Lucy Popescu

freedom to write, review, travel…

Posts Tagged ‘Graphic Novel’

Book Review – Threads: From the refugee crisis

Posted by lucypopescu on June 25, 2017


Calais was once famous for the art of lace-making; now it is better known for the groups of desperate refugees who gather in its port hoping to cross into Britain. In early 2016 the cartoonist and activist Kate Evans (who is also the author of Red Rosa: A graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg, 2015) volunteered for a brief stint in the refugee camp known as the Jungle. Her new graphic novel Threads depicts the shantytown before it was demolished later that year. A ribbon of lace frames each page, the delicate threads standing in sharp contrast to the refugees’ harsh existence.

Instead of finding sanctuary in Europe, they live in limbo. Evans’s subjects are shunted between camps in Calais and Dunkirk, and she meticulously documents their helplessness, along with their remarkable endurance. Her eyewitness reportage is punctuated with news headlines about the various atrocities fuelling the refugee crisis – the Russian fighter planes bombing Syria and US forces bombing the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, for example. Evans also captures in separate cartoons the political prejudice of Theresa May, Britain’s then Home Secretary, claiming that there is no economic benefit to migration, and France’s Marine Le Pen encouraging distrust of Muslims as she addresses a rally in Calais.

The squalor of the Jungle is evident in Evans’s illustrations. Only twenty-four toilets are provided for 5,000 people, and the water tests positive for faecal contamination. The diversity of the inhabitants is represented by the ramshackle colourfulness of her sketches of them. Attempts to help the refugees, some of whom are unaccompanied children as young as seven, can be chaotic: Evans depicts aid workers trying to distribute children’s clothes, overwhelmed by lines of desperate men. Swimming goggles are dis carded as impractical and, too late, it is recognized that they would have provided a useful defence against tear gas. Evans is quick to note the Kafkaesque decisions of the authorities – on two separate occasions, refugees and aid workers are prevented from bringing fresh bread or dry bedding into the camp.

Evans also shares the pejorative texts she has received condemning her voluntary work. When one text message claims, “These refugees are safe in France where they could claim asylum if they wanted 2 shame they want our benefits too much!”, she responds with a series of stark illustrations (leached of colour, the frames increased in size) showing three refugee men being brutally beaten by unidentified assailants. One victim later remarks, “they were wearing blue suits. Like the ones that the police wear, but with the emblems torn off”.

Police brutality is seen as shamelessly open. Evans’s illustrations convey the terrifying spectacle of rows of riot police and bulldozers, and the fear of the Jungle’s inhabitants as they are tear-gassed. The author learns of one fifteen-year-old boy whose skull has been fractured, and a pregnant woman who has been slapped by police. Again and again, her narrative emphasizes the desperation of people trying to reach safety, and she includes some haunting snapshots explaining why they have fled their native countries, ranging from torture and rape to sustained persecution for being gay. The appalling threads of these people’s lives coalesce to form a bigger picture with an underlying message: we need to treat our fellow humans with care and respect, for inhumanity breeds inhumanity.

A mother herself, Kate Evans depicts her young subjects with remarkable tenderness. We’re not told about a child’s boredom, fear or meltdown – we see it. Their lives are on hold and many are battling despair. Back in Britain, the author depicts herself watching the demolition of the Jungle on her phone and remarks: “It’s more than some people’s homes that are being destroyed. It’s their minds”. Her book ends on a chilling note: after the eviction, 129 lone children disappeared from the camps. As Threads makes clear, one child is too many; 129 is a humanitarian catastrophe.

Originally published by the TLS


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Book Review – La Lucha

Posted by lucypopescu on May 18, 2015

La LuchaMexico has long been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists and human rights activists to work in. Critics are often abducted or murdered with impunity. Furthermore, over the past two
decades, gender based violence reached such epic proportions: Juárez city, for example, has become known as the “femicide” capital of the world. This is the chilling backdrop to Jon Sack’s graphic novel, part of a series published by Front Line Defenders (FLD), a Dublin based international human rights organization.

The book centres on a real life figure, Luz (Lucha) Estela Castro Rodríguez, a lawyer and campaigner for women’s rights in the state of Chihuahua, considered one of the most violent regions of Mexico. In 2002, Lucha cofounded the organization Justice for Our Daughters, and in 2005 the Center for Human Rights of Women. Through her work, Sack and Adam Shapiro, head of campaigns at FLD, gained access to the stories of ordinary Mexicans who have been devastated by the murder or disappearance of loved ones and of those who have fled to the United States.

