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Guest Perspectives: Breaking Boundaries Through Graphic Novels

Now that our sibling project in New Zealand is up and running (scroll through our past blog posts and the NZ site to catch up on everything happening there!), I wanted to dedicate this post to their project slogan, ‘bringing the arts and humanities out of the closet’. After recently reading the New Zealand author, Sarah Laing’s new graphic memoir, Mansfield and Me, I was taken by the bold decision (not the first of its kind), to turn a memoir into a graphic novel. What are the genre consequences of this? And, more importantly, why is this significant for a memoir that deals with female sexuality and identity? As the title suggests, Laing’s life is explored in relation to Katherine Mansfield’s, an author who had to leave her home in New Zealand to become the literary giant she is seen as today and also, a woman whose personal life has been exposed by numerous researchers who explored her relationships with women. Laing’s identification with Mansfield is clear through their numerous similarities and Laing’s desire to become an author, however whilst Laing talks openly, freely and unashamedly about her sexual encounters with women, her use of a graphic memoir to represent these experiences can be seen as a rejection of any one label.

The graphic novel has had a difficult time proving its worth and, even as academics have started to appreciate its artistry, it still struggles to break into the mainstream readership. There is a stigma attached to books with pictures – be it comic strips or Roald Dahl – they tend to be seen as childish versions of the real thing. Colourful pictures are used as a way to entice young minds into reading and aid them in their learning, substituting for the lack of detail in the words on the page. In fact, if it wasn’t for their inclusion on a few of my module reading lists, it is likely that I wouldn’t have come across the genre either. This, as with most stereotypes, is not the reality of the genre; the reality, in this case, is that the blending of images and words present in graphic novels is a perfect dynamic for memoir writing – a genre notorious for its slipperiness and reliance on ‘truthiness’. The ambiguity and subjectivity of a drawing provides a much less concrete platform than a novel composed entirely of words, leaving the author with more opportunities to be suggestive as opposed to explicit in their retelling. This is especially significant when exploring young adult queer experimentation as in many cases, Laing’s included, these sexual encounters are often driven by strong emotions such as confusion, desire and/or curiosity. It can be difficult to translate an experience like this into words on a page without losing some of the authenticity of the event – or at least without having to consciously define the experience. A picture, by comparison, puts the power of interpretation more firmly into the reader’s hands, thus freeing the author to some extent of the responsibility of certainty.

Whilst graphic novels have this stigma attached to them, the intertextuality of the graphic memoir enables Laing to avoid being categorised, and in turn, limited by any one narrative label. These texts as a whole reject being labelled as solely one kind of narrative. Laing introduces the question of categorisation where previously there wouldn’t have been one. Laing’s novel fits into the graphic novel, memoir, fiction, historical, biographical, non-fiction and LGBT fiction sections whilst simultaneously not fitting comfortably into any. Categories such as the graphic novel and LGBT fiction are useful in a lot of ways, however they also come with limitations that many authors are keen to avoid. The danger is that, in being confined to one category, a text will then be ostracized from the more mainstream outlets. For example, what sort of text classifies as LGBT fiction? Is it where the protagonist identifies as queer, where any character identifies as queer, one where there are sexual relations between same-sex main characters, same-sex sexual relations between any characters, an author who identifies as queer or a story that has an LGBT focus? By putting a book in one section of the bookshop, in this case the LGBT section, you are eliminating it from other genres, even though it might be just as well suited there as where it is. For instance, a Sci-Fi novel’s focus could become limited to one queer element, or a book about a lesbian couple breaking societal expectations could become limited to Romance. In Mansfield and Me, Laing doesn’t disguise or conceal, however by combining all of these different forms she is rejecting being defined by any one label and creating a platform for the LGBT community in a much more popular genre, the memoir.

Laing’s story isn’t the only graphic memoir, nor is it the only graphic memoir that explores queerness. For example, Fun Home, a graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel, is another version of this and perhaps a more obvious one. She frames her memoir around her father’s suicide which was largely driven by the years he spent hiding his identity as a gay man. Identifying as a lesbian, Bechdel’s relationship with her father is often one of frustration, secrecy and confusion, as his sexuality is hidden from her until he is close to committing suicide. Bechdel has spoken about her happiness that Fun Home can be seen as a multitude of genres, calling her story a ‘complete shelving conundrum’, and Laing has named Fun Home as one of the texts which inspired her own.

The graphic novel, and more specifically the graphic memoir, has two forms of representation and is, therefore, invaluable for representing queerness and underrepresented voices as a whole. The images add a further dimension that can be both explicit and ambiguous, ideal for portraying the subjective yet honest nature of lived reality. Furthermore, their intertextuality enables them to openly portray sexual encounters within the LGBT community without confining themselves to that one genre. By creating a memoir that includes both queerness and comic-like panels, they are able to break these two ostracized forms out of their niches and into more mainstream outlets. It is imperative that the narratives which portray characters who deviate from the norm and represent underrepresented voices become more prevalent in mainstream outlets and are no longer seen as a niche option. Memoirs provide us with this breakthrough as they demand transparency and the willingness to bare all – the graphic memoir in particular adds an extra layer to this representation. Hidden Perspectives New Zealand is a project committed to providing a platform and safe space for students whilst showcasing underrepresented voices in the arts. Sarah Laing’s Mansfield and Me is a text that fulfils these ambitions and so it seems fitting that both of these projects have emerged from Auckland University.