Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention

Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention focuses on the physicality of detention centers in Canada and how they impact the lives of the people held there. The book started life as a part of Chak’s master’s thesis in architecture at the University of Toronto, and broadly consists of three sections: the outside appearance and location of the detention centers, life inside the detention centers, and an interview with an immigrant activist. There is also an epilogue by activist and writer Syed Hussan which is composed of images, a narrative, and definitions for various key terms in the conversation, such as “displacement” and “institutional racism/sexism,” which are defined from an activist’s perspective. Along with statistics and cited sources, Chak presents the issues in visually compelling ways that illuminate the concept and process of detention, causing the reader to interrogate boundaries and borders, and forcing the reader to confront unjust practices that seek to fade into the background of everyday life.

In Undocumented we learn that in Canada, undocumented immigrants can be held indefinitely without charge or trial, with some individuals waiting up to seven years in detention. The idea of spending even a fraction of that time imprisoned without trial is abstract and difficult to conceive of for most readers. Chak uses an architectural perspective as well as her experience as an activist and the experiences of those she has worked with to make these concepts concrete.

The book opens with landscapes, as if you were walking a version of Google Maps Street View rendered in black and white outlines. The lines that make up the streets stretch and curve to connect to an upside down mirrored landscape, though not the same one. The effect is so disorienting that it takes quite some time to realize that the panels on the page depict a continuation of the same scene. The unnecessary gutters act as imposed, irrational borders that prevent the eyes from recognizing the page as a single scene. Without Chak’s notes, you would never know that each of these banal scenes contains a detention center. There are no public statistics on how many detainees are being held in nearly half of the ten detention centers listed. Chak effectively demonstrates that these issues are closer than we might think to our everyday lives. The somewhat shaky hand-drawn lines of these landscapes stand in sharp contrast to the drawings in the following section, creating a hard division between natural and unnatural, free flowing and restricted.

In the next section, Chak provides the experience of walking through a detention center with room by room of precise line drawings. No color or substance fills these pages; we are constantly monitored by security cameras, not able to see where we’re going beyond the next door. This tour is captioned by snippets of an interview with an architect who designed a detention center, who is more concerned about a job well done than the implications of that job. The anonymous architect insists, “Look, they come to me because they know I can turn X to Y in the shortest time possible. That’s the architect’s job.” In response, Chak interrogates the complacency of architects in designing these dehumanizing spaces, asking the reader “How does architecture inflict violence on human bodies and minds, onto our physical environment?” She is not content to let architects absolve themselves of guilt and consequence.

Deportation is violence. Detention is violence. Both are dehumanizing and inhumane. Neither are solutions; they do not address the problem, they only inspire fear. In her introduction, Chak notes that her portrayal of detention is incomplete, and an ongoing project. She does not claim to be able to fit the entire scope of the issue within the book. However, her approach is unique, innovative, and effective in order to communicate the issues at hand and the dehumanizing practices that are currently taking place across the country. The first person perspective, clean lines, and relatively straightforward visuals make it remarkably easy for readers to insert themselves into the narrative. Statistics are balanced with the experiences of real people, creating a much more effective approach than if Chak was to present a fictionalized narrative. This book is an incredibly necessary read, and a call for all citizens to question detention practices in their own countries, and to demand not better detention centers, but a fundamental shift in the way undocumented immigrants are treated.

Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention
By Tings Chak
ISBN: 9780994050762
Ad Astra Comix, 2017

Jellaby: Monster in the City, vol. 2

Screen-Shot-2016-06-26-at-4.50.19-PMWhen we last saw Portia, Jason, and Jellaby in Jellaby: The Lost Monster, they had just left the train that they were traveling on to the city. Now, in Jellaby: Monster in the City, they are wandering down the train tracks, continuing to their destination. Portia and Jason have fallen silent and are not currently speaking to each other. Jellaby is hungry, as always, but also sad that his new friends are fighting. As they get closer to their destination they will all be forced to confront difficult choices, leading them to discover that sometimes what you want isn’t always what you need. And that sometimes, maybe you have what you were looking for to begin with. But what monsters lurk in the darkness, and what dreams will they be forced to confront before the end?

