Mistake House Magazine: One of the central concerns—and one of the lightning rods—in your work especially in The Diary of a Teenage Girl and A Child’s Life and Other Stories is a cultural dilemma regarding adolescent girls’ maturation and sexuality. On the one hand, girls are often considered to be “good” and “pure” only if they show no sexuality, but on the other, girls are often characterized as sexually attractive and imperiled. That is, often unlike boys, teenage girls’ sexuality is denied and is often masked, ignored, or manipulated, including in media and advertising. Your graphic fiction makes a bold move in openly imaging girls’ sexual maturation but also showing the dangers of the way denying this sexuality, manipulating it, or stigmatizing it harms girls by leaving them without sensible guidance and therefore more vulnerable to shame and physical or emotional damage. This idea is one of the readings of A Child’s Life in Elizabeth Marshall and Leigh Gilmore’s “Girlhood in the Gutter: Feminist Graphic Knowledge and the Visualization of Sexual Precarity” (Women’s Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2015). From your point of view as a graphic artist, could you speak to the idea that your work, rather than being shocking, is perhaps instead an outspoken meditation on the dangers of cultural puritanism and lack of realistic understanding?
Phoebe Gloeckner: Hmm. To consider my work as “an outspoken meditation on the dangers of cultural puritanism and lack of realistic understanding” makes me laugh! Not because the idea is outrageous or implausible; I see how this statement might ring true regarding my work. I suppose I laugh because I’m trying to imagine what my work would look like if I started out with the goal of creating “an outspoken meditation on the dangers of cultural puritanism and lack of realistic understanding.” I’m sure the result would be self-conscious drivel. What has consistently driven my work has been the confusion and awe of existence; living while trying to make sense of the torments that must be endured to balance out the inexplicable good luck of having been born.
In relation to this thought, I’ll mention that in my role as a professor, students are often required to write a preparatory thesis statement before beginning a project, particularly at the graduate level. For me, this requirement conflicts with the natural creative process of many artists—-the reason or motivation driving creative work is not often articulated or is “unarticulatable” and is only discovered during the process of creating the work, or even after the fact.
On the other hand, though, a thesis document may serve as a “plan,” keeping a student on track towards completion. Nevertheless, it seems to often impose arbitrary limitations for some students, constricting discovery.
MH: The “gutter”—referred to in the title of Marshall and Gilmore’s article above—is, in comics, the white space between the panels. The gutter is understood as the space in which viewers/readers create narrative sequence by filling in or understanding what happens in the blanks or in-between spaces. The drawings and narrative sequences in your work have not placed explicit images “in the gutter” or left them to the reader’s imagination. You have drawn difficult and extreme moments unambiguously. In part, we understand that this strategy is because you are normalizing trauma as needing to be understood as happening in ordinary, everyday life (in the domestic or daily sphere, right in front of us, but suppressed and ignored). Given your directness, we are curious about how you, as an artist, think of the gutters, the blank spaces, and the viewer’s experience of narrative sequence.
PG: Of course, Marshall and Gilmore were also playing with the word gutter literally—suggesting that in my work, traumatic sexual experience is somehow removed from the gutter with all its most lurid connotations.
As I sit writing now, I feel very aware of the spaces between letters, and the space between the groups of letters that form words. And the period or full stop separating groups of words forming sentences. And the full return that separates paragraphs made of sentences made of words made of letters. Where is the gutter in prose? Perhaps it doesn’t lie in the spaces between words or groups of words, but exists virtually as the infinite empty space populated, one assumes, by information left out of the writing. “Superfluous” details and opinions or facts that don’t support a point we’re trying to make.
Anyway, the point is, all communication is littered with ellipses and gutters, not just comics.
It may seem like I’m “normalizing” sexual and emotional trauma, to illustrate how common and unacknowledged it is, but when I’m drawing or writing, I don’t have any particular intent. I think I’m really trying to reflect what the experience feels like, which is often dissociative; one can be rendered sort of numb while experiencing, or even remembering, traumatic events. It’s as though you’re totally aware that something is happening (or has happened), but you can hardly believe it. You are stunned, not fully aware of your own participation; instead, you become a spectator, watching what’s happening to you without allowing yourself to feel the inevitable cascade of emotions that you know would be unbearable. You protect yourself by dividing yourself, removing yourself from the experience. This is not a conscious action; it seems to be an automatic response. Dissociation is also not truly protective; you will feel those emotions later, somehow or another, like it or not.
