Analyzing My Personal Relationship To Graphic Narrative

As Amanda began her post last week discussing her aversion for stand-up comedy, I thought I might presage my post with the fact that, historically speaking, I am not a reader of comics or graphic novels. So I tried to think about the reasons of this avoidance while reading Ellen Forney’s Marbles and Scott McCloud’s Show and Tell. The first reason might be a simple aesthetic preference. While I am compelled by McCloud’s description of the “the mixing of words and pictures is more alchemy than science,”(McCloud 161) and his examples of how either words or pictures can be liberated to “move toward greater levels of abstraction or expression,”(McCloud 160) I’m not sure I want an either/or so much as both at the same time; my artistic tastes happen to lean very strongly in the direction of abstract expressionism (Jackson Pollock, etc.) So maybe the more representational, narrative mode that graphic novels tend to offer just isn’t what I want out of a static visual medium.

The second reason might be a more political reaction based on my own cultural associations with the content of comic books. McCloud describes his initial impression of comics, “those bright, colorful magazines filled with bad art, stupid stories and guys in tights.” From early childhood I also associated comics with the superhero genre. My objection to the superhero genre is not homophobic (“guys in tights”); rather, I see it as a reification of neoliberal values. I wouldn’t have framed it that way in early childhood – but I think I cringed at some mass-market/macho aspect of the genre (possibly explaining why Wonder Woman was the only superhero I remember liking).

But obviously, it would be reductive and disingenuous to paint an entire genre (let alone an entire art form) with that broad brush. So maybe the real reason I don’t read graphic narrative is simply that I’m a literary snob who prefers my literature to come in an accepted and recognizable literary package. However, I have been trying to deprogram these tendencies in myself – first by reading more speculative fiction (and, more recently, by translating speculative Swahili fiction). And I’ve also made a point of reading some stunning graphic novels with my daughter (i.e. Raina Telgemeier’s Ghosts) and partner (Malaka Gharib’s I Was Their American Dream).

So there’s all the baggage I bring to Ellen Forney’s Marbles – which I very much enjoyed. In fact, I often found myself wishing I hadn’t spent so many years snubbing graphic novels, because then I might have read it when it first came out, when I happened to be cohabiting with someone hurtling towards the first of several psychiatric hospitalizations. And I appreciate that Forney’s book is not just personal, but also prescriptive – whether it’s reproducing DSM-IV criteria(Forney 15-18, 86), recording her foray into cognitive behavioral therapy(Forney 87-88), or that cathartic scene imagining what she would tell her past self after the diagnosis(Forney 234-235); in these sections, the book feels very geared towards an audience who could directly benefit from such practices – bipolar individuals or those closest to them.

Aesthetically speaking, however, it was other moments that I found most compelling. Forney hooked me from the beginning with that graphic depiction of her mind in a manic state as a chaotic, free-associating maze of arrows and thought-bubbles(Forney 6-7). That page read like a concrete poem – since the words themselves became the graphic. I felt thrust inside her brain, and thrust back into past moments when I was trying to calm down (or keep up with) friends experiencing manic episodes. I noticed that the book’s pacing and presentation would sometimes mimic her mental state – becoming more frenetic in manic stages, slower and more reflective in depressive stages – but more often we experience her analyzing these states retrospectively. I wondered what this book might be like if it took the strategy of those thought bubbles to an extreme – unfolding more mimetically of her mental state and fully in the moment. This might make for a less prescriptive statement about mental illness – but maybe a more jarring artistic experiment.

