April 19, 2017 § 4 Comments
By Emily Heiden
Kristen Radtke’s graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This is a book about abandonment. Through Radtke’s beautiful and bruising images, we consider the ways we leave places and people, and the ways they leave us. We feel these departures deeply because of Radtke’s painstaking drawings, which allow us to experience the story for ourselves with an immediacy that narrative alone often struggles to achieve.
As someone who had no inherent interest in abandoned landscapes, I was surprised to find myself so drawn in by Radtke’s renderings of them on the page. When the book begins, she and her college boyfriend, Andrew, go on a trip to the defunct town of Gary, Indiana, to explore, and we discover with them its disrepair. I was especially struck by a depiction of an abandoned movie theater. There was something savage about it, something wild. How could society allow such decay to exist? In my too-suburban mind, cities are tidy. What doesn’t work out is bulldozed to the ground and resurrected as high-rise condos. These black and white images, therefore, provide one of the first encounters I’d ever had with a full-on departure—the decision of a community to simply pack up and go.
As the narration moves on, we also experience abandonment through Radtke’s relationships. The death of her Uncle Danno is her first true loss, and one she explores powerfully through words and visual images. Months after Danno dies of complications due to heart surgery, Radtke discovers a cassette tape of an interview she conducted with him when she was in elementary school. She heads to the garage, climbs into a truck, and presses play. Her uncle’s voice begins blaring from the player, his words stabbing at the reader and Radtke’s heart when he joyfully proclaims: “I mean…look at me—I beat heart disease!”
Many of Radtke’s images and stories express the desire for and illusion of permanence. The interview with her uncle preserved a piece of him; his voice is still present on the tape; she can access it whenever she presses play. But this experience makes her and the reader feel her uncle’s absence even more poignantly, knowing that’s he’s gone. When Danno proclaims his triumph over the disease we know eventually killed him, we confront the fleeting nature of life.
The book’s most engaging moments deal with her only concerted attempt to commit to a person or place: her relationship with Andrew and their house in Chicago. Together they undertake what she calls “a first pass at adulthood”—getting a kitten; paying utility bills—in essence, playing house. This partnership is an important sojourn in the trajectory of her life, but not the destination. Radtke becomes restless and leaves the country. Andrew clings to their love, eventually proposing to her in Europe. The proposal is the stuff of fairytale; the ring is beautiful; the backdrop an idyllic European town along a river. Radtke accepts, and immediately finds herself staring at the ring warily. After the engagement, she tells us “Every city we visited…began to feel like the stock backdrop for some stagnant future, our imaginary kids stomping up the stairs next to photos of us twenty years younger, holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.”
Radtke’s account of her relationship with and engagement to Andrew ring especially true for me: my own college relationship culminated in a move to Iowa with a boyfriend I too tried to play house with. When he proposed, I cried, nodded yes, let him put the ring on my finger, then walked in a daze to the bathroom, where I stared at the stone, feeling the same mounting pressure Radtke felt. I too pictured our future children, and myself as a soccer mom. I knew the engagement would keep me stuck in one place, when I wanted to experience all of them. Like Radtke, I knew I had to move on.
Both Radtke and I indicted ourselves for leaving those loves. She makes statements throughout the book like “To abandon something beautiful is where the crime rests,” and laments her lack of “…ability to claim something with ferocity.” This capacity to grab hold of a love, a land, a home, is something she praises in others and questions in herself, asking: “Am I supposed to want children who will mourn me or husbands I will watch lowered into the ground or houses I will endure in their emptiness?”
She sees the end in the beginning, her brain always fast-forwarding to ruin, abandonment, and decay. Radtke concludes the book by envisioning the prophesied flooding of New York City, telling us “we forget that everything will become no longer ours”–a pronouncement that asks us to question the stability of our everyday surroundings. The book, finally, is Radtke’s desire to hold on to what she cannot bring herself to believe will remain.
Emily Heiden is pursuing a Ph.D. in literary nonfiction at the University of Cincinnati. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from George Mason University. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Long River Review, and Juked Magazine.
September 24, 2014 § 1 Comment
Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories by MariNaomi, out this month from Uncivilized Books, is a graphic memoir comprised of brief essays drawn and told in a sparse style, but taken as a whole, they create a complex and lovely picture of a life. Many of the vignettes were first published on the online magazine The Rumpus as the series, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
MariNaomi agreed to answer a few questions for Brevity about the work, and I was particularly interested in the ways in which graphic memoir coincides with other forms of brief creative nonfiction and how the author deals with the nonfictional in her artwork.
