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Digital Story Critique: The Boat

The simple title is deceptive—like a Chekhov play—because it is very deep and full of symbolism and meaning. What makes this story unique is the way it’s told as an online multilayered graphic novel. Originally penned by Nam Le, an immigrant from Vietnam himself, The Boat is about a young girl’s escape from her country after the fall of Saigon and her journey on a crowded refugee boat toward Australia.

The story opens to a raging storm where teenage refugee Mai struggles to stay alive on a boat crammed with over 200 other refugees. She describes in detail as bodies slam against hers “jammed this way and that with every groaning tilt, writhing toward space as though impelling the boat to heave to, back into the wind.”

The visuals are stunning right off. The illustrations were created using traditional Vietnamese bamboo calligraphy brush, paper and Sumi ink by artist Matt Huynh (whose parents also fled Vietnam to Australia). Then the artwork is animated and layered by Matt Smith to create an incredible multi-sensory experience along with Sam Petty’s incredibly realistic and haunting sound effects.


As the story progresses, Mai shares the events that led to her current predicament. She describes how her father fought in the resistance against the communist armies, how he was caught and sent to “re-education camp” for two years, from where he came back blind. Through her eyes we stand on the bus looking back at her mother who she senses she will never see again as “the street closed up like a wound . . .” behind her. Then we see the graphics symbolically fade in the same way as a closing wound would, thus weaving the visuals to the narrative inextricably.

As she adjusts to this new uncertain reality on the boat, Mai finds she is strangely drawn to one of the little boys named Truong who doesn’t talk at first, and who is constantly in his own world, astheboat_graphicnovel_small if he had been traumatized into silence. The look on Truong’s face was like a “dead surprise” and reminded her of her father when she saw him in the hospital after being released from the re-education camp. The story goes on to chronicle her bond with this boy and his mother while exploring their lives, history, and Mai’s own psyche as it intertwines with her unfolding, precarious life as an immigrant from a war-torn country.


The Boat employs traditional and modern art forms in its presentation. The strong narrative is kept center stage while illustrated via innovative technology, so I chose the following traits from Ohler’s digital storytelling rubric for my assessment.


I loved this storytelling experience. It uses so many modes to communicate. The sounds and visuals were amazing and served to leave a memorable impression of the story on my mind. You could feel Mai’s pain and despair, her confusion, her disgust at the boat conditions. You went through it one desperate scene at a time.

Beautiful, haunting and poetic, Nan’s lyrical writing style created a true exploration of history using superb innovative storytelling.

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