Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Guy Delisle: Graphic Memoirist

My first problem: what noun do I use to show what Guy Delisle does?

He's a writer. That much is true. "Memoirist" is also apt but he describes himself as an autobiographer, which is sort of ironic that he more often seems to say "autobiography" and French is his first language.

But along with text, he draws. "Graphic artist" sounds a little commercial to me but I'm naive in these matters. "Comic book artist" seem to suggest he does fiction like X-men and Archie. "Cartoonist" seems to relegate his work on Sunday mornings. Maybe he's a little of all of these things. Graphic memoirist? Perhaps that will have to do for now.

Last night I braved impending storms and huddled into the back stacks of Magers and Quinn (standing room only) to listen to Guy Delisle give a reading as part of his Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City book tour (his first, he explained as he "signed" my book). Every so often, Eric and I are able to carve out a little time so that I can attend a reading. It keeps the literary mojo intact and reminds me of the world. And that there is one. There are already two inaccuracies in this blogpost. The first: Delisle didn't technically "read." He gave a slideshow presentation and regaled us with tales of his worldly travels (nice for me who was looking to be reminded of a larger world) and his career as an animator and writer. The second: he didn't so much just "sign" my book as he branded it. See below (he drew that with a sharpie while I watched).

Before I continue, a disclosure: I loved Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City.


Which brings me very quickly to one of the main points of Delisle's talk. He mentioned several times that he was creating autobiographical travelogues because he could place himself at the center of the story and thereby be upfront about the subjectivity of his experiences and observations he was making. ("I just observe. I don't judge.") And at the end (jumping ahead here), someone in the audience asked Delisle how he felt about drawing himself in his books. He admitted that he didn't like doing it at first but it had to be done. I thought "Yes!" Other people too have anxiety about whether and how to write from the first person experience -- and perhaps especially when trying to write about other cultures. But in Delisle's books, none of this anxiety appears on the page. Although, how he depicts himself has certainly changed.

As a young drawer (draw-er, not the place where you keep your socks; not quite the right noun yet), he was a contributor to the French comic magazine Lapin. He was encouraged to draw in different forms, not just little stories but reportage and even recipes. He showed us his "recipe," which was really about his dad teaching him how to cook his favorite bachelor meal: canned spaghetti in the oven. "When it goes 'clank,' it's done! And -- my father's favorite part -- only a fork to clean!" he explained his utterly charming French accent. (He's a French Canuck but has lived in France long enough to have a French accent which means that when he returns to Canada everyone explains to him what maple syrup is.)

Delisle's presentation was a meta-anthropological talk. Delisle led us through his process of creating each of his books by sharing his observations of life in the various places he's lived and written about and drawn including Shenzhen, Pyongyang, Burma, and Jerusalem (his wife is an administrator for Medecins Sans Frontiers). And so we were telescopically viewing the lives of people in these war and dictator torn areas through his graphics while also seeing into the world of a graphic memoirist. He took notes everyday that he lived in China (Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China) in 1997. He used wax pencils because the smudging conveyed the smog of China. But as the days grew hotter, the wax got meltier so that by August he couldn't draw at all. One scene he was able to convey was waiting in line at the bank where, if he didn't stand directly behind the person in front of him, another customer would jump in line in front of him. If he just hesitated before speaking to the teller, he risked being interrupted.


He was in Pyongyang (Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea) pre 9-11 when it was, as he describes it, sort of a forgotten country. He'd heard it was very Orwellian there, so he'd brought a copy of 1984 in his suitcase. When it got searched, the North Korean officials asked what it was. "It's just a book," he explained. "I felt really bad." He didn't feel fear that he'd be punished, he felt concerned that he'd offended the people working in the airport. This respect for other people's circumstances and cultures is one of the things that makes Delisle's work vital and (I hate to use this word again but) charming. He isn't a journalist or activist or, as he pointed out, an expert. He's just a guy traveling and living places and interacting with people and making observations. Of course, these observations aren't objective. But no experience is.


Delisle pointed out the ways in which some of the places he's lived are living in a different era. The girls in North Korea wear their hair in a 1950s style. "They wear skirts and socks. Yeah," he explained. "Nothing is very sexy there." Jerusalem -- with it's many ethnic and religious groups and political complexities -- proved to be a place that put his abilities to explain and describe the context to the test. Although he does so deftly by looking at something as simple as shopping. Looking for diapers on a Friday in Jerusalem? All the Muslim shops are closed. The Jewish shops in the settlements are open -- but do you want to support the settlements? Looking for a six pack of beer? Christan stores are closed Sundays and the Muslims don't sell alcohol. And in one page of graphics and words, Delisle has begun to untie the cultural knots. The last question of the evening was about how he worked with translators (he writes in French). Because he can speak the language, he works very closely with the English translator -- going back and forth to find the precise words and phrasing -- until they have a solid translation (which the book is -- while reading, I double-checked to figure out whether it was the original or a translation). And while Delisle doesn't have any input into the process with other languages, the German translator works from both the English and the original French to get his text as accurate as possible. I found it fascinating that this other translator would be working from two texts -- like some sort of linguistic alchemist. But, of course, the pictures remain the same.