SE: In a statement in the front of Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories, you say “These stories are memoir, which means that each one is only as true as the author’s memory is reliable.” I’m thinking that veracity must be particularly tricky in graphic memoir. Can you talk about the choices you make both in writing and in design, and whether you feel the need to be more “truthful” in one or the other?
MariNaomi: In 2005, I drew a comic about a dog mauling that occurred in San Francisco that resulted in a woman’s death. I did a ton of research to make sure everything was accurate, reading countless articles and one terribly written book, poring over police crime photos, figuring out the layout of the crime scene. I even drove by the building where the mauling took place. The ten-page comic took almost a year for me to draw, a year of staring at horrific images. It wasn’t a fun year, but I was proud of how accurate the comic was, in the end. But I’ll probably never illustrate someone else’s experience again, as it was terribly exhausting.
For my own stories, I follow my memory paths, and sometimes fill in the blanks by consulting photos, diaries and friends or family who were there. This means that I don’t get nearly as many facts right.
I know that other memoirists are all over the place on this subject. Alison Bechdel, for example, holds the specifics in high regard, whereas Liz Prince has compared memoir to historical fiction. Personally, I want to be completely emotionally honest in my comics, and also convey a time and a place, but the physical details beyond that are unimportant to me. I mean, who cares if I get a date wrong, or if I can’t remember where each Duran Duran poster was placed on my bedroom walls? I’m not on trial, and I’m not a historical figure, so the minutiae seems irrelevant. I do draw the line on fudging experiences, though. I’ll never write that I had an experience that never happened to me.
That said, every time I purposefully alter the truth (like combining characters or incidents in order to tell a more succinct story), I toil over it a lot. And every time I write and draw a story and am later told “That’s not what really happened” by someone else who was there, I feel a little bit ashamed. But you know, everyone sees an event from their own unique perspective, so that’s bound to happen.
SE: So much of this book is about loss–loss of home, loss of love, loss of safety. There are a number of elegiac pieces in the book, such as “What’s New, Pussycat?” “Mr. Vanoni,” and “Coalinga.” I was struck by the grace with which you bring tiny moments to life and how effectively these tiny moments stand in for the longer, fuller life lived and seemed in some ways to be teaching me, as the reader, how to understand the larger work. How I should see the tiny vignettes from your own life as serving as glimpses meant to stand for the whole. I was wondering if you could talk a little about the craft of building a memoir out of these tiny moments in a way that creates such a beautiful sense of something larger than what is on the page? You have managed that so very well here.
MariNaomi: Thank you! That’s really nice to hear.
A fellow cartoonist once told me that the whole point of drawing was to create an image using the fewest brush strokes or lines possible. I didn’t necessarily agree with his idea in terms of artwork–sometimes lots of lines/detail is the way to go, sometimes a minimalist technique gets the point across better–but I do agree with that idea when it comes to storytelling. And graphic storytelling is a fantastic medium in which to pare down a story. Not all pictures are worth a thousand words, but it’s worth it to me to try to show a reader complex emotions and situations using the smallest of details–a slight smile here, a defeated posture there. Reading a graphic book can often go much faster than a book filled with just words, however I believe that an attentive reader will absorb just as much information in the same amount of pages, if it’s done right. Which is good, because drawing a book takes so much longer than writing one!
SE: I first discovered your work in XOJane, where you published “It Happened To Me: I Was Sexually Harassed On Stage At A Comic Convention Panel.” Could you talk a little bit about your experience writing for an audience that at least sometimes seems hostile to, or at least dismissive of, people of color, women, and LGBTQ folk? I know you promote the work of LGBTQ and POC cartoonists, and I’d like to know more about that work.
MariNaomi: That panel was a bit of an anomaly for me, as it’s rare for me to interact with the mainstream comics world (my harasser is a writer for DC Comics). I’ve heard that sexism and homophobia is rampant in the indie scene, as well, but honestly, I’ve seen very little of that first-hand. Maybe that’s why I was so shocked by that incident, enough to write an essay about it. (The other harassment I mention in the article also happened with someone I consider a mainstream artist.)
