Dustin Kelley: Hello, my name is Dustin Kelley. I am a librarian at Lewis & Clark's Watzek Library. Today is December 16th, 2020, and I am speaking with Michelle Nguyen via Zoom. Michelle is an award-winning illustrator and comic artist. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.
Michelle Nguyen: Of course, thanks for having me.
DK: Can you begin by stating your name and introducing yourself?
MN: Of course. My name is Michelle Nguyen. I am a mixed-race Vietnamese American comic illustrator based in Portland, Oregon. I create comics for younger readers: elementary to middle school comic books like Grumpy Cat and The Underfoot, which is about hamsters. And I have also worked on various comic anthologies and actually also work for a comic publisher, so I am comics twenty-four-seven.
DK: That is so cool.
MN: I think so too!
DK: We are going to begin by asking a little bit about college and how you got into your career, and then we will kind of rewind and go back to your childhood. So, where did you attend college, and what did you study there?
MN: I started my college career at University of Puget Sound, which is up in Tacoma, Washington. I started a fine arts degree there and also started taking Japanese classes. Unfortunately, my sophomore year of college they decided to consolidate the art major into a general major instead of having it by specialty. So, unfortunately, it would have changed the course of the classes that I would need to take, and I really wanted to specialize in fine arts. So I ended up transferring to Portland State University my junior year and went to their fantastic program for fine arts, learned a lot about painting and illustration there, had a lot of great professors, and I also finished my degree in Japanese there as well.
DK: So, how did your career as an illustrator and comic artist come about from your fine arts background?
MN: I know, it sounds kind of weird to go from fine arts to comics, but I have always been fascinated by comics. I remember the Sunday comics as a kid, like Garfield, but also being really interested in other comics. I remember, specifically–I have such a vivid memory of … my mom used to be a professional bowler—I know that is kind of a weird anecdote, but we would go to Las Vegas every year so that she could compete, and there was a comic shop. I do not remember what it is called, but it was near the strip and she would always make sure to book her hotel near the comic shop so I could go there. And I have a very vivid memory of going there and finding a book called Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai, and it had a rabbit samurai on it. And my mom was like, "Oh yeah, you can get that," and I opened it up and the first page is him decapitating someone—"Yeah, this is rad. I wanna draw like this guy!" From there on I was just taking in as much comics as I could read and that really helped me develop a passion for it. I started doing some web comics in high school and then eventually went into illustration, and—maybe something that happens with a lot of people—I have had illustrations that went viral and people started reaching out to me, and that is how I got my Grumpy Cat job, to draw her comics along with a couple of other people through Dynamite Comics, so it was kind of happenstance.
DK: What are some of your favorite parts of your work?
MN: My favorite part about creating comics, actually physically creating comics, is adding the color. I love being able to express feelings or even just the time of day or season with just changing a color palette. I think that's really magical, to take something that used to just be black and white and make it full of emotion just by deciding on a color palette. One of the things I love about creating comics is showing people, because I remember as a kid comics being so meaningful to me, and I think that is why I like gravitating towards comics for kids, because if any of that work can reach just one kid and they decide that they want to do comics or they want to do art, then my job here is done.
DK: So, you worked on a comic anthology that won the 2017 Ignatz Award and the 2018 Eisner Award—I hope I pronounced those correctly—first of all, congratulations, that is exciting. Can you tell us a little more about that?
MN: Yeah, so the anthology is called ELEMENTS: Fire. It is the first of the ELEMENTS series, it is edited by Taneka Stotts, who is a fantastic creator. She is working a lot in animation now, which is great. Basically, it was a collection of creators of color who came together to do stories and comics ranging from a couple pages long to ten or fifteen pages long and it was all about fire, so passion and things you were really excited about. And I was looking to partner with a friend, Tristan Tarwater, and they are also based in Portland, and they wrote a story called “Under the Flamboyan,” and then they asked me to illustrate it and I was honored because it was the first time that I was recognized as a person of color in my memory. So, it was really impactful for me to be part of that anthology, recognized in that anthology And then we won all those awards, which was just mind-boggling. I know that you cannot see this through audio, but we got little versions of the Ignatz that were broken down by someone who worked on the anthology and so each of us got a piece of the award, which was so fantastic. It was really nice to be recognized like that.
