A US graduate-cum-artist who has made her home in Viet Nam is putting her skills to work to save an endangered species. Que Mai
Inner sanctum: Congratulations Suzi. After studying at universities in Maryland, Arizona and Hawaii and completing your Master's at the Australian National University, you left home for Viet Nam. Why did you decide to come to this country and what made you stay?
I first came to Viet Nam in 1997 during my university studies. I spent one night in Mai Chau in the countryside and decided to change my life in order to learn more about the traditional cultures of ethnic groups and the culture of subsistence rice farming. I changed universities and began studying Vietnamese. From that moment on my life has focused on living and learning about Viet Nam as much as possible. I found I became addicted to the warm, welcoming Vietnamese culture and its many lovely people.
But I feel that living in Viet Nam and talking with people and the general experience of my life here has taught me more than I ever learned in any school or institution.
It wasn't until 2005 that I finally moved to Viet Nam "permanently". I stayed in order to work in the fields of socio-economic development and cultural heritage preservation. But even after I quit working in that field in order to solely pursue creative work, I still found I didn't want to be anywhere but here.
Inner sanctum: Did Viet Nam bring out the artist in you or did you write and paint before you came here?
Before I studied social economic development and the Vietnamese language, I studied art and photography. Initially I was very inspired to create art here and have done so since the beginning, though on a very small scale. I believe that being outside of one's own culture and social systems can be very liberating. It allows you to see things from another perspective, and this can lead to some wonderful creative experiences. I'm grateful for having been able to spend these years here, as doing creative work provides another opportunity for learning about Viet Nam in a new, different way from doing development work.
Somehow the culture, the atmosphere of Ha Noi and the countryside, the many beliefs and practices, have provided an incredible amount of inspiration for me, and I believe they always will.
Inner sanctum: And now you are the author of two published books which comprise of your art works…
Yes. I have published one book called A Death in Ha Noi which is a wordless picture book that narrates an account of spiritual animal beings crossing the Long Bien Bridge into Ha Noi to escort a dead soul on its journey to heaven. On their way they free all the birds of Ha Noi from their cages.
The second book I have just completed is also a wordless picture book, but this one is collaboration with the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project which works to protect the endangered Cat Ba langur. The story is entitled The Lonely Langur. The goal of the book is to raise awareness of the project and the plight of the Cat Ba Langur.
Inner sanctum: How did you find out about the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project and why are you passionate about their work?
I was contacted by Rick Passaro, the project's director, about creating a book similar to A Death in Ha Noi but on the theme of langurs. I jumped at such a great opportunity. The project, headquartered in Cat Ba National Park, has done a great job of employing local people as rangers, tracking and monitoring the langur population, running a great local education programme in the schools on Cat Ba Island, and raising awareness of the langur's plight. Not only is the Cat Ba Langur the most endangered monkey in Viet Nam, but due to its limited habitat and small numbers, it has been classified by the IUCN as one of the most endangered species on earth. That's not something that was easy to stop thinking about. Last year, the very last member of a rhino species indigenous to Southeast Asia was killed in Viet Nam. We can't let this happen to another species of endangered animal.
Inner sanctum: How did the book The Lonely Langur come about, and what memories do you have of its creation?
I took my first trip out to Cat Ba Island in order to find inspiration for the book. Unfortunately I was unable to see any langurs in the flesh as they live in very remote areas (and its a good thing that they stay away from humans anyway, for their own safety) but I did feel very inspired by the landscape. Visiting the National Park and the project headquarters, I was lucky to have something else that inspired me. Rick, the director, had installed a motion sensor camera in a cave which a small group of langurs used as a place to sleep. The camera had caught wonderful images of the langurs relaxing in the cave, looking at their reflections in the glass of its lens, as well as capturing images of the owls and other animals that frequent the area. These images inspired the context of the story The Lonely Langur.
