Interview by Perry Sherouse
Perry Sherourse: In your article in George Marcus and Dominic Boyer’s volume on collaborations, you write that “comics – far from “dumbing down” or “simplifying” concepts, could be used to layer on more complexity – through comics, we could play with scale, time, and place.” What complexities of language and place were both of you able to convey in this format that would have been flattened or omitted in a standard, text-only account?
Coleman Nye and Sherine Hamdy: One of the great things we were able to do through comics was attending to fine-grained ethnographic detail without weighing down the pace of the story. We could be very specific about, for example, what people in Egypt eat, how they dress, what their daily concerns are, what traffic is like in Cairo, but show it contextually through the images in a way that enhances and layers the dialogue and action rather than detracting from it in the heavy prose of conventional “thick description.” With images, we could also zoom in and out of different scales — from the microscopic DNA mutations, to Anna as a person, to a wider environment in which toxins impact and predispose us to different cancers — all on the same page, weaving through the connections of cellular processes, personal life histories, and social-political structures that shape how we live. We could also juxtapose times and places, as for example, we see two characters in the US and Egypt on the same page, side-by-side prepping for surgery in very different settings. This invites readers to infer the differences, and also to think through the connections between these political and medical contexts. A great thing about comics is that you don’t need exposition — the reader does a lot of the work of making connections, filling in details, and otherwise populating the spaces between the panels (gutters) for us. Anna’s use of photography let us visually depict the layering of cancer’s timelines — from her mother’s family’s cancer genealogy to her present concerns about her cancer futures — and how through the clicking of her camera, Anna struggled with the temporalities of cancer and genetics. We could also point to characters’ shifts in perspective visually through things like Facebook Feeds — how a list of Anna’s posts shows us the different concerns she’s been grappling with across time and space– concerns about the political violence putting her friends at risk, but also about her own potential of succumbing to the cancer that killed her mother. Through Anna and Layla’s friendship, we could connect broader themes, like the difficulty of making life-and-death ethical decisions, the reduction of women’s health to their reproductive viability — across the U.S. and Egyptian contexts that we depicted, rather than reifying the old divide between the “West” and “the Rest.”
Perry Sherouse: When considering how to include citations to revolutionaries in this visual format, you were careful to think about the politics of representation. How does graphic ethnofiction change the way we think about the aesthetics and politics of citation?
Sherine Hamdy and Coleman Nye: We were drawn to the potential of the graphic novel form to reach a much wider audience — and in so doing, to re-conceptualize what counts as knowledge. It was important for us to cite the work and insights of the revolutionaries which were being produced in ways not generally accepted as “scholarship” — like social political commentary on graffiti throughout the public walls of Cairo and especially in Tahrir Square. We heavily visually cite Egyptian graffiti artists and even had a full-page mural designed by Ganzeer as a way to acknowledge our indebtedness to them in our own approaches and understandings of the revolution, and to signal a wider range of what counts as intellectual contribution. The revolutionaries who were present, in the Square and the streets of Cairo fighting off tear-gas, protecting protesters from military or police violence — they too were contributing to our theories of what counts as political action. Similarly, the doctor-volunteers who set up make-shift “field hospitals” in a city not technically at war — they reconceptualized the idea of “medical neutrality” and impartiality. By having Layla work with Tahrir Doctors in the story and by interviewing real people like Drs. Amr Shebaita and Dina Shokry, getting their feedback on the story, and incorporating them in the book as characters who play themselves, we wanted to acknowledge their political action as a key intellectual contribution to the Revolution, as well as to our book. The comic form allowed us to do that in a novel and exciting way.
Perry Sherouse: What influences are most powerful for you, but are undetectable in your work? [that is, intellectually, who or what brought you to this point?]
Coleman Nye and Sherine Hamdy: Art Spiegelman’s Maus is an obvious inspiration for its novel use of the comic form to deal with the very serious events of the Holocaust and its aftermath. Persepolis too was wonderful in that it opened a window onto the Iranian revolution through the eyes of a young girl. These influences are probably not “undetectable”! But since neither of us had grown up on comic books as kids, these works opened up the possibilities of what comics could portray and depict. We wanted to extend that work by making it really obvious how it connects to traditional academic scholarship, which is why we mapped out the connections in the appendices. It’s definitely unconventional for comic book producers to provide “teaching material” to accompany their stories, and may even be off-putting for some, in a way that it calls attention to what is ordinarily buried within the story, but we wanted Lissa to break through to academics and provide something of a bridge between the comics and academic world.
Perry Sherouse: Where and how do you write (for example, in a houseboat with a pencil, in bed with an iPad, underground cave with charcoal)? What is essential to your creative process separately, and collaboratively?
Sherine Hamdy and Coleman Nye: This was a funny project because so much of the collaborative writing took place long-distance. Sherine was on the East Coast and Coleman was on the West Coast for all of the early script-writing, which took place in chat and via Skype on a shared google doc. And toward the end, we had one artist on Mountain time and our visual editor Marc Parenteau working from Mongolia, so the coordination was nutty to say the least. But there were wonderful moments of collaborative writing and drawing: in Egypt, we talked through the plot and character design in a range of places, from street markets to meetings with medical students; in Providence, Coleman and Sarula sat in a coffee shop trying to talk/sketch the gene patenting page; and our favorite – Sherine hosted Caroline at her house for a week, while feeding her Egyptian food and modeling different facial expressions for her during the final push of art production.