Since that article came out, I’ve met a lot of mainstream comics creators, and overall they’ve been really supportive. But I’ve also gotten a glimpse into a whole lot of sexism and misogyny that I probably wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t stepped forward like that, and I’ve found it very unsettling. It’s kind of similar to what some people have been going through since Ferguson got on the news. Many folks weren’t aware there was still such a problem with racism in this country. If it’s not in your face on a regular basis, it’s easy to forget that it exists.
But I digress.
I’m not writing for a hostile audience of racists and trolls (I couldn’t care less what a misogynist thinks of my work), I’m doing it for people who are open to the experience of others, who want to be better people but maybe don’t always know how to go about it (like me). People who get that compassion is something you have to work at your whole life, and are willing to try (and forgive themselves when they slip into judgment). If you read the “news” or read the comments section in a feminist article, it’s easy to think that compassion is a dying thing. But I don’t think so. I’m keeping the hope alive.
And of course, compassion is the only thing that can kill off ignorant hate. And visibility helps foster compassion, right? That’s what’s at the root of my projects, the Cartoonists of Color database and the LGBTQ Cartoonists database. At first glance they’re just lists of names and links and maybe a little information. But if you delve into it, you can get lost in the work of all those amazing, diverse creators. I get lost in it everyday.
SE: Graphic memoir and biography seems to do a particularly good job of telling complex, difficult stories. I’m thinking of Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman, and of course you. I wonder if you could talk about why the genre is so well-suited to untangling complexity without mitigating or obscuring it. (If that’s too grad school sounding, please reword. I spent an hour trying to make this question less awful. Ten of those minutes were spent trying to decide whether or not to take Spiegelman off the list.)
MariNaomi: I’m not sure that comics are a better way to tell complex, personal stories, it’s just another medium in which to do so. If you delve into the genre of graphic memoir, you’ll find plenty of badly told personal stories, I assure you. And there are many amazingly complex stories that are told in the form of essays, paintings, photographs, music, collage, sonnets, etc.
I’ve been writing about my life in comics form since the 1990s, but autobiographical comics seem to be getting more attention now than ever. I expect the fad will pass eventually, just like any other. But in the meantime, as long it’s popular, we (as memoir-loving readers) are lucky that more creators will be making and publishing quality work.
Sarah Einstein is the Fiction Editor for Stirrings and a PhD student at Ohio University. Her work has appeared in journals including PANK, Ninth Letter, and The Sun and been awarded a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net. Her first book, Mot: A Memoir, is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press and the recipient of this year’s AWP Prize.
June 3, 2009 § 2 Comments
Brevity 30 contributor Maggie McKnight writes about her essay “Tonight” and her decision to extract the text from a graphic memoir (still in progress) to compose her brief essay:
I first wrote “Tonight” several years ago as a response to an assignment in grad school—the assignment, in Robin Hemley’s “Nonfiction and the Image” class, was to take self-portrait photographs and write an essay inspired by them. My partner and I photographed the part of myself that most occupied our thoughts—and our hearts—at the time. Later, in working on a graphic memoir based on the same events, I converted the essay to graphic format (using less than half of the original text), to use as a prologue for my book.
The existing draft of the graphic essay is here; it needs revision still. (Among other things, some of the images aren’t working yet—the one at the top right of page 4, for instance, is indecipherable to most people. And I feel uncomfortable with the lead-in to my mom’s dialog, class-based assumptions that I know don’t accurately represent either my opinion or hers.)
Meanwhile, I decided to extract the text from the graphic essay to turn back into a short prose essay, with further revisions to the text. So the piece went from a 1600-word prose essay to a five-page graphic essay, and back to a 540-word prose essay. Now I have to do the graphic version again.
NOTE: You can see the draft version of Maggie McKnight’s graphic memoir here: Mcknight Tonight PDF. Your discussion of how the graphic version differs from the prose version invited.
April 20, 2009 § Leave a comment
The Memoir (and) Prize for Memoir in Prose and Poetry
The Memoir (and) Prize for Graphic Memoir
Four prizes awared up to $500.
Memoir (and) reading period for Spring+Summer 2010 (Issue 6): 5/1/09 – 8/15/09.
Accepting traditional and experimental prose, poetry, graphic memoir, narrative photography, lies, and more. All submissions eligible for contest entry. Submit online or mail to: Memoir (and), P.O. Box 1398, Sausalito, CA 94966.
Guidelines at www.memoirjournal.com.