Images of refugees and migrants flood our newspapers and screens every day, but their individual stories are often reduced to a series of stereotypes. Ironically, comics — so often associated with all kinds of crude stereotypes — are becoming an important resource for artists, activists, and refugees themselves to convey personal and powerful stories of war, displacement, and relocation.
● Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do is a remarkable example of a first-person refugee comic. In her preface, the Berkeley, Calif.-based Bui explains that this is her first graphic novel. It originated around 2002 as a graduate school oral history project on her Vietnamese refugee family. Her teaching career ate into the practical and emotional space she needed to adapt the oral history into a graphic memoir, but by 2011 she had developed it enough to realize that her own refugee narrative is also about the more universal relationship between parents and children.
Bui’s opening sequence shows how her son’s birth connected the artist to her mother’s experiences of having six children. The memoir moves back through her parents’ lives in order to recount each of these births, which in turn allows her to track her family’s movements from their Vietnamese village to war-plagued cities, then on a terrifying boat journey that ends in a UN refugee camp in Malaysia. A few months later, family members in the U.S. sponsor their arrival in Chicago.
While she is close to her mother, Bui’s father is difficult and distant, and her parents eventually divorce. Using his oral testimonies, Bui recreates his life story. She shows how he is traumatized by a 1940s childhood caught between the fighting French and Japanese forces, and the subsequent famine and family dispersal.
If this sounds like difficult material, it is, but Bui’s skills at building narrative tension and conveying compassion in graceful words and gorgeous black-and-white drawings, washed with a warm brick red, produce a highly readable investigation of how parents and children negotiate love, sorrow, loneliness, homesickness, and letting go.
● Kate Evans is an established British cartoonist known for her newspaper comics about environmental activism, graphic guides to breastfeeding and parenting, and last year’s critically acclaimed Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg. Threads: From the Refugee Crisis is a print adaptation of her comics blog about volunteering in the Dunkirk and Calais "Jungle" migrant detention camps between 2015 and 2016, when the Jungle was dismantled by the French government.
The book is anecdotal and has a scrapbook feel. Evans uses a variety of grid layouts, double-page spreads, strips of typed text for the narrative voice-over, and shifts in palette to convey the richness of her own and others’ experiences in the camps. Brightly coloured pencil sketches reflect the impermanence of the migrants’ lives and mirror their own drawings created in the Jungle’s art therapy tent.
Calais is one of the traditional French lace-making towns, and Evans exploits this history metaphorically. Pieces of lace appear as backgrounds and fill the gutters between panels as visual signs of fragility and resilience. In both the drawings and the narrative, Evans reminds us that threads are the bare remnants of clothing but also the ties that bind seemingly disparate people, events, and places to each other.
In addition to the testimonials of migrant detainees, Evans shows the enormous volunteer effort in the camps, puts us in the shoes of a migrant caught by police trying to escape on a truck at the port of Calais and depicts some of the hateful online messages about refugees circulating in Britain as text messages popping up on her phone. She is self-aware about her privilege and self-deprecating about her relatively minor role as a volunteer, but ultimately it is the graphic narrative itself that stands as her contribution to combating the crisis.
● In a slightly different vein, Poppies of Iraq is a captivating graphic memoir that shows how war-torn Mosul was once a thriving and religiously diverse modern city. It is co-written by the established comics colourist Brigitte Findakly — who was born in Iraq but left with her family as a teenager — and her husband, the well-known French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim.
They may have collaborated on the book, but the story is entirely Findakly’s: it is her memoir of growing up in a middle-class Orthodox Christian family who remain loyal to the Iraq they love, despite its gradual disappearance first under Saddam Hussein and then the Islamic State.
Poppies of Iraq is clearly intended for Western readers (it was translated from French). It follows in the tradition of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, tracing the intrusion of an oppressive regime into family private life from the point of view of a child, so that readers less familiar with this history grow in knowledge along with the protagonist. As much as she shows the family’s incremental loss of freedoms, Findakly is nostalgic for the lost pleasures of childhood — including picnics and picking the eponymous poppies — and melancholic about her middle class family’s decline and eventual dispersal around the world.
The authors’ use of a classic French style of rounded caricatures, clear lines and lively colours recalls such childhood classics as the Madeline books and The Little Prince. The conventional comics grid is replaced by looser framing: the words of the adult narrator appear over sequential small, borderless rectangles (often six to eight a page) that offer little vignettes into a past life. Actual photographs appear as well, grounding the story in reality and haunting it with faded black-and-white snapshots of the past.
Each in its own way, these superb graphic narratives add nuance to conventional ideas about refugee lives. They also reveal a central paradox in contemporary graphic storytelling: despite their obviously unrealistic and caricatured representations, comics can sometimes generate more empathy and understanding than either pictures or words alone.
Candida Rifkind teaches Canadian literature and graphic narratives in the department of English at the University of Winnipeg.
The Best We Could Do
By Thi Bui
Harry N. Abrams, 336 pages, $30
Threads: From the Refugee Crisis
By Kate Evans
Verso, 177 pages, $33
Poppies of Iraq
By Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim, translated by Helge Dascher