Recently, I’ve been leading a month-long discussion on Stanford’s Book Salon, an online group started by the late great Diane Middlebrook. Diane was the noted biographer of Anne Sexton and Ted Hughes as well as of Billy Tipton (The Double Life of Billy Tipton chronicles the life of the jazz pianist who, for over 50 years, “passed” as a man—check it out!).
Diane was also a brilliant and supportive colleague and teacher; students literally lined up to get into her seminars. And she was a big fan of memoir. I’ve now hosted two of these salons, and each one has given me a chance to remember Diane and also to engage participants in reading and exploring graphic memoirs. The one we are currently working on is Roz Chast’s Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?
That’s Chast on the right, facing her parents, George and Elizabeth, to whom the book is dedicated, as they insist that they will talk only about “pleasant” things, among which are not death and plans for their very late years.
I find that graphic narratives work extremely well for memoir: the combination of words and images allow Chast to speak in her own voice and, through speech bubbles, allow her parents to speak for themselves; her drawings of them etch them firmly in readers’ minds. Especially haunting is the series of sketches of her mother that Chast drew during the last day of her mother’s life. No words needed there.
What has struck a chord with the people participating in the book salon is Chast’s unblinking honesty in describing her parents’ long decline and the part she played in their lives. An only child, Chast got more support/empathy from her father than her mother, who was the one IN CHARGE of the family in just about every way. Chast seems a lonely child, one left alone every day after school and often ignored, especially by her mother. When she married and moved away, Chast didn’t visit her “deep” Brooklyn home much, but that changed when her parents reached their late 80s and 90s and obviously needed help – though they would never admit it. As Chast describes it, they were “a unit,” timeless and everlasting, without a need for any other person at all.
Chast perseveres, however, though she hates doing it and hates not doing it: and that is the dilemma readers react very powerfully to. Many have found themselves in similar situations with aging parents: it’s not easy and it’s not pretty, yet children want and need to do what they can, while loathing many aspects of the work. Chast brilliantly captures the tensions, contradictions, and ambivalences in her own encounter with her parents’ last years.
She also manages to capture the absurdness of aging often in hilarious ways. Her father, moving slowly into dementia, moves in with Chast while his wife is in the hospital—and he becomes obsessed with a bunch of bankbooks back in his apartment (most of them acquired on a special “deal” that, for depositing $100, gets George and Elizabeth a “prize” of some kind—a toaster, blender, etc.). Convinced that evildoers are trying to break in and steal the bankbooks, he talks endlessly of them as if they are themselves survivors of some dreadful ordeal.
I have taught graphic memoirs since shortly after Art Spiegelman’s Maus won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and I realized that I should be paying a lot more attention to comix, as he termed it. I’ve never had a student who was not moved by Maus: in the early days, when they had never heard of the book, some were dismayed that the Holocaust was the subject of a comic book. As soon as they entered the world of the narrative, however, they were captivated: over the years, a number of students told me they had disliked history until they read that book. I also loved teaching Lynda Barry’s One! Hundred! Demons!, a coming of age memoir, and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother? And of course there are so many others: Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese; Belle Yang’s Forget Sorrow; GB Tran’s Vietnamerica—I could truly go on and on.
But I do not teach these works in literature classes—but in writing classes. I have found that college-age students are drawn to memoir and that the image/word combination resonates especially strongly with them. So we analyze the panels and gutters, studying how they carry the story forward silently, and we look at the structure of the entire work and imagine “translating” it into a research-based essay or another genre, looking at the rhetorical strategies at work in each version. Inevitably, we do some drawing too (I am the worst in the room at this!), and several students have gone on to create graphic memoirs of their own and to publish them online.
What I absolutely love about all the possibilities open to writers today is the freedom it offers students as they literally write/draw themselves into being. College is a time of self-representation, of identity-creation, of learning about who you are. To me, graphic narratives in general and graphic memoirs in particular make a perfect vehicle for exploring these questions.