Well, I somehow find myself taking sides in the PEN Awards fracas over Charlie Hebdo. Here’s an article in today’s New York Times with links to key earlier articles, in case you haven’t been following this thing with bated breath since it erupted last week.
Art Spiegelman emailed me last Monday asking if I would be willing to come to PEN American Center’s gala tomorrow night. He was looking for cartoonists to replace the writers who had withdrawn from the event in protest of the presentation of the annual “Freedom of Expression Courage Award” to Charlie Hebdo. This was the first I had heard about the protest—or the award, or anything. I’m not a member of PEN though I keep meaning to join. Anyhow, I quickly looked it up and learned that all these great writers who I respect didn’t think Charlie Hebdo should get this award because they find the content of the magazine problematic.
In a letter to PEN, they write:
“To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.
Our concern is that, by bestowing the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo, PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.”
To be honest, if these people had come to me first, I probably would have signed on with them–not because I’m weak-minded and easily led (though I am) but because both sides of this debate make some really good points. But I got the call from Art, in an email whose subject line read “Cartoonists’ Lives Matter.” And I’m goin’ to the gala. What it comes down to for me is that it’s possible to separate the award—which is for courage, after all—from editorial content.
Like most Americans, I’d never heard of Charlie Hebdo until the massacre in January. So all my information about the magazine came from that context—from US news reports about the murdered writers and cartoonists which often included examples of Charlie’s cartoons, with English translations. Some charming, some crude. One that struck me as perhaps needlessly provocative showed a naked Mohammad from behind as he bowed in prayer. But the main thing I came away from these cartoons with was a sense that I just didn’t get them. Even if I could understand the words, there were too many cultural and political references I was missing. Satire is a powerful weapon, but it’s also extremely culturally specific, and often doesn’t work when it’s the slightest bit out of context.
I just discovered this great site that takes the trouble of translating not just the text, but the whole gestalt of some CH cartoons. Often something that looks at first glance like a racist or homophobic joke turns out to be making the opposite point. But it’s true that things can get pretty crude and sophomoric.
It’s not my kind of humor. But just because I wouldn’t do that kind of cartoon doesn’t mean I want to live in a world where no one is allowed to. Making space for this type of expression seems vital. Andrew Solomon, the president of PEN, said in a letter to the board defending the decision to grant the award, “There is courage in refusing the very idea of forbidden statements, an urgent brilliance in saying what you have been told not to say in order to make it sayable.”
But at the same time, the protesters are right when they point out that in an unequal society, certain unsayable things have an unequal impact.
The global response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was huge, which was great. But there’s something askew in the world when the murder of twelve people gets exponentially more coverage and reaction in the West than the ongoing civilian casualties of US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. There was a short article in this morning’s Times about a US airstrike on Syria that local activists say killed 52 civilians. It’s 250 words long—completely dwarfed by the media frenzy over PEN’s black tie dinner.
Of course there was also an article in the paper this morning about the attack on the “Draw Mohammed” event in Garland, Texas. This was just as reprehensible as the one on Charlie Hebdo, though it turned out differently, with the gunmen being killed. But the more I read about the organization staging the event, the more appalled I got. This goal of this group, the American Freedom Defense Initiative, really does seem to be to provoke. They use free speech rhetoric to advance their anti-Muslim agenda. If PEN were giving an award to these people, I would absolutely protest it. But Charlie Hebdo, even though it often offends, seems to be engaged in a very different enterprise.
Anyhow, it’s weird to have this big rift going on between people I think of as being on the same side. Salman Rushdie and Katha Pollitt are defending the award, and Teju Cole, Sarah Schulman and Rachel Kushner are opposing it. Andrew Solomon and Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN, wrote this op-ed in the Times on Friday, in which they try to minimize the divide. “Our goal has been to avoid a reductive binary; this is a nuanced question, and all of these writers have made persuasive moral arguments.”
