Bestselling author Charles Barber recently argued that trauma has become the signature condition of our times. In this period, which the Yale psychiatry lecturer calls “the age of trauma,” the graphic novel has become one of the main forms that artists use to speak of what can seem nearly unspeakable.
Most agree Art Spiegelman’s Maus books helped open the door here – collections of comic strips he published from 1980 to 1991, they describe his parents’ time in the Nazi camps and won him the genre’s first Pulitzer Prize in 1992. A spate of new releases follow where Spiegelman led, and target young readers, lest a new generation forget what past ones have endured.
Siberian Haiku (Abrams, 240 pages, 12 and up) bears witness to the Soviet deportation of an estimated 130,000 Lithuanians, most of them women and children, to labour camps in the Siberian taiga, starting in 1941. Among the children was Algiukas – eventually, the father of this book’s writer, Jurga Vile. His harrowing tale of spending his formative years there is embroidered with grace notes courtesy of Lina Itagaki’s witty, elegiac drawings. This grace is not imposed on the story by an over-exuberant illustrator, though, but comes from within it: The Lithuanians play Life is Beautiful-style games with each other (that perennial favourite Whoever has the Most Lice Wins) and keep their spirits up by starting a choir. The boy’s dreamy, Japan-loving aunt shines in this dark situation, wearing a scarlet kimono and writing the haikus of the title, throwing the poems over the fence into another camp where Japanese soldiers are imprisoned. Still, the guards are brutish, the winters nasty and long, and for many of the deportees the rigors of the train journey there crammed into a cattle car, the hard labour and the cold prove too much. Historians estimate 20,000 Lithuanians died here.
The numbers killed in Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge party came to power in 1975 are even more astronomical – from a population of roughly eight million, possibly more than two million were executed. Tian Veasna’s Year of the Rabbit (Drawn & Quarterly, 380 pages, 15 and up) documents in granular detail the society’s quick descent into terror, as he watches members of his extended family trying to survive. The action is set in motion with his professional parents’ flight from Phnom Penh and the birth of the author as they run away. An 18th-century prophecy, quoted at the book’s outset, predicts, accurately, “The alienated and the ignorant will seize power and enslave the learned,” and the author’s highly educated parents find themselves persona non grata under the new dispensation. The book revisits the camps they live in, the beauty of the drawings a counterpoint to the depicted misery, with those interned there working back- and spirit-breaking hours at manual labour, while beloved relatives and friends disappear, never to be seen again. Against this hellish background, again, there are small bits of luck and minor kindnesses that stand out all the more starkly – a medical school classmate of the author’s father lets him pass a checkpoint, some villagers give up their hut for the boy’s birth. Some of the few in Veasna’s family who make it out, by the book’s end, find their way to Montreal.
The action in When Stars are Scattered (Dial Books for Young Readers, 264 pages, 9-12) also mainly takes place in another camp, one less deadly, but still full of challenges. The book tells the story of coauthor Omar Mohamed and brother Hassan, who flee the civil war in their country, Somalia, ending up in a refugee camp in Kenya. In this collaboration with award-winning graphic novelist Victoria Jamieson, the pair are looked after by a kind woman in a neighboring tent, who pushes manifestly bright Omar to pursue an education, while volunteering to look after non-verbal Hassan. The book gives a sense of the day-to-day life in such enclaves and poses the existential question: How long can you wait before you lose all hope? A few of those who live there hold on long enough, and are settled in the United States and Canada, feeling both lucky to get out and guilty about those they leave behind.
North America hasn’t, of course, just offered refuge to those traumatized elsewhere. Winnipeg-based Métis writer Katherena Vermette has her high-school age heroine Echo travelling between the present and past. In class, she learns about the wars between the Canadian government and the Métis, some of them her ancestors, and then ends up in the thick of these 19th-century conflicts. The latest of these serialized books, A Girl Called Echo, Vol. 3: Northwest Resistance (Highwater Press, 48 pages, 12 and up) – illustrated by Scott Henderson and coloured by Donovan Yaciuk – draws a line between the struggles Echo’s mother has with addiction and the historic and present treatment of the Métis.
A moving take on the disappearance and killing of many Indigenous women across Canada is If I Go Missing, written by Brianna Jonnie and Nahanni Shingoose and illustrated by Neal Shannacappo (James Lorimer, 64 pages, 12 and up). It takes the form of a letter written by 14-year-old Jonnie to a Winnipeg police chief, on how to treat her case if she goes missing – a letter that went viral after she wrote it in 2016. It articulates some aspects of her individuality (“I am a dancer, an honour-roll student, a friend, a daughter to a young single mom”) and expresses pride in her heritage, but then, in the book’s and letter’s twist, asks the police chief, if she goes missing, not to treat her as the Indigenous person she is proud to be.
Another book coming out of trauma experienced on this continent is They Called Us Enemy, written by George Takei, Justin Eisinger and Steven Scott, with art by Harmony Becker (Top Shelf Productions, 208 pages, 14 and up), which depicts the time four-year-old Takei and his Japanese-American family were ordered out of their Los Angeles home and interned in various camps. One framing scene has the former Star Trek actor visiting the New York state home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president who authorized his family’s imprisonment in the wake of Pearl Harbor. A young Takei faults his father for not resisting the internment more feistily, although noting that he assumed leadership roles among the prisoners, advocating for their needs. An older Takei, though, finds himself impressed with his parents’ continuing belief in the possibilities of democracy.
According to Charles Barber, we make relatively free use of the word “trauma” now, and this popular genre is here for more personal tragedies, too. In Dancing at the Pity Party (Dial Books, 208 pages, 12 and up), author-illustrator Tyler Feder documents her mother’s swift decline and death, from cancer, in 2009 – this while the daughter neared 20. Full of humour and sadness, it describes many of the things that made her mother, in Feder’s words, cool, meticulous, comforting, from her obsession with eyebrow sculpting to her ability to conjure up killer costumes from what was on hand the night before Halloween.
Robin Ha’s excellent Almost American Girl (Balzer + Bray, 240 pages, 13-17) also focuses on her relationship with her mother, a hairdresser who moves the two of them from Korea to Alabama, for a man she ultimately marries. The book anatomizes the girl’s inability to speak English, the racist jibes she faces at her new school and her fraught relationship with her new step-siblings, while also focusing on the resilience she learns from her adventurous, sometimes foolhardy mother.
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