DK: That sounds incredibly special. So, if someone hearing this wanted to become more familiar with your work, where would you recommend they look?
MN: I have a website that I will update soon, I promise—it has been a year—but they can find my artwork at michellenguyenart.com. You can also just Google me, you could Google "Michelle Nguyen illustration," or "Michelle Nguyen Grumpy Cat," or anything of the sort. My name is fairly common so you might have to dig through some of the search results, but I promise I am there.
DK: So, 2020 has been a crazy year, right?
MN: Oh my gosh, that is an understatement, yes.
DK: Yeah, so we are still in the midst of a pandemic and there has been … oh my goodness, a crazy presidential election, protests about racial justice, so so much. I am curious, in your line of work, what has work been like for you? What is a typical day like for Michelle Nguyen?
MN: Well, a typical day is very atypical, things change all the time. So, for my day job I work for a comic publisher called Oni Press. They have been part of the Portland comic scene for, I think, twenty-two years now. They published Scott Pilgrim and a ton of other amazing comics, licenses with Invader Zim and Rick and Morty, and just a collection of really fantastic indie comics. So I am privileged enough to work with them as the Executive Assistant, so I get to kind of help with each department, which is so nice to kind of see the moving cogs of the entire mechanism. So, during the day I can do anything from helping with contracts, to helping with server issues, or shipping out items or being in contact with creators or just helping people sort through their email. I mean, it is really whatever people need help with. And then once I am done with that, usually in the afternoon, I spend time with my spouse and my multitude of pets and then work on freelance artwork, either illustrations or comics. I just wrapped up the second volume of The Underfoot, which is, as I mentioned, about hamsters—hamsters in the apocalypse; very smart hamsters in the apocalypse. Written by Ben Fisher and Emily Whitten and illustrated by me. So, it is the second in the series, a great book if you would like to check it out. The second book is coming out in April and the first book has been out for about a year and a half now.
DK: You mentioned a couple already, but I am wondering if you have any other hobbies or passions?
MN: I love baking. It is a great joy of mine, just being able to create something with my hands that people can then enjoy. I think it is something that I inherited from my grandma and my dad. They both loved to cook, especially for other people, and I think that there is a great joy in giving something to someone that you have worked so hard on and that you have built all your knowledge about and then you can format it to something that they can eat. I think that there is something really special about that.
DK: That's cool. I want to rewind now a little bit and talk about your childhood. Have you lived in Oregon your entire life?
MN: [Nguyen pauses to take a drink of water] I was actually born in Southern California, in Garden Grove, where a large Vietnamese population resides. I grew up between Riverside, California, and Garden Grove, California. My parents separated when I was younger, so I kind of split my time between those two places. I moved up to Portland when I was fourteen. My mom has family up here and the high school that I was going to go to in California was unfortunately not in a great neighborhood. There was a stabbing the year before, and my mom was like, "You know what, we are going to move up to Portland. We have family there, it is nice and quiet." So we moved up here right in time for me to start high school.
DK: What neighborhoods did you grow up in Portland when you moved here during your teens?
MN: We moved to Tualatin, so I went to Tualatin High School. It was a really interesting culture shock, because Southern California is a great melting pot of Asian communities and Latinx communities and basically a whole ton of people of color, so moving to Tualatin where I was, I think, one of maybe five Asian kids in my class—it was a little shocking, to say the least.
DK: Fair enough. Growing up, did you feel connected to the Vietnamese American community?