I think the aware, yet dissociative, response I experience when recalling certain life events sometimes gives my work a matter-of-fact quality while the content is actually rather wrenching. I also wonder how a creative “fugue state” differs from dissociation… they feel rather similar. My stories say, “This is what happened. I saw it. Make of it what you will.” I’m showing myself this truth as much as I’m sharing it with the reader. While it’s often quite difficult to re-experience certain events, I’m driven to do it because I need to get the phantoms out. And I’m very aware that other people have experienced similar things. Childhood traumas may be invisible but tend to influence our lives as adults in subtle or disastrous ways.
It’s always interesting to hear interpretations of your own work, especially when conscious intentionality is assumed. But in reality, most artists I know are not working from rules or guidelines or predetermined strategies. It’s usually much more a matter of staring at a piece of paper or a screen, trying to drown out all the conflicting thoughts and emotions that clamor to be released through an aperture as tiny as the tip of a pencil. Eventually, if one is fortunate, the clearest, most flexible voice will work its way through and spill out upon the page, making what could not previously have been expressed suddenly visible or legible, awaiting refinement.
Even though I haven’t avoided drawing scenes that might cause discomfort, that certainly doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be found in the gutter; what’s in there, of course, is time. Or thought. I will add that although images in comics are generally presented sequentially, their sequence doesn’t always represent linear time—it might also suggest concurrence, or tangent. The non-sequitur juxtaposition of two images might also suggest intrusion of thought—or function as a self-reflexive disruption intentionally negating the illusion of the passage of time on the page.
MH: You have written about the history of the censorship of comics, for example in your 1989 article in ETC: A Review of General Semantics (Fall 1989). You referred there to “the picture series as means of communication between human beings,” beginning with the cave paintings at Lascaux. You go on to trace the art historical arc of picture series and comics, arriving at the censoring Comic Book Code in the 1950s, established by the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency. You describe both the way that comic artists have had to “innovate and exercise freedom of speech” and the way that comics have been appropriated in all kinds of contexts for educational purposes. Now, almost thirty-five years later, this tussle continues. Some of us heard you speak on a panel discussion about Banned Comic Books at the Central Public Library in St. Louis, at a time when hundreds of books are being “disappeared” from libraries for openly addressing issues of trauma, gender identity, sexuality, race, etc. On that panel you said something like, “People experience these things. How is it helpful to pretend as if they don’t happen?” Would you elucidate and expand this idea and share the ways that you see comics providing an opportunity for people to feel seen and witnessed?
PG: A page of text takes a certain effort to read. Images, however, can be understood on some level almost instantaneously. Comics take advantage of the power and immediacy of images, but this power can also put them at a disadvantage when viewed by the censorious.
In one instance, French border security agents prevented a box of one of my books (A Child’s Life) from entering France. They thumbed through the book and a few images convinced them that the book was “child pornography.” Gary Podesto, former mayor of Stockton, California, called the same book a “handbook for pedophiles,” demanding its removal from public libraries. In each of these cases, the focus was on certain images while dismissing their context. I wouldn’t say that these responses constituted a protest against “addressing issues of trauma, gender identity, sexuality, race, etc.” because such issues were not in question—the problem was that the images had been misinterpreted by being “read” out of context. Their real meaning escaped the French agents and the former mayor.
In Mexico, newspapers often publish images that would upset an American audience. For example, in Cuidad Juárez, there are two major papers: el Diario and PM. El Diario de Ciudad Juárez looks very much like most US newspapers; crime is reported, but photographs of crime scenes rarely show the aftermath of violent crime explicitly, opting to publish more neutral images, for example, a photo of police milling around a street corner, putting up yellow crime scene barrier tape. El Periodico PM de Ciudad Juárez, on the other hand, regularly publishes explicit photos of victims of violent homicide without obscuring the faces of the dead or the gruesome evidence of inflected harm.
There are many who prefer PM to el Diario. One such person told me that they don’t trust the government or the police, and if they were told someone had been murdered, they wouldn’t believe it unless they saw a photo. To them, the truth was visual; words could not be trusted. Of course, this opinion could easily change as awareness grows of the capabilities of AI and automated image manipulation, but the point is, photographs (when unedited or believed to be so), often seem to have more credibility than words alone.
I recently read an argument put forth, I believe, by a parent of one of the child victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. In response to media and individuals that claimed that there had been no such tragedy, that it was all a hoax, the parent said that they’d support publishing photos of dead children taken at the scene, not only to “prove” what had occurred, but also to shock people into realizing the devastation caused by gun violence. Maybe then, the parent said, more people would support stronger laws controlling the accessibility of firearms.
In American culture, where there are more guns than there are people, US media, which is both puritanical and prurient, insulates us from exposure to the sequelae of violent acts and accidents involving firearms. Although we are bombarded with lurid headlines, we are protected from viewing, in the case of the Sandy Hook massacre, the shattered bones and torn flesh of 20 first grade students.