It’s good to have so much thoughtful conversation going on about the complicated dynamic between free speech and hate speech, between fundamentalism and xenophobia. I can’t say I am exactly looking forward to this little dinner party tomorrow night. But at the same time, I’m glad that I’m going. Violence is intended to polarize. I want to try and resist that.
Fun Home the musical opened this week on Broadway, and my life has been a crazy swirl. The play is amazing, though perhaps I am not the most objective reviewer. But the real reviews have been very, very good, so maybe I am right. Anyhow, it’s all very crazy and unreal. But here’s a great video by Eva Sollberger, who does the “Stuck in Vermont” video blog for my local VT alternative weekly paper, Seven Days. She came down to the city last week to see the play and interview me and also another Vermonter who’s in the play, Oscar Williams, who plays one of my brothers.
Watching Eva’s video has somehow helped me to feel a bit more grounded in all this hubbub.
Last week, four of the actors in Fun Home made a trek to my home town just before rehearsals for the play began. Bizarrely, the house I grew up in is available for rental on a website called HomeAway. So the actors stayed there one night, and the night before, Hol and I stayed there with my brother Christian. I wasn’t sure I’d be up for actually sleeping in the house, but in the end it felt fine. Though very strange. Here we are next day with the actors—Emily Skeggs, Joel Perez, Beth Malone, and Michael Cerveris.
Now I am about to head to Austin to the South By Southwest festival. I’ve never been to it, and am feeling overwhelmed already. I’m on this panel about storytelling with the amazing Maria Hinojosa and the filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer (The Act of Killing), so if you happen to be at the festival, please come. Though there are so many exciting sounding panels, I don’t know how anyone can commit to just one at a time.
Here are a few out of the many hundreds: The Birth of Korean Cool. Bringing the Flying Car into Reality. Burning Man Meetup. When Kids Design Drones. Robot Petting Zoo. Hacking the Brain. SADvertising: Why Tears are the New Tactic. Why Does the Internet Hate Women? Why Feminism is Winning the Web. And, Screw Fuck No! Say Shit Yeah!
Well, if I make it out of SXSW, then I head to NYC to do this event at the Guggenheim with the creative team of the Fun Home musical, on Sunday March 15.
Okay, that’s about it. Oh. Here I am taking a bath in my childhood bathtub.
And here’s a cool little video they made from a cartoon I drew last summer about the experience of having a musical made from my memoir. Though the cartoon barely touches on what it has been like–I think I would need a whole book to accurately document the full extent of weirdness and wonder.
They also have a Facebook page up with new fancy photos of the cast.
For some time now I have been puzzling over a vexing problem: how to draw a jumping jack. You can usually find a way to convey a sense of movement in a drawing. But I just couldn’t seem to capture a jumping jack in a single image.
Even with lots of overlapping outlines of limbs, and motion lines, it’s impossible. I kept trying to figure it out, making a video of myself and analyzing the different positions. Then drawing them separately and combining them in a flip book. But I didn’t have enough drawings and my pages weren’t on thick enough paper. Then it occurred to me to put them in a GIF generator.
In 1995 the website Planet Out hired me to design a bunch of avatars that people could use in a chatroom. The technology back then was pretty primitive…I never actually saw the functioning chatroom. I didn’t personally get online until 1996, and by then whatever they were doing had already become obsolete.
So I never got to see my little characters in action, which was really disappointing. I put a ton of work into them. The assignment was complex: create 5 male and 5 female characters, then create multiple poses of each character. (And multiple racial versions of each one.) The characters were: Goatee Boy and Pierced Girl (young hipster types), Mr. Downtown and Execudyke (corporate types), Lipstick and J.Crew (a femme and a rather prissy man), Gym Queen and Girljock, and Bear and UHaul Woman (slightly older types). I had to draw each avatar standing in a neutral pose, happy, angry, flirting, etc….the idea was, when you wanted to have your avatar express an emotion, you’d click a button and there would be a brief animation—they’d move from neutral into a laugh, e.g. I didn’t even have a scanner in those days, and no Photoshop. So I was just winging it, trying to imagine these little animated movements.
