Category Archives: 100 Must-Read Graphic Memoirs

Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna. Translated from the French by Helge Dascher.

Year of the Rabbit by Tian Veasna Title: Year of the Rabbit
Author: Tian Veasna
Translated from the French by Helge Dascher
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
ISBN: 978-1770463769
Genre: Graphic Memoir
Pages: 380
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

History is witness to totalitarian regimes. Regimes that are autocratic, xenophobic, paranoid, and highly regressive. Khmer Rouge was one such regime that ruled Cambodia between 1975 and 1979. They murdered hundreds of thousands of their perceived opponents, and also tortured and killed citizens, under the pretext of creating a better world, where everyone was equal. The Cambodian genocide led to the death of 1.5 to 2 million people in that time period.

Life under the regime was tough. Everything was out of bounds – culture, art, schools, hospitals, banking, and currency. What ruled the roost was agriculture. The ruling body was called the Angkar, which took all major decisions.

“Year of the Rabbit” is a story of a family in the times of Khmer Rouge. Tian Veasna was born just three days after the Rouge takeover in Cambodia, and this book is the story of his family journeying from Phnom Penh in the hope of freedom.

The book is universal in its theme of freedom and what it means to live under a regime that has no empathy or humanity. Isn’t this what is being seen throughout the world right now? Even after decades of autocrats being and behaving in a manner that is harmful to the state, yet no one learns. The same mistakes are repeated. But, back to the book.

Despite all this, there were times I smiled through the book because Veasna also shows us the compassion of humans. Of how his family and relatives were treated with kindness by some along the way, and how at the same time, they lost some family. “Year of the Rabbit” shows us how horror becomes the everyday living, the routine, and that is scary enough. It shows us both sides – of blind faith in a person or organization, and at the same time the sparks of hope that things will get better.

The drawings are clear and precise. The stories are told from various family members’ perspectives, so you might tend to get lost sometimes, but the family tree given at the beginning is handy.

1975 Cambodia till 1979 Cambodia wasn’t an easy place to live in. I haven’t read much about that time in reference to the place and what happened. I had heard of Khmer Rouge but didn’t know enough. I am glad this book was published and brought these stories to light. Read “Year of the Rabbit”. You won’t be disappointed at all.

I Remember Beirut by Zeina Abirached

I Remember Beirut by Zeina Abirached Title: I Remember Beirut
Author: Zeina Abirached
Publisher: Graphic Universe
ISBN: 978-1467744584
Genre: Graphic Memoir
Pages: 96
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 5/5

It doesn’t take time to read a graphic memoir. However, it does take time for it to settle in your heart and mind, if you allow it to that is. I Remember Beirut is one such memoir – I don’t think it is spoken about all that much as Persepolis or Maus, but it is in the same vein and extremely relevant (sadly) even today, given the times we live in.

Zeina Abirached writes about growing up during the Lebanese Civil War. She remembers things that happened in Beirut and what it was like to be a child in such a time. Zeina remembers all sorts of things – the darkness, being hugged by her mother, the holes in her mother’s Renault, the colours, how her brother loved collecting shrapnel for his collection, and her backpack that had everything she wanted, if they ever had to be on the run.

I Remember Beirut is a book of childhood remembrances as seen through the eyes of a child. A childhood that was partially lost, a childhood that also had so many happy things in it – songs, laughter, and fun in the most unusual ways.

Abirached uses black and white drawings for this book and it works wondrously. Sometimes all you have is pitch black panels depicting what they have to in the most subtle manner. At others, the combination reflecting violence, happy times, or just humour works splendidly, with clean lines and patterns that add the extra touch to the memoir. Also, though quite short it worked for me, and also kept me wanting more.

I Remember Beirut is a marvellous look at East Beirut during the Civil War through the eyes of not only a child, but also involving her family, friends, and slowly coming to some realisations of how life can be during wartime.

Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim. Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong.

Grass by Keum Suk Gendry-Kim Title: Grass
Author: Keum Suk Gendry-Kim
Translated from the Korean by Janet Hong
Publisher: Drawn and Quarterly
ISBN: 9781770463622
Genre: Nonfiction, Graphic Memoir
Pages: 480
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5/5

 

Before reading Grass, I wasn’t aware of “comfort women”. I wasn’t aware of how they were treated by Japanese soldiers. These women were largely Korean and were forced into sexual slavery during the Japanese Occupation of Korea before and during World War II. This is the account of how the atrocity of war ruins women’s lives – no matter the country, no matter the place – the suffering of women is universal. Men go to battle. Women get raped. Men go to battle. Women must bear all consequences.

Grass is the story of a Korean girl named Okseon Lee (becoming Granny Lee Ok-sun) – from her childhood to how she became a comfort woman to depicting the cost of war and the importance of peace. The “comfort woman” experience was most traumatic for Korean women that took place from 1910 to 1945, till they were liberated from the Japanese.

This book is painstakingly honest and brutal. It moves the reader but does not take away from the story and the truth, as should be the case. It is as I said before a woman’s story as a survivor – undergoing kidnapping, abuse, and rape in time of war and imperialism.

Grass opens at a time in Granny Lee Ok-sun’s life when she travels back home to Korea in 1996, having spent fifty-five years as a wife and a mother in China. Kim’s interviews with Granny is what forms the base of this book. Some memories surface clearly, some don’t, and yet it doesn’t take away from the book at all.