Would Alex Jones, Infowars, and others who cried “fake news!” following the Sandy Hook incident have seemed less credible if photos of the massacre had been made public? I don’t know. I suspect that they might have responded by declaring that the photos were fake as well.
Nevertheless, the parent who suggested publishing such photos in order to make people “believe” desperately needed their suffering to be acknowledged, even if that meant sharing photos of their dead child’s body. To face an incredulous, unempathetic, and often anonymous audience when declaring that your child has been murdered or that you have been sexually assaulted compounds and complicates the primary trauma.
In The New York Times yesterday, there was an article on this topic. It discusses the dissemination on Twitter of graphic photographs taken of the victims of a mass shooting at a Texas mall this week. Many Twitter users complained, upset that the company had not quickly removed the images, worrying that families of victims would be further harmed. Some users seemed to re-post the images for shock value, but others shared them to shine a stark light on the realities of gun violence, protesting the impotence of firearms legislation and the overbearing influence of the National Rifle Association on lawmakers.
Clare Wardle (co-founder of the Information Futures Lab at Brown University) is quoted in the article as saying that she “favored graphic images of noteworthy events remaining online, with some kind of overlay that requires users to choose to see the content…Often, we see this kind of imagery in other countries and nobody bats an eyelid. But then it happens to Americans and people say, ‘Should we be seeing this?’”
I’m not arguing that it’s better to publish more explicit photographs, but “witnessing” a traumatic situation in a way that truly reflects the experience of the victim may make that situation more difficult to ignore or discount.
I believe that drawings, paintings, and other forms of image-making can have the same power as traditional photographs to “make things real.” Why? Aren’t drawings by nature fabrications, whether they are made from direct observation, pulled from memory, or drawn from imagination? Yes, but the act of creating a drawing demands a connection to and an interpretation of the situation depicted; it is not “real” in the sense that a photograph is perceived to be real, but nevertheless, they often can communicate emotional realities in ways photographs can’t (this idea could be expanded but it would require 3000 more pages).
And that gets back to the idea of gutters, I guess. An image that suggests a crime occurred, without showing the crime, requires the viewer/reader to “fill in the blanks,” to imagine what actually occurred. We’re talking about the function or meaning of gutters in comics, which is very specific, but all media requires us to work to understand “the full story” based on the information presented. No matter how objective an author attempts to be, choices (tantamount to manipulations) are always made, some information must always be omitted, other related information must be added, in order to create a novel or a documentary film that conforms to a narrative structure. The viewer needs to populate all the interstices by drawing from their own experience and using their imagination to visualize what’s described in words or what’s implied in the gutters of a comic or in cross-fades between one scene and the next in a film. Journalists, filmmakers, novelists, and cartoonists, whether describing an actual situation or presenting a fantastical world, can never really give us “the full story.” In a way, the viewer “co-authors” a story, each individual interpreting it, understanding it, and responding to it in a different way.
I’m very aware of this when I’m working. I’m more interested in expressing emotional truth, which is undeniably subjective. Even though all of my stories are based in fact (often my own experience), I’m more interested in communicating what something felt like rather than presuming to present a more literal “truth.”
So, when I draw “what happened” without leaving it up to the imagination of the viewer, it feels like a far more honest choice. But again, I’m making choices. If I draw a teenager giving a blow-job to her mother’s boyfriend, there are a million things I’m not showing; maybe he hugged her for a moment afterwards, maybe there was some tenderness. If I look at my work, I think I’m trying to fill in the blanks to supply information that seems to be systematically suppressed. In my autobiographical work, I want to show the daggers that have been made invisible in our culture and many others; if you can’t see the dagger, how can you really understand the damage it’s done?
The same ideas influence the story I’m working on now, about Ciudad Juárez, a city that was named “The Murder Capital of the World” 10-15 years ago. In 2010, official numbers report that 3084 people were murdered, although many sources claim that number exceeded 4000. Few people were unaffected by this violence; whether they knew the victims or not, the evidence was visible—bodies in the streets, sometimes staged to shock the public. Buildings were riddled by the impact of bullets. The morgues overflowed.
Because the violence was such a persistent presence in the city, the population suffered generalized trauma. The fear was palpable. I have recreated crime scenes, shown the bodies of the dead. The work is not finished, but I have already been accused of being insensitive, of threatening to “re-traumatize” the victims by explicitly reflecting this aspect of daily experience.
To avoid showing the violence, however, would seem disingenuous. False. The only way I can reflect that period in Juárez, I feel, is to show what was seen. To omit the depiction of violence would feel disrespectful to both the living and the dead. Not showing the violence protects no one, but it makes it easier to forget.
