The following interview with Joe Sacco, the comics journalist best-known for his accounts of the war in Bosnia and life in the Palestinian territories, could be called “How to Draw an Atrocity.” His work is layered in well-earned details. Safe Area: Goražde depicts a besieged town sealed off from the world by the Balkan conflict. In the midst of a civil war, one young woman asks Sacco to get her some nice jeans from Sarajevo. In what is so far his magnum opus, Footnotes in Gaza, Sacco researched a forgotten massacre of Palestinian civilians during the Suez War in 1956. There is no photographic evidence of the massacre, and so Sacco was left illustrating the testimonies of older Palestinians, filling in the physical details based on his frequent trips to the Middle East’s Soweto. It’s not clear if he broke any unwritten rules concerning the way an atrocity should be depicted. He may be inventing rules of his own.
In his new collection of short pieces, Journalism, he chronicles poverty in rural India, the training of Iraqi security forces, and the recent wave of African immigration to Sacco’s native Malta. (Sacco was born in Malta and remains a citizen of the island nation, but he spent his childhood in Australia and the U.S. and has mostly lived here for about 40 years.) I met Sacco on an August afternoon in his studio in his house in Portland. We began by discussing one of the stories in Journalism, “Trauma on Loan,” about two ordinary Iraqis who were tortured by American soldiers during the early days of the Iraq War. I pointed to one moment in the piece in which Sacco illustrates the story of one of the Iraqis with a point-of-view shot from the perspective of an American soldier.
The Millions: This is something that’s very hard to do in prose journalism. If a victim is telling a story it’s very hard to see it from the point of view of the victimizer. But you, as a comics journalist, can create something like this image.
Joe Sacco: The whole point is to be able to recreate things from different perspectives. I have to give myself that freedom. I’ve always said drawing is a subjective act. Does that absolve me from an accusation of manipulation? Perhaps not in some people’s eyes. You could tone it down, I guess. I could have drawn it in a different way. That’s true. But I chose to draw it this way.
The words themselves are accurate quotes. It says, “One of the detainees was in front. His actions were like a dog’s.” I’m not going to draw a guy who’s just surly, holding back…I have a dog. And the way a dog acts, it begs and is excited. I’m just trying to visualize that.
TM: In your last Comics Journal interview you said that there has always been a grotesque quality in your work. There is some sense of the grotesque, of the strange, of the uncanny in your figures, even though you have this very journalistic desire to show something that’s real. How does this problem manifest itself when you are drawing sympathetic people like these two [Iraqi] gentlemen and this less-than-sympathetic American soldier?
JS: When I’ve said that I’ve tended toward the grotesque…what [I’m] saying is that I can never draw as beautifully as Craig Thompson (Habibi, Blankets). It’s just not in my hand. Even people who look good in real life never look good the way I draw them, not through any desire to make them grotesque but through a certain inability. I just don’t draw beautiful people beautifully. I would rather draw a good-looking woman as a good-looking woman, but I don’t have quite that ability to get it right. So my stuff tends in that direction anyway.
If I’m going to draw some American soldiers taunting an Iraqi prisoner, I’m not going to make their expressions neutral. If you’re taunting someone, you’re taunting someone. And if you’re getting a kick out of it, you’re getting a kick out of it. The action itself is grotesque. The action of doing that is grotesque. And so that’s reflected in the drawing.
TM: There’s a claim that a good novelist has sympathy for all of his characters. [Do you have any such sympathy] when you draw these bullies?
JS: No. Not always. When you’re drawing you have a lot of characters who don’t have speaking parts. A novelist generally deals with a set amount of characters. And you can flesh those characters out. But [when] a novelist is describing getting on a train with a hundred people…[he or she’s] not fleshing out all of those characters. I have to draw them. So it presents a problem.
I have a difficult time drawing the eyes of people when they’re committing atrocious acts. It’s not like I don’t do it if I’m sure they’re sadistic. In this case I probably could have done it. Because in this case, [with] a soldier taunting someone, I can imagine their sadism and I can understand a sadist’s face, or I have the pretense of thinking I can understand a sadist’s face…
Think of it as acting. Think of it as [being] a film director, because, ultimately, that’s what you’re doing. You’re saying to yourself, “How is this person going to be looking if you’re an actor?” And every time you draw something, much like acting, you have to get into the role on some level of what that person is thinking or feeling. It’s easier to draw a sadist. The more difficult thing is to draw ordinary people doing atrocious things. Someone throwing a cigarette to taunt someone is a sadist. Or anyway that’s a sadistic act. And maybe that person isn’t always a sadist. [But] I’m going to draw a sadistic expression.
I had more trouble in the book Footnotes in Gaza with this sort of thing because I didn’t think all those people [Israeli soldiers] were sadists. I think there were sadists among them. But to me, this is a case, generally speaking, of ordinary human beings killing other human beings and perhaps not even out of a sense of hatred.
I couldn’t understand the psychology of doing what they were doing. As I was drawing I didn’t draw their faces exactly because I didn’t want to presuppose their intentions or their psychological state, which is why I very seldom [draw] their eyes.
Doing [Footnotes in Gaza] in particular is when I realized I didn’t understand how to draw certain things because I didn’t understand the psychology of the moment. It’s easier to understand fear. I can draw fear. I can draw sadism. But an ordinary person doing something like this is a very difficult thing to understand. I’m not going to pretend I understand it. It was easier to hide the face.
TM: But when you are giving this level of individuality to these Israeli soldiers, these Serbian genocidal killers, these American soldiers, does that allow you to imagine a kind of individual intelligence behind them that you just described to me?
JS: I think about it all the time. I think, “This one’s gesture is going to be more aggressive. This one’s going to be aggressive but not as aggressive.” …There’s a range. Not all of them are the same. They’re not all going to behave the same way. But then you think, “Well their officers are there and they’re being told to do this. Are they going to do it?” There might be a moment too when you’re doing it and these people [victims] might be sniveling and crawling in front of you and it helps you, because they’re humiliating themselves which makes you despise them. These are things I think about. But they’re not necessarily things I understand. I’m going off in a different direction with my new work because of these very questions.
TM: What’s this new direction?
JS: I’m interested in psychology and neuroscience and understanding human nature. It [came from] the problems I had doing this [Footnotes in Gaza]…With journalism I can explain [events]. I can even explain the history behind [them]. What I couldn’t explain to myself is the individual relationship to those events. That’s why I’m telling you I had a hard time drawing this stuff.
TM: What are you working on now that is dealing with this new direction? I don’t know if you’re comfortable announcing a new project.
JS: It’s hard to describe what I’m trying to do. I want to grapple with the concept of human nature, how we develop societies, our relationship to authority, starting from the primate level on. [It] sounds like a huge huge undertaking and it is and I don’t know if I’ll be able to figure it out. I don’t know if it will make for good comics necessarily. I just want to concentrate on this story about Mesopotamia and the development of the first cities — even before the first cities — of how hierarchy developed, how central authority developed, how our role as people under central authority, this relationship, developed. It all interests me. That is enough. And that could go on for years. And I’ve been interviewing archaeologists in different places…
TM: Your books are very easy to read. And many of your contemporaries have moved to making comics difficult. Art Spiegelman, when he made his book about 9/11, In the Shadow of No Towers, designed the format so you don’t know where your eye is supposed to go at any given point. Chris Ware does that a lot as well. You have a linear method. When I read your books I usually feel I know where my eye is supposed to go.
