Transcript: A Graphic Revolution with Julia Alekseyeva and Hillary Chute

Tanscript of the podcast "A Graphic Revolution" with Julia Alekseyeva and Hillary Chute

Hello, and welcome to the Eurasian Enigma. This is outreach staff member Ann Mudd. Today we have two guests, Julia Alekseyeva, doctoral candidate at Harvard's Department of Comparative Literature, who has just published a graphic memoir, Soviet Daughter, which tells the life story of her great-grandmother, as well as Julia's own coming of age after immigrating from Kiev to Chicago in 1992.

We're also delighted to have with us comic scholar, Dr. Hillary Chute, professor of English, and Art + Design at Northeastern University and author, among many other books, of Graphic Women: Life Narrative, and Contemporary Comics. Thanks so much for being with us.

HILLARY: Thanks for having me.

JULIA: Thank you, it's great to be here.

Julia, your book tells the story of your great-grandmother, Lola's life, from her birth in Kiev in 1910 to her death in Chicago, a century later. Can you start off just by giving our listeners a sense of just the sheer scope of events that she lived through and that you draw on this book?

JULIA: Absolutely, so my great-grandmother, Lola, was born in 1910 and died, as you said, in 2010 in Chicago. Her life pretty much encompasses the entire history of the Soviet Union. Through the book, you see things such as the Bolshevik Revolution, then the civil war afterwards. You see the Stalinist purges in World War II and the death of Stalin and the thaw afterwards. You really get a sense of the effect that history had on one particular person.

That's an incredible story. I believe you told me that Hillary is the person who convinced you initially to incorporate your own life and relationship to Lola into the book. Can you two just talk about how that conversation went?

HILLARY: Maybe Julia can say more specifically, since it's sort of a question for her, but I had the great pleasure of meeting Julia a number of years ago at a conference in Illinois, at which she was presenting a paper, and for which I was the keynote speaker.

I think I just always felt about this story, it was so interesting to me that you were also pursuing your Ph.D. and that you had this enormous creative talent. I didn't want you to feel like you had to choose one or the other. I'm so glad that in fact you're doing, and soon you will have done, both.

JULIA: Thank you, that's really kind of you to say, because I've always felt very much in the middle of these two fields of academic and creative field. I didn't want to make something overly academic. I also, when I work on my academic work, I also want to make something readable, so it's always sort of hard to navigate the two.

I remember in the conversation that we had in November, so I had just created I think either one or two chapters, I think just one chapter, and I didn't plan on including that much of my own narrative. I wanted it to be almost entirely her words, but translated. It was you that said that, actually, what is particularly interesting to you are those moments where I talk about my own life, or the more autobiographical moments.

I was a little hesitant to do that. There was a bit of resistance. Then, in the end, I think those were the ones that drew people into the narrative. They ended up being very important for me to write as well.

HILLARY: One of the things that I find so particularly compelling, the sense that by putting yourself in the narrative along with Lola's narrative, you get to present how connected you felt and feel to her across these generations. She's the GI generation and you're the millennial generation. There are two in between. Yet it's your two generations that feel really connected.

JULIA: Right.

HILLARY: That was riveting.

JULIA: Oh, that's great. Yeah.

That's a great segue, actually, for talking about this relationship between comics and time. Hillary, I want to stay with you for a second. There are lots of different ways that people define comics, right, the combination of words and images, comics as sequential art? Can you talk a little bit about the idea of comics as time rendered as space and this unique relationship between time and comics?

HILLARY: Sure, thank you for that question. People who think a lot about comics and try to articulate what's happening there totally in comics, often talk about comics as a medium in which time is turned into space. What that means at a basic narrative level is that conventionally in comics one has moments of time that exist in frames or what are called panels.

That's how the narrative moves forward. Each frame is a moment in time. In between there's an empty space, which in the language of comics is called the gutter. The reader projects causality from frame to frame in and across the space of the gutter. You couldn't move them around and have the page mean the same thing.

One way to put this is that there's no reflow in comics the way there is with say prose. Ulysses is Ulysses no matter what font it appears in and trim size of the edition, and so forth and so on. That is not the case with comics. This is why I've written about comics as compared to poetry. It's a spatially site-specific forum.

Okay, so that might have sounded a little pedantic about comics grammar, but the thing that's so interesting about this is that as the comics theorist, Scott McCloud says, "Comics actually has a sense of time that is much, much weirder than that." One thing that can happen is that the different temporalities can blur, the past and the present.

To me, that's one of the most powerful techniques that comics has at its deposal for telling stories—like the story that Julia just wrote about her experience and Lola's experience. It's a story that's really about the relationship of past to present. This is something that comics does and makes legible in a really powerful way, the intertwining of temporalities with the present tense.