MH: In an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “My Cartoonish Cancellation” (November 10, 2022) you recount a series of events in which a vocal subset of students reacted with “shallow readings” and harm claims over the introduction of challenging work by comic artists like R. Crumb or Art Spiegelman. In painful detail you describe students’ aggressive unwillingness to engage with art that tackles difficult subject matter in blunt, sometimes provocative ways. A very recent article in The Chronicle by Emma Pettit, “Power Shift” (April 5, 2023) itemizes a series of similar controversies and begins “…the teaching of college students can seem like an exercise in avoiding a tripwire.” Why do you think that the classroom in higher education has become a fraught place where consideration of difficult or complex content is seen as unsafe? Do you have any ideas about why this might be? Are there any methods educators, administrators, and students could employ to rethink this willful ignorance and combative resistance regarding the arts and humanities?
PG: I’ve been thinking about the role of the artist in academia. I’m sort of an inadvertent professor of art. Deep down, not even that deep, I don’t believe that art, the way I think of art, can be taught. When I went to San Francisco State University, the art department there was focused on fine arts instruction, although “practical” courses in graphic design were offered as well. “Instruction” was fairly minimal; whether by design or laziness, I don’t know. We were given an assignment, to paint a self-portrait, for example, without any implied grading rubric. This worked well for me. I found that I learned best by simply doing, making things, figuring it out more or less on my own, and by seeing how other students worked. If we wanted advice from the professor, we asked for it. When we were finished, much was learned in critique, getting responses from the class.
So the teaching was experiential. Now that I teach, I see that many students are not like me; they want rules and guidelines. They actually ask about grading rubrics. This is a struggle for me to comprehend. But somehow, it seems related to the idea of “safety” in the classroom; some students only feel “safe” when they know what to expect, when there’s a clear connection between their effort and their grade. But I resist this with art students; they can show up to class and turn in their assignments on time, and yet, they can still “fail” to meet their own expectations or to receive the sort of praise in critique they had hoped for. This certainly doesn’t mean they won’t get a good grade in the class. They need to persist and learn from failure. More importantly, they need to learn about themselves, to learn what they want to do by doing. I can share my observations with them and give them advice when they ask for it, but I can’t tell them how to produce honest, visceral work. An artist’s job is to observe and reflect the world; it’s not an easy task, and mad technical skills do not guarantee that an artist can create moving work. It’s a scary world after graduation; there is no clear path to success for an artist.
Of course, many students are career-driven and see their assignments as potential portfolio pieces; they become constrained by presupposing what potential employers may want to see. There is nothing wrong with this. One must make a living. The danger is falling into mimicry, making work that looks like work that has been commercially successful. Doing this feels “safe,” I suppose, and it may be a good strategy for some students. But if I were hiring an artist or purchasing their work, I’d rather see work that feels original, that takes some risks.
MH: Could you speak more specifically to part of the previous question: why you think that the classroom in higher education has become a fraught place where consideration of difficult or complex content is seen as unsafe. And what your ideas are about why this might be?
PG: This is a complicated question. I’ve got many ideas about why this might be, but I have no real answers. I’ve often heard discussions about the power hierarchy of the classroom. If one understands that an instructor is in a position of power in relation to the students, then one can imagine how that power might be misused in a variety of situations. Grades might be affected or letters of recommendation denied by a professor who activates this power by refusing to acknowledge their own prejudices or by acting in malice against a particular student. A professor might use the influence of their position to initiate a sexual relationship with a student.
I’ve got to admit that I’m ideologically inclined to reject the idea that my power exceeds that of the student, which seems like a rather dubious statement considering that I am employed by an institution which functions and is structured upon a latticework of clearly delineated hierarchies. Yes, I am a teacher, but I’d rather my students feel empowered rather than diminished, even in the context of our potentially opposing roles or opinions. In reality, however, many students experience the student-teacher relationship as inherently polarized, as evidenced in the experiences I described in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
I’ve already mentioned one type of safety that some students crave; a rubric that they can measure their work against. Admittedly, I often resist providing that because it seems misleading—the whole could easily prove to be more (or less) than the sum of its parts. And grades or ratings, from my point of view, are a woefully inadequate and misleading way to judge art students (and nearly everything else). I often ask students to write several paragraphs evaluating their own work and participation in class, honestly discussing both accomplishments and shortcomings, focusing on what they learned by doing. I learn a lot from these self-evaluations, and take them into consideration when grading. Because like it or not, I must grade.
So, professors have control over their teaching style and the manner that they exercise authority (giving grades, etc.). A professor also has the power to dictate what is taught, and how it is taught.
