In an age where computers can create comic panels that saturate the viewer’s eyeballs with color or render scenes that only existed within one’s imagination, a more simplistic art style can be seen as an artist doing the bare minimum of artwork. But that viewpoint completely ignores the story being told. One such example of a story buoyed by its minimalist artwork is Anthony Del Col and Fahmida Azim’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book I Escaped a Chinese Internment Camp.
This graphic novel tells the harrowing ordeal of Zumrat Dawut, a mother of three who is arrested and detained by the Chinese government simply for being Muslim. Tortured, beaten, and even sterilized, Dawut’s only recourse is to escape her captivity, and does so with the help of her husband. That escape, however, is hard earned, and readers will accompany Dawut throughout her harrowing time as a prisoner.
Perhaps most harrowing about this particular story is the fact that it’s true. The source material uses testimony Duwat herself gave to the United Nations Human Rights Council. Writer Del Col created a very clear character arc to Duwat’s story, beginning first by exposing her quiet life as a wife and mother before going into her nightmare. Readers are there for every beating, every degradation, every time her hope of someday leaving her cell is dashed. By the time Duwat is free, that freedom feels both well-earned and ephemeral, not sure that she is really safe until the final page is closed.
Azim’s artwork for this story is minimal, mostly in black and white, which makes sense, considering that Duwat is incarcerated. Life in prison is lacking in color and vibrance by design, so as to break a prisoner’s spirit. That lack of color eventually feels like a physical weight for the reader, who is forced to imagine what that experience is like for Duwat. Color only returns when Duwat, along with the reader, is assured of her freedom.
This novel is a great addition for librarians who want to show the capabilities of graphic novels to tell realistic, human stories. It doesn’t take place in space, or in medieval times, nor does it feature hyper-detailed human figures ready to leap off the page. It depicts the action without indulgence, shunning a color-saturated sheen for honest emotion. Patrons who love biographical works and the comic format, while able to appreciate a more serious tone in their stories, will find Duwat and her story worthy of triumphant cheers.
I Escaped a Chinese Internment Camp
By Anthony Del Col
Art by Fahmida Azim
Lev Gleason, 2023
Publisher Age Rating: 12 years and up
NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+), Older Teen (16-18)
Character Representation: Chinese, Muslim