The graphic novel Underground: Marsupial Outlaws and Other Rebels of Australia’s War in Vietnam was officially launched at the Victorian Trades Hall on the 7th December 2021. Guest speakers included Gareth Evans, Max Gillies, and Bernard Caleo. Gareth Evans’ speech can be found here.
MC: Wil Stracke
Thank you so much to my guest speakers, Gareth Evans, Max Gillies Bernard Caleo and our MC Wil Stracke…
Thank you everyone, for gathering here against so many odds. We sit in a hall imbued with historical struggles, hopes and dreams for a different world, that have never lost their relevance. It is an honour to bring my small voice to this beautiful room.
Tonight I would like to pay hommage to Jeanie McLean, Mai Ho and Bill Cantwell, the three people who bind the pages of Underground.
You might well ask why someone of my generation would be so possessed to chip away at the hardened dirt of Australian history. The fact that a wombat dug the first tunnel is beside the point. I knew that it was important to understand the struggles of my forebears, to recognise that the mechanisms of power have been laying the foundations for better AND for worse since long before I was born, and to see that the past is inextricably linked to the present and the future. I needed to learn that while Australia’s war in Vietnam is not my own story, the fibres of history connect us all.
My parents did not grow up in a democracy. Under the authoritarian rule of South African apartheid dissent was extremely dangerous. So when I began listening to Jeanie McLean’s stories and learned of her commitment to Save Our Sons, draft resistance, the wider anti-war movement and many other causes, the preciousness of our democracy became never more illuminated for me. Her voice and thousands of others, many of you here tonight, fought for privileges I take for granted today. I never knew where Jeanie’s stories would take me, whether they be to a pavement bomb shelter in Hanoi where she became stuck, or to a suburb in France where Brigitte Bardot turned on her with a garden hose. As a visual story teller I was spoiled for choice.
In the photographs of the anti-Vietnam War protests, in which many of you participated, I saw ordinary every day Australians fighting for a different world, and I know they have brought inspiration to younger generations. I looked at the signs calling for the troops to be brought home and photo placards of traumatised Vietnamese children. Those placards lingered in my mind. Who were those troops? Who were those Vietnamese children? Where are they now? We are privileged to have some of them sitting among us. It is only by looking through these different lenses that we begin to understand the scope of this history.
Bill Cantwell will tell you that the North Vietnamese Army put on a spectacular fireworks display for his 20thbirthday at the Battle of Coral. He relays his experiences like the theatre of the absurd, but always juxtaposing the injustice with the indelible memory of how he and his fellow soldiers survived the horror and went to great lengths to look after each other. He does not shy away from talking about the much longer war that he and thousands of others still inhabit after returning home from the battlefield. To silence these stories has been our society’s tragedy, and the cost of forgetting is catastrophic.
When I asked a number of Australians what they remembered of Vietnamese people settling in Australia in the 70s and 80s, they spoke of their trauma. In the recent Vietnamese-Australian drama Hungry Ghosts which screened on SBS, there is a scene in 1960s Vietnam where young Thao says to his Australian friend Neil, (a war photographer who makes a living from selling images of conflict); “capture the beauty in your pictures, not just the horror, promise me some of your photos will be about my people’s joy”. It is right to acknowledge trauma, but we have so much to gain when we expand what we see of each others’ humanity. Mai Ho and her family came to Australia in 1982 after escaping Vietnam by boat, and her personal journey from this harrowing experience to being the first woman to be Mayor for the city of Maribyrnong is extraordinary. I hope that in my small tribute her story, what stands out as well are the humbler moments of love, beauty, connection, trial and error, humour, and indefatigable hope.
I never expected that an aberrant wombat would send me from Hurstbridge to Hanoi, and I need to thank a few people for their part in this project. Forgive me that it is an edited list. My love and gratitude for Jeanie Bill and Mai is endless, thank you for allowing me to pay a small tribute to your stories. Thank you to The Dunmoochin Foundation who provided me with a residency and the portal to this chapter of Australian history. Also to Shane and Dailan Pugh, who allowed me to depict their late parents Clifton and Marlene Pugh, who’s aberrant wombat set me off on this wild excavation. Thanks to my publishers Erica Wagner and Davina Bell who have kept the lamps burning through the dark labyrinths, and my editor Elise Jones for her genius in pulling together my rambling tunnels. Much gratitude goes to my Vietnamese cultural consultants Linh Le and Matt Huynh for excellent guidance and advice. A shout and cheer goes to the Australian Comic Art Workshop for workshopping this book since it was an amoeba without any toes. Thanks to my parents who always encouraged me in my work and curiosity. Also to the Australia Council and my patrons John and Liz Potter, thank you. Another bottomless thank you goes to Antony Moore, Luke Hodges and Trades Hall for making this venue possible tonight. My final gratitude goes to my partner Andrew Garton who held me during my best and worst moments during this project, and never stopped reminding me that these stories mattered.
I invite you into my Underground; a small network of connecting tunnels in a vast history, but which dig towards the light. ‘Love and Justice’ you will find monogrammed on the inside cover of my book tonight, because the fight for justice requires courage, and courage comes from le cœur, the French word for the heart.
Please can I ask Jeanie McLean, Mai Ho and Bill Cantwell to stand with me.