I’ll preface my thoughts on this by saying that I often ask students what they believe an artist must know in order to be successful. Usually, the responses are on the lines of “an artist needs to know Photoshop,” or “an artist needs to know how to promote themselves.” While acknowledging that these statements may be true in a practical sense, I add, “an artist needs to know everything.” And what I mean by that is that they need to pay attention to the world. If there’s something they don’t understand, they should be open to finding out about it, because everything is interconnected, and their job is to reflect the experience of being alive in this world. This is true even if they are interested in building alternate worlds populated with fantastic creatures, because everything and anything they imagine has its origins in their experience and observations of this world.
Ok, the idea that an artist needs to know “everything” extends to my thoughts about the sort of work I should “expose” the students too. I believe that the more work they see by artists that preceded them, the better. If they are upset by something they see in class, they can say so. I’d want them to focus on how and why the work has affected them in this way. It’s important; our strongest reactions teach us much about ourselves. But what if, instead, their response to the work is hostile, as it was in my Fall 2020 Comics class? Some students objected when I showed one image by cartoonist Robert Crumb along with work by many other artists. The presentation was intended to give a broad overview of what comics can be. The Crumb image seemed relatively benign to me; I saw no reason to precede it with a “trigger warning.” I was shocked by the response, and even more surprised when their anger turned toward me, as the deliverer of this image. What followed was a cascade of events that compounded over two years, culminating in an excoriating article about me in the student paper.
How could the situation have been avoided? Perhaps I should have known better than to mention R. Crumb. In retrospect, this is true, I could have saved myself from a lot of heartache, but at what cost? R. Crumb is one the most important figures in the history of comics. There are few that would argue this point.
Maybe I could have presented his work differently, provided more context. This is also true, but didn’t seem necessary, as I was presenting a brief and broad historical overview of comics on the first day of class.
The expectation that professors will always provide social and political context before presenting potentially provocative works in the classroom is burdensome and problematic. I see advantages in allowing university students to experience works of art with minimal preamble. First impressions and “cold readings” are extremely valuable. I believe we learn more about the art and about ourselves by examining our initial responses to it. A trigger warning will always direct the viewer to notice whatever quality is being cautioned against. Other aspects of the work (perhaps far more important or impactful) will be diminished in importance. When it comes to Art, I believe that trigger warnings often inhibit or distort the viewer’s experience, manipulating the viewer into seeing the work in a particular way. Analyzing our own responses to the work and discussing them afterwards while adding more context to deepen understanding seems like the least encumbered way of teaching art.
So, what is the answer? I don’t have a global solution. Personally, I’ve decided to issue a “general trigger warning” on the syllabus for the purpose of protecting students and myself by providing “informed consent.” I state that Comics are often intentionally provocative, and that students should expect to encounter imagery or opinions that could possibly offend them. Some comics are sexually explicit, depict violence, or may seem overtly racist, misogynist, or politically charged. Provocation is a tool that cartoonists use frequently, often to deliver an ironic message. I advise them to expect to occasionally view material they might find problematic, and to articulate their response when that occurs. I advise them to speak with me before the course begins if they wish to discuss particular concerns. Alternatively, they can elect to not take the course.
I want to add that I don’t censor students; they are free to produce the work that interests them.
Why do students seem so reactive to certain material at this period in time? It seems to me that they are responding to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Most of my students seemed stunned and deeply depressed after the election of Donald Trump. His reprehensible, mocking attacks on women and marginalized groups seemed to land like a shower of bullets on the psyche of many young adults. After years of such bombardment, my students had had enough; they reacted to anything that smacked of the sort of “hurtfulness” that seemed to reverberate in all spheres of public discourse. They seemed to be in a state of hyper-vigilance, responding to any perceived slight with hostility. They were stressed out.
Then came COVID. Much has been written about the deleterious effects of shut-downs and quarantines imposed on students; the fear and isolation, sadness, loss of social connection, etc. My students were suffering a myriad of emotional stressors often compounded by physical illnesses.
It was a crazy time. Because I taught my Fall 2020 Comics course in more or less the same way for many years without complaint, it seemed evident to me that the anger directed toward me that semester was fueled by a cacophony of events that had little, if anything, to do with me as an individual. In fact, it seemed as if some students were unable to see me as a “person”; I was a professor, holding a position of “power,” and as I was in their proximity, I became a target at which they could easily aim their angst.
Of course, I am a real person. Like my students, I was suffering in that bleak era, and their attacks wounded me, compounding my suffering. I felt helpless.