JS: Well if you don’t it’s very intentional. There are cases where you are supposed to be a little confused about how to read things.
TM: Did your journalism training make you think you had to make your work as clear as possible?
JS: I think so. I think that’s it. Journalism is a constraint, on some level. I don’t even like drawing representational-y very much. I don’t think I’m particularly good at it to be honest. It never feels completely comfortable. And I’m not even sure if I drew in a cartoon-y fashion if that would be comfortable.
This is not your New York Times kind of journalism which is often really boring. The difference between reading the standard New York Times writer — there are some exceptions — and someone like Robert Fisk of The Independent is like night and day. I feel like I’m there with Fisk, you know. That’s the tradition I’m more interested in journalistically speaking. Yes, I want the situation to be [as] clear as much as possible because I also think often the subject matter itself is difficult for people. It’s not pleasant. I don’t need tricks. I don’t want tricks. It’s mostly pretty standard. You’ll see in my first journalistic work Palestine that there were a lot of different angles and all that. That was fun to draw, [but] it didn’t necessarily help the story along.
TM: I was thinking about the power of the short form versus the long form. I found Footnotes in Gaza impossible to read in one sitting. I felt reading it that there was a circularity to the narrative in which we kept returning to the same problem and that [this circularity] is reflective of the subject matter. So when you see the atrocities in Footnotes in Gaza they stop having the same shock after awhile. But with something like this, “The War Crimes Trials,” which is a total of six pages, there are just these few panels that have, for me at least, far greater shock.
JS: To me that’s very subjective because I’ve heard many people say very different things about Footnotes in Gaza from what you just said as far as its power to shock them. But I’m not even sure that I’m going for shock. I’m just trying to represent things in a way, even in a dull way somehow. I’m not Joe Kubert, may he rest in peace. I’m not going to draw everything spectacularly with explosions and people flying though they look like they’re in a ballet somehow. That’s not how I think of things.
If you look at the scene that you’re pointing to, maybe some of its power comes from the fact that you’re not seeing anyone getting his testicle bitten off. You have to imagine what it’s like. Would it have been more shocking if I had shown it? Maybe on some level. But it would have been cheaper and not as effective. You can be shocking and also not be effective.
TM: When you have to draw these horrors, does it affect other elements of your life?
I was miserable. And I don’t want to do it again, really. There are reasons for going off and doing other projects that aren’t journalistic in the way I’ve done them before. Partly I want to learn something new. I feel like I’ve gone about as far as I can go looking at these sorts of incidents. Which aren’t the same incidents. They’re very different kinds of things. But when you’re involved in [them] they begin to look the same. That’s one of the reasons in that Journalism book I tried to do something different than massacres. I wanted to do [things] about human migration or poverty. And even those are tough things to do. But they’re physically not as hard as drawing dead bodies over and over.
TM: I don’t know if you’ve been told this but you don’t have an identifiable accent. I would have no idea where you’re from unless I was told you were from Malta. It’s not clearly American. It’s not clearly Australian. It’s not clearly anything. Now you mention that you feel some responsibility as a Maltese citizen when you write about the plight of African immigrants in Malta. And that you feel some responsibility if not as an American citizen than as an American taxpayer for the American government’s support of Israel’s actions in the Palestinian territories. But in some ways — I don’t know if this is insulting — you are a man without a country.
JS: Why is that insulting?
TM: I don’t know. I’m telling you that in some way you have no fixed background. I don’t know if that helps you when you travel.
JS: Culturally, I feel more American than [anything else]. This is where I spent a lot of my time. I also have a cultural upbringing that is Maltese. So I’m not going to shake either of those things. Nor do I want to. You are who you are. I’m relatively comfortable with who I am. I don’t feel vested in any particular nationality or in any national project. I live here because I live here and I’m comfortable here. I like being here and there are things I like about living in the United States. But I don’t feel I owe anything to the United States, or to Malta or to Europe or Australia. I might feel more responsibility based on where I am for what the United States does or what happens in Malta on some level.
[As for] Bosnia…I don’t think I have a dog in any fight, in a certain way. But I certainly don’t have a dog in that fight. It’s just humans and other humans.
This transcript represents selections from a 90-minute interview. Special thanks to Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics for assisting in this interview’s preparation.
The four-and-one-half-hour evening train ride from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Chicago marks the beginning of my occasional, brief getaways. I’ve devised my own routine: as soon as the conductor checks my ticket, I head to the food car to pick up a small bottle of Cabernet and a frozen pizza — something I’d hardly eat if it were elsewhere — to accompany the film I’ve already picked out. One time, the film I had chosen was The Stoning of Soraya M. It describes the real story of an Iranian woman named Soraya, who is stoned to death as required by the rules of Shari’a, when she is (wrongfully) accused by her husband of having committed adultery. It is a powerful and moving film — less because of its cinematography, and more due to the plot.
As I watched, I could tell that the woman sitting next to me was taking sneak peaks at the film every now and then. When I finished, she told me that she found the film to be really interesting, and asked me what the title is. At times like this, I find myself caught in a dilemma — a feeling I suspect many Middle Eastern women get. On the one hand, I too am enraged and have my feminist blood boil at how cruel certain Middle Eastern practices can be toward women. Yet, on the other hand, I worry about the tendency that people may have of succumbing all too easily to culture blaming, perceiving these practices as abstract and independent of historical and global relations. I struggle with the fine balance of condemning violations of human rights without accidentally submitting to contemporary extensions of Orientalism.
I was reminded of this dilemma during Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman’s speech at the University of Michigan on Nov. 14. Karman is a Yemeni feminist activist who played active roles before and during the Yemeni uprising, considered part of the Arab Spring. Throughout her speech, you could see Karman’s determination to bring democracy and gender equality to Yemen emanating from her whole being. She touched upon issues like how, during President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule, women were trapped in their homes under the veil of religion; whereas now, they were out on the streets, not only taking part, but leading the revolution in many aspects.
In popular culture, Middle Eastern women are rarely depicted as such — willful and agentic. Instead, we see them as a category, rather than individuals, that is surrounded by inhuman (male) oppression. We often receive depictions of Middle Eastern women as submissive and helpless, forced to hide their bodies, and we hardly ever discuss their determination as individuals. Indeed, as Turkish writer Elif Şafak mentions in her TED Talk of July 2010, when Middle Eastern women in literature do not fit these descriptions, they are found not to be “Middle Eastern enough.” Thus, it might surprise some that Karman, who stood strong as she chanted her slogans of peace to the auditorium, with her hands forcefully shooting high up in the air, still chooses to wear the headscarf.
Craig Thompson’s latest graphic novel Habibi, and Denis Villeneuve’s 2010 film Incendies are two recent narratives that I’ve very much enjoyed, which endorse counter-stereotypical portrayals for their respective Middle Eastern female protagonists, Dodola and Nawal. Both Dodola and Nawal are illustrated as determined individuals, who survive through hardships unimaginable to most of us. And while both women are strong, at a closer glance, there are subtle differences in terms of the perspectives these two depictions provide on Middle Eastern women. This is seen most vividly in the relationships the two women have with their own bodies.
Thompson’s Habibi takes place in a country named Wanatolia (a somewhat cheesy play on the word Anatolia). Wanatolia is portrayed as a timeless Middle Eastern country characterized by a water crisis surrounding a spectacular dam, with contrasting skylines of modern skyscrapers and neglected shantytowns, ruled by its insatiable sultan, constantly on the lookout for new gems to be added to his harem.
