Tag Archives: language

Opening My Eyes Further: Graphic Novels, Comics, and Me

Upon Ed’s recommendation, I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novels lately – or comics, I’m not sure which. They’ve all been non-fiction, so are they still graphic novels? I’m gonna go with graphic novels because of their long-form nature – when I see the word ‘comic’, I think first of strips in the newspaper, like Peanuts and Garfield.

They’ve been quite a revelation, these graphic novels. My reading hasn’t just been changed by the addition of this bright new medium; it’s been broadened and given new life. I hope you’ll bear with me while I cast my eye back a little to illustrate how this new enthusiasm fits into the context of my life.

L-R: Sad, Unfunny

It’s funny that I should associate Peanuts and Garfield with the newspaper, because when I was a kid, I borrowed and read all the Peanuts and Garfield books in Tokoroa Public Library several times over. I never read them in the newspaper. I even bought a few cheap Peanuts collections with my allowance, books that are now long gone. (I never bought any Garfield, and I’m glad now that I didn’t because reading Garfield as an adult has been one of the most jarring revisitations to childhood I’ve had. Like, did I really used to laugh at this?)

More than Peanuts and Garfield, I read Tintin and Asterix. I think Tintin was my first exposure to comics. On about my seventh or eighth birthday, a compendium of the three Tintin books – Tintin in America, Cigars of the Pharaoh, and The Blue Lotus – was given to me by parents, and I was soon reading each of the stories over and over. I already loved reading, and read voraciously, but Tintin allowed me to escape into a world I could literally see, not just imagine.

The following year, I was given another compendium containing The Calculus Affair, The Red Sea Sharks, and Tintin in Tibet. I remember being moved by Tintin’s relationship with Chang, the Chinese boy he saves from the river in The Blue Lotus, and their tearful reunion in Tintin in Tibet. Because I read them all so many times – possibly into the hundreds – I can also a remember a number of specific images, like Haddock’s curled-up beard when Calculus lights his microfilms on Haddock’s pipe, or the final ‘shot’ of Tintin in Tibet, in which the yeti looks longingly across the plain at the departing travellers.

Tintin in Tibet | Tintin au Tibet | Yeti | Himalayas

Tintin is like a series of shots, a storyboard for a film. I still haven’t seen anyone convey movement in a static image as well as Hergé could. The stories are often as full of plot holes as the dumbest Hollywood blockbusters, but the drawings themselves are so memorable. Pretty good cast of characters, too.

As a kid, when talking with friends, I was adamant that Tintin was not a ‘comic’ but a ‘cartoon’, which to me implied its status as serious art. There began my prejudice against comics in general, or what I narrowmindedly thought of as comics.

Asterix, meanwhile, has followed me into adult life more than anything else I read in childhood. I liked Asterix in those days but preferred the fast-paced action and earnestness of the Tintin books. When I read through the entire Asterix series as an adult, however, I marvelled constantly at all the wordplay that had flown way over my head years before. What’s more, all this wordplay was developed twice – once in French by Goscinny, and again in English by those translation wizards Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge. I’ve never read the French editions of Asterix but someday, if my French ever gets good enough, I’d love to do so.

Obelix speeds up the works | Asterix in SwitzerlandI do remember the images of Asterix well, too, especially Uderzo’s broadly demonstrative facial expressions. The bit where the major-domo tastes Asterix and Obelix’s stew in Asterix and the Laurel Wreath ALWAYS cracks me up, as does the bit in Asterix in Switzerland where Obelix tries to ‘speed up the works, by Toutatis’ and immediately gets wasted drunk. No doubt there are others out there who can recall it in an instant too.

After going through Asterix again – this was about five years ago – I didn’t seek out any more comics. The term ‘graphic novel’, which came up with relative frequency in conversation with various friends and family members, was still off-putting to me: it conjured visions of dark sci-fi drawings with lots of blood and exclamation marks. No real reason for that, of course. It was my way of closing my mind off to them, perhaps so I could keep the world a little more manageable. It’s bad enough thinking of all the films you want to someday see, let alone all the books you want to read.

I also saw the film version of Watchmen and hated it. After hearing so much about the supposed genius of the graphic novel, the terribleness of the film seemed to validate my preconceptions.

