Title: Dumb: Living without a Voice
Author: By Georgia Webber
Publisher: Fantagraphics, 196 pages
“Voice is everything,” Georgia Webber tells me via e-mail. The Toronto-based artist is discussing the way that underheard voices proliferate on the internet, free from control or from censure. But she’s also discussing her actual voice, which she injured in 2012 and found she could no longer use. In our culture, where the idea that your “voice” has become shorthand for your very identity, losing that voice can be catastrophic. Without a voice, how can you articulate what it feels like not to have one?
In Webber’s case, she turned to cartooning. Her debut book, Dumb: Living without a Voice, recounts the obstacles she encounters upon losing the ability to speak (landing a job, chatting with friends), and the strategies she develops to surmount them. On her otherwise black and white pages, she uses shocking red ink to emphasize the invisible presence of sound, pain, and “voice” – both the voices of others, spoken aloud, as well as the voice of her own inner thoughts. In this sequence, for example, the exuberant figure outlined in red indicates how she’d behave in everyday life if she still used her voice, while the black and white linework depicts her actual, speechless experience.
In Webber’s raspy, direct comic-strip language, losing your voice looks like – no, feels like – a jagged tin can caught in your throat, a cascade of pointy-edged stars or a throbbing red coal lodged in your gullet. The artist conjures these kinds of visual metaphors with poetic, inventive facility, and draws them out with dizzying complexity. She’s found her voice, after all. Over e-mail, she shared her thoughts on a few aspects of her work.
My voice was a missing character in the story I was living. And I knew that I wanted to put voice front and centre, make it obvious, make it stand out. Red has always been my colour of choice, and I do have a flair for the dramatic, so black, white and red suited my personal style. I started with the more obvious iterations of [red as a] symbol, and then I had almost 200 pages to play with – an infinity of design and word and rhythm choices.
I’m interested in translation, as an artist – translating what can’t be seen into drawings. [Comics] offered a vantage point from which to examine my voice, my pain, my emotions, moments of silent communication passing like wind in the trees; you know it’s happening because you see the trees moving, but you can’t [see] the wind. Some (or all?) communication is like that. Putting moving experiences onto the page, a static and silent medium, highlights what we take for granted.
On putting the “memory” in “memoir”
The hardest things to visualize are the things you can see plainly, things anyone can take a photo of. Instead of drawing moments in my day with great accuracy – using reference photos or going to each location to verify its details – I like to draw places as I remember them. Drawing life outside of me is something anyone can do; drawing life inside of me is something only I can do.
On the visual depiction of emotional states
Big feelings compel me to describe them, and to draw [them], all I have to do is recall the potent sensations, and images flow from there. For example, the sequence at the beginning of the book where I pull a red version of myself [with a voice] apart from the [silent] black and white version. In the old sense of the word, that didn’t literally happen, but if you ask me what it felt like, that’s what I’d say: It literally felt like splitting myself in two, and then two of me agreed on a peaceful separation, temporarily.
On her often abstract or experimental approach
I work hard to deliver an experience for my readers. I don’t want to explain. I don’t think it clicks. I don’t want my readers to have to believe me when I tell them how it feels to lose your ability to speak – I want them to feel what it’s like themselves. Short of them taking a vow of silence, I think my work offers a reasonable approximation of the confusion, desperation, resignation, love and hope that I experienced.