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"Where Should the Story Begin?" The Worlds of Holocaust Graphic Memoirs

Thursday, April 07, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Tahneer Oksman traversed the depictions of space in women’s graphic memoirs included in her book "How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?": Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs. Tahneer is guest blogging all week as a Visiting Scribe here on The ProsenPeople.

Image from We Are On Our Own by Miriam Katin (Drawn & Quarterly, 2006)

Most Holocaust educators are familiar with Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-prize winning Maus. In this two-part graphic memoir, the first volume collected and published in 1986 and the second in 1991, Spiegelman recounts his parents’ personal histories. Beginning in pre-war Poland, the storyline moves through their experiences in the death camps and their liberation. This account, told from his father’s perspective, is juxtaposed with narrative bits portraying Spiegelman’s contemporary (late twentieth-century) relationship with his father as he visits with him in Rego Park in order to hear the story firsthand.

More recently, the cartoonist Miriam Katin published two books related to her experiences as a child survivor. Unlike Spiegelman’s memoir, these books are not presented as two volumes of the same story: in fact, Katin’s works—the first published in 2006 and the second in 2013—are wildly different, one from the other. Katin’s first memoir, We Are On Our Own, tells the story of how Miriam and her mother escaped the Nazi invasion of Budapest of 19443 – 1945. The book is composed almost entirely of penciled black-and-white panels neatly recounting a chronological narrative, though there are occasional and unexpected bursts of color marking, for example, pages portraying Katin’s experiences as a young mother in suburban New York in 1972.

In many ways, as with Spiegelman’s work, Katin’s We Are On Our Own is as much an exploration of the relationship between parents and children as it is a story of survival and escape. The memoir is dedicated to Katin’s mother (“For my mother / who taught me / to laugh / and to forgive”) and many of its central images focus on the depiction of a little girl positioned close to that figure; her mother acts, at different times, as her protector, her teacher, and, eventually, the target of her overwhelming ambivalence about her Jewish identity. Miriam’s experience as a child survivor is cast as formative, an experience that forever ties into the loving but burdened relationship she has with her mother.

Katin’s second memoir, Letting It Go, is something of a sequel to her first successful book, but the connection between the two texts is complicated by the dramatic—even radical—shifts in form as well as perspective. The plot of Katin’s second memoir is difficult to summarize, but the book essentially recounts her difficulty in accepting her adult son’s decision to move to Berlin. It is the story of an aftermath, told in bursts of images and words instead of clear-cut sequences of panels. But if We Are On Our Own is a story that unites two people’s perspectives—mother and daughter—in order to share a traumatic past, Letting It Go is a book that shows how impossible the task. In other words, in Letting It Go, Katin explores how one can never fully bridge together the different perspectives of a parent and child, just as one can never fully bridge past and present perspectives. She makes this ambitious undertaking clear from early on. Almost twenty pages in, for example, the narrator asks the question that all memoirists grapple with at some point: “Where should the story begin?” Until that moment, the text unfolds without a clear central focus, a plot. The reader witnesses fragments from Miriam’s life. There are images of her, in no apparent order, as she goes about her day-to-day life: sitting at the sketching table, checking her email, dealing with an exterminator. These routine acts are finally interrupted by a page that opens with that central question, carefully captured near the margin at the top. Below, a series of images graphically details Miriam’s abdomen as a doctor cuts into it and pulls out a tiny head with a chord wrapped around its neck. “Or is this the middle of the story?” These drawings disorient the reader by showing an event from a different time: the birth scene that took place over thirty years before Miriam sat down to this, her second, memoir.

When the grown up Miriam of Letting It Go asks about the origins of her second story, she is emphasizing how her traumatic childhood affects every moment of her adult life, including her own experiences of motherhood. “My father bleeds history”—this is the title that Art Spiegelman gave to the first volume of Maus. Like Spiegelman, Katin reveals the ways that a distant past can dramatically shape and color the present. Taken as a whole, Katin’s two memoirs also intriguingly emphasize a stubborn resistance to such an integration of the past into the present. Even though her identity as a mother is influenced by the ways her own mother protected and shadowed her —the story she tells in We Are On Our Own—there is still a gap between that childhood self and the narrator composing this second memoir. The radically different aesthetics of Katin’s two memoirs reinforce this gap, the impossibility of spanning the distance between the perspective of the mother and that of the child, or between past and present.