120 Days of Simon | Simon GardenforsThen, a few months ago, Ed got The 120 Days of Simon out from the library. It was really quite vacuous: a man I would hate in real life travels around Sweden having lots of sex and taking lots of drugs, then tells his story through cartoonish illustrations and unexceptional (though relatable) dialogue. To my surprise, I raced through it in an hour, thoroughly entertained. I guess I’m as voyeuristic as the next guy.

Afterwards, the sense of satisfaction at reading a 400-plus-page book in such a short space of time was something I hadn’t felt before. It was a minor epiphany: graphic novels are a way of reading many books without using up all my waking hours! I decided to seek out more.

Next, Ed recommended the work of Guy Delisle, a Canadian animator who has written graphic novel travelogues about his time in various unusual locations around the world. I started with Shenzhen, which was very good, and then went on to Pyongyang, which was not as good but fascinating just for the fact that it was about the everyday life of a foreigner in North Korea.

Shenzhen | Guy Delisle | Comics | Graphic Novel from China

When I look back on reading those two Delisle books, I can’t remember many of the images. My brain is wired for language, it seems, so I focused on the dialogue and narration much more than the pictures. Not surprisingly, the drawings I remember most clearly are the ones that were unaccompanied by English words, such as a hilarious scene in which a Chinese man gets into a lift with Delisle and bellows into his ringing phone before realising he hasn’t pressed the button to answer it. I wonder if this means my brain can only properly process one form of input at a time, in this case either pictures or words. I’ll bet it’s possible to train your brain to do both.

Delisle has done quite a bit more than those two books, including some well-reviewed work on Burma and Jerusalem, but I wanted to get into some classics of the genre first. A little research brought two titles quickly to the surface: Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Maus by Art Spiegelman. Persepolis is the story of the artist – an Iranian woman – growing up in her post-revolution homeland, while Maus is the story of the artist’s father surviving the Holocaust in Poland and Germany. Both are widely hailed as exceptional works of art in any genre – Maus won a Pulitzer – and as essential reading for any graphic novel enthusiast.

I decided to start with Persepolis because I’ve been very interested in Iran lately. I want to get a broader picture of Iran than what we get from most news reports, which show virtually nothing beyond a tyrannical government and a faceless, obedient proletariat. Persepolis was perfect because Satrapi was a woman (i.e. not a man with a beard) from a well-off but somewhat dissident family, which couldn’t be much further from the fundamentalist Islamists I had previously pictured when I thought of Iran.

Persepolis | Marjane Satrapi

It was a brilliant memoir, full of internal conflict as Satrapi wrestled with her love for a homeland that felt less and less like home. She illustrated the dynamics in her family clearly, and with admirable and honest empathy for all the times she drove her parents crazy. She also didn’t shy away from her passionate views on human rights, the veil, censorship – the kinds of things that artists in Iran have been jailed for. I was entertained by her sense of humour and enlightened by her bitter insights. Persepolis enriched me as a person. It also got me the email address of a PhD architecture candidate from Iran, who was handing out questionnaires in Civic Square one afternoon and saw me reading it. A golden coincidence.

As it was with Delisle, I don’t remember many of Satrapi’s images. Most of the time I would skim across the top of each frame, where the majority of the dialogue and narration was placed, and more or less ignore the illustrations. Perhaps the skill of taking both text and images in at once will develop with experience – or perhaps it’s just that those details you missed can be revealed on subsequent readings, just like with any other book.

