Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

‘Chicken of the Sea’ is a wacky collaboration between two acclaimed Vietnamese-American artists and their kids

Michael Berry writes about the creative process between Viet Thanh Nguyen, Thi Bui, and their children that lead to Chicken of the Sea for Berkeleyside.

An illustration from Chicken of the Sea by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Ellison Nguyen, Thi Bui and Hien Bui-Stafford. Courtesy: McSweeney’s
An illustration from Chicken of the Sea by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Ellison Nguyen, Thi Bui and Hien Bui-Stafford. Courtesy: McSweeney’s

What happens when a flock of fowl ditch their boring life on the farm and embark on a larcenous ocean voyage?

The answers can be found in a new children’s picture book, Chicken of the Sea, published by McSweeney’s of San Francisco. Written by USC professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen and his son Ellison Nguyen, and illustrated by Berkeley cartoonist Thi Bui and her son, Hien Bui-Stafford, the book is a wacky collaboration between two acclaimed Vietnamese-American literary artists and their children.

Having earned a BA and PhD at UC Berkeley, Viet Thanh Nguyen is the author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. His novel The Sympathizer was published in 2015 and won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize. His short story collection The Refugees appeared in 2017, and he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. He is also the author of Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, a finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction. 

The author and illustrator of the American Book Award-winning graphic memoir The Best We Could Do, Thi Bui is an artist and educator. Her family immigrated from Vietnam to the US when she was a child. Her collaboration with poet Bao Phi, A Different Pond, received multiple awards, including the prestigious Caldecott Honor in 2018.

Bui was a founding teacher of Oakland International High School, a public school for recent immigrants and refugees. 

It was Ellison — named for the renowned African American writer Ralph Ellison — who got the ball rolling with Chicken of the Sea. A fan of Marvel superheroes, Dogman and Tintin, Ellison, then four years old, wrote a six-page comic story about chickens afflicted with wanderlust, who undertake a perilous journey to steal treasure from the Dog Knights. 

Ellison was familiar with Thi’s work, especially, A Different Pond

Although Ellison was “really into superhero comic books,” Viet said, “for whatever reason A Different Pond inspired (Ellison) to do a different kind of story. He was the one who came up with what we have in Chicken of the Sea about chickens who were bored on the farm and went off to become pirates and fight the Dog Knights for treasure.”

Viet posted the original work on his Facebook page, where it grabbed the attention of Kristina Kearns, then executive and editorial editor of McSweeney’s. 

Viet said of Ellison, who is frequently mentioned on the Facebook page, “He’s already a kind of character to people online that he’s never met. I think what drew (Kearns) was the whimsy of the original manuscript.”

Knowing that he needed professional artist assistance if he wanted to give the story its due for McSweeney’s, Nguyen contacted Thi. 

“I was a fan of Viet’s,” Thi said during a conference call. “I had brought my mother to meet him after one of his talks at UC Berkeley. Viet had already read my book (The Best We Could Do) and blurbed it for me before it was published. Then we met in person, and we were very involved in the same community of writers in the Vietnamese-American diaspora.”

Thi was too busy to draw the entire book, but she encouraged Hien to draw sample chickens and battle scenes, which they sent back to the Nguyens. Viet thought Hien had the talent to capture the story.

“I had to add 30 or 40 lines to the story and fill in the details from (Ellison’s) original vision,” Viet said.

Then, Hien explained, “once we got the manuscript (for the expanded version), I revised my sketches.”

Though Thi worked with Hien on storyboards, “all of the line work in the book is completely by Hien,” she explained. “There wasn’t much guidance from me. I just colored it and made it look nice.”

In late November, the finished edition was published. All four participants seemed to thoroughly enjoy the project. 

“It’s a funny, whimsical, crazy story about a chicken who wants to become a pirate. That’s the point,” said Viet. “The fun part for me was doing something that I could not do on my own, which is work with a child’s imagination, his vision of the world, which is so different from my own.”

Thi said, “I have written some heavy books on some serious topics. As a former refugee from Vietnam who escaped by boat, I would never voluntarily write about pirates. But it was fun.”

Don’t be chicken. Be creative. Because stories — and art — matter. Children know this. Adults too often forget.

Chicken of the Sea concludes with some advice for parents: “The moral of the story: parents, don’t discourage your doodling, sketching, playacting, story-spinning children. Nurture their artistic inclinations. Encourage them. Better yet, collaborate with them. Don’t be chicken. Be creative. Because stories — and art — matter. Children know this. Adults too often forget.”

Each collaborator emphasized similar advice on developing creativity.

“I think it’s very important for kids that are trying to develop artistic ability to realize that their art has to start somewhere, so just start drawing,” Hien said. “Eventually you’ll come to a point where you’re happy with your art. I also think it’s important to not try to be a perfectionist, when you’re trying to doodle or sketch.”

Thi said of Hien’s artistic exploration, “I really didn’t care what he made as long as he was having fun. Maybe years of having fun helped him develop his own style,”

Ellison advised, simply, “Use your imagination!” 

And Viet said. “Ellison really did  use his imagination. I just went with it. From a parent’s point of view, the work with children is to let them take the lead.”

With Chicken of the Sea completed, the collaborators are back to their regular, individual activities. At the moment, Viet is working on edits to a sequel to The Sympathizer, and Ellison attends school and plays with Legos. 

A Berkeley High student who likes to swim, Hien continues to work on his artistic skills. “I’ve had a lot of resources (in Berkeley) to be able to draw a lot, and that’s helped me develop how I draw,” he said.

Thi, who is currently working on a graphic novel about ICE detention and deportation, agrees that Berkeley is a good place to find the right balance for developing as an artist. “A lot of being an artist is trying to find that balance between the solitude you need to create and the community that you need to receive your work and also inspire it and talk about it,” she said.

The collaborators have discussed working together again, possibly on a Chicken of the Sea prequel called Dogs of the Air, a steampunk predecessor, with time travel and hot air balloons,” said Viet. 

Ellison said he’s “still thinking about it.” 


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