Reading for Resistance: “Rolling Blackouts”

Brigid Alverson kicks off a new column highlighting comics that explore issues in the news, starting with an interview with Sarah Glidden.

Reading for Resistance is a new column highlighting comics and graphic novels that shed light on issues in the news.

On Saturday, everyone was talking about refugees. Six years ago, Sarah Glidden made a journey through parts of Turkey, Iraq, and Syria with a group of independent journalists who were focusing on refugees and their situation throughout the region; they were accompanied by a veteran of the Iraq War who was recording his own reflections. Last September, Drawn and Quarterly published Glidden’s graphic memoir of that trip, Rolling Blackouts.

Although some of the information in the book is dated, because the situation in the region is drastically different, Rolling Blackouts is more relevant today than ever before. It’s a meditation on journalism in a time when “fake news” and “alternative facts” have entered the national conversation, and—more immediately—it tells the stories of refugees from a number of countries and situations, showing what it’s like to live life in limbo, unable to return home, unable to move on. Because it is a graphic novel, Glidden is able to bring the reader directly into the scene and unravel complicated issues through conversations with the people for whom they are concrete reality, not an abstract news story. The book is compelling reading. You can read the first five pages, as well as links to the actual stories the journalists wrote, at Glidden’s website, and the Drawn and Quarterly site has another excerpt from the book.

I spoke to Glidden at SPX last September.

I want to start with the first page of the book, because right there you set the tone, in that you have an awkward conversation with the refugees, and also, you are showing the refugees and not the reporters. Can you talk a little bit about that very first page?

Sure. Originally the opening was going to be the second page, the start of the trip, but I thought that’s part of the book but that’s not what the whole book is about, and for me, the question I was thinking about when I was working on this was “What is journalism?” Not just how does it work, because how it works was my impetus for going on the trip, but what is it, what is it for, and what does it mean to talk to people? That interaction, which comes back at the end of the book, really is—here you have Iraqi refugees who are talking to an American, maybe for the first time in their lives, and even if you’re a journalist, you are a representative of that country that is the cause of them being refugees, and I think starting it with them, starting with, you know, you’re reporting but you are also part of the story, because that’s an experience for these people. You are inserting yourself into their lives in one way or another. You can’t make journalism and talk to people without becoming something they are interacting with. So I really wanted to show them and show that awkward question, with accusations, because they really were present during the whole trip, even if it wasn’t being addressed explicitly.

We have almost framed this interview like the book itself, because now you can drop back a bit and talk about what the book is about and what the theme is for you.

It’s really hard for me to get my elevator speech for this, but the idea for this book came up because I have these friends when I was in my 20s who became journalists and started a nonprofit multimedia freelance outfit.

And they are very much individual journalists.

They are individual journalists. Now they have switched their focus; they are doing more journalism mentorship. I was seeing them make journalism. They would report locally from Seattle, and they would also do these international reporting trips that they would get funding for, and hearing them come back with all these stories about “and then I was almost eaten by a lion!”—that kind of thing—I was really interested in it. I never thought about how journalism actually works, all the work that goes into it, all the ethical considerations, all the obstacles with editors and with your readership, and I really just wanted to go with them on one of their international reporting trips to just make a book about how it works.

So it is journalism about journalism?

Yeah. That was the idea. It was very simple, just follow them around, watch them work, make a book about that. But it did get a little more complicated when one of the journalists invited her childhood friend, who was a marine in Iraq, to come with us and she was going to interview him as we went along, so that added an extra layer.

I’m going to steal a line from the book: What kind of misconceptions did you have about journalism before you started?

I think I didn’t realize how messy it was and how uncomfortable it is, and that there’s no way to do it right, where you’re just clean, no one is getting hurt, and where you feel 100% positive that you did the right thing. Journalism is an uncomfortable profession, and it needs to be. There’s no other way to do it. Even making this book, just the act of turning people into characters. You’re editing. You’re taking the scenes that you think are important, and that may not be their experience of the same time, even if you were all there together. That’s something you should know, but it is hard. In the book my journalists talk about how you have to think about marketing, how it’s not enough to just have Ellen’s story; you also need to think about how am I going to get someone to read this if they see it on Facebook. And that’s one of those, “Oh yeah, of course!” [things] but you don’t really think about that because what you are reading has gotten to you—it has successfully made its way to you.

Your earlier book, How to Understand Israel in 30 Days or Less, was nonfiction, but do you have experience with journalism?