Visually, my favorite moments in the book were her sketches, namely the slipping-down image(Forney 70), the nest(Forney 94), hand(Forney 102), or “Phoenix-like Ellen 1999 rises from the ashes of Ellen 1998.”(Forney 109) I wondered what it would be like if this book only consisted of more abstract art, rather than the more traditional, representative comic figures. It would be a very different book; the time and attention that abstract sketches demand of the reader do not lend themselves to narrative. And pairing them with Forney’s chatty, personal voice would likely be incongruous; it would call for a more lyrical accompaniment – perhaps in the “parallel combination” McAdams describes, where “words and pictures seem to follow very different courses – without intersecting.”(154)

Probably the single most moving page in the book for me was the panel “Wednesday Morning Yoga”(Forney 125) that featured graphic depictions of the distracting and menacing thoughts haunting her as she tries to do yoga. This panel features no words other than the title – evidence for McCloud’s idea that “if the words lock in the meaning of the sequence, then the pictures can really take off”(McCloud 159). It’s also notable that (as far as I can tell) this was reproduced from a single panel that likely appeared as a weekly comic strip; it was not created in the narrative context of this graphic novel. But would I have found it as moving if I encountered it in a newspaper, isolated from everything I learned about Ellen Forney’s personal experience? I’m not so sure.

The moments I found most striking in the book are evidence, I think, that my aesthetic preferences still go against the grain of graphic narratives. But I am also willing to acknowledge that in this case, the graphic form provided a context where these moments could stand out and be amplified.

I Remember How Much She Remembers

My daughter used to tell perfect strangers she remembered being inside her mother’s belly.

Yesterday, I asked her what she remembered from when she was really little: That time you let me eat snow!

I remember, in the Coney Island surf, a woman grabbing her by the wrist and pointing at me, Do you know that man? like I was plotting an abduction.

I remember, on the Upper West Side, her mother being asked if she was the nanny, as if a young black woman has no right entering a playground without a work permit.

I remember Is she adopted? and Where did you adopt her from? and even her motherfucking pediatrician, Do you have the adoption papers?

I remember when she learned to walk. Even though I was not around much when she was a baby, living two flights and one ocean away, she took off one morning and didn’t stop, and I was there, watching, just like I was there when she was born and her tiny wrinkled paw clasped my pointer finger and squeezed it.

I remember how my heart detonated with joy that I was there to witness her living breathing beauty with my own hands and eyes, and while that joy dissipated through my body, I felt it ossifying into a chunk of regret as my limbs and toes and the skin on my face remembered how soon I would be leaving her.

She doesn’t remember her family in Zambia, her cousins, her auntie, her Kuku, though they all lived in the same house for the first year and a half of her life.

But I remember her suffering a rare pang of shyness at a kiddie birthday party, and telling me how much she misses them, how she wants to go back because she doesn’t belong here.

Even though I’ve never met anyone who belongs so exceptionally everywhere she goes, amassing friends like an avalanche, such that this birthday girl’s mother took to posting on all the neighborhood parent groups Does anyone know Sepo’s family? because her daughter couldn’t stop talking about how much she wanted Sepo at her party.

And now Sepo is at the party and all she can remember is a phantom of her own displacement.

I remember seeking the desolate corners of playgrounds and singing songs to myself when I was her age, and I still seek those same corners when I take her to the playground and bury my nose in a book, hence that mother’s need to marshal a social media search party just to get my contact information.

I remember asking Sepo how she feels when she makes up songs: Like my soul has a new bed.

I remember she has had more new beds than most children, more new beds than many adults.

I remember, in her rhyming phase, “Thank you, wank you, shank you!”

I remember, the little ham, “Has anyone ever been a STAGE for Halloween?” and slicing those velvety red curtains.

I remember the next year, Whitney Houston AND Prince, and this year, Little Richard.

She must not remember the way she used to perform for her mother, beaming silly spontaneity, anything to force a smile or at least a response from the woman crumbling before her eyes, who couldn’t get herself out of bed, take her to daycare, or even speak words by the time I delivered her to the hospital.

But that must be where Sepo’s spark comes from, this irrepressible need to connect with everyone she meets; for some time there, sparking her mother awake was a matter of survival, and survival is something we remember even when we don’t remember it.

But she remembers sleeping on her daddy’s couch for the rest of her third year on the earth, and then her own bed, and then a move and her own bedroom.