Another very important inspiration for me was the recent relocation of a small group of langurs from one isolated island into the larger population of langurs inside the National Park. The small population was only female, and so the relocation was done in order to give them a chance to reproduce. Also, langurs are highly social animals, and I was touched at the effort that went into ensuring that these langurs would not be lonely, dying out on their small island one by one. It was their lonely state, their very real threat of extinction, and the promise that the relocation provided them that inspired the story in The Lonely Langur.
Inner sanctum: Please tell us more about The Lonely Langur.
The book is the size of a large postcard with 34 colour images. There are no words in the story, only images. The images were constructed in 3D, using a very low-tech method of painting images on paper and then cutting them out and placing them three dimensionally on a painted background. Since I was a child, I have always wanted to make a story this way. It was a lot of work but I enjoyed the process, and hope to incorporate it in more experimental ways in future projects.
The story follows a young langur with orange fur (and immature langurs do indeed have golden-orange fur) who is all alone on an island, looking down on the bustling harbour of Hai Phong with its boats and industrial landscape. He retreats from this bleak scene into a cave where he discovers a langur skull in the palm of a Buddha statue. He takes the skull and goes to sleep with it. That night, an owl enters the cave and takes the skull from the langur. He flies to another island to give the skull to three other adult langurs, who cradle it and then solemnly bury it. Once the skull is buried, magical green shoots sprout forth from it, growing quickly up through the soil and becoming an enormous tree. The tree stretches all the way across the water to the island where the young orange langur still sleeps. He awakens, and to his surprise, finds that he is no longer lonely, as the three other langurs have come to join him.
Inner sanctum: Both of your books are wordless. Why is that?
I love to make stories without any words as it allows for a much wider audience, going beyond language barriers, and allows small children who cannot read to understand as well. It's an interesting challenge to try and convey a story without any words.
Inner sanctum: What should audiences expect from The Lonely Langur exhibition?
The exhibition at Manzi Art Space will be of the 34 3D images, each one a page from the story. Those who visit will have a chance to view the story in full, which I am pleased about as I feel that there is some aspect of the 3D images that cannot be captured in the printed version. Visitors will also be able to purchase a copy of the printed book, which supports the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project.
Inner sanctum: What do you hope to achieve via your book and the exhibition?
I hope that this story will increase the visibility of the Cat Ba Langur, the project, and of biodiversity in Viet Nam in general. It was my aim to create something that was educational but not pedantic, as it can be difficult to talk about the environment without seeming so. The story is meant to appeal to a wide age range as well, so I am hoping that families will bring their children to see the 3D images.
Inner sanctum: What can each and everyone of us do to help save the langur?
I think it is of prime importance to save the Cat Ba Langur. As I said before, it is one of the most critically endangered species in the world. Viet Nam has a great opportunity to preserve its amazing biodiversity, and I hope that it will do so in the future.
In my opinion, it' especially important for the next generation of young people to become environmentally conscious. They love their country, and I hope they have a chance to see its natural beauty as part of their priceless heritage before it is gone.
We can all do something about this, from large scale to small. We can promote the cause of animal conservation by spreading the word about these animals, and giving them space. We can support organisations and projects that work to conserve biodiversity. Cat Ba Island is a popular destination for both Vietnamese and foreign tourists. We can all practice things like not littering on land or in the water, and respecting wildlife by leaving it alone ("look but don't touch").
Inner sanctum: How can writers and artists help to contribute to the sustainable development of Viet Nam?
I love this question. As I said above, it's so easy when asked to do some "art for a cause" for this art to become pedantic. I think it's vitally important for us all to use our creative abilities and inspiration to promote positive messages and to inspire a sense of hope. This is not to say that we shouldn't have our own independent creations as well, but that we each have a responsibility to society as creative people. Art is an opportunity to both balance individual inspiration and ideas with contributing to promoting a message that has relevance for all. Not merely the intellectual elite, but in a way that is inclusive for everyone. To do this one doesn't have to dumb down what they create or the message they want to convey. It's difficult but I think its an important challenge for creative people to take on all over the world. — VNS