By Parismita Singh
Who is the reader and who the reviewer?
A question taken seriously by the graphic novel Lissa. The reader (or so it seems to the me) is a wary academic or a student having to deal with a new format.
As for the reviewer, the tea pot, is someone who often writes and draws comics, yes, but most importantly, reads graphic novels solely for pleasure. There – I said it! I read comics not so much for erudition or information (as one could or should ) but for the sheer pleasure of it – ah!
And how? When I chance upon a graphic novel, I first flip through the pages for a greedy glimpse of the art work – then I settle down to begin from the beginning. Introductions and forewords and other paraphernalia are quickly skipped to arrive at the main course, the story. If the book is a good one, I will read it again almost immediately. Again and again, a couple of times more through the course of a year or so, to arrive at a reading of the book. With each reading new details will emerge, manifest themselves in the art. New narratives of the movement of cats and lizards, a rich procession of symbols and allegories and signs, codes and cues that we may have already unconsciously processed in the story will emerge. A single reading will rarely yield to you the narrative of the space between the panels, the drama of the interstices, so to say. I rarely do this with prose or novels. Poetry, yes.
And as it is with any genre disrupting production, there were aspects to Lissa that intrigued, puzzled me.
The foreword, for instance. It is sacrilege to point out to the reader the nuances of the art, the subterranean narratives of hidden faces and shadows at the very onset of the book. Oh no, you may as well tell us the brand of cigarettes the murderer smokes in the late afternoons! As puzzling were the copious notes and time lines, the multiple appendix that sandwiched the book. There are always the rumours about graphic novelists turning respectable (and winning the Nobel) but surely, footnotes and annotations and study notes are a bit – how should I put it – excessive? And where would that leave our street cred? (What next: would they rephrase the “warning graphic content” to keep to the graphic novel’s newfound respectability?)
Ah so, I decided to look closely at what was going on. Four names on the cover, yes – collaborations are an integral part of the graphic novel business with writers and artists, letterers and colourists and designers and editors. But wait, there was a story there. I soon began to sense the outlines of a project of an immense collaborative nature, a book that involved many years of research and collaboration, between a host of academics, artists, field informants, editors and so on, spanning institutions of art and anthropology, diverse places and circumstances. What on earth is happening?
I retraced my steps. I was perhaps asking the wrong question.
Yes, there were plenty of questions, concerns and enthusiastic banter on the suitability of adapting and disseminating complex research through this “low brow”, accessible form of the graphic novel. But as a member of the hoi-poloi, and someone who reads more comic books and pulp than academic papers or research, the question I ask should be the reverse.
Not, what can the graphic novel contribute to ethnographic research but rather –
How does this series, and the ideas behind it, fundamentally alter our idea of what a graphic novel can be – its possibilities and potential?
As we know, the graphic novel or bande dessinnée or manga (and its million sub genres and styles) has delved into a range of themes and genres. Some of my personal favourites work within the formats of the biography and memoir, investigative and deeply researched journalistic work. But even within that, the graphic novel as an “academic” project imbued with the rigour of the particular discipline (anthropology or literature or whatever) and its structures, make for a very interesting intervention.
And it is indeed Lissa’s work with “experimental ethnography” that truly marks this graphic novel apart. The team’s attempts in telling this story, especially the section on the Egyptian revolution, without taking recourse to “academic tourism” (as one of the authors, Coleman Nye, put it) – their incorporating and crediting other works of art and basing characters on real people so as to not appropriate the “intellectual production emerging from the revolutionaries”- is very refreshing. This can help graphic novelists who often produce books on Kabul or Burma, in their short visits there, to work out a check list of ethical behavior in the face of various forms of appropriation and privilege.
Lissa gets a lot of things right.
A novel with strong, female protagonists situated in distinct cultures yet conflicted by their choices and circumstances. The perfect narrative fit of the personal and the political, against the backdrop of a health crisis. The team deserves credit for a tightly written, very efficient script.
The pacing of the story is perfect for a comic book, with its leisurely afternoons and lizard watching tea sessions, the slow light and solitude of the interiors of childhood mourning and grief as well as the frenetic pace of the days of the Revolution. What forms the narrative core of the book is the relationship between Anna and Layla and their coming of age. It is a time of social upheavals, the classic bedrock of “the best of times, the worst of times”. The complexity of the various ethical and medical dilemmas gives the work depth and pathos without making the arguments appear didactic. It is indeed the ethnographic research – the minor characters and their voices – that give the book its special strength, informs the rubric of the lives lived and lost, their quandaries and the connections between the politics of healthcare and the regime, the political corruption and the widespread medical problems of the working class. The cancer patients with a wicked sense of humour to the doctors in Cairo calmly spelling out the prospects of transplants or the medical orderly’s comment connecting the environmental and health problems with the regime – these characters add much to the book. And there is a ring of truth that perhaps could have come only from years of field interviews.
The last section of the book uses multiple images of street protest art and graffiti from the streets around Tahrir Sqauare , particularly those of the graffiti artists Ganzeer and Abu Bakr. As the two protagonists embark on their cathartic and symbolic walk through the city of the dead, it is these images of the revolution that carry the narrative forward. The scars/marks/sketches on the human body (the tattoo of the birds on a woman’s chest) and those on the body politic (graffiti, calligraphy and its erasure) come together beautifully. (Albeit a tad too neatly, but I’m not complaining).
There are, however, certain moments of drawing fatigue in the book. Place is essential to storytelling. Sometimes, and as a graphic novelist it is easy to see how and why it could happen, the drawing seems hurried, as if the artist(s) were losing their momentum or patience to dwell on the minutiae to just get on with the story. The details are there – the cats and the lizards, the thematic markers that guide us to through emotional ties, ruptures and healings – but some of the episodes from Anna’s time in her college in Boston, United States, and Anna’s life there feel more rushed (it is unclear if this was a stylistic device or decision). Elsewhere, place shines through, become an important marker of the plot line as in the evocation of Tahrir Square, the hospital in Cairo, and the wonderful conceit of the graffiti and street art of revolutionary Cairo. These are however minor quibbles in a book where the emotional core of the storytelling takes us through.
The ethnoGRAPHIC series is a bold, intriguing project and readers will look forward to further work in in it. There have been promising exchanges in the past. With other quests, like Michael Taussig’s meditations on drawing in the field, his investing in the images a power so great (and perverse) they offer us a way into the everydayness of the monstrous. I have always suspected that when he is thinking through the idea of the “fieldwork notebooks as a type of modernist literature”, it is indeed the graphic novel form he has in mind, more than any other. (Ah, now that is a graphic novel in the making!)
Lissa has told us a formidable story, and we look forward to bolder experiments in form and content from the ethnoGRAPHIC series.
Parismita Singh is s a writer, graphic novelist and educationist. Her publications include the graphic novels The Hotel at the End of the World, Mara and the Clay Cows, Crab Chronicles and a collection of short stories Peace has Come.
[Read the authors’ response here.]