Dodola is one of the women kidnapped by the sultan’s guards for the harem. Being part of the harem means giving up ownership of one’s own body, readying it for service of the sultan’s lustful urges; whenever and wherever they may emerge. In contrast to the plump and outright unattractive sultan, Dodola is beautiful and skinny. Yet, in spite of how attractive she may seem to others, Dodola feels a strong disconnect with her own body. This feeling of disconnect is further enhanced when she’s impregnated by the sultan with the heir of Wanatolia, and as her body begins to accumulate fat. While it seems here that Thompson has yielded to the contemporary pressures of the slim and tender female body image, there is many a reason for Dodola to feel a disconnect with her body. As a nine-year-old girl, Dodola is sold into marriage by her parents, in order to survive the drought. And at 12, her husband is murdered by thieves, and Dodola is sold into slavery.
Thus, Dodola’s body is portrayed as a commodity throughout most of the novel. Even when she and Zam, the 3-year-old boy she rescues from the slave market, attain freedom and start a new life on a boat they find lodged in the middle of the desert (an allusion to Noah’s Ark), Dodola has to sell her body in order to gain advantage to steal food from caravans passing by — the cliché of the woman as the seductress who uses her body as an object to manipulate men into getting what she wants. It’s not long before her violent methods of seduction turn her into the legendary devil woman of the desert, sucking the life out of men through their penises, and leading “an army of jinn.” Her myth is so robust that even the sultan of Wanatolia believes that her magical powers are the solution to his boredom. The exoticization of Dodola as such is reminiscent of the portrayals of Middle Eastern women in old Orientalist art and texts. So, although Thompson, on the surface, illustrates Dodola as a strong and determined character who overcomes challenges like poverty, illness, and rape, he can’t seem to escape the pitfalls of these age-old, sexist stereotypes. Indeed, the legend of Dodola reaches many men in Wanatolia, one of whom eventually rapes Dodola in the desert. Thus, Dodola is rendered helpless even in one of the rare situations where she is using her own body at her own will, for her own benefit.
Incendies also takes place in a fictional Middle Eastern country. The film opens with the panoramic view of a desolate land, ornate with scarce palm trees extending tall into the sky, resembling the Arabic letter alif — a reminder of death as a path from earth up to heaven. As the camera scans the landscape, Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?” fades in, and we are zoomed in through the window of one of the classrooms of a torn down and abandoned school building. The song is blasting now, and we are shown a group of adolescent boys whose heads are being shaved by a couple of men who look like guerilla fighters. Later on, we can infer that the boys are being prepped as militants to fight in the streets during what seems like a civil war, to kill other boys who look just like them. And one of them, the boy with the three black dots tattooed to his foot, is political activist Nawal Marwan’s long-lost son, Abou Tarek, the famous torturer of Kfar Rayat, a prison for political criminals.
Like Dodola, Nawal is made to forfeit ownership of her own body quite frequently. Early in the film, when Nawal is young, her lover is murdered by her male relatives, the reason being that a Muslim man cannot be suitable to marry Nawal, who is Christian. Nawal, a disgrace to the family’s honor, is forced to give up her illegitimate love child, who will later be known as the aforementioned Abou Tarek, and whom she promises to find one day and love forever. Thus, Nawal’s body is similarly portrayed as a commodity, just like that of Dodola’s. Nawal’s body is owned collectively, is an important determinant of things like honor and reputation for her family, and therefore decisions regarding her body are too important to be given by her. Yet, throughout the film, we see Nawal losing and regaining volition over decisions regarding her body. For instance, Nawal chooses to become politically involved in the civil war, and by disguising herself as a tutor to a nationalist general’s son, attempts the assassination of the general. This is not a very typical portrayal of Middle Eastern women, and demonstrates the urge in Nawal to take charge and make a change. As a result, however, she is sent to Kfar Rayat, where she is regularly tortured and raped. Thus, her body is once again violated, to the extent that she becomes pregnant by her torturer, Abou Tarek, and is prevented from causing a miscarriage. Thus, Nawal becomes pregnant with twins by her long-lost son, neither of them being aware of the situation.
There are many parallels between Dodola’s and Nawal’s stories of struggle. Both are kept in prison cells almost too small to allow them to stand for extended periods of time, suffering leisurely rapes by men, yet unwilling to give up. Both survive the pains of being separated from their loved ones, and both are reunited with them as a result of their strength and determination. What differentiates Nawal’s portrayal from that of Dodola’s is the way Nawal refuses to give up ownership of her body, and accepts its legacy no matter what. At the end of Incendies, Nawal’s twin children, as asked of them in her will, deliver to Abou Tarek the two letters from her: one written to her torturer/rapist, and the other to her son. Thus, Nawal accepts her baby, despite her devastation at what he has become, and keeps the promise she gave him when he was born, in contrast to Dodola who feels that the sultan’s baby growing inside her has taken over her body, pulling on her ribs mercilessly. In contrast to Dodola, who was not saddened by the death of her baby nearly as much as her servant was, Nawal manages to separate the rapist from the son, condemning one while embracing the other, and owns her body in an oblique way. Dodola, however, submits to male domination over her body.
Some have blamed both Villeneuve and Thompson for perpetuating stereotypical beliefs of the Middle East as being composed of war- and poverty-stricken nations, rich with male oppression and crudeness, by setting their stories in the Middle East rather than anywhere else. In Incendies, Nawal’s homeland is never named, and cities are given novel names. Yet, many have thought that parts of the plot bear a strong resemblance to Lebanon’s history, particularly to the Israeli occupation of the 1980s, and there are many similarities between Nawal’s story and Lebanese activist Soha Bechara’s life. These resemblances strike me as reminders of how blurred the line is between reality and fiction. Such an idea lends authority to the abovementioned criticisms — that the depicted events, or ones very similar, could have easily happened elsewhere. It’s difficult not to agree with these criticisms, in light of how easily these stereotyped incidents become essentialized parts of particular cultures, threatening them with further stigmatization. The outcome of Thompson’s well-intentioned depiction of Dodola demonstrates the importance of being mindful of these issues in literature, as in any other medium. However, I also agree with Azar Nafisi, who quotes Adorno saying, “the highest form of morality is to not feel at home in one’s own home.” I find there to be value in being uncomfortable about certain things that go on in your own part of the world, and being comfortable with bringing them forth to a global community for discussion. So, that day on the train, I decided to give my copy of The Stoning of Soraya M. to the curious woman sitting next to me.
While sending out calls for contributors, one writer responded to my email with the observation that these lists “seem to be the new fashion.” True. In the past few weeks, on Twitter and Facebook and wherever else I went to play hooky, these lists — 100 Notable Books, 10 Best Novels of 2011, 5 Cookbooks Our Editors Loved, etcetera — were lying in wait, or rather, Tumblr-ing all over the place. Of course, as an eternal sucker for the dangled promise of a good book, I had to read this one, to see what was on offer, and that one, to get it out of the way, and oh yes that one, because . . . just because. I’m not complaining, far from it. I’m just establishing that I have read a lot of these lists, in only the past few weeks, and shared them myself on Facebook and Twitter, usually at times when I should have been working; and now, since I am sick and tired of being sick and tired of seeing the same books on list after list after list, lists drawn up by respected, respectable folks in the same circles of influence, I have reached out to a band of fresh voices (some new, some established, some you know, some you will soon) and compiled the alternative, the underground, the “oh-yes-that-one” list of favorite books of 2011.