The Complete Maus cover | Art Speigelman | Maus CD-ROM

Then came Maus, which is the reason for writing all this. Maus is purely extraordinary. Schindler’s List used to be the work of art I would immediately think of when moved to consider the Holocaust for one reason or another; henceforth, it shall be Maus. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • The central character is compelling. He’s racist, cantankerous, and miserly, as well as being chivalrous, resourceful, and very intelligent. He speaks in a grammatically imperfect English – “one of the boys what we were in the attic together, talked over to the guard” – which builds up a distinctive voice in your head as you read it. He loves and loses almost everything.
  • Spiegelman doesn’t shy away from the most horrendous aspects of the Holocaust. He illustrates so many ways to die in just the level of detail that you won’t be put off reading any further but won’t forget any of it, either.
  • With Maus, I DID remember a lot of the images afterwards. In fact, I’d seen some of them before: in a third form social studies exam, more than half of my life ago, we were asked to read a page from Maus and then answer questions about it. (I had no idea what it was at the time, of course.) When I came to that page in the book, I recognised it immediately. I think this is a testament to Spiegelman’s straightforward approach to detail in his drawings, which aims to tell the story without too many lines getting in the way. He also employs the simple visual metaphor of drawing each race as a different animal – Jews as mice, Poles as pigs, Germans as cats – to help embed those images.
  • The story is fundamentally about one man’s experience, but that narrower focus allows for a richness in detail that broader works wouldn’t have time for. In sticking to his dad’s story in this way, Spiegelman ends up speaking directly to people’s individual experience of the Holocaust, which is much easier to relate to than a history lesson. The fact that his dad’s life intersected with so many others helps, too, as they move in and out of the narrative. You get a sense of the staggering numbers of lives involved – on all sides.

On the back cover of this edition of Maus, there was a quote from the Washington Post: “impossible to describe accurately, and impossible to achieve in any medium but comics”. The latter part seems very true to me: it’s a perfect marriage of illustration and language, both of which are essential to the way the story is told. The narration allows you into the characters’ heads so you can see the illustrations on the page from their perspective as well as your own. And because it’s a printed page, rather than a moving image on a screen for example, you can linger on a particularly compelling image for as long as you wish.

Maus | Reality vs Comics | Art Spiegelman

As for the ‘impossible to describe accurately’ part, that’s obviously an exaggeration, but I think the point is that it’s considerably more valuable to read Maus in its entirety than it is to skim over its Wikipedia page. It was, for me, an incredibly moving and inspiring experience, and I cried a little as I read the last page. It’s good to know I’m not so caught up in my own scattered thoughts that I can’t be moved to tears any more.

I notice that something common to all the graphic novels I’ve read so far is that they are memoirs, so maybe my enthusiasm is just as much for the confessional nature of memoir writing as it is for the fact that they’re in illustrated form. Perhaps it’s related to the fact that I’ve long felt a deeper affinity with film than with words on the page, and I hardly watch films nowadays compared to the amount I read, and the graphic novel is a happy middle ground between the two that I find doubly satisfying. Maybe graphic novels remind me of the exhilaration I once felt reading Tintin, how I could blast through a book and be entertained for half an hour – a kind of Freudian link to some of the most purely content moments of my childhood.

Or, maybe I’ve just lucked into beginning the genre with its most broadly appealing work. Whatever the case, graphic novels – comics – cartoons – whatever – are a legitimate art form and I am thrilled to have finally discovered them.

As mentioned before, graphic novels are not eating into any of my other reading. They’ve simply added more time and more discernment to my reading habits. I’ve learned that my brain can switch from one printed story to another, just as it can switch from longform journalism article to another, or from one music album to another, or from one internal monologue to another. What graphic novels are eating into is my time spent watching Youtube videos and liking things on Facebook, and I’m not complaining about that.

Marjane Satrapi on Facebook

Next will be the work of Joe Sacco, who was once featured in The Caravan and has been widely acclaimed for graphic novels about turmoil-stricken places like Palestine and Bosnia. After that, maybe I’ll try and break down another the wall to another consciously overlooked writing genre. Poetry, probably.

2 Comments

Filed under Books

Do You Understand Malayalam?

My efforts to learn Malayalam have been pretty minimal. In two years, I know maybe 100 words and about three points of grammar. This isn’t because it’s one of the hardest languages in the world to learn, as I am often told; it’s because everyone speaks English. Thinking about my (lack of) Malayalam ability led me to consider its wider value, and also to think about how there is one language I have picked up since being here: Kerala English.

If I speak with my normal accent – Kiwi with flat vowels and mumbling at a mile a minute – very few are likely to understand. Instead, I’ve adopted a kind of attempted Malayali accent, and often seek assistance from my colleagues in perfecting it. For example, the number ‘twelve’ more closely resembles ‘toll’, while ‘po-TAY-to’ becomes ‘PO-te-to’ (needless to say, these are very rough approximations). It’s a source of great amusement for the others at work, and a genuinely valuable communication tool when speaking to a stranger or asking for something in a shop.

