The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees

The Unwanted covers the crisis in Syria from 2011 through 2018 by focusing on the many ways refugees have left or have tried to leave the country, enduring dangers such as smugglers, border police, and deportation in trying to seek resettlement in other countries. In an author’s note, Brown asserts that his purpose in writing the book was to focus only on the refugee experience, rather than try to sum up the complicated cultural landscape of Syria. However, in many ways the book focuses on being a refugee in the broadest possible sense. Experiences are anonymized and generalized; we do not follow any individuals and none of the characters, despite representing real people, have names. If any individual appears repeatedly, it is only over the course of a few panels. The longest we follow an individual is four pages, from a jihadist checkpoint to a smuggler’s boat, where he disappears into the crowd of other refugees, each one indistinguishable from the last, where their greatest power comes from their numbers rather than their lives. The refugees as people are not central to the story, but rather serve as a mass of fleeing people without identity. The result is a depersonalized representation of the “refugee experience,” homogeneous in its portrayal, with the primary focus on the act of fleeing rather than adequately addressing resettlement, rebuilding community, or homesickness. The author does not discuss nor seem to grapple with the difficulty of consolidating the struggle of millions into a single story, though he notes he felt like a “voyeur to tragedy.” While drawing up a fictional narrative about real events can be similarly problematic, the approach Brown takes feels more voyeuristic, like a documentary divorced of emotion.

While it’s clear that the book is well-researched, with nine pages of bibliography and four pages of author’s notes in which he describes his visits to refugee camps in Greece in 2017, by generalizing the experience it lacks emotional depth. In the notes about his visits, Brown describes the settings, not the people; he remarked that it seemed “unnecessary and cruel” to ask refugees to “recount their awful experiences,” but at the same time it removes the opportunity for interpersonal connection and getting to know the people past their status as a refugee. The people portrayed don’t really participate in the story. They have no control over the narrative. We begin to understand their struggles, but not who they are as people. We see a portrayal of their hardships, but not of who they are. While I can appreciate that the quotes used were taken directly from refugees, because they were pulled from the articles mentioned in the bibliography, it adds another layer of removal from their source, adding one more degree of separation and maintaining the distance between reader and refugee. Many of the quotes are said by refugees directly to the reader, turning their faces away from the violence depicted to describe the circumstances. Separating them from the story creates an eerie and unnerving feeling, as if a horror movie broke the fourth wall. Additionally, because Brown takes pieces from different people’s lives and experiences, the narrative of the book is not driven by the people, but rather reads more like a collage or scrapbook.

The Unwanted resists some comic book conventions in its style—the art is in panels, but the text is mostly narrative text, complete with paragraph breaks, indentation, and a serif font, which I’m not sure I’ve seen in a graphic novel before. The art is somewhat abstract and imprecise, a very sketchy style, lending a sense of impermanence fitting to the work. Often people’s eyes are portrayed as dark, shadowy sockets, which only adds to the feeling of removal, drawing the reader further away from the experiences of the people portrayed rather than closer to them. Violence cannot be confined by borders—black clouds of smoke rise past panel boundaries, explosions burst into the gutters, guns peer past the panels, escaping their own borders to search for the refugees who are crossing borders. A “flood” of refugees stream in from off the side of the page, ignoring the panel boundaries completely. While the art is mostly watercolor, some aspects seem more like mixed media, in particular, explosions that take up an entire page.

One aspect of the book that struck me as strange was that at no point do any of the characters address Syria as their home. There seems to be a total rejection of the country, with no discussion of nostalgia, homesickness, what they love, cherish, and miss about the home they had to abandon. In this sense the story seems very one-sided and flat, and might have benefitted from a deeper exploration of the characters as people.

The book only serves to strengthen the image portrayed on the cover and by the title; The Unwanted frames refugees as a problem rather than as people. It focuses on fear, and feels like watching a horror movie, where you are forced to watch panicked characters flee from the danger that haunts them. I found it more anxiety-inducing than empathy-provoking. Unlike other works that I’ve read and reviewed about refugees, this book does not leave the reader with recommendations for ways to become involved, though a portion of the proceeds from the book are donated to The International Rescue Committee. Brown’s goal may have been to capture the “refugee experience,” but I found that The Unwanted was a missed opportunity for deeply connecting to people rather than to the traumas they’ve experienced.

In addition to the heavy subject matter, in regards to content warnings, librarians wishing to shelve this title should be aware that the book shows corpses, blood, and military weapons, but without portraying graphic violence or deaths.