Faith Adiele, author of Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun: When Precious Williams was three months old, her neglectful, affluent Nigerian mother placed her with elderly, white foster parents in a racist, working-class neighborhood in West Sussex, England. Precious: A True Story by Precious Williams tells this wrenching story. I kept reading for the clean, wry, angry prose. Zong! by M. NourbeSe Philip is a brilliant example of how poetry can resurrect history and memory. In 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong ordered 150 Africans thrown overboard so the ship’s owners could collect the insurance money. Philip excavates the court transcript from the resulting legal case — the only account of the massacre — and fractures it into cries, moans, and chants cascading down the page. I was tempted to recommend Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir, since it came out in 2011. It does a lovely job capturing Kenya on the verge of independence, but read side by side, Wizard of the Crow demands attention. A sprawling, corrosive satire about a corrupt African despot, filled with so-called magical realism, African-style. Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda by Jean-Philippe Stassen. Rwanda-based Belgian expat Stassen employs beautifully drawn and colored panels to tell the tragic story of Deogratias, a Hutu boy attracted to two Tutsi sisters on the eve of the genocide. After the atrocities Deogratias becomes a dog, who narrates the tale.
Doreen Baingana, author of Tropical Fish: Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou is, despite its misogynistic tendencies in parts, a brilliant book. A biting satire about desperate conditions and characters who hang out at a slum bar called Credit Gone West, it should make you cry, but you can’t help but laugh bitterly.
Lauren Beukes, author of Zoo City: If a novel is a pint, short stories are like shooters: they don’t last long, but the good ones hit you hard and linger in your chest after. I loved African Delights by Siphiwo Mahala, a wonderful collection of township stories loosely inspired by Can Themba’s Sofiatown classic “The Suit.” In novels, Patrick DeWitt’s wry western, The Sisters Brothers, was fantastic, but I think my favorite book of the year was Patrick Ness’ beautiful and wrenching A Monster Calls, a fable about death and what stories mean in the world.
Margaret Busby, chair of the fiction judges for the 2011 OCM Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature: White Egrets by Derek Walcott is a superb collection of poetry. Using beautiful cadences and evocative, sometimes startling images, Walcott explores bereavement and grief and being at a stage of life where the contemplation of one’s own death is inevitable. How to Escape a Leper Colony by Tiphanie Yanique is a very accomplished collection that delivers thought-provoking themes, nuanced and vibrant writing, an impressive emotional range and a good grasp of the oral as well as the literary. Also I would mention Migritude by Shailja Patel. Patel’s encounters with the diaspora of her cultural identities — as a South-Asian woman brought up in Kenya, an Indian student in England, a woman of color in the USA — give this book a vibrant poignancy. “Art is a migrant,” she says, “it travels from the vision of the artist to the eye, ear, mind and heart of the listener.”
Nana Ayebia Clarke, founder of Ayebia Clarke Publishing: Deservingly selected as overall winner of the 2011 Commonwealth Best Book Prize, The Memory of Love by Aminatta Forna tackles the difficult subject of war and its damaging psychological impact. Set in Sierra Leone in the aftermath of the civil war, Forna’s narrative brings together the good, the bad, and the cowardly in a place of healing: a Freetown hospital to which a British psychologist has come to work as a specialist in stress disorder. The story that unfolds is a moving portrayal of love and hope and the undying human spirit.
Jude Dibia, author of Blackbird: There are a few novels of note written by black authors that I read this year, and one that comes readily to mind is Fine Boys by Eghosa Imasuen. This was a story that was as beautiful as it was tragic and revelatory. It told the tale of two childhood friends living in a country marred by military coups. Striking in this novel is the portrayal of friendship and family as well as the exploration of cult-driven violence in Nigerian universities.
Simidele Dosekun, author of Beem Explores Africa: My favorite read this year was The Memory of Love (Bloomsbury, 2011) by Aminatta Forna. Set in Freetown, Sierra Leone before and after the war, it tells of intersecting lives and loves thwarted by politics. I read it suspended in an ether of foreboding about where one man’s obsession with another’s wife would lead, and could not have anticipated its turns. As for children’s books, I have lost count of the copies of Lola Shoneyin’s Mayowa and the Masquerades that I have given out as presents. It is a colorful and chirpy book that kids will love.
Dayo Forster, author of Reading the Ceiling: It is worth slogging past the first few pages of Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir, One Day I Will Write About This Place, to get to a brilliantly captured early memory — a skirmish outside his mother’s salon about the precise placement of rubbish bins. Other poignant moments abound — as a student in South Africa, a resident of a poor urban area in Nairobi, adventures as an agricultural extension worker, a family gathering in Uganda. With the personal come some deep revelations about contemporary Kenya. Read it.
Petina Gappah, author of An Elegy for Easterly: I did not read many new books this year as I spent most of my time reading dead authors. Of the new novels that I did read, I most enjoyed The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, who writes once every decade, it seems, and is always worth the wait. I also loved Open City by Teju Cole, which I reviewed for the Observer. I was completely overwhelmed by George Eliot’s Middlemarch and W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, both of which I read for the first time this year, and have since reread several times. I hope, one day, or maybe one decade, to write a novel like Middlemarch.
Maggie Gee, author of My Animal Life: I re-read Bernardine Evaristo’s fascinating fictionalized family history, the new, expanded Lara, tracing the roots of this mixed race British writer back through the centuries to Nigeria, Brazil, Germany, Ireland — comedy and tragedy, all in light-footed, dancing verse. In Selma Dabbagh’s new Out of It, the lives of young Palestinians in Gaza are brought vividly to life — gripping, angry, funny, political. Somewhere Else, Even Here by A.J. Ashworth is a stunningly original first collection of short stories.
Ivor Hartmann, co-editor of the African Roar anthologies: Blackbird by Jude Dibia is a deeply revealing contemporary look at the human condition, yet compassionate throughout, well paced, and not without its lighter moments for balance. The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, spans 61 years of his short stories and shows a clear progression of one of the kings of Sci-Fi. The Way to Paradise by Mario Vargas Llosa is a vast, powerful, and masterful work, which focused on Paul Gauguin (and his grandmother).
Ikhide R. Ikheloa, book reviewer and blogger: I read several books whenever I was not travelling the world inside my iPad, by far the best book the world has never written. Of traditional books, I enjoyed the following: Blackbird by Jude Dibia, Open City (Random House, 2011) by Teju Cole, One Day I Will Write About This Place (Graywolf, 2011) by Binyavanga Wainaina, and Tiny Sunbirds, Far Away by Christie Watson. These four books bring readers face-to-face with the sum of our varied experiences — and locate everyone in a shared humanity, and with dignity. They may not be perfect books, but you are never quite the same after the reading experience.
Eghosa Imasuen, author of Fine Boys: American Gods (William Morrow; 10 Anv ed., 2011) by Neil Gaiman is a novel of hope, of home, and of exile. It superbly interweaves Gaiman’s version of Americana with the plight of “old world” gods, many of them recognizable only by the subtlest of hints. We watch as these old gods do battle with humanity’s new gods: television, the internet, Medicare, and a superbly rendered personification of the sitcom. Read this book, and see the awkward boundaries between literary and genre fiction blur and disappear.