Read more at The NRI…

3 Comments

Filed under India

“Inaie the blogger is the one who cannot keep her mouth shut, and she tells on all other Inaies”

At Yosemite, California

Inaie Ramalho is the author of Inaie – out and about, a blog about her life and travels as a serial expat. Her homeland is Brazil but she has lived in Australia, New Zealand and the UAE, and is currently based in Bahrain with her husband and two daughters. She writes mostly about her and her family’s travels and lives, with plenty of accompanying photos, but also about all the people close to her in her life.

‘Out and about’ is certainly true, then, but one realises that she has her eyes wide open with curiosity as she goes from place to place, person to person, experience to experience. Her writing is typically open-hearted and direct – she has little use for self-censorship – but a sense of what really matters to her shines through, as well as a desire to learn and understand more about herself and the world around her.

I discovered her blog after she left a comment on mine, and was immediately intrigued by the fact that she double-blogs in English and in Portuguese (which she clarifies further below). Having looked into her archives and found them at times hilarious, at other times moving, I asked if she would answer a few questions, and she responded in record time. All photos used with permission.

***

Why did you start blogging?

When I left Brazil I started writing  emails with “my stories” to friends back home. They were emails with my feelings, my discoveries and a bit about everything. A way to stay connected. 10 years later, I was still sending the same emails, but my “receivers” list was much larger and incorporated friends from all countries where I lived. I was writing my emails twice. In English and in Portuguese.
If I were tired, fed up, or just had nothing to say and did not write frequently enough, these friends would send me angry emails, complaining about my absence.
Because of it, I made a point of writing regularly, but Yahoo was blocking my account every other day, calling me a “spammer”. Every time I was blocked I felt so p’off, I would promise I would start blogging. But then Yahoo would unblock me, and I would forget all about it.
I also had several friends asking me to start blogging. BLOG! BLOG! BLOG! they would say…
Recently I met a FAB lady who is a professional blogger, she translates blogs from several languages, she does a pretty serious job with this blogging business. When she told me I should blog, I thought: Well, maybe I should. ‘A’ is someone who knows what she is doing… she has not been my friend for long and has no reason to say things just to please me.
I started the blog, thanked her for “making me do it” and received furious emails from all those friends who have been saying the same thing for ages, with no result.

Bridge near San Simeon, California

Do you keep a journal? If so, what relationship do your blog and your journal have with each other?

Nah. No journal. My mother used to break the lockers to read my teenager journals. Initially I would make up these horrible stories, about unthinkable things, just to terrify her. After a while I just lost interest. If I could not be true to my journal because my darling mother would read it, what was the point? I never went back to journal writing, unfortunately. Today, my revenge is to write things she would not want to know in an open forum – and I know she still reads it.

What is your first memory of writing creatively?

I always enjoyed writing, I remember being 8 or 9, and spending hours making up stories… As I grew up, I realized real stories are far more fun!

Describe something that is beautiful to you.

This is going to sound so tacky, but my girls’ smiles are the most amazing sight. When they look at me and smile, the whole world changes colors, all sounds seem far more clear and beautiful. It is just amazing!

I have pictures of them on my phone; when things get rough, I just look at them and smile too.

Ramalho girls in Santa Barbara

You blog in both English and Portuguese. Do you try to convey the same feeling in both languages, or do you attempt to express yourself with the difference nuances of meaning to which each language lends itself?

You are mistaken. My blog is both in BAD Portuguese and Pidgin English, as I explain in the first line of the blog, but your question has its merit. Initially, my idea was to write in one language and then translate to the other – but as I started doing it, I found it just impossible. I write one story, then when I tell the other one, I remember different facts, I use other visuals; I just write all over again instead of just translating it. Sometimes the texts are completely different, although they talk about the same thing and they are both true.

Have your experiences living and travelling in various different countries changed your belief system(s)?

They sure have. This lifestyle taught me to be more tolerant with the world and see people under a different light. I used to think WE were right (whoever we were) and THEY were wrong. Now I don’t believe in us and them. People are just submitted to different stimuli, grow up under different circumstances and form their values based on these experiences.
People behave different because they see things different. In most cases, there is no right or wrong, in my opinion.
All this traveling made me want to travel more, want to know more, to learn more… life is a fascinating journey!

