December 18, 2018

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Dire diagnosis

Harrison's memoir of living with cancer delivers humour, honesty and hope

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/6/2016 (927 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Images are often able to produce emotion and make meaning when both words and logic fall short. So, in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis at age 37, Toronto-based artist and writer Teva Harrison chose to process her illness by creating comics.

Initially appearing as an online graphic series for The Walrus, Harrison’s print memoir In-Between Days chronicles her life with metastatic breast cancer through twin narratives of comics and words, each page of black-and-white illustrations accompanied by a written anecdote.

Harrison documents her journey from the initial diagnosis and subsequent treatment methods to losing certainty while trying to maintain a level of independence.

Harrison’s illness also necessitates the memoir’s striking, unconventional format, as she describes days where drawing is physically too difficult, but writing is still manageable. She makes clever use of the in-between space of a prose novel and traditional graphic narrative to convey both visceral immediacy and lingering introspection.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 4/6/2016 (927 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Images are often able to produce emotion and make meaning when both words and logic fall short. So, in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis at age 37, Toronto-based artist and writer Teva Harrison chose to process her illness by creating comics.

Initially appearing as an online graphic series for The Walrus, Harrison’s print memoir In-Between Days chronicles her life with metastatic breast cancer through twin narratives of comics and words, each page of black-and-white illustrations accompanied by a written anecdote.

Harrison documents her journey from the initial diagnosis and subsequent treatment methods to losing certainty while trying to maintain a level of independence.

Harrison’s illness also necessitates the memoir’s striking, unconventional format, as she describes days where drawing is physically too difficult, but writing is still manageable. She makes clever use of the in-between space of a prose novel and traditional graphic narrative to convey both visceral immediacy and lingering introspection.

In-Between Days finds Harrison in a constant state of negotiation with both her body and her surroundings. She triages not only her daily tasks, but her expectations for future ones as well, aware she is living on stolen time while simultaneously being robbed of time by her illness.

</p>

The use of very specific medical terminology throughout the memoir is at times deliberately jarring, causing the reader to struggle, along with Harrison, to reconcile her doctors’ words with the physical impact of her illness. Her treatment to slow the metastasis also means the former marathon runner must also slow down and change in ways she had not anticipated.

Throughout Harrison’s constant reassessment of both her illness and herself, she sketches stillness, motion and always the spaces in between — one arresting image shows her dancing with her husband, her feet on top of his; she is still, he moves as she holds him, they sway in circles together. Although Harrison’s panels often depict small moments such as these, teeming with life and movement, her most visually tense images are also often the sparsest, where white space on the page threatens to eclipse the author’s work completely. Here, the accompanying narrative reveals "the fear of being forgotten, of being erased," or of being remembered only through cancer.

Harrison takes great care to humanize herself and her family without humanizing her illness, because "cancer isn’t a person that cares." Uncovering how people who do care might truthfully relate to cancer, Harrison discusses the pressure to live (and write) a recognizable portrait of someone living with metastasis. Working against these expectations, In-Between Days is noticeably devoid of words such as "battle" and "fighter," and Harrison instead remarks on feeling like a "cancer fraud," hair and breasts still intact, her old life almost within reach on days she feels well.

</p>

Chronicling the women in her family, Harrison traces her Jewishness alongside the heredity of her illness, telling a story that is as much about female personhood as it is about cancer. She notes how difficult it often is for women to put their own comfort first, and encourages them to reach out and form community, not just around illness and death, but around living and aging too.

Ultimately, Harrison’s memoir depicts a woman navigating her illness by doing just this — actively reaching out to make new memories for herself and her loved ones.

Although she often reflects on the uncertainty of a life in-between days, the humour, honesty and hope that infuses Harrison’s story will undoubtedly resonate with readers.

Nyala Ali writes about gender in comics and music.

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