Tian Veasna was born in 1975, three days after the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh and evacuated the city.
Along the evacuation route, just over the Bassac River, his mother gave birth under a tree.
His father, a doctor, delivered him, said the 40-year-old graphic artist, who took the tree species’ Khmer name as his nom de plume, Tian.
Tian’s three-volume graphic novel series, “The Year of the Hare,” published in French, recounts this family history.
While the final volume will not be released until next year, an exhibition of his sketches and illustrations opens at the Institut Francais in Phnom Penh tonight.
Now based in Lyon, Tian escaped to France with his family in 1980. Growing up in the southern town of St. Etienne, his parents rarely spoke of his home country.
“I didn’t know where Cambodia was,” said Tian, who first returned to Cambodia in 2001. “I have some memories, and sometimes my parents would tell me about my childhood, but never all the history.”
It wasn’t until after he studied art in St. Etienne, and later at the School of Decorative Arts in Strasbourg, that the book project presented itself.
“These themes of memory, displacement, occupied me,” he said. His professional and romantic partner, Delphine Perret, suggested creating a graphic novel. He took the challenge, also inspired by a graphic novel by French-Cambodian artist Sera that he read when he was younger.
He began interviewing his parents about five years ago. “I also read all the books on the Khmer Rouge,” he said.
As he drew, he learned that his parents tried to flee to Battambang, his father’s home province, before being intercepted by the Khmer Rouge, who sent them to a camp between Kompong Thom City and Siem Reap City.
“My family stayed for five years in a village next to a jungle,” he said.
But rather than illustrate the brutal history of the regime, Tian’s fine lines and colors convey a personal narrative.
“I wanted to tell the story from the eyes of my father,” he said. “For some scenes, I wanted to cry as I drew, as if I was reliving it with them.”
“I realized that before he became my father, he was a young man who was just about to have his first son—like me,” said Tian, whose own son will turn 4 next week.
The first volume, “Goodbye Phnom Penh,” was the title of a song his mother used to sing. “My mother loves singing. She sang ‘Au Revoir Phnom Penh’ wishing to return there,” he said.
His mother has also refused to finish reading the books. “She said she read it until the third chapter because that corresponds with my birth. And for her, I think it’s very traumatizing,” Tian said. “It was the regime that took care [of children]. My mother was always set apart.”
In addition to the exhibit, Tian will host a discussion at the Institut Francais on Tuesday. He is also leading workshops this week with illustrators from the NGO Sipar, and next week with students from the Phare Ponleu Selpak art school in Battambang City. He plans to translate his two published novels—released in 2011 and 2013—and upcoming third volume into Khmer.
“The Khmer Rouge is finished, the history has passed, but the book is there,” Tian said. “I strongly believe in the power of culture to give form to what no longer exists.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Tian returned to Cambodia in 2011. He returned in 2001.