So as I said, I never got to see them in action. Then the other day I ran across the huge packet of all the drawings and got inspired to scan them and try making some of them into GIFs. Almost 20 years later, technology has come along with another interesting way to recycle these lost images. I’ll paste a bunch of them in here…some work better than others. But it’s so very amazing to me to see how the rapid succession of two still drawings creates movement and life.
Look at this amazing diorama of Madwimmin Books created by artist Judith Abraham. It’s part of an exhibit at A.P.E. Gallery in Northampton called The Diorama Show. It’s up until December 7th. I’m hoping to get down and see it up close. I’m not quite sure what the scale is, but it looks quite small. See all the miniature books, and the tiny vibrator in the glass display case?
Judith, a.k.a. Iris Bloom, describes her piece like this. “This diorama is based on the underground comic Dykes To Watch Out For by Alison Bechdel which chronicles the cultural history of lesbian feminism in the 80’s and 90’s. It is also a reflection of my personal history. It has been fun to re-imagine this history through the characters of DTWOF in a women’s bookstore where so much of it took place.”
Although the bookstore in my comic strip was based to some extent on the late lamented Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis, it was also very similar to many other women’s bookstores that used to exist. Like Womanfyre Books, in Northampton itself, where I lived briefly in the 1980s. It’s moving to see that historical space recreated, and it’s very cool to see my own two-dimensional universe given three-dimensional form. There’s something haunting about seeing the light and shadow falling on real objects. I imagine that seeing it in person will be even more intense. Here’s one more view:
Also, the idea of a diorama reminded me of this scene from Invasion of the Dykes to Watch Out For, circa 2005. Clarice has taken Raffi and Stella to the natural history museum, and there’s a special exhibit on endangered species. There’s a panda diorama, and then in this panel, two more dioramas:
Well Venice was pretty amazing. I am a bad traveler and did not do much research beforehand. I know very little of the history there, really, political or art historical or literary. Except for Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Those Who Walk Away which have given me such vivid impressions of the city. I kept wanting to know where her protagonists had stayed…but I have had such terrible wifi on this journey, I can’t look anything up. It’s hard not having that external memory–I really find it difficult to function without it. Anyhow, I couldn’t get excited about Henry James or freaking Titian. I just liked walking along all those tiny wending canals and imagining Tom Ripley having a panic attack around the next corner.
Also, even though everyone had warned me about the tourists, I somehow didn’t believe it until I was caught up in the insane throng. It was like being in Las Vegas, except everything was real. And people were not so drunk and women were not walking around dressed like prostitutes…uh… okay, it was really nothing like Las Vegas but it was a bit sad nonetheless. Yet there Hol and I were jostling along with everyone. One cool thing we stumbled onto that was practically empty, though, was this Hiroshige show at the Palazzo Grimani.
Hiroshige was a bit younger than Hokusai, and maybe a little more conservative and not quite as brilliant, but his woodblock prints are breathtaking and very comic book-like.
Look how he drew these cherry blossoms for godsakes.
Then we did this totally corny thing. Went to a Vivaldi concert of the Four Seasons in some church. It wasn’t great, and the audience was really confused and clapping when they shouldn’t and not clapping when they should and the musicians were rolling their eyes at each other. But these four well-set-up gentlemen in front of us seemed to be enjoying themselves so maybe it wasn’t so dorky after all.
Everything is so crooked and leaning and off center…I guess you can’t tell from the photo that that tower is completely askew. Hol is copying it.
Here is a lovely view of a canal obstructed by someone selling trite drawings of views of canals.
Another cool thing was the Peggy Guggenheim Museum. We visited in a downpour, which slightly reduced the madding crowds. Here I am on her front porch…deck…dock? With a Calder.
Well that’s about all I have to report. We did not ride in a gondola. But I did spring for a water taxi to go to the train station. When we arrived, we had schlepped onto a vaporetto with all our suitcases and about 4 thousand people and it took forever. But leaving the city, the water taxi ride on the Grand Canal was great fun and totally worth the money.