The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees
By Don Brown
ISBN: 9781328810151
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Teen

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees profiles a few dozen people in five geographic locations, involving three trips to refugee camps between 2013 and 2017, as well as a few additional interviews. Kugler’s approach to representing the refugee crisis was to interview refugees in order to directly learn more about the situation and their experiences. This dialogue-driven style of storytelling means the book lacks an overarching narrative and functions a bit more like a scrapbook, a collage of different people and the objects that surround them in their everyday lives. This scattered narrative seems to reflect a life in pieces, fragments of a life lived in limbo—waiting for paperwork, not knowing how long you may have to wait in order to be approved to move to your next destination or when you may be approved for resettlement, with the fear of deportation constantly lurking in the background.

Much like a scrapbook, there are a lot of layers to the art. People are often drawn in many positions simultaneously, several arms drawn to represent gesticulations while speaking, an outline of a hand holding coffee while a colored-in version lays crossed against a stomach. Sometimes an element is repeated out of context as an outline, such as someone’s nose floating in front of their face or an eye repeated off to the side. Words and letters occasionally escape the edges of speech bubbles. Notes and annotations crowd the pages, and objects are almost excessively detailed, making you wonder what the purpose is of labeling socks cast aside by a tent or a plastic spoon near refugees sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes. The reader is left lost and seeking direction, searching for a route among the chaos. You must scan the page carefully, worried you might miss a detail. The art works with the storytelling style to encourage a non-linear reading experience engineered to slow the reader down and allow them to spend more time with what is otherwise a fairly short book. Different parts of the page are occasionally numbered in order to guide the reader.

Escaping Wars and Waves brings a perspective to the refugee crisis that many other comics on the subject lack. Many of the interviewees mention missing Syria, whether they are sharing photos of beloved cats or reminiscing about their hometowns. One person aptly says, “For us Europe is not a dream land. It is not paradise… it is not heaven. I prefer Syria. But without the war.” The book dispels myths that readers might hold about refugees. Someone explains that their priority is not to qualify for government benefits, but rather “to get on with our lives.” Because Kugler’s interviews take place over four years in five different regions, the book effectively demonstrates how the reception to refugees has changed over time, from policemen scolding refugees with a simple “try again tomorrow” to an increased militaristic guard. Citizens became more aggressive, charging Syrians more than locals for the same products, and smugglers became even greedier, doubling their fees for questionable transportation options.

It’s unclear if the names given are made up to protect identities, but based on one encounter I’m guessing they’re not. Only one of the encounters is not illustrated, with the subject referred to simply as “The Afghan,” with a note from the author explaining that he did not want to be photographed or recorded. That being said, in his preface, Kugler notes that during several of his trips, women were particularly uncomfortable with being photographed (photographs which were necessary as drawing references), even if he did receive permission to do so. He explains that he felt it was important that their voices were heard and their stories were told, not seeming to recognize the hypocritical and disrespectful nature of not centering refugees’ wishes and comfort.

The book doesn’t have a conclusion, only a fairly lacking one-page postscript that fails to effectively wrap up the book. It’s unclear what kind of tone the author intended for the reader—empathy and understanding without further action? No additional resources are provided or referenced in regards to how to help refugees or take action, aside from a possible low-key recommendation to support Doctors Without Borders. I found this aspect fairly disappointing, especially after reading such impactful stories.

The book’s content is emotionally difficult, but would not be inappropriate for a young adult audience. However, regardless of where it is shelved, collection development is essential in order to ensure that readers have enough context for the work and can find more information about the refugee crisis.

Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters with Syrian Refugees
By Olivier Kugler
ISBN: 9780271082240
Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)

Zenobia

Amina is a young Syrian girl who is flung from an overcrowded boat that is carrying refugees. In the water she recalls sepia-toned memories of her family and what prompted her journey without the accompaniment of her family. Her meditations on playing hide-and seek and cooking with her mother are interspersed with scenes of her falling deeper through the water. She recalls her parents going into town and her mother’s last words to her, “Remember Zenobia!” Zenobia was an ancient Syrian queen and a symbol of strength, power, and independence. But Amina’s parents do not return, and her uncle comes to try to take her to safety. They journey through desolate towns destroyed by war, to a fisherman’s boat, where her uncle gives all his money so that Amina may know soon peace. In the water, she drifts to a sanctuary where no soldiers can harm her, finding solace in the strength of Zenobia, but heartbreakingly in the wrong direction.

