Western people know the very bad history of this country. For the people of the country today, they do not know their own history. There are a lot of aspects that I am still working on so it is not over.

Dittmer

Getting back to your work in particular, maybe this is an appropriately grand final question – how much of your work is (forgive me if this is too personal) really about your father? That’s a very Freudian sounding question. It seems like a lot of working through the past, and a particular moment in time which is both a national trauma but also a personal one.

Séra

Absolutely. I think somewhere if I have done all this work, I am also speaking with my father. Also because with this work I try to catch the reality – I am showing this reality, because at this time we don’t want to see that. The first day that the Khmer Rouge came to the city I was out in the street. Not far, I lived two streets from here. And so I was out of my house and in the neighbourhood was an NGO. And people came to this place to steal what people have left in this place – rice, and things like this. The Khmer Rouge came and they shot in the air and they said “Stop doing this and now you have to go back home, pack your stuff, and go to the countryside.” One of the Khmer Rouge saw me and he asked what I was doing there, because for him I was not Khmer – for him I was not pure. He said I had to go home. I went back to my place to see my father, and I said “Papa, papa, we have to leave this place now, the Khmer Rouge said this to me!” And the first thing he gave to me was a slap. It takes me thirty years to forgive him for that, because from my point of view at that time I did not deserve it; I just told him what the Khmer Rouge said to me. So when I work on the story of the country, I also think about him, always. Of course.


About the Author:

Jason Dittmer is Reader in Human Geography at University College London. He is the author of Popular Culture, Geopolitics, and Identity and Mapping the End Times: American Evangelical Geopolitics and Apocalyptic Visions.

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