Nevertheless, it’s difficult to blame the students for behaving as they did; I understood their emotions and, to a certain extent, their reasoning and their intent. However, they were misguided, tilting at windmills. I was never their enemy.
But I guess… when people feel threatened, they are less likely to see nuance. In the case of the R. Crumb image and other material and artists presented in my class, the students seemed to judge the work in very black-and-white terms; was it good or was it bad? Was it acceptable or offensive? There was hardly room for discussion. Such polarized thinking permeated our culture at the time, and continues to, but there are signs that non-binary ways of thinking may be reemerging, becoming more permissible.
MH: What do you understand to be the healthiest and most useful response to artistic and cultural censorship? How should a writer or artist respond to both internalized censors and to external ones? What are the responsibilities of the artist, the writer, the viewer/reader, and the citizen in today’s culture?
PG: Internalized censors are always the most dangerous impediments to genuine expression. Dangerous because they are the most difficult to resist.
Censorship imposed from the outside is often invigorating. It’s different from having your work ignored or discounted, which is pretty dreary. If your work has been censored or banned, you’ve hit a chord, you’ve caused an emotional reaction. It forces you to look at your work from another perspective. Which can be inspiring. “Why is this group of people offended by what I’ve done?” You compare this to your own motivations and your process of creating the work in the first place. If you feel your work has been misunderstood or misinterpreted, you might amplify your message, because clearly, you’ve hit a nerve; there’s something important that shouldn’t be repressed.
Art (writing, visual art, comics, etc.) is inevitably a reflection of society. Great creative works of any kind can show you or remind you of what you feel. There is always artifice involved in any creative work; the great lie will expose the truth. That is always the challenge; what is the “truth”? What is genuine? The truth may be unpleasant or mundane, upsetting or uplifting. The truth is what the author decides it to be—-what threads are being followed, or woven, what threads are left to fray? Any situation, or person, or place, can be examined from countless perspectives.
MH: What are the responsibilities of the artist, the writer, the viewer/reader, and the citizen in today’s culture?
PG: This question is difficult to answer, because it implies that the responsibilities of “the artist, the writer, the viewer/reader, and the citizen” have changed, that today’s culture demands new responsibilities of creators and citizens regarding the production and consumption of art.
I don’t think the responsibilities of creators have changed—the artist’s role has always been to reflect society, and in doing so, make the unseen seen. The best art has always done this.
It’s true that works of art or literature from the past sometimes reflect aspects and attitudes of society that might disturb us today. What is the proper response? Discussion. Thought. Not erasure or censorship.
A question heard often nowadays is “Who has the right to tell whose story?” Several years ago, a controversy arose over the publication of American Dirt, a book about the saga of a Mexican migrant by Jeanine Cummins. On vox.com, Constance Grady wrote, “…author Jeanine Cummins has identified as white, calling her family mostly white “in every practical way” a few years ago. (She has since begun to discuss a Puerto Rican grandmother.) Cummins had written a story that was not hers—and, according to many readers of color, she didn’t do a very good job of it. In fact, she seemed to fetishize the pain of her characters at the expense of treating them as real human beings.
There are so many questions that the conversation about American Dirt brings up, particularly for me, because I am a White person and I’m writing a novel focusing on the lives of a Mexican family in Ciudad Juárez at a violent time. I was sensitive to the implications of this from the beginning and responded by throwing myself into to the project to the point where it had changed me; I had been affected by my interactions with and relationships with the people I was writing about, and vice-versa. I would never pretend that I was representing the story in the way it might be told by the people it was about; my point of view was quite different in position, distance, and scope. I approach the story in such a way that my presence is apparent; I am an observer and a participant, and I cannot be objective. My very presence sullied and muddied any chance of objectivity.
Does my awareness or involvement in the story I’m writing spare me from criticism? Probably not, but I’m not allowing fear of reprimand to prevent me from creating work in a way that feels genuine to me. To censor oneself in order to please an imagined audience results in empty work.
MH: We believe, with the poet Rimbaud, that Je suis un autre, that the point of view of even autobiographical narratives (whether text-based or visual or both) is selective and represents a fictional point of view. Yet we are aware that some of your material has been derived from your own experience. And in a 2016 interview with Ariel Schrag you talk about having to have a sort of love for all of your characters when creating a story. You also mentioned that when you were reading your diary twenty years later, the distance allowed you to love that character in the diary, despite your dislike for her (your younger self) at the time. Could you speak about the roles of both distance and love in the approach to narratives? How does one address self-hatred?
PG: Self-hatred is fear; fear of being perceived as ugly, of being rejected, of not being believed of taken seriously. Self-hatred is a battle with an deeper self that believes it deserves love, that sees the beauty in its existence, that wants to live, in spite of the efforts of the world and the more superficial self to convince the inner self that it is worthless.