When I was an undergrad, I thought I wanted to be a photojournalist, and I took a communications class, but I love taking pictures and I love Tyler Hicks, the photographer from the New York Times, I love National Geographic photography, stuff like that, and I thought oh, I can do that, but I didn’t realize how much you need to get up in people’s faces. Just because you are only taking a picture doesn’t mean you are not talking to them. I was very shy, and so for a long time I thought journalism wasn’t something that I could do, that I wasn’t cut out for it. But when these friends of mine started doing it, it started seemimg like oh, maybe this is something that I could do, through watching them work and also just through examining the kind of journalism I am attracted to—I really love long form narrative journalism, kind of like the new new journalism.

So I didn’t go to school for it, but I would take a New Yorker article and try diagramming it, like OK, this is the nut graf, this is the A character, this is the B character, this is the setting paragraph, so I really before I embarked on doing this myself I really tried to do my homework. I think that something that is intimidating about journalism to people is there is so much that you can really do wrong. There’s a code of ethics that is blurry, and I really wanted to make sure that I had prepared myself for this stuff. And the only thing that can really prepare you in the end is doing it and making mistakes, and wishing that you had asked that question that you didn’t ask, or wishing you hadn’t interrupted someone when you did. So it was like a long training, but going on this trip and seeing people who looked pretty confident in it was really a way for me to see OK, this is how it works.

The Israel book was nonfiction, but would you say it is journalism in the same way?

I wouldn’t say so. Some people I have talked to have said that it is, but to me that book was always about me and my feelings.

So more of a memoir?

Yeah, more of a memoir. I actually brought a minidisc recorder with me, because I wanted to record stuff that was going on, but I didn’t bring a power adaptor for the charger, so the first night I went to recharge it, things started smoking and that was the end of the minidisc recorder. So I took notes and I tried to write down things people were saying, but at that point I hadn’t really thought about how do you do journalism or anything like that. It was really more of an offshoot of how I started out in comics, which is diary comics, memoir-y type stuff. So I don’t think about it so much as journalism, but there are parts of it that involved research, that involved talking to people. If I were to do that trip again now, knowing what I do about journalism, it would be a completely different book.

What would be different?

I would have gone to the West Bank. I was very chicken, and I was also very emotionally involved with stuff as it was happening, and I think doing journalism, you learn to detach yourself a little bit in the moment. Later, when you are drawing, you cry or get emotional, but when you are talking to people, when you are in the moment, you have to keep that space open so that you can do your job right. When I was in Israel, all this stuff felt personal to me in some way, and part of that is maybe being young, but definitely I would approach things from a little bit more distance, I would be a little bit braver about who I talked to. But journalism or no, memoir like that has a place.

I wanted to talk about the process of making Rolling Blackouts. You said in the introduction that you were recording everything, but in terms of the visuals, were you working from photographs, were you keeping a sketchbook?

I do a combination. A lot of it is photographs—not copying the photographs exactly, but I’m taking a lot of photo reference. We’re sitting right now in this hotel lobby that’s very generic looking, but it’s generic in a very specific way. I really want that to come across when I am describing places, especially places in the Middle East, where some people might not have ever been there, but some people who read the book lived there or know it. I want them to be able to recognize those things, and I want people who haven’t been there to recognize how things are similar to things back home. So I take a lot of photo reference of ceilings, walls, things from different angles, how people dress, details around the room. That is the biggest visual reference for me.

That’s interesting, because when I first look at your art, I would not say “This is super detailed.” But it is in a sense that you have the telling details, so clearly, just as you edit an article, you are also editing visually.

Yes. I want to be specific, maybe not overly detailed.

There are certain situations where you can’t be taking pictures. Border crossings are a big one. Whenever I would reach a border crossing I would put the camera away, get out my sketchbook, and furiously try to draw the building, and sometimes floor plans so I could recreate the space. And sometimes more sensitive meetings with people, like when we were talking to a roomful of refugees. Alex, the journalist with us, was taking pictures, but I didn’t want to get in the way and be in their face, so I did drawings of them. Some people didn’t want to be drawn as they actually were, so I had to change that a little bit. I think the good thing about getting your sketchbook out, even though sometimes you might not have time for it, is that people really are drawn to drawings. It’s just such a universal thing. Everybody draws. Sometimes I would show them my sketchbook just to show them what I was doing, what it is that I am here to do. And doing portraits of people always builds a relationship and a rapport that can be really useful and important.

It seems less threatening than taking a photograph. I’m not sure why.

I was never really that confident in photojournalism, because it felt like there’s just this big machine between me and you, and that giant eye—I just felt like that’s invasive. And a good photojournalist knows how to not make it feel that way to people, but for me, having the sketchbook or the very small camera felt more like I can blend in.

That’s true. There’s a huge human aspect to it…

It is a challenge. It’s hard. The kind of journalism where you might make someone upset because you are asking them questions, but it needs to happen. When someone has lost someone in their family, you are trying to ask them about their feelings—people really think journalists are parasites but I think that most journalists—I don’t know all journalists, but the journalists I know—they are asking those questions because this is an important story that needs to be told. No one has to answer a question if they don’t want to, but a lot of times, even if they get upset, they do want to talk, and they do want to tell the story of their trauma, and I think that’s really valuable and important.

