You Are Not a Guest

  • Review
By – December 25, 2023

In this sear­ing graph­ic mem­oir, Leela Cor­man push­es bound­aries, incor­po­rat­ing jar­ring analo­gies, iron­ic humor, and deep intro­spec­tion. In the book’s open­ing, she describes the Pol­ish for­est where her grand­fa­ther hid from the Nazis. She then abrupt­ly com­pares this set­ting to the Catskill Moun­tains — a bucol­ic home for many Amer­i­can Jews — prepar­ing read­ers for a chal­leng­ing book.

Vis­it­ing Poland for the ded­i­ca­tion of a memo­r­i­al at a mass grave of Jews in Gry­bów, Cor­man rais­es ques­tions about guilt, remorse, and respon­si­bil­i­ty. She iden­ti­fies deeply with her family’s roots in Poland, stat­ing that My body is a mass grave con­tain­ing all the dead I nev­er knew.” Yet she also famil­iar­izes her­self with her non-Jew­ish hosts’ cul­ture, through their food, mourn­ing rit­u­als, and more.

Corman’s per­son­al life has been marked by con­fu­sion and loss, and a cod­ed sense of fear per­me­ates her thoughts. With­out equat­ing her own his­to­ry with that of Poland’s Jews, she acknowl­edges that inter­gen­er­a­tional trau­ma nev­er dis­ap­pears entire­ly. Draw­ing on schol­ar­ship about cul­tur­al dif­fu­sion, she reflects on soci­etal changes that can’t be eas­i­ly rec­on­ciled with past events. In Berlin, Viet­namese restau­rants and women wear­ing hijabs are seem­ing­ly accept­ed parts of the city’s life. But despite this con­tem­po­rary mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, there are con­stant reminders of the Holo­caust that stir up an epi­ge­net­ic storm” inside her.

Mak­ing broad philo­soph­i­cal state­ments — like life is an ambush” and birth is not a bina­ry” — could be a risk for authors. How­ev­er, Corman’s hon­esty and vivid illus­tra­tions ground the text in reality.

The death of Corman’s young daugh­ter hov­ers over the nar­ra­tive — just as, in one illus­tra­tion, she is raised up by dis­em­bod­ied hands dur­ing her sec­ond labor. Ulti­mate­ly, she suc­ceeds in con­nect­ing her anguish and attempt­ed recov­ery to the specter of death in Jew­ish his­to­ry. Every page of Cor­man’s mem­oir demands courage and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, both of her­self and her read­ers. You Are Not a Guest is a dis­tin­guished addi­tion to the canon of graph­ic literature.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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