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.
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.
Tahneer Oksman is a writer, teacher, and scholar. She is the author of “How Come Boys Get to Keep Their Noses?”: Women and Jewish American Identity in Contemporary Graphic Memoirs (Columbia University Press, 2016), and the co-editor of The Comics of Julie Doucet and Gabrielle Bell: A Place Inside Yourself (University Press of Mississippi, 2019), which won the 2020 Comics Studies Society (CSS) Prize for Best Edited Collection. She is also co-editor of a multi-disciplinary Special Issue of Shofar: an Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, titled “What’s Jewish About Death?” (March 2021). For more of her writing, you can visit tahneeroksman.com.