Adult Books Genre graphic novel Lifespan of a Reader Memoirs, Biographies, and Constructed Narratives Nonfiction Reading Themes Young Adult (YA) Literature

[Monday Reading] Graphic Novel Memoirs of Burma and Pyongyang From A White Guy’s Perspective

"Burma Chronicles" and "Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea" by Guy Delisle.


It's Monday! What Are You Reading

Myra here.

It’s Monday, What are You Reading is a meme hosted by Jen from Teach Mentor Texts and Kellee and Ricki from Unleashing Readers (new host of Monday reading: Kathryn T at Book Date). Since two of our friends, Linda from Teacher Dance and Tara from A Teaching Life have been joining this meme for quite awhile now, we thought of joining this warm and inviting community. 

I knew that given our current reading theme, I should get to know more of Guy Delisle’s graphic novel travelogues. I featured his Jerusalem last year (see my review here), and I did vow to read more of his works.

I figured now is as good time as any to familiarize myself with his other titles.

Burma Chronicles

Written and Illustrated by: Guy Delisle
Published by: Drawn and Quarterly (2008, 2014)
ISBN: 1897299508 (ISBN13: 9781897299500). Book was borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

At the time that Delisle wrote this book, he was a trailing spouse with a very young baby in tow. His partner, Nadege, works for the Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, and was assigned to travel to Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma.

Delisle organized his travelogue into little vignettes similar to the image above. I particularly love the ones that are almost-wordless, as can be seen in his expressive and ingeniously-done images above that seem sparse but convey so much. Anyone who has experienced traveling with a baby would most likely empathize with him – from the amount of luggage one needs to bring – to ensuring that the baby is hopefully conked out while in the airplane.

Before we go around admiring Delisle for being such an extremely hands-on father, taking care of their baby while his partner is off doing fieldwork in a highly restricted area – do note that he also had a great deal of help from locals who took care of their young one. Technically, he was also working, as he pens down his travel impressions and his experiences as he familiarizes himself with the place that will be their home for more than a year.

What I especially enjoyed about this memoir is his portrayal of Nadegé’s work, the many bureaucratic layers that their organization needed to clear in order for them to render the services that they are meant to do for the marginalized ones who have neither means nor resources to take care of themselves. There is also the level of censorship that was perceived to be the norm and the news that is painstakingly filtered before it reaches people’s consciousness (hence, gossip is the best means to get information, legitimate or otherwise).

What also stood out for me was how words often need not be spoken for people to express kindness or convey sympathy. I also appreciated the locals’ seeming candour about their situation, their willingness to open their home to a stranger, and their frustration over a system that most seem to find too restrictive for comfort.

Delisle also found some of his tribe, as he facilitated workshops on animation and doing cartoons with a group of local artists. I believe the only time that I really connected with Delisle to some level was when he noted this, as he attended a tribute given to an esteemed and highly respected comic book creator:

I felt that it was one of the rare instances in this narrative when he truly established some measure of genuine kinship with the locals, when he felt privileged to be privy to something intimate – rather than continually perceiving everything from an outsider’s perspective, two to three steps removed from everything going on around him.

Pyongyang: A Journey In North Korea

Written and Illustrated by: Guy Delisle
Published by: Drawn and Quarterly (2007, First published in 2003)
ISBN: 1897299214 (ISBN13: 9781897299210). Literary Prize: Urhunden Prize for Foreign Album (2014). Book was borrowed from the Jurong West Public Library. Book photos taken by me.

If i were to be truly honest, this is one of my least favourite Delisle graphic novels. Clearly, Delisle has something against communist, fascist regimes. To be fair, most people (including myself) share much of his sentiments. However, the way that he articulated his disdain and contempt here left a bad taste in my mouth.

Pyongyang was published at an earlier period in Delisle’s history as an artist. Hence, he was in North Korea, not as an expat partner and father, but for some animation ‘gig’ is how he called it. He was providing some kind of consultancy with an animation project that the North Koreans were consigned to do.

Unlike his other graphic novel travelogues, his narrative here dripped with sarcasm, disdain, and downright derision. I get everything that he is saying, I find myself echoing his disbelief, especially the North Koreans’ official stance regarding disability:

However, I thought, as a reader, I would have appreciated it more if there were some asides that he just kept to himself, and if he provided more spaces for the reader to quite possibly arrive at conclusions that may or may not be similar to his own views. But he had to purge his own antipathy, that it almost seemed like downright mockery on occasion, so much so that I actually found myself sympathizing with the locals and the North Koreans.

However, it was really Delisle’s articulated behaviour towards cleaners and his guides that rankled at me a fair bit:

I don’t think anything would justify that imagined vision in his head above. There was absolutely no attempt to present his impressions with a measure of sensitivity or even some semblance of understanding that maybe, just maybe, one of the reasons why his guides found themselves parroting the official discourse is out of legitimate fear for their own lives or that of their family’s?

It may be quite a stretch and I may be overanalyzing, but Delisle’s antagonism may also be driven quite possibly by his own fear of what modern civilization could end up being. Perhaps regimes such as this can not help but bring out the worst in people. What is crystal clear, though, is that this experience was a living nightmare for Delisle. But what he failed to realize was that his short-lived nightmare is someone else’s reality.

Perhaps this mute, hidden terror is shared by Delisle as well, acknowledged or not.

#LitWorld2018GB Update: 26 / 27 of 40Burma and North Korea

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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

10 comments on “[Monday Reading] Graphic Novel Memoirs of Burma and Pyongyang From A White Guy’s Perspective

  1. Thank you for sharing Guy Delisle’s books. I’ve not yet read any of them and so you’ve perked my interest. Going to see what we have in nearby libraries. Have a wonderful week, Myra!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think Burma Chronicles is my favorite of Delisle’s travelogues. I also didn’t like Pyongyang nearly as much, but reading your review has helped me sort through my thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lindabaie

    There are some of these in my library, though not the one about Burma. They are fascinating, Myra, and new to me. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks as always for your honest reviews. I haven’t heard of these graphic novels.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve actually only read his North Korean title, the others are new to me, I’ll have to seek them out.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for introducing me to Guy Delisle’s work. I am most interested in the Burma (Myanmar) novel. I have been fascinated by the country ever since reading Burmese Lessons: A true love story by Karen Connelly for a book club. As host of that meeting I found a restaurant nearby that serves Burmese food and ordered some for it. I have been in love with Burmese food ever since. In fact, tonight we are having Burmese carrot salad!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Angelica Joy

    These are very interesting books…enjoy!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m pretty sure the Burma one is already on my TBR list. I love graphic novels, so I’ll have to look into these.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Michele

    I’m always interested in looking through the differences between graphic novels for adults vs those written for a younger audience. As they should, they certainly have a different tone. I sometimes find it hard to read them the same way I do other adult reads.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Guy Delisle is an author that I have not had the pleasure of reading. As always, thanks for the peek inside the books. Can’t wait for summer for more time to read!

    Liked by 1 person

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