Yeah, and Julia, so you were just speaking about how you had always, during your life, felt this great connection to your great-grandmother. I'm just curious in terms of your process, in terms of literally intertwining your two histories and stories on a page, were there new insights or ways of thinking about the ways that her history informs you that came to mind?

I found the end of the book so moving because there's this real sense of integration of a new level of understanding, how she's present in your life even though she's not physically with you anymore.

JULIA: Yeah, that's a great question. I think in the process of writing and drawing the book, and especially in drawing the book and painting these pages, I really felt a sense of how connected our personalities were more so, even more so, than we were as people. I found myself physically acting out moments where I had to draw her, too.

I mean I think a lot of people, cartoonists do this where I didn't have a lot of big budget at my disposal obviously. What I had to do was put my laptop's webcam up and then just freeze frame and pose myself in various ways to get reference images for specific poses that I wanted to draw. In that process of almost becoming and becoming my great-grandmother, it was pretty moving and strange.

I felt that I was drawing my body, because that was the body that I was taking photographs of. It felt almost messed up, in a way, that I was inhabiting her spirit in some way. It was a lot of fun and made me I guess more emotionally involved in what she was saying as well—even more emotionally involved than I probably would have been.

HILLARY: Julia, that's so interesting. I mean, you mentioned that other cartoonists use this same sort of process, too. Have you heard at all about Alison Bechdel doing that? She poses her own body in a reference photograph for every body in a frame that she draws.

She's also talked, and this is so interesting to me, in the way you are just talking, about that experience of inhabiting the physical postures of her parents in order to draw them. In my view, it's this incredible kind of desire to put your own body into the past.

JULIA: Absolutely, because I wanted ... I also wanted to convey a sense of continuation through history. I heard of her as always the spirited, ambitious and almost bossy person. I wanted to inhabit being that person, because that would be a good person to inhabit.

HILLARY: Yes, it sounds like it I think, a good model.

JULIA: Exactly, so it's like, "All right, I'll become this optimistic go-getter for like a couple minutes a day."

Joe Sacco, the Comics Journalist, talks about this as well, that experience of posing as both the perpetrator and the victim in violent events he's depicting.

HILLARY: Yeah, I write about this in my book, Disaster Drawing, that came out last year. He talks about it as inhabitation. That's the word he uses, which is a word that comes up with a lot of cartoonists who are doing that. Especially in his last book, Footnotes in Gaza, or his last long book, he was talking about having to inhabit all of these corpses that he was drawing.

Fascinating in a sort of opposite way from what you were talking about, which is the sense of connection to a specific living person.

JULIA: Right, although I was inhabiting a corpse because my great-grandmother was dead at that time. There was a sense in which ... Most of the people that I drew had died, in one way or another. It was a sense of reanimation and almost puppetry. I feel like there are other connections that could be made to weirdly enough to puppetry, along with all of these other-

HILLARY: Oh, I think there are a lot, yeah.

JULIA: Yeah.

HILLARY: I think that's a great connection.

JULIA: Yeah.

Continuing on some of these themes of this rendering legible and visible, so your book is based on a memoir that your great-grandmother wrote, but instructed your family not to read until after her death.

Throughout your own story there are all these many examples of things being kept hidden, so when you immigrate as refugees your mother asks you not to tell anyone that you're Jewish, not to tell Lola about your treatment for thyroid cancer that likely resulted from the Chernobyl disaster.

Can you talk about what it was like to literally represent these things that had this history in hidden-ness through comics, and how that may be a very different experience than if you were just writing a prose memoir?

JULIA: Right, that was definitely a choice that I ... There were a lot of choices that I had to make in terms of representing either traumatic experiences or very difficult world events, like the Holocaust, because I tend to be rather critical of—either in film or animation or literature or comics—when there's too much representation that is explicitly exaggerated violence or a violence that doesn't turn away, when, perhaps, what is more interesting is the fact that is hidden.

I think this has a lot to do with Soviet culture. Post-Soviet immigrants or people from the Soviet Union who live wherever in the world, tend to repress a lot of their lives, tend to not talk about things like the war unless it was like, "Oh, glory days where I defeated the Nazis and it was wonderful." So much of family life in these kind of environments is “we do not talk about these things.” They are swiped under the rug. It is assumed.

There is a sense of communal assumption of trauma without it being forthright. Even in my great-grandmother's memoirs, she, when she talks about these traumatic events, she doesn't mull over them in an American way, where you think about your feelings and it's wonderful and you go to a therapist and it's awesome.

Instead, there's a lot of: “This happened, and then this happened, and this happened, and, well, I had to go on. I couldn't really think about it too hard.” That was really how she was. That was how her voice was conveyed. I felt like I had to continue conveying this sense of un-representation or a lack of explicit representation because although she gave examples of these events, the way that she described it was so different, I think, than most Americans would describe these kind of things.

In reactions to the book, I've had a lot of American readers tell me, "Oh, this is great, but didn't she think about these things? This must have been so difficult for her. Has she written or told you about how this affected her life and she must have been traumatized?"

The truth is that she didn't, and that they don't. This is a big part of post-Soviet life, I think, is this suppression. By giving it images, I wanted to allow it to come forth out of the darkness. I also wanted to give a sense of it being somewhat kept at bay.

All of this that Julia has been talking about is part of this larger history that you centrally write about in Graphic Women. I'm wondering for our listeners, who may not be familiar with any of those works, if you can just talk a little bit about that legacy that Julia's work is in conversation with about this, as you frame it, radical practice of women comics creators rendering themselves visible on the page and representing their stories?

HILLARY: Sure, in my book, Graphic Women, which came out in 2010, part of what I was trying to do was name and establish a tradition that hadn't been written about much before as a tradition. It was really, at least in the U.S. in the early 70s, in the underground comics movement, in which comics were produced and distributed independently outside of the mainstream commercial comics industry, that we really see women's stories coming forward.

In America, the first autobiographical comics story by a woman comes out in 1972. It's by Aline Kominsky-Crumb. This work really broke something open. There's been a really rich tradition of memoirs, period, but particularly memoirs by women in its wake.

In Graphic Women, I write about Aline Kominsky-Crumb. I write about Phoebe Gloeckner. I write about Marjane Satrapi, whose work, Persepolis, is, I think, maybe perhaps structurally closest to Julia's, in being a personal memoir of coming of age that is also tracking events during war, which is the Iran-Iraq War.

I write about Alison Bechdel and Lynda Barry. Those, to me, are sort of five of the most important figures. Again, I published this book in 2010. Since this book has come out, so many amazing women cartoonists have come out with fantastic memoirs, including Julia.

This is something I open with in the introduction to my book. When I was a grad student, working on my Ph.D. about comics, back in the early 2000s, I remember I just about fell over in the café in Brooklyn where I was having my Sunday morning coffee and reading the paper, the cover of the New York Times Magazine was a cover story about comics. It was called “How Cool is Comics Lit”?

I just felt like, "Wow, I got scooped by the New York Times Magazine. This is what my dissertation's about." Except that I opened the story and it profiled not one single woman. This was in 2004. The writer, a very esteemed, well-known writer of this piece, said, "The graphic novel is a man’s world by in large." That was in 2004. Five years later there is no possible way he could have said that.

Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis was an international best seller. She, herself, adapted it to be a film that was highly acclaimed. It was France’s entry for best foreign film at the Oscars in 2005. Alison Bechdel's book became a best seller. It was on the New York Times' Best Seller List which no graphic novel since Mouse in the '90s had been. It just shifted up making legible that this history had always been there.

JULIA: What I especially love in Graphic Women, when you talk about Persepolis, how you talk about how the style can only be that way. It is that way, that stark black and white expressionist style, for a reason. It made me really think about how I was using imagery and how every ... All the specific style that I'm using has a purpose. Reference is a specific type of thing.

HILLARY: Yeah, I think that people who aren't used to thinking about style and the work of line in comics sometimes think that style is just the default ability of the cartoonist. Whereas, in fact, it's a narrative choice.

JULIA: This is definitely something I was thinking about because I was going through so many, so many different styles of drawing before figuring out that what I wanted was a kind of blurry photographic, painterly quality that could not be conveyed if I had just done stark black and white, more explicitly cartoonish style. I think every story requires, as you say in Graphic Women, necessitates its own form.

HILLARY: It's in kind of a level of techniques, since we're talking about comics and what the form of comics affords. When you were talking about the text, there are not only these proliferated bodies, which I find so fascinating about something comics can do, put bodies that exist in different moments in time together in one frame, as I was saying before, but also there’s sort of floating text in a pretty distinct cursive all around the bodies as they're growing.

What the effect is for a reader, which I found really fascinating, is that it seems like these sentiments that come up in the text are something that stick with the protagonist as she grows up—the fears or the threats that are articulated stick with her, her whole childhood. That's what the effect of having the floating text and the growing bodies is for a reader.

JULIA: Yeah, exactly.

HILLARY: At least for this reader.

JULIA: No, I think that was what I wanted to convey, too, because there's also another page in a different interlude where I use the same kind of cursive style in talking about my relation to Jewishness. There's another disembodied text where you know that someone is saying this and you don't really know necessarily who.

Well you have an idea, but it was that ... The cursive was exclaiming a fear that other people would find out I was Jewish. All of these cursive disembodied moments sort of stick with the character/me throughout the book. It becomes an integrated thought, like an ego or super ego or something.

There's a pretty nerdy academic reason why I choose each of those hands or each of those types of fonts, I guess, because the cursive, I tried to approach the standard Russian cursive. I don't know if people who have encountered learning Russian might know this, but Russian script is the same regardless of who writes it. Everyone's handwriting is pretty much exactly the same, because handwriting is so important for distinguishing the different letters in Cyrillic.

Basically, there's a certain generation of people that grew up in the Soviet Union, especially women, that every single person's handwriting is exactly the same. It used to really creep me out as a child. When you're in the states, and I would put like, as a fourth-grader, dot my "i"s with hearts and whatever and really…

HILLARY: Oh, yeah, I still do that.

JULIA: Obviously! No, but there's a sense that I have to express my individuality through my handwriting, at least that's what I was thinking or over-thinking when I was in fourth grade. Here is this generation of people with this exact same handwriting. I wanted to approach that by doing an English version of that same exact type of cursive because there's these kind of ideas ...

I don't think this is just my own family. I've heard about this kind of stuff in other families as well. There's just this generational shift that happens, and these kind of things are pretty ubiquitous, at least in the experiences that my friends have had as well.

The last thing I wanted to ask a little bit about is just space and place. There's an immigration story that's central to this narrative—this moving from Kiev to Chicago, but because the text moves back and forth in time, you also end up moving back and forth in space, right? This immigration happens in reverse and over and over again.

I just wanted to ask you a bit about representing those spaces. Just on a technical level, were you working from photographs? Had you traveled to any of these places? The rendering of space is also quite moving throughout it. Again, a similar question, just are there any insights or surprises about your relationship to those locations that came up through that process?

JULIA: Yeah, I did work a lot from historical photographs and reference images, especially in the first chapters where there was so little photographic representation that I just spent that first summer working on the book in the Herald Washington Library in Chicago. Every pages uses at least ten to fifteen photographs.

Everything from trying to figure out how long skirts were in a certain era, even those kind of details I wanted to look up and see, “Okay, what kind of shoes did people wear? What were the streets like? Were there horse-drawn carriages at this time still?” These are things that I tried to amalgamate through looking at all these different reference images. I have to say that the bulk of the images still come from family photographs.

I had something like 400 scans of photos that I just went into my grandparent's photo albums and spent days and days just scanning them and scanning them and re-scanning them because they didn't turn out well. There was this rummaging through my grandparent's closets and trying to get more photographs and trying to ask, “Who was this person? What did they look like?”

Even the faces of these characters, like my great-grandmother's siblings, I would ask my grandmother, "What color hair did she have? What did her face look like? Do you have any photographs of her older?" All of these things I tried to get as much information, as much information as I possibly could. You get kind of crazy immersed in this kind of universe where you think about, "Did they have wavy hair? Did they have curly hair?" It makes you go nuts.

I have a lot of memories of the former Soviet Union, but they were not memories that would be easily found in photographs. Obviously a child doesn't really care about monuments. They care about going to the park or seeing a dog that they thought was really cute or the trees and buildings that are more associated with home. These things I have a memory of.

I wanted to convey that sense of hominess when talking about my great-grandmother's early 20s or late teen years—the sense of when things stabilized for a bit and she was partying and had all these affairs and boyfriends. She just had lots of fun and happened to have a child. The sense of a livable space, as opposed to a space of pure trauma, I wanted to convey, because for me it wasn't necessarily a place of trauma.

I have a memory of waiting in line for milk for two hours. I just chatted with people in the line and hung out. It was like, "All right, this is a thing that I do as a four-year-old apparently or a two-year-old." I wanted to give a sense of this was a place that real people lived in, and that it was rather livable for at least some time before the horrible things emerged again. That was the sense I wanted to get out of that kind of '20s, '30s in the book.

I think it's also particularly hard, maybe, for American readers to think that, “Okay this was a country that was 1/6th of the world, like that's a crazy enormous space.” Much of the reason for drawing the book was to give people that might not have necessarily a good background in Soviet history a sense of having lived there. Part of that has to do with the space and the enormity of the vastness of the country.

Yeah, well I hope some of our listeners will be inspired to bring this medium into their teaching and their learning and just their experience to the region. Both of you, your work is just stunning and so remarkable to encounter. Thank you both so much for this conversation.

HILLARY: Thank you, it's been great.

JULIA: Yeah, thank you so much. This has been wonderful.