I really, really enjoy this series and I wish there were more books featuring these characters. I mean, seriously, how can you not like a female character that’s bright, intelligent, and just wants to have a couple of friends without demeaning her own intelligence? And then you get Jellaby who doesn’t talk, but communicates through the shaking of his head and other non-verbal queues. He’s just so much fun to watch and wonder at what he’s going to do as he figures out the world around him, including eating some flowers. Soo has created engaging characters that feel like you could step out your door and run into in your neighborhood. Even the bullies that Portia encounters aren’t crude half portrayed characters; they have depth to them. Overall, the writing reminds me a bit of Hayao Miyazaki, mostly because of the fully-realized characters.

While the artwork appears simple in nature, with thick lines delineating the characters and a few colors giving them depth, they are stunningly beautiful. Drawing a lovable purple monster that doesn’t look like Barney is difficult, but Soo pulls it off. Jellaby is one of those types of monsters that you just want to take home with you and keep him safe. And seeing the human characters interact with each other reminds me a bit of Peanuts, just those simple lines giving depth to the characters and making them feel alive. Like they’ll walk off the page and come over and talk to you. I love it.

Sadly this is the last in the series. I really wish Soo would would write a third or even a fourth book to tell us more about the world of Jellaby, but I don’t think it will happen anytime soon. If you’re looking for other stories like Jellaby, I would recommend Andy Runton’s Owly series and Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series.

Jellaby: Monster in the City, vol. 2
by Kean Soo
ISBN: 9781434264213
Stone Arch Books, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: 9-13

Jellaby: The Lost Monster

If the name Jellaby sounds familiar, then you might have had the pleasure of coming across him/her in other stories before. Jellaby has had a storied and award-winning life. Our friend has been published as an online webcomic (nominated for an Eisner Award), had short stories in several different Flight anthologies, and this very book, Jellaby: The Lost Monster, was published in 2008 and won the 2009 Shuster Award for best Comic for Kids. And now, after being out of print for several years, Jellaby’s first adventure is being reintroduced to the world for new and old readers to discover again.

*Note: Jellaby appears to have no gender, or at least not one that has been disclosed. In order to have a pronoun to refer to, I will be using s/he.*

Portia is a quiet but bright young girl who has just moved to a new neighborhood and a new school. It’s hard enough to get used to these changes, but she’s also adjusting to life without her father (who has mysteriously disappeared), trying to make new friends, and to make things even stranger, her mom is acting distant! What’s a young girl to do? One night, after being awoken by a nightmare, Portia takes a midnight walk in the forest and finds a young, lost, shy, sweet purple monster who she names Jellaby. Portia’s life with Jellaby is about to become a lot more interesting as she and her new friend Jason try to figure out where Jellaby came from and what secrets s/he might know.

Somehow I missed Jellaby’s adventures the first time around. I remember seeing a few of the short stories in the Flight anthologies and thought Jellaby was interesting, but was for young readers only and would not appeal to me. That was a huge mistake on my part. While on the surface Jellaby looks like a book for the kindergarten crowd, given that it has a purple monster and young kids, looks are deceiving. In Portia, Kean has crafted the type of character that we all tend to look for, but have so much trouble findinga young woman who is not afraid to stand up for herself, is intelligent, and won’t hide who she is just to make friends. Jason is a similar type of character, someone who is facing challenges greater than we might imagine, but is not afraid to be himself. I love finding characters and books like this that show the power of being yourself, so that I can recommend them to readers who are told they should change who they are to fit in. Jellaby adds humor into the mix, as s/he isn’t able to talk and instead communicates non-verbally. It’s fun to watch him/her figure out the world and learn to communicate with others, as well as find out what is and isn’t edible—including flowers.

While the artwork appears simple in nature, with thick lines delineating the characters and a simple color palette to give them depth, they are stunningly beautiful. Also, how can you not love the design of Jellaby? S/he’s a lovable purple monster that doesn’t look like Barney and is one that you want to hug, take home with you, and keep safe. Seeing the human characters interact with each other reminds me of early Charles Schultz’s Peanuts, as the characters have heads that are a bit too large for their bodies, but capture that emotion, intensity, and movement that we all seem to have when we’re young.

I can’t wait to read the second book in the series. I hope Capstone republishes it soon, and that Kean has the opportunity to write more adventures of Jellaby, Portia, and Jason. I would highly recommend this book to fans of Andy Runton and Kazu Kibuishi.

Jellaby: The Lost Monster, Book One
by Kean Soo
ISBN: 9781434291950
Capstone, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: 9-13