On the road in California

In your Blogger profile, you mention ‘several Inaies living together under one identity’. Would you say the ‘blogger Inaie’ is distinct from the others, or more an attempt at representing all of them?

Inaie the blogger is the one who cannot keep her mouth shut, and she tells on all other Inaies. She is the gossiper. She would get in trouble, but would not lose the opportunity to tell her story. With my life story, I do live many different realities in one. I am an only child, but I live far, far away from my parents. I love my dad desperately, but I have not seen him in four years. If you ask how I would feel if I did not see my children for a year, I would say it would just not happen. I could not survive without them. Both of them. I am Brazilian, but I am not your “regular” Brazilian. I am a workaholic who is in a huge crisis because I just found out there is life beyond the office desk (but don’t give me an office desk, I will get stuck in it), I am all for equality and sometimes catch myself being so totalitarian. I am a walking contradiction. I have always been told I am different, but no one ever managed to explain “different” how – and it haunts me. I would really like to know who I am. Sometimes I have no idea what I want or how to get it…

Michael, a friend of mine, once gave this close definition about me:

‘I want it all – and I want it now…’

That sounds pretty real.

Is there a post on your blog that you are most proud of?

To be honest, my blog is a window into my soul. It is not supposed to be pretty, fun or anything specifically. It is just meant to be a piece of me, to tell my story, my thoughts, my feelings. And to register my journey… I am not afraid to show my ugly sides. I have plenty of them. I guess I am proud of having my blog, and I am sooo grateful (and surprised) people actually read it.

Sunset in San Simeon

Name two countries: one you’d like to visit, and one you’d like to visit again.

I would love to visit Iran. And Morocco. And India. I also would like to visit Oman and see sea turtles. Mexico too. I would like to go to Turkey and fly over Capadoccia. Ireland is in my list of countries to visit, so are Vietnam and Lebanon… oh, sorry – you said ONE! But there are so many other places I would like to experience…

A country I would revisit? To be honest, I am not ito revisiting places. Given the opportunity, I will always choose the one I have not been to. In saying that, I would like to take my teenage girls to Egypt and to Jordan, to share the beauty of these places with them, especially because we are so close and these destinations are so magic…
I would not consider going to these places again if it were not to show them to Anita and Lia.

Do you believe in God?

I sure do. I just feel very sad for all the atrocities men do in name of Him. I am sure it pisses him off too.

***

This interview is part of Inside the Bloggers Studio, an ongoing project of short interviews with bloggers I read and admire.  (Apologies to James Lipton.)  To view the archive, click here.

12 Comments

Filed under Inside the Bloggers Studio

Indian English Class 2 (This Is What I Am Telling)

Since the previous Indian English lesson brought a greater response than expected, The NRI has decided to schedule a second lesson – starting now. After the freeform approach of the first class, let’s try and be a little more focused this time. There will be an opportunity to ask questions and make comments at the end of the lesson.

To get you back into the spirit, let’s complete a brief exercise. In the following passage, there are a number of examples of Indian English we learned last time. Identify them.

‘Kind Madam/Sir, details of concerned products would be arriving in your mail today itself. Orders for Green Bay Packers Hand Glove should be filled at the earliest as product is likely to get over quickly due to demand. Deadline for all orders is by 3:00 PM Friday. Kindly do the needful.’

…read more at The NRI…

Leave a comment

Filed under India

Indian English Class (aka Doing The Needful)

do the needful at the earliest – Anyone who deals with Indian businesspeople or outsourcing will be familiar with this one. According to Wikipedia, it’s a remnant of early-to-mid-20th Century British English that has died out in the native speakers but lives on in this and a couple of other colonies. Search for it in Google, with quotes, and the first few results are humorous Western perspectives of the phrase, but then you have another 260,000 results of people actually posting that phrase on the internet. Add ‘kindly’ in front and the field narrows to a paltry 103,000. I can only hope that in each case, the needful was indeed done. At the earliest. (Earliest what?)

…read the full article at The NRI…

1 Comment

Filed under India