Blog by Grace Owen
Photos by Tammy Lakkis
Interview questions were sent to three comic book authors focusing on their perspective; these three authors have recently published graphic novels and are also continuing to do more work in their field. If you’ve heard of Comic Con, the next thing on your radar should be metro Detroit’s Comique Con, celebrating women in comics. On October 22nd authors and artists from around the country will be attending Comique Con at the Arab American National Museum. Last year Leila Abdelrazaq, Marguerite Dabaie, and Nicole Georges all attended and held a panel on art & activism.
Nicole Georges, author of Calling Dr. Laura, has been publishing her own zines and comics for 20 years, according to her tumblr page. She lives in Portland, Oregon, and is currently working on a new graphic novel, Fetch. Calling Dr. Laura, which has been featured in Jezebel, Vanity Fair, and USA Today, is a graphic memoir following Nicole’s identity crisis after she is told by a psychic that her father is still alive. She begins to consult radio talk-show host Dr. Laura for advice, and the story unfolds from there.
Leila Abdelrazaq is an author from Chicago whose debut graphic novel, Baddawi, was shortlisted for the Palestine Book Awards. She is also a member of the For the People Artist’s Collective, according to her website. Baddawi is the story of a young boy raised in the real-life refugee camp called Baddawi in northern Lebanon, after being displaced from his home in Palestine. Abdelrazaq fictionalizes and explores her father’s very real history in her debut graphic novel.
Marguerite Dabaie, author of The Hookah Girl and Other True Stories, is a Palestinian American author and illustrator who is interested in cultural research and issues of identity. Some of her work has been collected here. She came to California after Israeli forces seized her family’s property in Ramallah, and her interest in comics came from reading Naji al-Ali’s comics and watching Japanese anime in Arabic. The Hookah Girl is a series of memoir-like vignettes in comic form, about growing up in California as a Christian Palestinian American.
The three women, working within the community, each asserted that Arab American art is simply any art created by people identifying within that demographic. Abdelrazaq also notes that “there are a million experiences of being Arab and living in America, so there are also a million ways to define the artwork created by people who identify as Arab American.” The history of comics in the Arab World is not homogeneous – each country and region has a different history with the universal issues of artistic style and censorship. For example, Syrian comics are influenced by Russia, while Lebanese comics bear distinctive French influences. These regional differences in the Arab World carry over into the work of artists and authors living in the US.
Graphic novels as a medium have a rich history steeped in counterculture movements and moments. Throughout this history, the literary and artistic merit of the medium has been heavily debated. The unique combination of word and image feels natural to these three authors, however: Georges values the ability that the word and the image have to create something together that neither medium has on its own. Dabaie, on the other hand, is focused on the logistical realities of the medium. She describes growing up with comics and anime as being influential, and that she wanted to be involved in an art movement that was not “haughty” but instead accessible, both for her as an author and, more importantly, for her audience. This accessibility is echoed by Abdelrazaq’s sentiment, leaning more toward the feeling of the medium itself: that comics innately have the ability to make stories more accessible. Stories, ultimately, are what these works come down to.
Storytelling is emphasized by these three women, as each of them chose stories very personal to their lives and identities. Georges notes that “I find value in telling my own story, because no one is going to do it for me.” Dabaie describes storytelling as the framework of any piece of art. “I see storytelling and personal narrative as a good way to help people understand the human aspect of political situations—that politics aren’t just abstract ideas in some other realm, but real processes with tangible consequences for every day people,” said Abdelrazaq.
"Georges discussed her hesitation to claim the Syrian part of her identity. She acknowledges that her ability to pass as white is in many ways a privilege, but it is a privilege that for a long time disconnected her from what she now considers to be her community" she said.
"Now that the book is out, and the Arab Americans have found me and claimed me, I'm stoked. I'm thrilled to be a part, and to be a visible voice", said Georges
"After visiting the Arab American National Museum and being a guest at Comique-Con, I drafted a comic about my Syrian American identity and how it feels to have seen the nation turn on a dime and vilify Syrian refugees… this comic should come out this fall, after I'm done drawing my graphic novel, Fetch", Nicole states.
Dabaie also notes the importance of her work in constituting her identity. Through every act of revealing her own story, she is able to connect with her community. This powerful work is especially important at a time went anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment is high, while the two are often conflated into one – an issue that Dabaie as a Christian is very familiar with. Dabaie mentions:
"The Hookah Girl…in a lot of ways was my “coming out” publicly as an Arab, since that was the first time I created any work that directly linked me to any Arab American identity. That said, my work is as Arab as much as it’s not—I’m half Palestinian, half a hodgepodge of European nationalities. No doubt that Arabness pops itself up in my work—my upbringing was in a very Arab household, how can it not?—but I have so many other things rattling in my brain…I’m proud of my Palestinian roots, but it’s one part of such a large mural of all the things I’ve experienced in my life that all gets thrown on the paper. In that respect, I’m extremely American."
Abdelrazaq notes another thorny issue with the idea of Arab American identity in an artistic community. She explains
"I don’t identify as Arab American because hyphenating myself feels too much like an apology. I am proud to be an Arab and a Palestinian woman. The fact that I have grown up in America does not make me less “Arab” or less “Palestinian,” it is just a different experience of Palestinianness. Palestinians are necessarily a diasporic community. Being in diaspora doesn’t make me less Palestinian; it is part of what defines me as a Palestinian and as an Arab. Palestinians have unique experiences living in a state of exile and displacement. When we use the fact that we live outside of historic Palestine as a way to undermine one-another’s “Palestinianness”—as if that is something that can be measured, or as if there are qualities that make one Palestinian that we can tick off on a checklist—we are simply enacting Israel's violence of displacement and ethnic cleansing onto one another. For this reason I adamantly reject identifying myself in a hyphenated way. Before I am American, I am Palestinian, living in diaspora. And this is reflected in my work, and the way I think about my work—I view what I create as in dialogue with Arab artists around the world, regardless of what country we live in."
These three authors are pursuing projects integral to their identity. Georges discusses the importance of having an impact through art, saying that, “if I can show complicated, nuanced, Arab American characters, and I can show a different narrative around being an Arab American than people are used to seeing, then I am happy to do so and I have faith in its impact, whether immediate or gradual.” Storytelling is also important to Abdelrazaq, who notes its impact on the face of politics and the way that it humanizes important political issues. She notes that, “I see storytelling and personal narrative as a good way to help people understand the human aspect of political situations—that politics aren’t just abstract ideas in some other realm, but real processes with tangible consequences for every day people.” These tangible consequences are important to Abdelrazaq and she explores them in her work.
As Georges, author of Calling Dr. Laura, points out, “I feel like comics are an outsider art form always.” There is an interesting contradiction in the nerd culture that has formed around and because of comic books: that this culture is perceived as being made up of exclusively white men. Women, especially Arab American women and other women of color are often considered outsiders in this community of outsiders. Comique Con has come together to welcome in these outsiders and celebrate and uplift their work and the important messages that their work conveys.
Comics and graphic novels by Abdelrazaq, Dabaie and Georges are available for sale in the Arab American National Museum’s store and online. Abdelrazaq’s Baddawi is available here. Both volumes of Dabaie’s The Hookah Girl and Other True Stories are available here. Georges’ Invincible Summer is available here.
An extensive collection of Arab American Graphic Novels may be found at the Russell J. Ebeid Library & Resource Center.