Tade Ipadeola, poet and president of PEN Nigeria: An Infinite Longing for Love by Lisa Combrinck. The voluptuous verse in this stunning book of poetry is a triumph of talent and a validation of the poetic tradition pioneered by Dennis Brutus. I strongly recommend this book for sheer brilliance, and for how it succors the human condition. Desert by J.M.G Le Clézio emerges essentially intact from translation into English, and it weaves a fascinating take of the oldest inhabitants of the Sahara. It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower by Michela Wrong tackles endemic corruption in Africa and the global response — a powerful book.
David Kaiza, essayist: The Guardian voted The Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm as one of the top 100 books of the past century. I don’t care much for these listings, but there is a lot of truth to that choice. Hobsbawm is a Marxist historian, and his insight into the 200 years that re-shaped man’s world (and, as he says, changed a 10,000-year rhythm of human society) is transformational. In 2011, I read 10 of his books, including the priceless Bandits which put Hollywood’s Western genre in perspective and, among others, made me appreciate The Assassination of Jesse James as much as I understood Antonio Banderas’ Puss in Boots. There must be something to a historian who makes you take animation seriously.
Nii Ayikwei Parkes, author of Tail of the Blue Bird: This year I finally managed to read and fall in love with The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah, which had been sitting on my shelf since last year. It draws on the little-known true incident of a ship of European Jews forced into temporary exile in Mauritius close to the end of the Second World War and weaves around it a simple, compelling story of friendship between two boys — one a Jewish boy in captivity, the other an Indian-origin Mauritian who has already known incredible trauma at a young age. The friendship ends in tragedy, but in the short space of its flowering and the lives that follow, Nathacha Appanah manages to explore the nature of human connection, love, and endurance, and the place of serendipity in ordering lives. A great read. My plea to my fellow Africans would be to pay more attention to writing from the more peripheral countries like Mauritius and the Lusophone countries; there is some great work coming out of the continent from all fronts. Given my fascination with language, especially sparsely-documented African languages and the stories they can tell us, I have been enjoying Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, which is a fascinating re-examination of the assumptions language scholars have made for years. Drawing on examples from Australia, Europe, Africa, Asia, and America, he argues that contrary to popular lore, languages don’t limit what we can imagine but they do affect the details we focus on — for example, a language like French compels you to state the gender if you say you are meeting a friend, whereas English does not. Brilliantly written and accessible, I’d recommend it for anyone who has ever considered thinking of languages in terms of superior and inferior.
Adewale Maja-Pearce, author of A Peculiar Tragedy: Eichmann in Jerusalem by Hannah Arendt. Her argument was the presumed complicity of Jews themselves in Hitler’s holocaust, which necessarily created considerable controversy. Eichmann was a loyal Nazi who ensured the deaths of many before fleeing to Argentina. He was kidnapped by Israel and put on trial, but the figure he cut seemed to the author to reveal the ultimate bureaucrat pleased with his unswerving loyalty to duly constituted authority, hence the famous “banality of evil” phrase she coined. Arendt also notes that throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, only Denmark, Italy, and Bulgaria resisted rounding up their Jewish populations as unacceptable.
Maaza Mengiste, author of Beneath the Lion’s Gaze: I couldn’t put down Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih and wondered what took me so long discover it. The story follows a young man who returns to his village near the Nile in Sudan after years studying aboard. There is startling honesty in these pages, as well as prose so breathtakingly lyrical it makes ugly truths palatable. With a new introduction by writer Laila Lalami, even if you’ve read it once, it could be time to pick it up again. What more can I add to the rave reviews that have come out about the memoir One Day I Will Write About this Place by Binyavanga Wainaina? I found myself holding my breath in some parts, laughing in others, feeling my heart break for him as he tries to find his way in a confusing world. Wainaina’s gaze on his continent, his country, his family and friends, on himself is unflinching without being cruel. The writing is exhilarating. It explodes off the page with an energy that kept me firmly rooted in the world of his imagination and the memories of his childhood. By the end, I felt as if a new language had opened up, a way of understanding literature and identity and what it means to be from this magnificent continent of Africa in the midst of globalization. It’s been hard to consider the Arab Spring without thinking about the African immigrants who were trapped in the violence. The Italian graphic novel Etenesh by Paolo Castaldi tells of one Ethiopian woman’s harrowing journey from Addis Ababa to Libya and then on to Europe. At the mercy of human traffickers, numbed by hunger and thirst in the Sahara desert, Etenesh watches many die along the way, victims of cruelties she’ll never forget. Thousands continue to make the same trek today — struggling to survive against all odds. Her story is a call to remember those still lost in what has become another middle passage.
Nnedi Okorafor, author of Who Fears Death: Habibi by Craig Thompson is easily the best book I’ve read this year. It is a graphic novel that combines several art forms at once. There is lush Arabic calligraphy that meshes with unflinching narrative that bleeds into religious folklore that remembers vivid imagery. Every page is detailed art. The main characters are an African man and an Arab woman, and both are slaves. Also, the story is simultaneously modern and ancient and this is reflected in the setting. There are harems, eunuchs, skyscrapers, pollution. I can gush on and on about this book and still not do it justice.
Chibundu Onuzo, author of The Spider King’s Daughter: The Help by Kathryn Stockett struck all the right chords. The plot was compelling, the characters were sympathetic, and the theme of race relations is ever topical. If you’re looking for a gritty, strictly historical portrait of life as a black maid in segregated Mississippi, perhaps this book is not for you. But if you want to be entertained, then grab The Help.
Shailja Patel, author of Migritude: In this tenth anniversary year of 9/11, the hauntingly lovely Minaret by Leila Aboulela is the “9/11 novel” I recommend, for its compelling story that confounds all expectations. Hilary Mantel’s epic Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, had me riveted for a full four days. It shows how a novel can be a breathtaking ride through history, politics, and economics. Everybody Loves A Good Drought: Stories From India’s Poorest Districts by P. Sainath should be compulsory reading for everyone involved in the missionary enterprise of “development.”
Laura Pegram, founding editor of Kweli Journal: Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original by Robin D.G. Kelley is “the most comprehensive treatment of Monk’s life to date.” The reader is finally allowed to know the man and his music, as well as the folks who shaped him. On Black Sisters Street by Chika Unigwe. In this novel, the reader comes to know sisters with “half-peeled scabs over old wounds” who use sex to survive in Antwerp. Winner of this year’s National Book Award for poetry, Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney is a stunning work of graceful remembrance.
Henrietta Rose-Innes, author of Nineveh: Edited by Helon Habila, The Granta Book of the African Short Story is a satisfyingly chunky volume of 29 stories by some of the continent’s most dynamic writers, both new and established. The always excellent Ivan Vladislavic’s recent collection, The Loss Library, about unfinished/unfinishable writing, offers a series of brilliant meditations on the act of writing — or failing to write. And recently I’ve been rereading Return of the moon: Versions from the /Xam by the poet Stephen Watson, who tragically passed away earlier this year. I love these haunting interpretations of stories and testimonies from the vanished world of /Xam-speaking hunter-gatherers.