Speaking about time and distance, as you grow older, experience accrues, and the world sends additional messages which may not eradicate feelings of “worthlessness,” but make them easier to rationally question. At some point, you become better able to revisit past experience more empathetically. So, my feelings for Minnie (the character) were more loving and forgiving. I was able to see her more objectively, through a wide-angle lens, understanding the context of her life more broadly. Nearly as if she wasn’t me. It’s nearly impossible (at least for me) to see my life as I’m living it in meaningful context to society beyond me. I’m experiencing it and reacting to it internally. It takes time to see the whole picture.
How does one address self-hatred? I’m not sure, but I know it takes time. It also requires a certain generosity. We often judge ourselves far more harshly than we judge others. Of course, we tend to know ourselves better than others do, so maybe we think we know how “bad” we really are whether others see it or not. But again, the notions of badness or unworthiness that typically plague young women are informed by messages selectively received from the outside world. These messages, these measures of desirability or achievement, are arbitrary and subject to the whims of popular culture. They are difficult to block out. But we are all good enough. We are all lovable. The most reprehensible things said or committed by the most destructive personalities are the often result of years of narcissistic wounding, self-doubt, resentment, and anger, and maybe if we could understand why, we’d find a way to love such people. Not to forgive or excuse them, but to love them a little. I think. In theory.
But in the end, I’d like to say to anyone experiencing any degree of self-hatred right now, you are lovable. You are welcome in this world. You are worthy of good things. I know it.
MH: Could you talk about the role of artmaking in overcoming personal trauma? Is artmaking a healing and empowering process?
PG: Making art is the only thing I can do. The process can be empowering in that it liberates you from having been silenced—if that is the case—it liberates you in kind of a stealthy way; you’re not confronting these who silenced you directly, rather, you’re speaking to strangers, that mass of unknown people and you may be speaking with the past or with the future or the present you don’t know. You hope to be heard, but whether you are heard or not, you’ve done the best you could do, you’ve added your voice to the world. Which feels good.
Drawing, making art, like any tactile connection to the world, can be grounding, calming, and healing to an extent. Making work about traumatic events is not exactly healing. It requires the mind to spend time in scary places. But encapsulating an expression of that trauma outside of yourself in some form silences some of the pain associated with it.
MH: You have a hybridized background, initially as a medical student, then as a medical illustrator, and—from a young age—as a cartoonist in the tradition of radical, underground comics. Currently, and for about fifteen years, you are working on a project about a complex familial and cultural trauma in Juarez, Mexico. This project involves making dolls and maquettes and then photographing these three-dimensional scenarios, in lieu of hand-drawn illustrations. You are also, of course, a writer. Will you talk about the hybridization of media and visual and textual approaches? How do you adapt to and find the forms that are best suited for each project? Are there any mediums that you have thought about and not used, either because you haven’t found a project that suits the media or because it’s a media that you resist using?
PG: I guess technology has led me to imagine new ways of telling stories that, unfortunately, seem just out of my reach. With the Juárez project, I was excited when the iPad and iPhone were first released. The possibilities of creating a book that could be sort of a “readable movie” excited me, and I envisioned all the fantastic ways I could use technology emotively and expressively. I imagined that surely, by the time the book was nearing completion, I’d be able to create the experience I’d designed. However, advances in technology and the manner in which creative work can be produced and distributed have not moved in the direction I hoped for. For example, I had begun designing book chapters with Adobe products. Years ago, they released a beta plug-in for PhotoShop and InDesign which enabled the creation of books with interactive elements. I loved what I could do with these tools; I created pages of text which would dissolve at the touch of a finger, allowing an animation to emerge seamlessly behind the fading words—the plug-in allowed me to preserve the integrity of individual pages, controlling the flow and relationship of one page to the next while overlaying visual elements responding to the text in different ways. I’m probably not describing the process or results adequately, but I was entranced. Inspired.
To my great surprise and disappointment, Adobe somewhat abruptly made the plug-in unavailable, and I was left with many files I could no longer edit or view. It was kind of heart-breaking.
Related to this is the fact that technologies are quickly antiquated. A lot of work created digitally can no longer be viewed as intended because the technology used to access it is no longer supported. An easy example is the original Nintendo GameBoy™. I had one, and I used to love playing a game called Survival Kids. The GameBoy broke, and I couldn’t get a new one. They’re not made anymore, they’ve been replaced by new platforms, new devices. So, unless I find a functioning GameBoy on eBay, how can I revisit the experience of the world of Survival Kids which so fired my imagination? I can’t.