You obviously came back with a lot of raw material. Had you started framing the book before you finished the trip?

You know, that took a long time, to figure out how to frame it, and what my voice was going to be, and how much I was going to be in the story or not.

It seems very natural—”She just went on this trip and she wrote about it!”

I’m glad it seems natural. I rewrote the first chapter about 15 times. I have a whole file on my computer with different openings, because the opening sets the tone, it’s important but because there was so much audio, not just interviews but us hanging out, us having beers after a day of recording, that was a lot of conversation to transcribe.

Did you transcribe all of it?

Most of it. And I know a seasoned journalist probably would not do that, but at the time I didn’t know how much I was going to need. There’s sometimes no way of knowing what moments—it may seem incidental, like someone just says an offhand remark…

It’s always the thing you didn’t write down that you remember later.

I really just wanted to have all that. I’m a packrat that way. But I really did not like transcribing, and I did not like hearing myself on those tapes. Oh I sound so stupid! But it was good to do. I think moving forward I’ll know more about how to edit, and as you’re talking, what might be important, but for this one, it was my first thing, so yeah, just tape it all.

So somehow you boiled this down to a book. Did you script it or thumbnail it first?

I did both. I usually like working from a script, because I can just cut it up—sometimes I’ll make a script and then cut it into strips and see if I need to move it around, scenes and stuff like that. But I also did thumbnails—they are more roughs than thumbnails, they are pretty detailed—for the first half of the book because I wanted to show it to an editor, and it’s hard for people to visualize things when it’s just a script. I wanted to show them what I am thinking. When I am writing the script, I’m already thinking visually—I know the gesture the person is making—but the thumbnails are really good for showing the editors. My husband really helps me. It’s always good to have someone who really knows you well, knows what you’re trying to do, to read over your stuff.

Is he a comics creator or a journalist?

He is a comics creator. He’s not a journalist. He does more artistic comics than me. His name is Francisco Lopez. He’s from Argentina so a lot of his work is not really known over here.

What kind of changes did the book go through once you had finished it? Did you go back and revise it?

I did a lot of reworking. I cut a lot of stuff because it was getting long. I added stuff. I work in this nine-panel grid, and one of the advantages of that is you can cut out half a page and then figure out how to move things back. I do a lot of editing myself. Sometimes you just read something and something doesn’t feel right. You can’t put your finger on it but it feels like, “No, not yet.” And then I’ll redo it until it feels right. There’s definitely a lot of taking things out, putting them back in.

How long was the total process? You went on the trip in 2010?

Yes, November-December 2010.

So it’s been six years.

Yes.

Wow. That’s a long time.

A lot of that time, it wasn’t full time working on the book.

Do you have a day job?

No. I was trying to live cheaply while I was working on this. I did some short comics projects that are paid, and illustration work, but for the first part of it I got a residency in Angouleme, which gives you a free place to live and studio space, so I was there. And then at the tail end of that I met my husband, and he lives in Buenos Aires, so we lived down there for a while, and I could live off my short work and illustration. So it was definitely a lot of piecing things together. It took a long time.

What are you working on now?

Right after I finished the book, Matt Bors from The Nib got in touch about doing a profile of Jill Stein, who is the Green Party candidate for president. I love getting assignments. There’s part of me that just loves it. It feels like being in school, and it’s a challenge to do something outside my normal wheelhouse. So I worked on that over the summer.

Was that a short comic or is it a book?

It’s about 15 pages, so it’s a short comic. So I was working on that, and just gearing up for this coming out, and I have a couple of other short pieces coming up, but then, I’m starting to think about the next book, I’m starting to think about what shorter projects I would like to do. We’ll see. I don’t want to talk too much about it.

No, but very generically, do you want to continue with this theme of looking at journalism or at travel?

I think I just want to do journalism now. I definitely want to continue with the theme of immigration, deportation of refugees—there’s a lot of stuff happening here. And there’s a lot of misinformation about refugees. You hear politicians say “We don’t know who these people are. They are not vetted.” And it drives me nuts because these people are so vetted. They are vetted more than a vice presidential candidate. It takes two years, they need to go through multiple interviews, medical exams, all of this stuff.

And it’s hard to get people interested in refugees. It’s not the sexiest topic, especially because people think they know so much about it because they hear about it all the time. But I think what’s good about comics is that you can have someone take a second look at something they might not read the article about, so I want to look into that, and I’m very interested in the deportation of people to Mexico and Honduras, things like that. So we’ll see what comes of that.

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