Madeleine Thien, author of Dogs at the Perimeter: Some years ago, the Chinese essayist, Liao Yiwu published The Corpse Walker, a series of interviews with men and women whose aspirations, downfalls, and reversals of fortune would not be out of place in the fictions of Dickens, Dostoevsky or Hrabal. The Corpse Walker is a masterpiece, reconstructing and distilling the stories of individuals — an Abbott, a Composer, a Tiananmen Father, among so many others — whose lives, together, create a textured and unforgettable history of contemporary China. Liao’s empathy and humour, and his great, listening soul, have created literature of the highest calibre. My other loved books from this year are the Dutch novelist Cees Nooteboom’s story collection The Foxes Come at Night, a visionary and beautiful work, and Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.
Chika Unigwe, author of On Black Sisters Street: Contemporary Chinese Women Writers II has got to be one of my favorite books of the year. I recently picked it up in a delightful bookshop in London. When I was growing up in Enugu, I was lucky to live very close to three bookshops, and I would often go in to browse, and sometimes buy books. It was in one of those bookstores that I discovered a dusty copy of Chinese Literature — and I flipped through and became thoroughly enchanted. I bought the copy and had my father take out a subscription for me. For the next few years the journal was delivered to our home, and I almost always enjoyed all the stories but my favorite was a jewel by Bi Shumin titled “Broken Transformers.” I never forgot that story and was thrilled to discover it (along with five other fantastic short stories) in this anthology.
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu, author of God of Poetry: Search Sweet Country by B. Kojo Laing is a great novel that curiously remains unsung. Originally published in 1986, and reissued in 2011 with an exultant foreword by Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, Search Sweet Country is a sweeping take on Ghana in the years of dire straits. As eloquent as anything you will ever read anywhere, the novel is filled with neologisms and peopled with unforgettable characters. B. Kojo Laing is sui generis.
Zukiswa Wanner, author of Men of the South: On a continent where dictators are dying as new ones are born, Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Wild Beast to Vote remains for me one of the best political satires Africa has yet produced. I Do Not Come to You By Chance by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a rib-cracking book highlighting a situation that everyone with an email account has become accustomed to, 419 scam letters. The beauty and the hilarity of this book stems from the fact that it is written — and written well — from the perspective of a scammer.
Michela Wrong, author of It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower: Season of Rains: Africa in the World by Stephen Ellis. It’s rare for a book to make you think about the same old subjects in fresh ways. The tell-tale sign, with me, is the yellow highlighting I feel obliged to inflict upon its pages. My copy of Ellis’ book is a mass of yellow. It’s a short and accessibly-written tome, but packs a weighty punch. Ellis tackles our preconceptions about the continent, chewing up and spitting out matters of state and questions of aid, development, culture, spirituality, Africa’s past history and likely future. The cover photo and title both failed to impress me but who cares, given the content?
Habibi, Craig Thompson’s first graphic novel in eight years, is a sorrowful epic pipe dream of Muslim culture filtered through a Westernized lens. It tells the story of Dodola and Zam, two child slaves living in a vicious universe in which rape and murder are assumed facts of life. The details can be jarring. The soldiers in his fictional Arabian Nights-inspired kingdom of Wanatolia have daggers but no guns, while street vendors sell slaves in chains next to DVD stands. Still, one need change only one or two small facts of our history and his book could serve as a cousin to the non-fiction comics journalism of Joe Sacco.
Thompson spent a day on most pages of his book. Certain pages, the ones that include intricate Middle Eastern designs, took three days. The cartoonish surrealism of Thompson’s first book Good-bye, Chunky Rice and the simplified, stripped-down drawings in his account of first love in Blankets offered some solace against depictions of abuse and sexual frustration. But the exotic, overbearing detail of Habibi can disturb. The beauty of the book both attracts and alienates.
I met Thompson at the home of mutual friends, a Spanish couple, a writer and painter, in Iowa City on the morning of September 25. The hotels in town were overbooked thanks to a Saturday football game, so he had stayed there the night before. He met me at the door, wearing yesterday’s shirt, looking well-rested. We sat in a huge white room. Sunlight came in from long vertical windows hitting several paintings, including a few of recognizable spots in Iowa City. A cat came by occasionally to rub up against our legs. What follows is a pared-down version of our interview.
The Millions: Was there any moment as you were beginning this book when you sought permission to write it? You are a white person from a very Christian family in Wisconsin. Was there any voice in the back of your head saying, “You don’t get to write about black people or Arab people in the Muslim world”?
Craig Thompson: I didn’t worry about that specifically, partly because the two characters — Dodola and Zam, an Arab girl and a black boy — delivered themselves fully realized from my subconscious. So they already were characters that existed outside of me and they dictated a lot of the things they did. I trusted the Turkish writer Elif Shafak — she wrote The Bastard of Istanbul — who describes fiction as a way to live other lives and in other worlds. You don’t need to have those experiences directly. It’s almost a shamanistic journey where by tapping your own imagination you access these other roles. And I trusted that.
With all my work, I struggle with giving myself permission to do it. And that comes from coming from a very religious household and a very anti-art household.
I come from very lower-working-class roots, so it’s not like my parents wanted me to have a more high-powered career, like being a doctor. They actually wanted me to have a more modest career, like being an electrician, something that’s very practical. [They wanted me to do] something that serves society rather than [something that] serves oneself, which is their perception of art. Every day I struggle with allowing myself to be an artist. And I have to try to trust the instinct that hopefully art also helps other people and not just oneself.
TM: Do you graft a Christian ethos onto your art then?
CT: Well, for me the Christian ethos is not to judge other people. No human can judge another. I think I am true to that in my art. When you’re a writer, you’re not judging your characters. You can live a lot of different roles on paper without judgment.
TM: A lot of Orientalist art from the 19th century is aesthetically pleasing, but it’s all in service to an ideology that has caused an incredible amount of destruction in the world. How do you square that problem, especially in the current era when there are an enormous amount of issues with the way people regard Islam, the Muslim world and the Arab world?
CT: Well, that exactly is the intent [of the book], to bring up the correlations between the turn-of-the-19th-century Orientalism with the new brand of Orientalism that exists throughout the world, this new Islamophobia and this labeling of people as the other. I was also thinking not of Orientalism, [but of] the Arabian Nights as a genre, like cowboys-and-Indians. So cowboys-and-Indians is a sensationalized version of the history of the American West and doesn’t really reflect reality. So I wanted to work with the Arabian Nights genre in the same way and steal from all these tropes and not shy away from their inappropriateness.
There’s a very offensive Islamophobia that happens in the media, especially the conservative media. But then there’s also this overly-PC, liberal reaction to tiptoe around a lot of subjects which I think is its own form of insult, because the Muslims I know are very open-minded people and would rather engage in a dialogue.
I don’t know if I’m sidestepping the question, but the book all along was a mash-up of the sacred medium of holy books, like the Koran and the Bible, and the vulgar pulp medium of comic books. For me Orientalism is like a comic book, like superhero comics, with all the sexism built into it. Orientalism is eroticized and sensationalized and you could say the same for superheroes.
TM: You were drawing these very intricate decorations all by hand, and if you look closely you can see that. This part of the decoration [pointing to one part of a random page] is different from that one, even though they follow the same pattern. I imagine the labor that went into that was extremely intensive. By doing these patterns you were aping what an artisan from this other part of the world does. Was that your own personal way of getting into the mindset of the culture?