MN: That is a really interesting question because it is something that I have thought about a lot, especially as an adult, and I would actually have to say no—but there is actually a pretty good reason behind it. When my dad came to America, he and his parents and his three siblings came and were brought in and hosted by a family in Minnesota, but they also came in during the Vietnam War. So, you know, in the ‘70s, my dad was twenty, he spoke a little bit of English, and he was treated incredibly poorly by a lot of people; all of my family was. They were constantly harassed and verbally harassed—of course, not by the host family, but by populations of Americans. And I think it made him really scared, so when he did start a family he decided that his kids were going to be Americans first. He never taught us Vietnamese. He introduced us to certain cultural elements like Tết, or New Year, but a lot of the time it was him making sure that we were as American as possible so that we never experienced the harassment that he did when he came over. So, unfortunately, that did create a disconnect between learning about the community and being part of the community.
DK: Growing up, did you consider your ethnicity to be an important part of your identity?
MN: Not growing up. It has been more of a recent revelation, I guess you could call it. I was mainly raised by my mom, who is American, you know, she is White and she had very American values—American values in air quotes. How are we to define those? So it was not something that was really talked about. I have a very specific memory of going to the grocery store because I was the youngest, and a woman walked up and was like, "Oh, your daughter is so cute, is she adopted?" and my mom got really mad, and was like, "No, you know her dad is Vietnamese, so she is mixed," And the woman was of course apologetic and walked away, and I remember not really understanding what that lady was asking. I was like, "Oh, it's my mom, I know that." And my mom had to explain that sometimes there will be questions about my siblings when I am with my mom because we do not look like her, but it was never explained outside of that. We knew that, of course, our dad is Vietnamese because he was born in Vietnam, he came over in the ‘70s, and we knew all of that but it was never really part of the discussion growing up. So it has really been an identity process from my teen years until now.
DK: Now, as an adult in Portland and doing your career, I wonder if in addition to that you are involved in any organizations, whether those are community organizations, religious organizations, et cetera.?
MN: No religious organizations, though I do have a fondness of going to church in Vietnamese because I would go to mass with my grandma all the time, which is hilarious to me now because it's like, "What did you want, Grandma? Religion through osmosis? I don't understand Vietnamese." But, it was great because now I have such nostalgia for going to church and hearing the singing in Vietnamese. I have no idea what is going on, but I still love going, and every time I go down to visit family in California I do end up going to church just because it does remind me of my grandma.
As for communities, some organizations around comics in Portland I am part of, but nothing really outside of that, unfortunately.
DK: Have you had any involvement within Portland's Vietnamese community?
MN: No, and the onus is on me. I really have wanted to try and introduce myself to the communities, but again, it is part of that identity issue, right? Like I have been coming to terms with being able to call myself Vietnamese, which I know sounds strange, but being raised by a White American mom, being separated from the language and the culture, it has been hard to insert myself into the community. But again, the onus is on me. I am an adult, I can learn more about the culture, I can start taking classes, I can start immersing myself more and it is something that I have wanted to do. I know that Portland State offers Vietnamese classes—they were offering it this term, and it used to be later in the evening but now it is right smack-dab in the afternoon so I am just hoping that an opportunity like that can come up where I can start learning, because I would like to go to Vietnam at some point and I have not been. But I would love to be able to connect to where my family is from and learn more about them.
DK: So, being someone who is a mixed-race person, I am curious, since you are both from within and from outside the Vietnamese community in Portland, from your vantage point, what social or economic issues do you think the community faces?
MN: Social issues, right now, especially with the pandemic, with the coronavirus, I have had a lot of my friends tell me horrible stories about people telling them to go back to their country, and, "Stop spreading the virus," and just being horribly racist. And we have learned a lot about racism in America this year, holy cow. I think we were all under the false assumption that we were slowly getting better as a community and as a country, but the last several years have really proven that theory wrong. So I think that dealing with racism is still there, and incredibly hard to want to put on a brave face to deal with it, but it is definitely something that as a community we can try and come together and face together, because it is something that everyone has had to deal with at some point in the community. I think that, economically, it can also be affected by any sort of flavor of racism, unfortunately. And I would like to think that seeing a lot of activism and a lot of movement in Portland is making me hopeful, but I think that there is still a lot of work to be done in order to make the Vietnamese community and people of color of all communities feel safer in Portland.