To tell such a story through the graphic medium doesn’t reduce the significance or the emotional quotient of the narrative. I found myself most moved so many times in the course of this read. Just the idea that these women were not given the agency to think or feel for themselves, and treated with such brutality, made me think of PTSD and how they didn’t even have the vocabulary to explain this or understand what they were going through. All they knew was they had to be alive, no matter what. In the hope of either being saved by strangers, or finding ways to escape “comfort houses”, to get away from conditions where getting a proper meal is a luxury, where your child is taken away from you, where men constantly enter and exit at will, and ultimately to feel human.

The artwork by Kim is brilliant. The scenes that are tough to digest are portrayed with such beauty – in the sense that it exists, hovers above you as you read it, and yet somehow makes you understand, keeping the dignity of the women. I think also to a large extent, the book is what it is because of the translation – which is so nuanced and on point when it comes to brevity and communicating what it has to.

Grass is a book that needs to be read to understand how people get away with the utmost damage to the human soul. Given the fight of haves and have-nots, of gender differences, of how unequal society is, this book should be read, and reread to understand where violence and also empathy comes from.

I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir by Malaka Gharib

I Was Their American Dream-A Graphic Memoir by Malaka Gharib

Title: I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir
Author: Malaka Gharib
Publisher: Clarkson Potter
ISBN: 978-0525575115
Genre: Graphic Memoir
Pages: 160
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Malaka Gharib is Half-Filipino, Half-Egyptian, and born in the USA. This graphic memoir is about her life and her family on both sides. This memoir is also about identity, growing up in the US of A – being a part of the country and yet alienated. I know a lot of authors have written about this in some form or the other, however, I also believe that every book written in this sub-genre always sadly has something new to provide. The issue of racism, being a different skin colour, following a different way of life, and being ridiculed for it just doesn’t go away. It is always there – sometimes way too visible, and at other times not so much.

I liked this graphic memoir, in fact loved it, because it made me wonder about my confusion about identity (of course of a different kind) while growing up. I could hard relate to it – I could understand the dilemma of what to follow and what not to. Malaka’s life if seen from the greener side of the grass was very exciting growing-up to parents who came from different parts of the world. The opportunity then to know more about different cultures, and understand was twice-fold. At the same time, the need to fit in and belong is age-old. No one who hasn’t fit in will understand the pain of not belonging.

I Was Their American Dream familiarises you with cultures and traditions you perhaps weren’t aware of. I love reading books that do that, more so in the form of say a graphic memoir that isn’t too taxing. Sometimes you need such reads to also get the “reading momentum” going. Malaka’s illustrations are fun. There are also places where she wants readers to engage with her – so there is an activity to make a zine with her or dress a cut-out of hers, so on and so forth.

There are a lot of books like these – on identity, migration, immigration, the need to belong, and yet there is something about this one that struck home and stayed. It is honest, it talks plainly about how at one point she wanted to be a part of the “white” community so bad, and also how to deal with your past and where you come from. More than anything, what should one do with it, if at all one wants to. I Was Their American Dream is a lovely graphic memoir on how we see the world and ourselves in it.

Qualification: A Graphic Memoir in Twelve Steps by David Heatley

Qualification - A Graphic Memoir in 12-Steps by David Heatley Title: Qualification: A Graphic Memoir in 12 Steps
Author: David Heatley
Publisher: Pantheon Books, Knopf
ISBN: 978-0375425400
Genre: Graphic Memoir
Pages: 416
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Whenever I read a graphic memoir, a thought comes to mind: Does the nature of the memoir in graphic form take something away from the experience of the author? Or does the reader feel more involved in the author’s life because the story is being told in pictures as well? Does it matter at all? Or do you feel like a voyeur stepping into someone else’s life (if only for a short while) and perhaps even judging them for their choices and how it all panned out for them?

Qualification: A Graphic Memoir in Twelve Steps is a memoir of addiction to 12-Step programs. I had never heard of something like this before, and this is what attracted me to this memoir. Heatley has issues and attends 12-Step programs for those. Till he also has some issues which he doesn’t and attends twelve-step programs for those too.

It all begins with his parents (as it always does?). Their troubled marriage, and seeking counseling, attending programs, and then some more. The book brims with black humour, at every stage, perhaps trying to reduce the impact of the not-so-pretty-picture painted by Heatley (which of course is nothing but the truth).

Qualification traces the journey of the author through the various programs – and I was surprised at how many were there in the US of A. I don’t know if we have so many in India, given how we only seem to know majorly about Alcoholic Anonymous and that’s that. We see Heatley’s life up close and personal and maybe that’s why it is also a little too much at times – from all the addiction to what went on in his head and his perception of others around him only gives rise to empathy, compassion, and love.

What comes out of this memoir is David’s relationships with the people around him and how they impact his relationship with addiction. Heatley tells it like it happened. The quirks, the eccentricities, the highs, and the lows as they took place, and where he is today as a person (well, some glimpse of it).

Qualification is a read that makes you look at your addictions that perhaps you haven’t faced or known of yet. It is a book that helped me for sure to understand my demons when it comes to book-hoarding, buying, and more. Now to only do something about it.

Having said all of this, Qualification is a memoir that stays and makes its presence felt in the most unassuming manner. I caught myself thinking about what happens to me when I am faced with the catalysts of my addictions and how I react thereof. Qualification will maybe also help you see yourself. Read it. It is completely worth it.