Strange Animals 06apr2019: Short Trips

Writing this while travelling, so it’ll probably be shorter than usual. That’s the intention, but who knows with these things. Writing has a strange relationship with intentionality and gets away from you easily. At the very least, this one’s going to be less “well-rounded essay” and more “here’s some interesting questions I don’t quite know the answer to”.

One

A couple of days ago, I read a review of a book I recently lettered, which asked the question, “Why does this book even exist?” Partly they meant it in a derogatory way, implying that it shouldn’t exist, but also, they pointed out that even the best bits of the book were unnecessary, as in, they had been done before in the same kind of context.

I’m obviously not going to argue with a review, because any reader has the perfect right to have an opinion about a book, but it did get me thinking – I’m always a bit surprised when something like this happens. When I take on a book, I do obviously gauge at the beginning whether I think it’s going to be worth it, but after that, I stop thinking about it, because it makes no sense to be in the middle of working on something and questioning whether it was a good idea to have taken it on.

This also means that once I accept a book, I don’t question whether the concept of the book is interesting or not. I worry about the execution, and try to add to the overall quality and effect, but Why would anyone make this book? isn’t relevant.

The writer and artist obviously have an answer (or I presume they do), because they created a book that they felt was worth creating, said something they wanted to say, and they spent months, sometimes years, in the process of saying it.

But when I take on a project as a letterer or an editor, I sort of make my peace with the fundamental worthiness of the book. Any note I give after that is to improve the quality, or tackle any aspects I see as problematic. If I question anything fundamental, the thing might stop being the thing, and that’s not my job to judge.

Until, of course, I’ve finished my work, and then I come across a review like this, and then I look back on the scores, sometimes hundreds, of hours I spent working on the book, and ask myself, Well, was it worth it?

It’s a tricky question, because it’s not about whether the work was good or not, but whether it was necessary to have done the work. And it’s a question I can only ask myself idly, otherwise things fall apart, but it’s an intriguing one, and reviews like this are a good reality check on where you want to be channeling your time and energy.

Two

Speaking of where someone might want to channel their time and energy, Craig Thompson, creator of Blankets and Habibi, is working on a new book called Ginseng Roots, described by him thus:

For a decade of our childhood, Phil and I toiled in Wisconsin farms. Weeding and harvesting GINSENG – an exotic medicinal herb that fetched huge profits in China – funded our youthful obsession with comic books. Comics in turn, allowed us to escape our rural, working class trappings.

Part memoir, part travelogue, part essay – all comic book – Ginseng Roots explores class divide, agriculture, holistic healing, the 300 year long trade relationship between China and North America, childhood labor, and the bond between two brothers.

And here’s the cover of the planned collected edition:

Thompson’s previous work Habibi had quite a few accusations of orientalism cast towards it. What I did not know was that this is how he defended his work then (quote via writer/editor Nadia Shammas):

Edward Said talks about Orientalism in very negative terms because it reflects the prejudices of the west towards the exotic east. But I was having fun thinking of Orientalism as a genre like Cowboys and Indians is a genre – they’re like a fairy tale genre.

Which I find fascinating, because he literally describes the problem with his approach, and still somehow misses it. Same here, in this interview with the Hooded Utilitarian (via artist Trungles):

As for the charge of Orientalism, I knew it was going to come up no matter what, so why not embrace it? More broadly, I’ve always liked genres that have a degree of exploitation to them like horror films. They play on these really crass and appealing elements that also exist in 1,001 Nights or French Orientalist paintings. It was fun to think of Orientalism as a sensationalized genre like Cowboys and Indians, which is a very poor representation of the reality of the American West, but fun to think of as a fantastical genre. And at this point in history, most people who watch things in the Cowboys and Indians genre totally realize it paints an inaccurate image of what the West was like … well actually you know there are people who watch cowboy films and think that’s what it must have been like. In fact, I’m pretty sure George W. Bush is one of those guys whose political beliefs are shaped by those films.

This is interesting to me, because the “fairy tale genre” version of a distant past is something I’m genuinely interested in. Many of the stories I’ve written are trying to engage with a past that I, as a brown person, can no longer access because of an interruption from “outside” (British colonialism, to be specific). A direct channel has been broken/damaged, and one of the ways that a writer can find an intimate connection to a past that was torn from them is by recreating a personal version of this past, and reimagining the present in relation with it. What Thompson’s trying to do, though, is to ignore this damage, and its relationship with the people he’s caricaturing, and use it as fodder for something that the people affected by this stuff not only don’t get a say in but also don’t get to protest because, “Why are you taking it so seriously when I said it was all in fun.”

As Trungles says:

Orientalism, misappropriation, and all the baggage that come with it wouldn’t be such a huge pain if we didn’t value the exoticized fantasy of people of color – our stories, our foods, our scents, our iconography – more so than actual living, breathing people of color.

Three

Since I’ve been obsessed with Fleabag series 2, which is about to end, I couldn’t really recommend anything else to you. I loved series 1, but with a few reservations, specifically to do with how the title character’s central trauma was revealed. I was definitely excited about series 2, but didn’t expect it to end up pretty much my favourite set of tv episodes in the last few years, since Chewing Gum, in fact, which I recommended in these pages a few editions ago, or maybe since Russian Doll, which I recommended even more recently.

With every episode of series 2, Phoebe Waller-Bridge made me a bigger and bigger fan of her writing, particularly of scenes of people trying to communicate around a central conflict because relationships would break down if they tried to communicate through it. “Fleabag” herself is one of my favourite tv characters in ages – a person who superficially reads as horrible but who makes you sympathise deeply with her struggle.

I think there’s a reason these three series came to mind – these are all shows written by women, about difficult women, which don’t try to convince you that they deserve affection, they just get on with the business of telling their stories.

Which is why, especially if you’re tired of Serious Drama with Serious Men going about Being Serious written by other Serious Men – fuck them, watch Fleabag instead.

Four

This commonplace book entry is from February 2019, Jason Kottke writing about the photograph ‘Migrant Mother’. The whole article is worth a read, and the video he links is well worth watching, but here’s some highlights pulled from various parts of the article:

The cultural story of Migrant Mother is that this is a white woman who came west during the Great Depression for migrant work. The real story is more complicated. The woman was identified in the late 1970s as Florence Owens Thompson, and as she told her story, we learned some things that Lange didn’t have time to discover during her fleeting time at the camp… Thompson was a full-blooded Cherokee born in Indian Territory (which later became the state of Oklahoma). As this NY Times review of Sarah Meister’s book on the photograph says, if people had known the woman wasn’t white, the photo may not have had the impact it did…

“Her biggest fear,” recalled son Troy Owens, “was that if she were to ask for help [from the government], then they would have reason to take her children away from her. That was her biggest fear all through her entire life.”

The stories we tell about photographs change as we change and as our culture changes. Yes, Migrant Mother is a symbol of the hardship endured by many during the Great Depression. But Migrant Mother is also the portrait of a fiercely independent Native American single mother who fought to provide for her family and keep them together during the most difficult time in our nation. That’s a story worth hearing today.

Filed under #history and #race.