By Safia Karasick Southey
Sarah Glidden is an American cartoonist known for her non-fiction comics and graphic novels, such as How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less and Rolling Blackouts, the non-fiction story of her travels in 2010 throughout Turkey, Syria, and Iraq with a small team of journalists. Glidden now lives in Seattle, Washington, and was so kind to grant us an interview.
What originally attracted you to the subject of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and to documenting your experience through the medium of graphic novels?
The Israel-Palestine conflict was something that had unsettled me for a long time, especially as a Jewish American. As a kid going to Hebrew school on Sunday mornings, we were taught mostly about the stories from the Torah, but also about current day Israel, and told that it was a place that belonged to all of us as Jews. There was no mention of the Palestinians. So when I got a bit older and learned more about what was happening there, I felt like something had been hidden from me, and I wanted to find out more. And the more I learned, the more I felt very uncomfortable about all we’d been told as kids: that Israel had basically just been uninhabited desert before the first wave of Zionism.
It made me feel responsible to learn more and get involved somehow, but I wasn’t sure how. When I started making comics — the early ones where I was just learning — they were autobiographical and talked about my daily life (not interesting stuff, really). But after a while I thought I was ready to approach a bigger project and I was reminded that there was a free trip to Israel for Jewish young people. I thought I could go and make a comic about how they discuss the conflict there. I never thought it would become a book one day, it was just going to be a personal project. But then it got picked up later by a publisher.
As a kid going to Hebrew school on Sunday mornings, we were taught mostly about the stories from the Torah, but also about current day Israel … There was no mention of the Palestinians.
What distinguishes the graphic novel from other forms of media? What makes it different in addressing issues and political conflicts?
Different media have different strengths and weaknesses, and I think people respond to some more than others. Comics is just another form of expression like film or prose, but I don’t think it’s better or worse than any of the others, just unique in its own way. I think one of its strengths is that comics are drawn by hand, and I think that people respond to the drawn image in a very immediate way. We’re so used to having some kind of mechanical barrier between ourselves and whatever is being expressed, whether that be text or the photographic image.
But drawings are visceral in a way … we’re reminded of the artist’s hand with every panel. I really like that because I think sometimes it’s important to be reminded that a person made the thing you’re reading; that you are seeing someone’s subjective experience or point of view being communicated. For journalism and non-fiction that’s important to me because all journalism is subjective deep down: the journalist or writer chooses what research to do, who to talk to, what to focus on. The best journalism, I believe, is transparent, and I think comics lend transparency to the process just through that reminder of who the author is.
How does it feel taking an outsider perspective on these conflicts, as an American? Does it ever feel like you’re talking over the voices of the people more directly involved? How do you avoid doing this?
That’s certainly something I think about a lot! And in a way it’s unavoidable in journalism because you’re acting as a liaison between the subject of your work and the reader. You know the context and background that your reader is probably coming from, so you are trying to translate someone else’s experience in a way that they can understand it and empathize with it. We certainly need more first person storytelling, but often this isn’t even possible because of language or literacy issues. So all a journalist can do is do their best to make sure these stories are transmitted as clearly as possible to the readers. One also needs to try and be aware of their own biases, and constantly be questioning whether all your bases have been covered — whether your own prejudices and judgement are sneaking in. In the end all you can do is try your best. And I think respect for the person whose story you’re trying to tell is essential. Whether you agree with their point of view or not, you have to really try to understand where they’re coming from.
Do you ever feel uncomfortable or vulnerable in documenting your own experiences?
Yes! All the time! Less so when I’m doing more personal work and making myself vulnerable than when I’m documenting someone else’s life or experiences. If I’m the subject then the worst thing that can happen is a reader might find me annoying or think that my opinion is a bad opinion. That’s fine, we won’t always agree and I also know I can be annoying. In a way, that’s the point when you’re making yourself the subject: to show yourself as flawed. Readers won’t trust you if you present yourself as someone who never makes mistakes, and always says the right thing. No human being is perfect! What’s uncomfortable is showing someone else’s flaws. Again, it’s something you have to do if you want your subject to come across as a real person, one we can identify with and sympathize with. But you know that person will probably see what you’ve written about them.
Readers won’t trust you if you present yourself as someone who never makes mistakes, and always says the right thing.
How do you negotiate writing about the experiences of your colleagues and the journalists you travel with? Do you face any issues regarding privacy?
With my friends who I travelled with —and with any subject really — I was completely open about what I was doing. They knew that I was always recording our conversations and taking notes, and I always made sure to ask permission before I start recording, never recording secretly. Sometimes I worried that maybe they forgot that I was recording, that they’d say something on tape that later they would regret, but then every once in a while someone would say “this is off the record…” or “don’t put this in your book…” I also try to let people know what I’m thinking, at least through my questions to them. If I’m skeptical of something they’re saying, I’ll ask them about it, not just pretend I agree with them and then later write about how wrong I thought they were. So again, transparency is key.
How did your past experience in Israel impact your work in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey as documented in “Rolling Blackouts”? What has struck you about these new conflicts that you are taking on?
I was definitely going through a lot of personal feelings and emotions that I didn’t include in Rolling Blackouts because my feelings weren’t part of the story I was writing. A lot of that was guilt. When I was in Israel for the first book, I had wanted to go to the West Bank to talk to Palestinian refugees but people scared me out of it, they told me it was too dangerous to go. Some of those same people told me I was an idiot for going to Syria and Lebanon as a Jewish woman — this was 2010, so their concerns were not based on the terrible violence happening there now.
Traveling to those places, feeling welcomed even when I told people I was Jewish, made me feel terrible for allowing myself to give into that fear earlier, and made me wish I had done what I had wanted to do. I think my first book would have been much better if I had been able to include the experiences of Palestinians. So I had regrets.
Besides that, it was very interesting to see the same conflicts talked about from the other side. In Damascus, there’s a museum which celebrates the victory of the Syrian army over the Israeli one in the Golan heights. The museum includes a panoramic model, a film, all kinds of propaganda. In Israel I had visited a museum which celebrated the victory of the Israeli army over the Syrian one…during the very same war! It also included a giant model and a film. It was fascinating to see how these two different countries portrayed the same bit of history, and a reminder how just how subjective history actually is.
It’s important to think about your biases, even if you think you’re on the “right” side of an issue.
You spent a year studying in France as an artist in residence at the Maison des Auteurs; how did this experience impact your work?
Living in AngouIême for that long was wonderful because I got to meet so many cartoonists, not just from France but from all over the world. Really, spending a good amount of time in any other country is really valuable because you get to know how people from somewhere else talk about local and international politics, how they approach philosophy, how the culture behaves. For me it’s not just about learning how another nation works, but also about how your own works because you have another place and people as a point of comparison. I lived in Argentina for a year and a half right after my time in France because my then-boyfriend (now husband) is from there, and that was just as important to me.
Do you have any advice for politically minded youth on how to best address the issues that impassion them?
I guess the only advice I have is to follow your curiosity and your passion. If something interests you, go out and learn as much as you can about it. And challenge your own assumptions, even if doing so feels uncomfortable. It’s important to think about your biases, even if you think you’re on the “right” side of an issue. There’s always something more to learn and something else we might be missing.