Concerned about such things, I suggested to University of Michigan librarian Dave Carter that he should look into a way to preserve video games. And he did! (See: https://alumni.umich.edu/michigan-alum/coolest-collection-campus/). The university now hosts the Computer and Video Game Archive, the first of its kind. I’m kind of proud of that, but it’s strange to think that if I were able to create the book I had originally envisioned, it would likely soon be relegated to a similar collection, perhaps the “Electronic Book Archive,” preserved, yet inaccessible outside of such a refuge.
As far as why I’m building sets and characters in three-dimensions instead over creating hand-drawn images, I’ll give you a simple answer to a complicated question; it made me feel closer to the city and people of Juárez, because I made them “tangible” in my studio.
MH: Before we end the interview, let’s talk about the film adaptation of your work. The Diary of a Teenage Girl was adapted as a film. In a 2015 interview with Whitney Joiner, you referenced reviews of the film adaptation of The Diary of a Teenage Girl that called the film a “celebration of adolescent female sexuality.” You expressed concern about these remarks as potentially belittling the very real dangers of both children’s psychological and physical experience. You also state that if you were given the opportunity to execute your undiluted creative vision for a film adaptation, it would “hurt to watch.” The film that did come out, while successful with audiences and critics, had several changes to the original story which fundamentally altered Minnie’s character and the dynamic between Minnie and Monroe, her mother’s boyfriend who seduces her. How have you grappled with the idea of letting your art be adapted to make something more palatable, especially if it leaves room for misinterpretation?
PG: I wouldn’t exactly call it misinterpretation. It’s interpretation; the film, I believe, reflects the response of the filmmaker to the book. Marielle Heller had a relationship with Minnie; she first read the book when she was quite young and knew early on that she wanted to do adapt it. She approached me first about turning the book into a play, which surprised me. I had been approached by several film directors before I met Marielle, but I resisted. I wasn’t ready to “relinquish” the book. But a play seemed different; it wouldn’t be seen by a wide audience, and I was curious to see what Heller would do. A few years later, she asked for the film rights, and I agreed, because by then I trusted her do do something genuine with the book. And she did. She made the film she wanted to make. She had a vision, and it became reality.
It’s true that it wasn’t exactly the film I would have made if I were a filmmaker. But that’s to be expected! Heller did take some liberties in giving Minnie more “agency,” allowing her to be less damaged, more in control of her own body and sexuality than she was in the book. The Minnie in the book was a little more lost, a little more neglected, a little more “intellectual” in an adolescent way, and more self-destructive in her choices. She was discovering her sexuality, but she was really looking for someone to care about her and sex brought her easy attention and was the only thing that seemed to make her feel loved. She was trying to find the sort of love and nurturance her parents should have given her but didn’t. She was vulnerable. She conflated sex and love. It made her feel wanted and “seen,” but she wasn’t seen.
I could have been more involved at script level, but I really wanted to give the director liberty to create the film she envisioned.
The film gave the character more “power” (whatever that means) but simplified her situation and robbed her of some complexity. I think there is usually some disappointment when a book is adapted for the screen; something is lost, but something is gained. It’s different
MH: And similarly, in your 2016 interview with Ariel Schrag, you spoke of a line that you didn’t write, which appeared in the film version of The Diary of a Teenage Girl. In the screenplay, the line comes from Minnie’s mom. She tells her daughter, “You’d be happier if you put yourself out there a bit—a little make-up, a skirt every once in a while, Jesus. Get a little attention. You have a kind of power, you just don’t know it yet.” You denounce the belief that it’s empowering to use one’s sexuality to evoke a false sense of self-worth. Since the hyper-sexualization of identity may have only become more prevalent over the last seven years since the film was released, how can young people and those who interact with young people address the question of the hyper-sexualization of identity, especially in the context of a hyper-activated repression of identity in culture?
PG: This is quite a question. Sex is a dangerous thing. Virginity is something to be “taken,” a woman is something to be “had,” an ass is something to be “tapped.” A girl possesses her sexuality, not as something she has agency over, but as something she is expected to relinquish, either out of generosity, expectations, or force. Sexuality is powerful, but to use one’s sexuality as social currency, even to bolster one’s sense of self-worth, seems inherently destructive. This question is incredibly complex and I can’t possibly answer it quickly, but it deserves to be thought about carefully.
MH: Do you ever play hooky? If you do, what is your favorite thing to do when you take off suddenly, as in a derive?
PG: If I have little time, I play Animal Crossing. Destroy the island and build it back up differently. And better. If I have more time, I like to go places (cities, countries, neighborhoods, businesses) I’ve never been and strike up conversations with strangers. Out of curiosity, with no ill intent.