CT: You’re nailing it exactly. I hate using the terms East and West because they are purely imaginative boundaries. But in the Western world, at least, art is placed on this pedestal. There’s so much ego tied up in the artistic process. In contemporary art, in fine arts, it’s more common for the artist to be more of an overseer, where they come up with the concept, but then they dictate all the actual labor to a bunch of unnamed assistants. And that’s always really offensive to me. We cartoonists in general have a more modest approach to our work where it’s just got to be us alone in our studio for hours and hours. You can’t fake comics really, or actually you probably could, but not in the old-fashioned alternative comics world. Meanwhile, in the rest of the world, there’s all these artisans and craftsmen who work meticulously and have a lot more skill, but do it without the monetary reward and the egotistical reward. So I did want to pay tribute to those people. But even that sounds a little pretentious, because I was still just working with the very malleable form of ink on paper. I’m not carving wood or laying tile-work or doing something much more complex.
In a very small way I wanted to pay tribute to that and just be responsible for every single drop of ink on the paper. Throughout the book, people were pressuring me to get an intern to help me out. They could see that was wearing myself down a bit. But it was just really important in the end to make sure that every single line was my own. It was an act of defiance against the digital age where everyone is rubberstamping everything.
TM: You open each of your books with a major trauma that shadows the rest of the narratives.
CT: Well, it’s not a conscious thing, but it’s interesting what you say about how it shadows everything after. I think that’s similar to our own lives and the traumas we carry. To some degree, you’re always carrying that with you. Certainly you’re always carrying your inner child with you and the damages that happen to that child. And other people aren’t aware of it. Only you are. I like that you say that. That resonates with me.
TM: One of the issues I have with seeing major traumas in the opening pages of your books is that it’s impossible for me to, say, forgive your parents when I read Blankets for what they do early on, or to believe in any real good in the world of Habibi because of what I see in the opening pages.
CT: Well then how do you live in the reality of our world?
TM: I’m not very forgiving.
CT: (laughs) I was waiting at a bus stop once and I was assaulted by six drunken rednecks. Waiting at the bus stop with me was this retarded man and they didn’t hurt either of us badly, but they pushed him to the ground and kicked him a couple of times and spit on him. And of course after they left, this retarded man was bawling. And he came to sit with me on the bus. And he was just torn to pieces. “Why do people do this?” he said. I said, “Something like this could happen to anyone.” He’s like, “I don’t want to live in Portland anymore if something like this could happen.” And I was like, “This could happen anywhere. It’s just random that it happened in that location.” He was like, “Why would I want to live in this world anymore?” He was just saying it in this very pleading way. It was this really interesting dialogue I had with this mentally disabled man. And I was just trying to encourage him. “Yes, this could happen anywhere. Horrible things happen everywhere.” He was telling me what he was doing. He was going to see a friend. I said, “You’re going to see a friend. There’s good people in the world. That’s what you have to focus on.” At the end of our bus ride he was as happy as could be. He was really happy to make a connection on the bus. He was standing at the door of the bus, like “Bye friend!” He was really happy.
I think that’s a theme in my work. The world is a horrible place and humans do horrible things to each other and you have to work for positive energy and to carve out a place of safety and shelter within each other.
I open Blankets with a lot of negativity because I wanted to communicate to the reader why Christianity was so important to me as a child. It really was this shelter. I wasn’t really a happy child. I was an unhappy child and not comfortable in my skin and not comfortable in my environment so, like a lot of people, all my comfort and solace was in religion. Even at that tiny age.
TM: There is something about the world of Habibi that is unrelentingly vicious. In the world of Blankets you offer some moments of escapism, but I never felt there was a way to escape Habibi. I was thinking of Cormac McCarthy as I was reading Habibi. [I open a random page of Blankets]. I just pulled this up, but the mere fact that you can just walk in the snow and enjoy nature and have some kind of breathing space resonates in Blankets. I don’t know if you saw that difference as well.
CT: I love Cormac McCarthy. I think the essential philosophy to his work is the viciousness of human existence and that may be true of Michael Haneke too. I would acknowledge both of them as inspirations. But I’m more of a positive nihilist. I have a nihilistic view of humanity and a belief that humans will wipe each other out of existence. But that makes it even more important to labor in a positive way now. That energy continues on. I think life continues on whether or not the human species will. With Habibi, I was processing some major heartbreaks and I was processing health problems. I was processing a lot of frustrations with the art world or at least the comics industry.
TM: What were the health problems?
CT: Some of that is in Carnet De Voyage [Thompson’s account of his trip to Morocco and his European book tour for Blankets]. A very crippling hand pain, at the time. I had to take months off at a time where I couldn’t draw. So there was that sense of despair around: “Do I have to figure out a different career?” “Will I be able to draw for many more years of my life?” So there was a lot of anxiety caught up in what I was passionate about doing: drawing.
TM: I may be sounding like your parents now. But: You have hand pain. You suffered heartbreak. The industry that you’re in, like everything in publishing, is falling apart.
CT: “Unprofessional” might be a good word.
TM: But how does that lead to writing about child sex slaves?
CT: “Child slaves.” I think for a child those two terms feel synonymous. And there’s more slavery in the world now than ever before in human history. And capitalism and global trade are probably the main fuel for that. Wealth in the Western world only feeds off poverty and exploitation of people in other countries. So there’s processing that American guilt of being a participant in this imperialistic machine.
I’ve always wanted to do a book about sexual trauma. In Blankets, I talk briefly about being molested as a child, but that’s almost insignificant [compared] to some people who were very close to me as a young kid who were raped. Before I knew any positive form of sexuality, I knew rape. Growing up — and I grew up in a small town -– I assumed that every woman was raped. And that was my social circle. And ironically, once I moved away and lived in bigger cities, that proportion got watered down so it wasn’t like everyone I knew was raped. But everyone has either been raped or abused or had some spiritual abuse imposed on them through religious dogma or just had a natural clumsy awakening into sexuality.
TM: I know you were going for something that bordered on magic realism. But looking at the landscape of this book, I don’t think you have to change too much to make it something that could take place in our world as we know it. Here we have a boat in the middle of the desert. How did you walk that line where if you changed one millimeter of a percentage of the laws of physics you could imagine those things existing?
CT: That’s a good question. I think I saw this after I had written this into the book. There’s these photos of the Aral Sea after a big drought and there’s all these fishing boats stranded in desert, basically. That’s a very realistic little detail. The things that I chose to exclude were guns and television sets. I didn’t want people in slums all hanging out around television sets the way they would in reality. So in a way I took away things that to me were boring to draw or more mundane or things I just wasn’t interested in.
TM: Star Wars.
CT: Star Wars? You must have read this in another interview then.
TM: No, because I was thinking of it as I was reading it. The boat looked like the Jabba the Hut skiff that was in the middle of the desert. And then there’s the sand guys with the masks…
CT: Yes, the Tusken Raiders.
TM: Did you do that and think, “Oh man, I just cribbed from George Lucas, who cribbed from other people”? Or did you pay tribute to him consciously?
CT: I can’t recall. I do know that I was thinking of the book in a Star Wars-y way. And I’ve described it this way in interviews that it doesn’t take place in any specific geography or time like Star Wars, which supposedly took place long long ago in a galaxy far far away.
That was always disrupting to me as a child that this futuristic-looking world actually happened “long long ago.” And also that he was filming all these things in North Africa and his other-planet landscape was all drawing from the influence of North Africa. In Carnet I talk about going to Morocco and seeing everybody in Jawa costumes. And I was really using a lot of those hooded djellabas in Habibi so I was thinking this is basically Star Wars. I’m not meticulously researching any place. I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to get caught up in the real details, the historical, heavily researched details, because there was this emotional core, this very heavy relationship that I wanted to focus on. And so the rest of it was collage. It was taking elements from different places and cultures, which is also Star Wars, I suppose.