DK: What are some differences you see between older and younger generations of Vietnamese Americans?
MN: Oh gosh, this one is going to get me in trouble. I think that Vietnamese people in general are incredibly tenacious, and incredibly clever and smart. I think that it might be utilized differently by the younger and older generations. I think that older generations might have had a stronger connection to what we consider the "model minority," but you can see that from a safety point. Like, "Put your head down, do your work, be quiet, don't get in trouble, don't get hurt." I think that that kind of tenacious hard work has translated to the younger generations of … yes, we can work really hard, but we are not going to be caught in it, we are not going to not have our voices heard. I think, like I said, the tenacious, hard-working, smart older generations have passed that on to the younger generations, we are just utilizing it differently. Vietnamese people are incredible, and incredibly hardworking. I think about my dad coming over at twenty years old with his parents who were in their fifties, maybe in their forties, and barely learning the language but building themselves up. I mean, my dad became a technical engineer—he worked on, this is a really weird qualification, but the first airplanes with screens on the back of the seat, like he designed those. He worked for incredible companies. One of my uncles is a doctor, my other uncle is an engineer, my aunt is in real estate. They built themselves up from leaving Vietnam with literally nothing in the middle of the night, to being incredibly successful in America. If that is not the definition of hardworking, I don't know what is.
DK: You mentioned having a desire to someday go back to visit Vietnam. Do you still have family in Vietnam, or connections?
MN: Yeah, I do, thankfully. Before my grandfather and grandmother married, my grandfather actually had a wife and they had two children, and unfortunately his first wife passed away from sickness, so they did stay in southern Vietnam. So, we still do have a lot of family there. My dad, before the pandemic of course, was going back about once a year to bring back money and supplies and help out his community over there, and same with my uncle who is a doctor, who flew over and would do visits and help people. So, I would love to go back at some point—go there for the first time, not go back—and really learn about my culture and my heritage firsthand. And also get to see my family's tea farm, which is something which they had and I only recently learned about. But it is really interesting to know that I have roots over there, and people, and family over there that I have never met, and hopefully by the time I do go over there I will have studied the language a little bit and be able to communicate with them.
DK: I have one more follow-up question: So, you mentioned a little bit about what it was like for your dad and his family to set up a life in Minnesota. I am curious about what prompted them specifically to leave Vietnam and leave their tea farm and make this major move across the Pacific.
MN: I think it was a matter of needing to—and not necessarily wanting to—in the middle of the war. They are southern Vietnamese, they were in dire danger and, from what I understand. Because my family does not like talking about the quote-unquote "before time," or the war, from what I understand my grandpa was given the opportunity to load up his family in the middle of the night and leave because bombs were being dropped, there were fires and fights and everything, and he decided in that moment to have his entire family leave and they were incredibly lucky because they did get out. I know that it did get incredibly ugly after that, and who knows what would have happened to them if they did not have that opportunity to leave. And I think Minnesota just happened to be the place where a host family was kind enough to take them in, and Ray and Sally, who were in Minnesota, they also had a family, they had kids about my dad and my aunt and uncle's ages, so it worked out incredibly well. They were very lucky to have a family that was able to take them in and help them.
DK: We are coming close to the end of our interview for today. I am wondering if there is anything we have not talked about that you would like to discuss?
MN: No, I think we covered a lot of great things and I really appreciate you taking the time to ask me some really solid questions.
DK: Glad to speak with you, it has been a privilege. Again, my name is Dustin Kelley, and I have been chatting with Michelle Nguyen today via Zoom. This concludes our interview.