On Thursday, January 28 I got a phone call from the U.S. State Department inviting me to travel to the country of Burma in March to talk about comics. Once I determined that I wasn’t being punk’d, I got really excited about the crazy idea.
The program I had been invited to be part of is run out of the State Department’s Office of International Programs. Called the Speaker/Specialist program, its mandate is to “tell America’s story.” My recruiter, Mike Bandler, mentioned the names of previous participants, notables such as Richard Ford, Tom Wolfe, Geraldine Brooks, and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage.
All I knew about Burma — now known as Myanmar — was a few key facts and what I had learned from cartoonist Guy Delisle’s excellent memoir Burma Chronicles (which I had randomly read a few months earlier on my A.D. book tour). Mostly, I knew that Burma was an authoritarian country ruled by a military junta that had imprisoned the elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
As Bandler explained the program to me, my job would be to “work with elements of civil society, academics, students, media professionals, and artists interested in graphic novels, with the theme of using comics to promote basic elements of a democratic society through freedom of expression, tolerance and respect for fellow citizens.” Clearly my experience with A.D. was a perfect illustration of that theme, especially because in the book I directly address the feeble and ineffective government response to Katrina and its victims. The very fact of my book’s existence, and that I could express such anger and frustration about my own government in such a fashion, would be completely unheard of in Burma. (It was only later that I remembered that Burma had recently suffered a major windstorm as well: Cyclone Nargis, which killed almost 150,000 [!] Burmese citizens in May 2008. The Myanmar government did very little to prepare its people for the storm, was very slow in responding to the tragedy, and initially resistant to accepting any outside aid. Sound familiar?)
It turned out that Scott McCloud had been invited first, but being unable to go had given them my name. (Thanks, Scott!) I felt like it was kismet: besides the thematic connection of A.D., I had traveled extensively in that part of the world as a young backpacker, and had written and drawn a memoir of my travels in the book A Few Perfect Hours. It was like all the strands of my comics life had come together in this specific form. Add to that for this junket I would receive an honorarium, a per diem, and of course a paid round-trip to Myanmar, and saying "yes" was a no-brainer.
The details of the trip were as follows: The Embassy post in Burma requested I come for a week-long program from March 15 to 22. The program was in partnership with the Alliance Francaise in Yangon (Burma’s main city and former capital, formerly known as “Rangoon”), and would feature two other comics artists, France’s Emile Bravo and Switzerland’s Christophe Badoux. Besides the five days in Yangon, the post also wanted to send me to Mandalay (the former royal capital, and center of Burmese culture), for an informal lecture at the Embassy’s Jefferson Center.
The program was to include a workshop each morning for three hours with the other two European artists and local Burmese graphic artists at the American Center; general hands-on classes with the Burmese public at the Alliance Francaise for three hours each afternoon; and then introducing a film each night at the American center. Saturday, the final day, was to be an all-day affair, including a “live drawing demonstration.” On Sunday, we would travel to Mandalay for two days before returning to Yangon for the flight back home.
This all sounded very intense and overwhelming to me, especially given that I’m in no way a teacher, and I had never thought of myself as a “typical” representative of my country and its government. In fact, until November of 2008 I had spent the better part of the previous decade feeling very much a foreigner in my own country. But now I was being asked to represent America in a repressive third-world country literally halfway around the world.