Literature of Exile: Graphic Novels

One of the coolest trends in literature is the proliferation of graphic novels as a format for addressing serious issues. Alison Bechdel, Daniel Clowes, and Chris Ware are just a few author/artists who have demonstrated that graphic novels can be high art and great literature.

The most dramatic and influential graphic novel of the late 20th century was Art Spieglelman’s Maus. Serialized from 1980-1991, it conveyed the horror of the Nazi Holocaust by depicting German as cats and Jews, their prey, as mice. The stark imagery, primarily black and white with shocking elements of red, vividly brought a real life monster tale to life, while the simple, spare language artfully expressed the terror, rage, and hopelessness of the victims. Spiegelman, who inserts himself into the book as he interviews Vlad, his survivor father, at first seems to come to a greater understanding of what the elder Spiegelman has experienced, but when in the final panels he discovers that his father has burned all of his mother’s diaries, Art lashes out at Vlad in fury, calling him “a murderer” for destroying his mother’s legacy. Even after hearing Vlad’s story, Art does not fully understand the trauma of persecution and exile which weighed on his parents all their lives

Maus radically redefined the limits of what graphic novels could cover, and demonstrated that they were a worthy art form. The potent blend of sharp line drawings and simple first person narration proved extremely effective at conveying unbearable pain and loss.

In 1995, a young Iranian art student living in France was given a copy of Maus for her birthday, and it changed the trajectory of her career. Although she had never attempted a graphic novel before, she decided to use the format to tell her own story of persecution and exile. The student was Marjane Satrapi, and the result was her acclaimed Persepolis series. Like Maus, it uses powerful yet simple line drawings to tell a story of family, fear and cultural alienation.

The first book in the series describes Satrapi’s experiences as a free thinking schoolgirl in post revolutionary Iran, yet the second volume, which takes her to Paris, is truly the exile’s tale. Ill at ease with Western culture, she attempts to deny her Iranian heritage (Iran was considered “the epitome of evil”) but eventually remembers her grandmother’s wisdom, “Always keep your dignity and be true to yourself”.

The books closely mirrors Satrapi’s personal journey : her frustration with the restrictions in Iran, her anxiety about being Iranian in the west, and her discomfort with being stuck in between cultures. As she said in an interview for Asian Society:

So for me, this not being able to go to my country makes me love it much more. Because for me, as all exiled people, how can you project yourself in the future when your past is not close to you? My past is not close to me. My past is stolen from me. My past is somewhere else. And I don’t have any hand on it. I have all my friends that are French, I can speak about lots of stuff with them, but then it is completely another half of my life that I cannot share with them. And the past is not near me, so I don’t have any references to lean on to be able to project myself into the future. So the only thing I can do, like many other exiled people, is to go back to the past. Because if you have no past, then you have no future.

As a 19 year old college freshman, Leila Abdelrazaq decided to create a web comic based on her Palestinian father’s experiences in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Four years later, it had evolved into the graphic novel Baddawi .

Abdelrazaq’s goal was to show Westerners unfamiliar with the Palestinian experience what it means to be “born into a life of exile and persecution, indefinitely suspended in statelessness”. She weaves Palestinian imagery and folk art throughout the book; the cover for example includes two instantly recognizable elements of Palestinian iconography. The border resembles a traditional “tatreez” embroidery pattern, while the central image is a small boy with hands clasped behind his back in reference to “Handala” the national symbol of the Palestinian people.

Like Maus, Baddawi is a story told by a parent to a child, yet Abelrazaq seems to have a more intuitive sense of her father’s anxiety:

[My father] was extremely nervous, partially because you spend your whole life with the stigma of being a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon and having to hide who you are and hide that part of your identity. So I understood where he was coming from.

Abelrazaq’s second book, The Opening begins with a more personal loss as she mourns the death of a baby sister. Yet the stillborn baby Hana becomes entwined with her “stillborn” memories of Palestine; two beautiful phantoms she feels connected to but can never know.

Poppies of Iraq is another tale of traumatic childhood memories, this time in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Brigitte Findakly recounts the story of her family’s eventual exile, in a graphic novel co-written and drawn by her husband, French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim (translated by Helge Dascher). Unlike the other books covered here, Poppies is rendered in a colorful, almost childlike palette, as though hearkening back to an earlier time of innocence. Yet there is little innocence to be had as Findakly’s Christian family encounters increasing violence and repression. Rather like Gael Faye’s father in Small Country, her parents cherish the illusion that life in Iraq will return to “normal”, resisting the inevitable parting until it is almost too late

The family eventually moves to Paris, but Findakly and her mother can’t quite fit in; French people have no patience with the elaborate rules of Iranian hospitality and young Brigitte fails her first essay assignment, “Not because it had to be written in French . . . but because I had to express a personal opinion on a subject, something we were never asked to do in Iraq.” One culture has been lost, the other will never be her own.

For more about the authors:

Art Spiegelman and Maus

Marjane Satrapi and Persepolis

Leila Abdelrazaq and Baddawi

Brigitte Findakly and Poppies of Iraq

Lesley Williams is a 25+ year librarian and a reviewer for Booklist magazine where she specializes in African American, Muslim, and LGBTQ authored literature. As a public librarian she created public programs emphasizing the literature of colonized peoples, leading year long discussion programs on Latin American history, Muslim cultures, and the plays of August Wilson. She currently tutors English reading and writing to first generation students at City Colleges of Chicago.

3 thoughts on “Literature of Exile: Graphic Novels

  1. I also love that graphic novels have become a way to tell “serious” stories. In the UK, it was Raymond Briggs’ 1980s nuclear war story, When the Wind Blows, which first began to change perceptions of the genre. Maus and Persepolis I’m aware of, but these others are new to me, so thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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