These include the Salazar Reyes family. Josefina, a wellknown activist, protested against a proposed radioactive waste site in Sierra Blanca, opposed the militarization of
Juárez, and denounced the mass murder of women in the region. In August 2008, the military abducted her son Miguel Ángel. After being tortured for sixteen days, he was released. Three months later, Josefina’s other son, Julio César, was murdered at a wedding. Josefina continued her protests until January 3, 2010, when she, too, was murdered. Her
brother Rubén was killed seven months later. On February 25, 2011, the bodies of Magdalena Reyes Salazar, her brother Elias, and his wife Luisa Ornelas Soto were found dumped along
the side of a road in Guadalupe, Chihuahua.

By using black and white comic book art – arguably more effective at drawing the reader in than a block of text describing the violence – Jon Sack immerses the reader in his subject; his representation of shootings and torture powerfully conveys that violence is commonplace in Mexico. Employing light and shade to great effect, he presents the killers as shadows – a chilling reminder of how Juárez’s faceless murderers continue to escape justice.

Originally published the TLS

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European Literature Days

Posted by lucypopescu on November 20, 2013

European Literature DaysEvery year I am invited to a charming and informative literary festival in Austria called European Literature Days (ELiT). It’s held in the small town of Spitz, next to the River Danube in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Wachau. During the long weekend of events, I get to meet new authors, hear the preoccupations of my European colleagues, and participate in numerous debates about literature and culture. This year’s theme was “The Limitations of Literature” and included talks on the graphic and documentary novel, and how they are challenging ideas about traditional literature, as well as panel discussions about the extent to which technology is changing our conception of literature and literary markets.

The first day was taken up with a mini conference entitled “Backflow”, specifically about book translation in the Danube region. I didn’t think there would be much of relevance to the English delegates but was pleasantly surprised. In the morning, various authors spoke about translation generally and the impact on book markets, throughout the whole of Europe caused by the rise in digital publishing. German writer and moderator Rudiger Wischenbart suggested that online publications and E-books potentially offer new opportunities for the smaller south-east European literary markets, allowing more authors to publish digitally and reach a wider readership across borders. Instead, Wischenbart felt, the opposite was true and that because of the dominance of large global players, such as Amazon, Google, Apple etc the smaller literary markets in the region are drifting apart.

Miha Kovac, an academic and publisher from Slovenia, noted that the English book market continues to be a major force in central /eastern Europe. His research had found that the smaller the country the greater the import of English books. Sales and the accessibility of English books were now substantially aided by Amazon.

Fellow Brit, Chris Meade (Director of if:book and a Trustee of Modern Poetry in Translation) spoke eloquently about how the digital age and rise of multi-media could actually help to nurture the diversity and translation of poetry. As a small, sophisticated piece of software, the App, he argued, was the perfect counterpart to a poem – a compact piece of art in which the culture of a nation can be distilled. The digital age is changing the way we think, read and compose but Meade is optimistic that we can use technology to shape a new literary culture.

In the afternoon we met in smaller groups and debated various subjects related to the translation. The UK has a poor record for the translation of literary fiction – currently thought to be around 4.5% of fiction sales in the UK – and yet authors from countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia and Slovenia, dream of obtaining a wider readership by being translated into English.

That evening German writer Matthias Politycki read from his latest novel, Samarkand, Samarkand. Politicki’s first novel to be translated into English, Next World Novella (Peiriene Press, 2011), was long-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The following day, Steve Sem-Sandberg (pictured), Swedish author of The Emperor of Lies (Faber & Faber, 2012) about the experiences of Jews in the Polish ghetto of Lodz during the Holocaust, gave a brief presentation on the “Documentary Novel” and Swiss writer Christian Gasser took us through the rise in popularity of the “Graphic Novel”. Gasser noted the range of subjects covered in the past 25 years, from growing up in Iran under the Ayatollahs, Hiroshima and the Holocaust to reportage from the Gaza Strip and North Korea.

The graphic novel theme continued into the evening with a reading from Austrian comics’ author Ulli Lust (Today Is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life, Fantagraphics, 2013). On our last day we were taken to an exhibition of the Belgian comic series Lucky Luke. Together with The Adventures of Tintin and Asterix, it is one of the most popular and best-selling comic-book series in Europe and we were fortunate to meet French artist Achdé, who took over drawing new Lucky Luke stories in collaboration with writer Laurent Gerra in 2001, and continues today.

Once again, the festival raised interesting issues and introduced me to an array of contemporary European authors I’m keen to read in English translation. However, I am also reminded that while writers from around the world want to be published in English, our response is poor. We live in a globalised society, we have E-books and print on demand – it’s easier than ever to cross literary, linguistic and cultural borders – and yet it continues to be the smaller, independent presses that are promoting international fiction in this country.

Originally published in the

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