In her memoir Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories from a New Europe, Ali Fitzgerald teaches comic classes to refugees in an emergency shelter called The Bubble. She quickly learns that not all drawing prompts are universal—a playfully intended “what’s under the boat” evokes capsized rafts and missing people and is quickly replaced with “my favorite food memories.” Students don’t always want to create art in the workshops; they often wish to practice language learning, a vital survival skill. Fitzgerald has learned how to speak in reassuring but vague “soft words,” carefully phrased optimistic responses to difficult questions she receives, particularly those related to the future or opportunities for refugees to move to the United States or return to school. These well-intentioned lies drain her spirit.
The whole book is underscored by Fitzgerald’s deep-seated worry and uncertainty about how to help. She makes many comparisons to Jewish refugees, measuring Germany’s unconscionable history with racism and refugees with a tenuous, uncertain future. She highlights geographical “in-between spaces” in the memory of World War II and how they’ve changed and transformed, how they reflect or deflect history, and the inherent symbolism of their transformation. She describes Tempelhof, “where the horrors of war are repurposed” from an airport built by Nazis to a public park with community gardens, bird sanctuaries, and the largest refugee shelter in Berlin. She describes Berlin as, “a place where history sits with itself not comfortably but with a soft melancholy hum.” This tone is carried throughout the book.
The art is very strong, with a bold black and white style akin to Charles Burns’s style in Black Hole. Fitzgerald even brings Burns’s work The Hive with her to her comics classes to share with her students. Her art wonderfully conveys very expressive faces, which is crucial in trying to understand the range of emotions of her students, from childish glee to a numbness to tragedies they’ve endured. She also recreates the drawings her students made in classes, mimicking a heavily detailed ship with fine crosshatching and stick figures surrounded by sharks and the police. These contrasting art styles make it feel as if her students are truly a part of the book, rather than an afterthought in her story.
Fitzgerald writes from the frame of memoir and does not claim this book as a work of journalism, describing it as “surreal graphic nonfiction, a collection of illustrated observations, and/or akin to memoir.” As a result, there are occasional details that seem to stray too far from the story at hand—what relevance does taking Ecstasy in a sex club have to teaching comics classes to refugees?—but these details serve to characterize Berlin and give it some modern context, providing a very different set of expectations and reality of the city, and building a sharp contrast to life inside The Bubble.
The memoir framing asserts ownership over the story and an explicit resistance to co-opting, reducing, or exploiting the stories of refugees. Fitzgerald takes care in the way she represents the refugees she has met; she never puts words in their mouths, using only quotations taken from her notes, and gives everyone new names, which serves to both protect privacy and serve as a representation of her subjective experiences with that person. She strives always to depict the people she has met, rather than a homogeneous group. Yet she still acknowledges an uncertainty as to how she fits in to the story—to the historical context of the country, to a frightening potential future, to the stagnant life of The Bubble. The way Fitzgerald entwines her experience of Berlin with what is experienced by her students begs the question: whose story is it? In a meta moment near the end of the book, someone asks her, “But this is your story too, isn’t it?”
In general, I expected less memoir and personal anecdotes from Fitzgerald and more focus on the lives of individual refugees, but perhaps this is a voyeuristic expectation. In her meta moments, Fitzgerald briefly discusses her concerns around exploiting the stories of the people she has met. She seems to mitigate this by drawing historical parallels to WWII Germany, making the story as much about the social and political landscape and Germany’s legacy as much as it is about the refugees who she meets in her work. The past informs the present in an eerie way, from full-on anti-immigrant attacks to typography in popular culture, with Nazi-era Fraktur typefaces creeping back into popularity. This discussion of national history seems to assert an insistence of responsibility. The world promised, “never again,” but we are facing a poorly handled international crisis that questions our respect and regard for human life.
While the book ends on a tentatively hopeful note, it is weighed down by the horrors experienced by refugees in their journeys to safety, and the difficult decision for some to return to where they fled from. Drawn to Berlin doesn’t promise actions, solutions, or moral lessons. It meditates on lives spent in an unending transition, a limbo where your fate is still being decided. It captures a reality most readers won’t have to confront, even in the news, capturing just a brief glimpse of what asylum seekers must endure to try to find peace, safety, and a new sense of home.
Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories From a New Europe
By Ali Fitzgerald
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NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Middle Eastern Lesbian, Queer