While the book is fairly short, several artistic techniques are used to slow the reader down and meditate deeply upon the story being told. Words are used sparingly in the book, which features many large panels, evoking a wide expanse of time. Whole minutes could be spent on the two-page spread of Amina stepping outside her door and taking in what she sees—wide columns of black smoke, a destroyed tank, an ominous plane overhead, and not another person in sight. Sometimes a page depicting a single scene will be split into several panels, signifying the fragmentation and loss of that experience, something that can never be experienced as a whole again. Horneman mostly uses flat colors throughout the book, lending a sense of simplicity that seems appropriate for a story being told from a child’s perspective, but does not make the art any less impactful on the reader.

Dürr and Horneman are both Danish, and it is unclear why they were moved to tell this fictional story about a refugee, as no authors’ note accompanies the book. Zenobia reminds me in many ways of Khaled Hosseini’s Sea Prayer, a short and highly visual book that was inspired by three-year-old refugee Alan Kurdi drowning in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. Similarly, Zenobia works to build empathy for refugees and the risks they have taken for peace, though there is no clear call to action to the reader. In an interview I found quoted online, Dürr responds that he intends for Zenobia to act as, “a few minutes of silence in honor of the victims.” Nonetheless, it stirs in readers a great pain that desires resolution, rather than to sit with this feeling of hopelessness and despair.

Other than the fact that it is utterly heart-wrenching, the content of the book is appropriate for children. Death and war are present, through the depictions of destruction, a few (not graphic) dead bodies pictured among rubble, and as an overwhelming presence overshadowing her story. While the book is told from a young perspective, the publisher markets the book as a story for both children and adults. I would agree that this heavy tale is essential for adult readers in order to humanize the stories that the news depicts of refugees, particularly those that focus only on their tragic journeys and not on their lives as individuals, their memories of home and hopes for the future.

Zenobia
By Morten Dürr
Art by Lars Horneman
ISBN: 9781609808730
Seven Stories Press, 2018

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

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World is a pitch perfect historical graphic novel for anyone who wants to learn about brazen rebel ladies throughout history. Pénélope Bagieu started with a list of 50 women whose stories she wanted to tell and narrowed it down to about 30 for the book. In interviews, Bagieu is quoted as saying that one of the hardest choices was deciding “whose stories I could tell a 200 times without getting bored of.”  She especially wanted to showcase that not all brazen rebel ladies are western, white, educated, cisgender, straight women. At the end of the book, Bagieu does include the rest of her list of fabulous women for further reading.

Spanning nearly 2500 years of history, Brazen gives life to women such as Agnodice, one of the first women gynecologists who lived in 350 BCE Athens, to Sonita Alizadeh, an Afghanistan rapper born in 1996. Bagieu covers doctors, scientists, artists, explorers, entertainers: just about anyone from anywhere through time. Some of the women I knew, such as Nellie Bly, Josephine Baker, Hedy Lemarr, and Temple Gradin, are listed but others such as Nzinga, warrior queen of Ndongo and Matamba, Cheryl Bridges, athlete, and Giorgina Reid, lighthouse keeper, are entirely new to me. I found myself especially delighted Bagieu made sure Mae Jamison was included, the first black woman in space who happens to be a sci-fi and comics nerd.

Typically in anthologies or in music, the placement of the stories or songs are arranged by the artist just so, with a theme or an overarching story told via that placement. I could not find such a theme here and this is not to say that the work is haphazard—rather the thoughtfulness of the placement of the brazen rebel’s lives are listed such that you could read about a rebel from 2500 years ago and the next story is of a brazen rebel from the 18th century. The book does not need to be read in chronological order, but I will warn you that when you sit down with the book you’ll likely finish it one sitting, just as I did.

Bagieu wrote, illustrated, and colored the art marking her as a force to reckon with. In another interview, Bagieu selected a “very simple palette of four colors for each story, chosen carefully regarding the era, the country, the global feeling of the story.” In between each story is a two page highly detailed and colored spread of the brazen rebel in action, whether she is warrior queen or Temple Gradin and her cows.

Pénélope Bagieu is known for her attention to detail and the wit of her subjects. Here she gives these ladies all the attention and voice that they deserve. Each brazen rebel is finely drawn and brought to life, their stories may be told over a few pages but each story is in-depth enough to whet a history lover’s appetite. Brazen is listed as age appropriate for older teens, 16+, and up, but it could easily become the favorite of middle grades and up, especially as a reference book for further study. Highly recommended for any collection especially for history lists as well as lists for LGTBQ+ peoples.

Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World
By Pénélope Bagieu
Art by Pénélope Bagieu
ISBN: 978-1626728691 1626728690
First Second, 2018
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen (16+)

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Character Traits: Japanese, Chinese, Black, Latinx, Middle Eastern, Lesbian, Bisexual, Queer, Pansexual, Trans