I remember when I told her Mama was sick, how her mouth popped open and wailed My Mama is sick!

It was a repetition, a statement, but it was so much more, a sheer epiphany that this was her life now, and it still haunts me, how a two-year-old could know and see and feel so much in one moment, so chaotic, and yet so lucid.

She might not remember the last time she slept at her mother’s house because she didn’t actually sleep there, because her mother called me after midnight saying Come get her, she’s being a brat, because Sepo was crying for daddy, because her mother had kept her awake till midnight to blow out birthday candles only to realize she didn’t have candles or cake so she dragged her out squalling to the bodega, and I still see her waving a bundle of incense sticks to purge the room of her child’s ingratitude and shouting I don’t get it, I just don’t get it.

Later, Sepo remembered being scared at Mama’s house because there was a big bug in the bathroom, and maybe the bug was her mother, or maybe her memory is just a baffling Kafakesque parable, or maybe that’s what childhood is, and all of life after it.

She will remember something between nothing and everything.

I just pray she remembers how happy she was, how joyfully and bountifully human, squeezing life out of every moment like the world owes it to her.

The world does, my love. Just take it. It’s yours.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Reply

Messy Beds and Messy Facts in the Chelsea Hotel

Leonard Cohen’s song “Chelsea Hotel #2” is a poignant depiction of a sexual encounter in one of New York’s iconic Bohemian landmarks. The most vivid line of its opening stanza is “giving me head on the unmade bed”, which discloses intimate details about the encounter in terms that were bracingly graphic for a folk song of the 1970s. But the song does not disclose sufficient personal details to identify his romantic partner – only enough to speculate that she might be a famous musician. With this veil of anonymity, the song avoids invading anyone’s privacy. Nevertheless, twenty years after recording it, Leonard Cohen called it “The sole indiscretion, in my professional life, that I deeply regret…Because I associated a woman’s name with a song…and I’ve always disliked the locker-room approach to these matters.”

The name in question is Janis Joplin, who died of a heroin overdose four years before the song was recorded. Leonard Cohen first dropped her name during a live performance of the song in 1976, relating an anecdote of their brief courtship in the Chelsea Hotel elevator. I provided a live video instead of the studio recording as an example, because in this case, the breach of privacy happened extratextually.

Ann Powers is far from the only writer to refer to this incident as “kissing and telling”, and the gossipy connotations of that phrase implicitly impugn Cohen’s motive for divulging Joplin’s identity. He himself expressed shame at the “locker-room” aspect, and if his only motive was pure macho braggadocio about bedding a dead celebrity, that would indeed be shameful. More calculating, but just as reprehensibly ego-driven, is the possibility that he hoped this salacious detail would boost his public image as an unlikely romantic hero; after all, his career was struggling while Janis Joplin was a cultural icon. But what if the motive was artistic rather than parasitic? This song is an elegy; we cannot know its literary genre without knowing that its subject is deceased. Cohen briefly kept her anonymous – and himself safe from criticism – in the liner notes to his 1975 album Best of Leonard Cohen, “I wrote this song for an American singer who died a while ago”. But doesn’t the song become a little more poignant when we can hear that rallying cry, “we are ugly, but we have the music”, in Janis Joplin’s inimitable, brash, wounded rasp? I, for one, am grateful for the specificity of that echo.

Is it pretentious, or even dangerous, to let someone off the hook just because their indiscretion achieves some sublime artistic purpose? William Faulkner told The Paris Review in 1956, “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one…If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.” I don’t usually take ethical advice from apologists for segregation, let alone advocates of gerontocide, but I’ve always seen “if he is a good one” as the key phrase here. It’s hardly fair to hold better writers to a lower ethical standard, and I would not personally argue that any song is worth literal human lives, no matter how transcendent. However, I do believe “Chelsea Hotel #2” is worth a little discomfort. I don’t know how to convert this belief into any reasonable ethical guidepost; how can an artist impartially judge whether their own work provides sufficient social benefit to violate someone’s privacy? They can’t; they can seek advice and search their soul and scour their heart of malice, but in the end, it’s a risk – and isn’t risk how art is made, anyway?

Ann Powers addresses the act of writing songs about the dead, “The ultimate absence makes it easier, perhaps…there’s no chance in those cases of being told directly that you got things wrong.” But what if your dead subject winds up getting the last word? In 1969, Janis Joplin discussed Leonard Cohen in an interview that went unpublished until the 1999 release of Doon Arbus and Richard Avedon’s coffee table book The Sixties. Presumably, Leonard Cohen did not know this interview existed when he expressed his regret about naming her. Perhaps he felt less ashamed when he found out that her indiscretion had preceded his. Or maybe he felt more ashamed once he was faced with her recollection of their time together:

And then, all of a sudden about four o’clock in the morning you realize that, flat ass, this motherfucker’s just lying there. He’s not balling me. I mean, that really happened to me. Really heavy, like slam-in-the-face it happened. Twice. Jim Morrison and Leonard Cohen. And it’s strange ’cause they were the only two that I can think of, like prominent people, that I tried to… without really liking them up front, just because I knew who they were and wanted to know them… And then they both gave me nothing.

This would not be the first time a man had poignant memories of leaving a woman unsatisfied. Maybe Cohen didn’t consciously misrepresent his experience so much as fail to perceive hers; after all, Joplin’s memory of “not balling” doesn’t explicitly contradict his memory of receiving oral sex. And yet, every time I read this interview, Joplin’s account doesn’t only call Cohen’s perception into question, but his veracity, as well. She makes it sound like what really happened was closer to nothing than not quite what I wanted. Is it not a distinct possibility that the only unmade-bed-head Leonard Cohen received was in his inebriated dreams?

As long as we’re questioning Cohen’s ethics, we might as well question Joplin’s. She’s not only naming names, she’s insulting Cohen’s sexual prowess, just for the hell of it, not for any apparent artistic purpose. But isn’t there something refreshing about a woman of the 60s speaking with such brazen self-deprecation of her sexual misadventures? In the words of Emily Gould, she “pose[s] a threat to the social order, which relies on women’s embarrassment to keep them either silent or writing in socially accepted modes.”

Leonard Cohen said of his indiscretion, “If there is some way of apologizing to a ghost, I want to apologize now.” Joplin’s ghost may have an answer for him: Who gives a damn about indiscretion? Get your facts straight, and show some consideration for a woman’s physical needs!

Alas, we can’t get the facts straight. To paraphrase Cohen, they’re messy, but we have the music.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Reply

Too Much Crying, Not Enough H Mart: On the Perils of Turning an Essay into a Book

While reading the titular first chapter of Crying in H Mart, I thought to myself, this is a good book for me to read. I identified with the author and topic, since my spouse also has a white father and Asian mother and sees Filipino food as a major point of connection to their culture. But by the time I was approaching the end of Crying in H Mart, I was thinking to myself, This just isn’t the right book for me to read. After all, I’m the type of person who will be bored by a cooking show no matter how many competitive gimmicks are introduced, and I consider being forced to watch sped-up food prep videos on Instagram a mild form of torture; I just don’t have a strong visual or emotional relationship with food. (And if you think that makes me weird, you’re probably right.)

Zauner’s prose is vivid, her narrative voice perceptive and appealing. I found myself genuinely moved by many passages, and I know a lot of people who loved this book (including a couple strangers who spotted me reading it in public), giving credence to my hunch that I might simply be the wrong reader for this book. But that only tells you about me and my pathologies, not about the book, so I would like to consider the possibility that Crying in H Mart has certain structural deficiencies that made it fall flat for me in the end.

But first, I would like to point out a few narrative strategies that make the first chapter so powerful. From that stunning, disorienting first sentence, “Ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart”(3), Zauner establishes H Mart as an objective correlative for grief over her mother’s death. She also complicates this subject of grief by linking it to questions of her own identity, “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?…I relied on my mom for access to our Korean heritage”(4). She uses H Mart as a means of granting the reader this access, but it is a grueling, puzzling form of access, much like navigating a biracial identity in America, “As you go farther into your pilgrimage, the lettering on the awnings slowly begins to turn into symbols that you may or may not be able to read”(6).

Within this first chapter, Asian cuisine itself begins vying with H Mart for the role of Zauner’s cathartic grief-object, “Food was how my mother expressed her love”(4). And ultimately, food wins out. For the rest of the book, the prose remains positively festooned with litanies of meals and lists of ingredients in both English and Korean, targeting not only our taste senses, but our aural senses as well, forcing us to confront the particular tactility of the Korean language. Meanwhile, H Mart becomes an occasionally-mentioned afterthought; for the rest of Crying in H Mart, we have a lot of crying, but no H Mart. That absence didn’t bother me when the book was flashing back to al those teenaged clashes with her mother; the narrative was riding a wave of tension and discovery, and had no need yet for a locus of grief. But when the act of dying takes over as its primary focus, we are treated to many climaxes that should be cathartic (a deathbed wedding, cooking as therapy), only to find ourselves drifting into the realm of pathos.

Pathos can be moving at times, and I won’t dispute the sheer vividness of the description of her mother’s fight with cancer. But those whirlwinds of emotion and witness don’t achieve cohesion. Zauner’s strategy of describing elaborate meals provides hundreds of different edible images. As much as we learn to show not tell, this culinary cornucopia functions as an exercise in diminishing returns, and ultimately prevents us from tapping into one central or unifying image. Kimchi has that monolithic, cathartic potential when she cooks it as a therapeutic means of processing her grief, but by that point all those lovely, lush descriptions were about as overplayed as the Celine Dion song that provides the title for chapter 15. They sounded like background elevator music, and ceased to excite my senses. (Well, ok, maybe I wasn’t completely unfazed by “jizz porridge”)(215). Compare those specific, rarefied ingredients with my favorite sense description in the book, after she calls 911 and gets wrestled to the ground by her mother, “she yelled, her tears and spit falling onto my face. She smelled like olive oil and citrus.”(65) Such salubrious and quotidian household scents, contrasted with such a wrenching, violent moment; doesn’t that tell us more about her mother than any of the food she cooks?

In the final chapter, Zauner switches gears; her music career finally takes off, and she discovers a Korean song her mother used to love. In a book where food serves so prominently as a medium of commonality, it’s an intriguing move to end on music, which represented her most painful disagreement with her mother. But Zauner doesn’t probe that tension. She gives us an image of her mother with “her foot on [God’s] neck, demanding good things come my way”(233). This is funny, of course, but ultimately sentimental. Where is the memory of her mother’s scathing dismissal of her musical ambitions?

Conceptually speaking, I did not find “food” as interesting as H Mart, a microcosm where fraught and overlapping identities can be reconciled. My understanding is that the first chapter was initially published as a stand-alone essay in the New Yorker, and this book was subsequently developed as an expansion. I feel that H Mart’s waning significance over the course of the narrative should serve as a warning of the perils of constructing an entire book as a sort of mega-mansion annexing a popular essay. This summer, I read another recent memoir examining the death of a parent, Lilly Dancyger’s Negative Space. I preferred it for a lot of reasons (not least that the author and I ran with the same crew of maladjusted misfits in high school), but one of those reasons is structural. Rather than leaning on the fanfare of a single essay and then abandoning the very metaphor that made it successful, Dancyger’s multivalent metaphor of absence, “negative space”, is woven throughout the book, building gradually in lucidity, and finally achieving a revelatory apotheosis near the end of the story. I don’t know that I would want to read a whole book about (or gratuitously referring to) H Mart, but I do wish Zauner had found a substitute object of equal metaphorical power.