TM: Given the history of racism in comics, when you sat down and drew these characters, were you thinking: “No that doesn’t look quite right, no I can’t do that”?
CT: I don’t think I worried about it much. I feel like Zam is drawn very realistically for cartoon-y style. Whereas other characters, like Hyacinth in the harem, is a weird caricature of certain guy. And I just embraced that. I don’t think of it in an ethnic way. I just think of it as a cartoonish caricature to make him that strange lunkish build. And there’re a lot of characters where a cartoonishness is built into their design. I feel Dodola and Zam are definitely the most beautiful characters in the book. I want the reader to be attracted to them.
In the rape scene, originally, I had a much more grotesque character. And I didn’t like how it felt sensationalized. So that character ended up looking more and more attractive. At a certain point, he was almost a pretty boy. And that’s when I added the element of these aviator glasses. Because I felt like it put up some distance from him and obviously he is a monstrous character. But if you were to remove those glasses he would almost look like a classic Aryan pretty boy.
TM: There isn’t a panel in your book that doesn’t seek out some form of aesthetic pleasure. Why do you depict something like this [pointing to the rape scene in book] in a way to make it beautiful? People hate Schindler’s List, among other reasons, because the black-and-white is so gorgeous.
CT: I tend towards the sentimental. So there are times where I try deliberately to pull back and have an unbiased camera angle. I don’t know if I’m necessarily trying not to make it beautiful. As I said in depicting the rapist, in earlier drafts he was more monstrous. Even the way things were framed was a little more horrific. Finally, I found that it was more powerful to use that Hitchcock-ian method of just “less is more.” The camera is still in there. But there’s just more formalistic structure to it. Coldness isn’t the word. But I’m trying to create some emotional distance in depicting these things. I want the reader to have their own emotional reaction and not impose an emotional response on them through the drawing style.
TM: You haven’t worked with color in any of your four books. Is there anything about color that turns you off?
CT: No, I wouldn’t say it turns me off. For me, cartooning is a cursive shorthand for a bigger drawing or a painting. And I still adhere to those principles. I want the drawings to have a hand-written quality. For me, color is just an added layer of process that in some ways actually creates some distance from the reader. And I love it when artists work in watercolor, in a really organic medium like that. There’s a little bit of laziness in me where my books would take even longer to get out if I was also coloring them. And I wouldn’t want to hand off the responsibility to someone else because of that obsessive-ness of wanting every line to be my own. Also I recognize some of the actual printing mechanics and expenses of adding color as an element. Chris Ware, of course, is a master of color in comics. He talks about comics as typography. I think of comics as calligraphy. And for me the purest form of that is just the ink on the paper. It’s just the artist’s brush or nib.
I wasn’t predisposed to like Habibi, Craig Thompson’s Michener-thick new graphic novel. Though I’d loved his debut Good-bye, Chunky Rice — a slender ballad of a book about lost friendship — I found Blankets, his widely hailed follow-up, to be maddeningly precious. In using 600 swooning pages to tell an autobiographical tale of teenage identity, Thompson elevated his subject to a wildly exalted level. “I heard Raina’s breathing,” read one typical passage, as his protagonists lay in bed. “And beneath that, her heart beating — and beyond that, the gentle murmur of spirits in the room…And the sounds wove into a rhythm of hushed orchestration — spiraling me into slumber.” Characters couldn’t just fall asleep; first came Marillion lyrics. Blankets, and Thompson, were praised for the same things that would later fuel ridicule of Stephenie Meyer’s writing: an overwrought breathlessness in communicating the banal.
Unlike Meyer, though, the problem wasn’t a lack of talent. Rather, it seemed Thompson had too much talent for the story, like Peter Jackson directing an Edward Burns script. Though it grappled with religion, Blankets was at heart a tale of that dreaded thing, adolescent love — and as such, was a poor match for its visual flights and experimental layouts. Thompson’s abilities needed a wider narrative, a larger canvas to fill.
Eight years after Blankets, then, he brings us Habibi. And though at a glance, it might seem similar to its predecessor — a boy and a girl against a hostile world, Islam standing in for Blankets’ Christianity — Habibi is indeed the canvas Thompson needed. It’s layered, daring, and brilliantly told — an intricate story of love, religion, desire, survival, poverty, hope. It’s drenched in metaphor and rich with double meanings. Yet for all it takes on, Habibi feels light on its feet; throughout, we feel Thompson reveling in his skills as a writer and artist. Its exuberance, even in its darkest moments, feels somehow celebratory. Despite my initial skepticism, I’m not sure that I’ve read a better graphic novel.
The book centers on Dodola and Zam, escaped slaves who live on a boat marooned in a fictional Arabian desert. Dodola — a beautiful, determined girl who at twelve fled servitude with an infant Zam — passes the years by teaching the boy about Islam, sharing its many stories. In Thompson’s telling, faith is a captivating, guiding force, something to learn from and revel in. Throughout, he runs tales from the Qur’an parallel with his present-day story, lending a latticework of gravity to his characters’ actions. Dodola and Zam aren’t simply casting blindly about; they’re retracing the steps of their forerunners. “I found lots and lots of water,” Zam tells Dodola after a gleeful excursion. “Just like baby Ishmael.” Thanks to Dodola’s storytelling, the context is his, and ours.
As with Chunky-Rice, Habibi is propelled by separation. Just as we gain our footing, Dodola is kidnapped and made a courtesan for the sultan of Wanatolia, a decadent megatropolis. Zam, bereft and unable to survive, descends into a slum where he undergoes his own tragic transformation. Each fears the other dead, and it seems that their stories will split. But when, by chance, they find each other — Zam now grown, Dodola dulled by sex and fear — Habibi manages to grow in emotional strength. The story of their second life together, as Dodola tries to understand a Zam quite different from the boy she’d known, is wrenching and profound. It is a love story unlike any in memory, because it is as ambitious and complex as the book itself. “She is my sister, my mother, my teacher,” Zam says in a self-loathing monologue. “Then I turned her into an object of lust… What choice do we have but to construct an ideal, an idol, to impose on the beloved?” This is a big question, but the author proves himself well up to the task of discovering an answer.
Thompson sees Habibi as an antidote to the post-9/11 vilification of Islam, recently telling an interviewer, “I wanted to humanize [Islam] and focus on the beauty, because it is so full of beauty.” He has achieved that goal, and anyone doubting his commitment or motive — he is, after all, a white man from Portland, raised fundamentalist Christian — need only read the book. He has given himself to it completely; one sees a bit of him in young Dodola’s husband, a scribe who “threw himself into his work — often laboring through the night.” Thompson’s own work is manically elaborate and ingeniously laid out; he’s become expert at moving the eye through exploding, dexterous panels. Working in “alternative comics,” a genre often mocked for its coffee-sipping ennui, Thompson has created a massive, lasting epic in Habibi. And if we must wait eight years for his next? I suppose we’ll have to wait.
New this week: Craig Thompson’s long-awated follow up to Blankets is here. Stay tuned for our review of Habibi later this week. Also new: Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower, Joe McGinniss’s much leaked exposé The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin, and a new, posthumous collection of Shel Silverstein’s poetry and drawings, Every Thing On It.