Tahneer Oksman is an Assistant Professor of Writing and Director of the Academic Writing Program at Marymount Manhattan College, and she recently published her first book, “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs.

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Drawing a Room of Her Own

Monday, April 04, 2016 | Permalink

With the recent release of her book "How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?": Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs, author (and frequent Jewish Book Council reviewer) Tahneer Oksman is guest blogging all week as a Visiting Scribe here on The ProsenPeople.

Image from Lena Finkle's Magic Barrel by Anya Ulinich

Sometimes I like to think of comics as a medium that provides women with rooms of their own.

What I mean by this is that in comics women have the opportunity to draw themselves, or others like them, and the surrounding world, in ways that reflect their own points of view. These drawn-and-written worlds provide alternatives to images and perspectives passed on by others, the points of view that shape us from childhood and continue to figure throughout our lifetimes. Individual comics have the capacity to act almost as wormholes: in graphic narratives, you can bridge various moments in time, pulling them side-by-side, or you can create an alternative universe that takes you far, far from the present. You can connect fantasy with reality, or internal and external spaces.

This might be one reason I’m often attracted to comics that zero in on interiors, and especially domestic spaces. Anya Ulinich’s fictional work, Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, is one book that does this to great effect. In many ways, this graphic novel is all about space and place. Its central character is Lena Finkle, a 37-year-old Jewish immigrant who is twice divorced and living with her two teenage daughters in an apartment in Brooklyn when the story begins. Early on she explains how now, since her recent divorce, she has a room of her own for the first time in her life. The images of interiors peppered throughout the book yield just enough detail to suggest the confined, woozy comfort of a lived-in Brooklyn apartment. In one image we see her daughters perched on their bunk-beds, one with a book on her lap and the other with her legs in the air. Lena stands off to the side, hands in her pockets, calmly imploring, “Jack, feet off the ceiling please!” These are characters living in close quarters, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes jarringly. In another scene depicted on the next page, Lena lies in bed with a sleeping daughter by her side. Again, we don’t get a lot of detail—just the chalky outlines of pillows and a blanket, and a haze of bookshelves off to the side—but nevertheless we take in Lena’s conflicting sense of loneliness and comfort, her need for independence and adventure as it subsists alongside her role as an adored mother, so often in demand.

As a published novelist living in Brooklyn, Finkle is about to embark on a trip to Moscow for a book tour when the story opens. She marks her return to the city of her birth as the starting point of a much more encompassing journey to figure out why it is that she has never found love. The story of Finkle’s immigration and ultimate assimilation interweaves with her unsuccessful search for male companionship. Drawn unsteadily, in bursts of conversational, hand-drawn narrative prose as well as cartoonishly expressive depictions, Ulinich’s crowded page mirrors the claustrophobic proximity of Finkle’s immigrant past, always inching in on her assimilated present. Her mother might label her “an American novelist,” her kids might not speak Russian, and her first husband might have compared her to Anne Frank (after she distinguished herself as, not a Russian, but a Jew from Russia), but Finkle nevertheless experiences Moscow—the city and the related memories of her past life there—as continually “wedged… between me and my life.” Once she returns to Brooklyn and embarks on her twenty-first century quest for love utilizing, fittingly, the internet, we are introduced to the apartments of the various men she dates. These spaces frequently yield more information than the characters themselves, just as Lena’s apartment does. She returns to it after every disappointment, an image of a Christmas tree and a Menorah in the background of one scene, for example, revealing so much about this dynamic, complex, and often conflicted character.

The rooms, and spaces, pictured throughout Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel are integral to the story. Lena’s room both conveys and contains her story, helping readers glimpse her unique point of view.

Tahneer Oksman is an Assistant Professor of Writing and Director of the Academic Writing Program at Marymount Manhattan College, and she recently published her first book, “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs.

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