Miriam Katin served as a graphic artist in the Israel Defense Forces in the 1960s, and later she did artwork for MTV and Disney. Her first graphic memoir, We Are On Our Own, was published in 2006 by Drawn and Quarterly and recounts how she and her mother survived the Holocaust in Hungary. Her second graphic memoir, Letting It Go , came out last spring and shows Katin releasing the past.
Danica Davidson, whose journalism on graphic novels has been published by Lilith, MTV and CNN, spoke to Katin about her work.
Danica Davidson: Why is it you decided to use the graphic novel format to talk about your experiences in the Holocaust?
Miriam Katin: The stories of my background and what happened to us were always there, continuing in my mind. I don’t write, but I draw, and when I discovered comics for myself in about 2000, I thought I could tell the stories I have. As far as Art Spiegelman’s Maus is concerned, it gave me “permission” to do the stories in drawings.
DD: Why do you think graphic novels work so well as an outlet for memoirs?
MK: It works for a certain audience. These would be mostly young people and not-so-young people who grew up on superhero comics. You can still see them at bookstores reading the manga or graphic novels. Those are most of the readers, and for them to discover history, it’s probably working very well. As far as my work is concerned, for example, my publisher was hoping it would be a crossover with old people discovering comics. It didn’t work so well. I know so many people who are really serious readers and they’d look at this and get really confused and say, “I can’t deal with it. I have no idea what this is.” The old people who bought my book were people who know me and were interested in stories about the war.
I saw a real difference between when my first book came out in 2006 and my second book this past year. This time I saw many more old people buying it, so they are connecting to read pictures.
I was really lucky to be picked up by such a marvelous publisher. My first work that I did was in 2000 and it was only four pages. It got released to fantastic reviews, and one reviewer said it would stand up even in Drawn and Quarterly. I had no idea who was
Drawn and Quarterly, so I ran to the bookstore and got their stuff. I sent my first work to Drawn and Quarterly with my review and they called me up on the telephone to say they loved my work and, oh, I must have something around I could send them. I did this twelve page story about the Hungarian uprising and I received a nomination for an Eisner Award. That was my second work in comics, and I received a number of commissions.
DD: We Are On Our Own and Letting It Go are so different in style and feel. How did you approach creating each project?
MK: Before I did We Are On Our Own, I did a few short stories and my style developed. I thought this one year during the war when my mother saved us from the Germans was a good story and my publisher was very interested to have a book. I first thought I would make it a longer short story, and when they saw the subject, they said, “Miriam, this is a book. Just sit down and do it.” [laughs] And so I had to ask a few things from my mother chronology-wise, but otherwise I just put my head into her head and tried to feel what she felt. That was difficult, but it wasn’t that difficult because it was a story from A to Z.
The second book came when my son came with this news that he wanted to live in Berlin. It was extremely emotional, and I said, ‘What can I do? I can draw.”I started to collect my thoughts, jotting down everything and taking pictures, anything I found.
DD: When you’re writing autobiographical works, how do you decide what details to put in?
MK: Oh, I try to put in everything. As you can see, it isn’t always palatable. It must be an interesting story, so it must lead into action.
DD: What do you want readers to take away from your books?
MK: It’s very interesting, because with the first book I thought it was a very good story for a graphic novel. What happened, actually, was that so many people connected to it. Jewish circles and synagogues approached me to talk about it. At first I was taken aback. I said, “I don’t want to be the Holocaust lady going around telling the stories.” First of all, I didn’t consider myself a real survivor because I wasn’t in the camps. And then it turned out it’s not that way, really, because we all have our stories. Then, as people came to me, it seemed important and it seemed that I had to take responsibility for what I created.
With the second book, I had to do it for my own sake. The second book is very funny, and I’m very happy that people are laughing out loud when they look at the pages, because I meant it to be funny since everyday life can be very silly. If people like it, I’m very happy. It’s a very personal story.
DD: Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women is the first museum exhibit about Jewish women using graphic novels to write memoirs. Can you tell us about being part of it?
MK: This was a wonderful story. When my first book came out, I was invited to participate in the exhibit of Jewish Comic Artists that was in the Jewish Museum in Paris. A young woman, Sarah Lightman, eventually one of the two curators of the exhibit, found me. She asked me if I would be interested in this exhibit she was dreaming about on Jewish women making comics. Lo and behold, she made it happen with Michael Kaminer, and it was fantastic. The energy that they had for it!
They wanted me to bring in things I’d done in the Israeli army. So I brought those things and they chose four pages they wanted to have in the exhibit. It was about the situation in Israel between the Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, which was at that time pretty volatile. Today it’s a whole different story.