Drawn to Berlin: Comic Workshops in Refugee Shelters and Other Stories From a New Europe

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
ISBN: 9781683961321
Fantagraphics, 2018

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NFNT Age Recommendation: Adult (18+)
Character Traits: Middle Eastern Lesbian, Queer

The Girl Who Married a Skull: and Other African Stories

In this graphic anthology for youth ages 8-12, a collection of creators come together to present various reimaginings of African folklore and fairy tales. Spanning fables from Nigeria, Egypt, West Africa, Zimbabwe, and more, The Girl Who Married a Skull includes origin stories that explain why no one likes hyenas (they’re mean) and why turtles live in water (they don’t want you to eat them) as well as tales that highlight wit, bravery, and female strength. While some stories suffer from rather lackadaisical endings and look like coloring pages for toddlers, I found this little collection both amusing and playful.

For example, in the Nigerian fable of the book’s title, the main character is cheekily named “disobedient daughter.” She’s one of the most beautiful girls in her village, and all of the boys are in love with her. But it’s the dashing stranger (really a devious skull in disguise) who ultimately wins her hand in marriage. When the skull starts shedding borrowed body parts and returning them to their eager owners, (we’ve been previously warned that things are going to “get a little weird”) she realizes her mistake too late. Now she’s stuck in the underworld, expected to do the cleaning, washing, and household chores for the skull and its mother. It’s one of the more clever stories in the collection, and you can tell that writer and artist Nicole Chartrand had a lot of fun playing with the girl-meets-boy trope, as well as the unfortunate girl-wants-to-marry-boy-after-five-minutes-of-knowing-him plot device.

Other stories include a gorgeously illustrated portrayal of bird politics, an assassin in space, and an exploration in fairness with a crocodile. There is literally something for everyone. A couple of adaptations fell flat for me. Next to their more thoughtful counterparts, the overly simple artwork and fast pace makes them feel like obnoxious commercial breaks during a Saturday cartoon. However, these are rare moments, and young readers might welcome the light-hearted respite from the more involved stories.

The diverse artwork does well to complement the vast array of folktales, incorporating bold, loud lines in tales like “Why Turtles Live in Water” and “Gratitude” to express the collection’s zanier stories. In more contemplative tales, like the Zimbabwean “Chiefs Heads,” the illustrations are soft, almost delicate. My one complaint is that the illustrations are in black-and-white. African culture is known for its use of rich color and it seems a shame not to honor that in a visual representation of its folklore.

It’s important to note that there aren’t many titles out there that expose American children to cultures outside their everyday experiences, that present such a varied palette of artistic styles and moods, and that are both educational and fun all at the same time. The Girl Who Married a Skull manages to incorporate all of these elements into a wonderful introduction to African culture. Highly recommended for young fans of mythology, magic, and adventure.

The Girl Who Married a Skull: and Other African Stories
By Kate Ashwin D. Shazzbaa Bennett Mary Cagle
ISBN: 9781945820243
Iron Circus Comics, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Middle grade (8-12)

Hasib and the Queen of Serpents

Many tales from the classic compilation of Middle Eastern folktales A Thousand and One Nights have been retold and entered mainstream Western popular culture, such as Aladdin, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the Voyages of Sinbad. But there are so many others in this collection of tales that have yet to be told in modern literature. French cartoonist David B. has created a colorful graphic novel interpretation of one little-known tale. Entitled Hasib and the Queen of Serpents, readers are taken on an adventure throughout the mythological world of the Middle East and witness the age-old tradition of storytelling.

The tale opens with Hasib, a woodcutter, exploring the nearby forest with three lumberjacks. When the men stumble upon a cave with a secret stash of gold, the three greedy men take the fortune and leave Hasib trapped inside. However, instead of meeting a grisly fate, Hasib finds himself in the court of the Queen of Serpents, who keeps him company and tells him a tale about King Bulukiya’s search for the prophet Mohammed. During his search, the King discovers the Queen and a host of other characters, each with their own story to tell.

This specific tale may be unfamiliar to most readers but with colorful characters and an intriguing storyline, the graphic novel is able to bring the story to life. The story within a story technique, commonly used in the original A Thousand and One Nights tales, is used often in this interpretation, bringing readers deeper into the world of Middle Eastern folklore. David B.’s uses a variety of colors and detailed images to invoke this ancient tale. He uses his own artistic style with detailed scenery, disproportionate or snakelike bodies, and anthropomorphized animals. This retelling blends text and art so well, with narrators providing background information for each tale and modern dialogue that keeps the story active from page to page.

Some pages contain one panel that covers an entire page, filled with characters and fantastical scenery. The artist includes the characters Scheherazade and Shahryar, the Persian queen and king from the original tales, reminding the reader which night it is within the A Thousand and One Nights. Readers who enjoy folktales and mythology will be intrigued with this interpretation, especially with the scenes of noteworthy figures of Islamic tradition, such as King Solomon and Mohammed, and characters from Middle Eastern mythology, such as Djinns and the bird Simorgh.

David B.’s Hasib and the Queen of Serpents is an artistic interpretation of an ancient tale of adventure, war, and faith. It will make a great addition to any public library’s graphic novel collection. Adult patrons who enjoy mythology and folklore, along with colorful and expressive comics will want to take a look at this tale.

Hasib and the Queen of Serpents
by David B.
ISBN: 9781681121628
NBM Publishing, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: