Last night, Holocaust survivor and graphic novelist Miriam Katin spoke to West Virginia University students and faculty about her work, which recalls the years of hardship in Eastern Europe during and after World War II.
With her recently published book, “Letting Go,” Katin had plenty to discuss to a crowded lecture hall in Ming Hsieh Hall, where not a seat was left empty and some students even resorted to sitting on the ground.
Before Katin discussed her comics, she dedicated her first few minutes behind the podium to honor the victims of the “Charlie Hebdo” attacks in Paris.
“I feel I must say a few words about the power of art—for good or for bad—and this is a memorial to the artists who were massacred in Paris,” Katin said. “It shocked us in the comic and cartoon world, and I took this very personally. I was very frightened and appalled with what happened and I’m mourning.”
Moving on to discuss her two graphic novels, Katin said the stories of her past had always been like “an unwanted, uninvited presence” in her mind. Once she discovered comics, however, she said she finally found a way to express the “stories that haunted” her.
Her expressions weren’t immediately praised, however. The color usage in Katin’s first novel—or lack thereof—was questioned by publishers who were used to colorful comic strips.
“I had difficulty picturing my past in color. I could only imagine them in black and white,” Katin said. “Because of the pictures from back then, maybe, or because of the sadness and horror, I couldn’t imagine it otherwise.”
In contrast, Katin’s latest graphic novel uses a spectrum of bright colors to tell a more contemporary story as she comes to terms with her son moving to Berlin. The front cover even mimics the colors of the German flag.
In this way, Katin said she sees her choices in color as “a statement, symbolizing fear and hope.”
Considerable detail is also stressed in each of the novels. Katin described many instances in which she’d spend hours researching typical uniforms of soldiers, weaponry and even fashionable furniture to paint the most realistic picture she could for her readers. To prove her dedication to the audience, Katin displayed pictures of herself holding cockroaches while working, so that she could draw them into her novel perfectly.
“We artists are pretty obsessed with always doing the research, and we go about it in a pretty obsessive way,” Katin said.
But the meticulous crafting of the novel was hardly the most difficult part of Katin writing the novels. Katin said the dedication to detail and need to provide a window into the past required her to once again “find that little girl” she was as a child, having little more than her mother’s stories to draw from her experiences in Hungary.
“I had to find her and inhabit her. I had to make her alive—to make her walk and talk. And it was somehow I could imagine the people and places my mother told me about, and I became to know myself as a child and define how terrible and confusing those times were,” Katin said.
Even in her latest novel, the readers are presented with an internal struggle as Katin comes to terms with the past and her present. Having drawn the novel in real-time as the experiences came to her, one goes through the journey with Katin to acceptance.
“The city was really very beautiful, and I thought maybe it had started to grow on me,” Katin said of a second visit to the city. “I guess the Germans had moved on, and I had not.”
Currently, Lisa DiBartolomeo uses Katin’s first novel, “We Are On Our Own”, in her course, “The Holocaust in East European Film and Literature.”
Students who were present said they admired Katin’s courage in telling her story when she could have tried to forget her experiences all together.
“She is just full of these interesting and compelling stories that really should be shared with everybody,” senior student Alex Svolos said. “It’s hard to picture yourself in her shoes, but she really tries to make that easier for her readers.”
Katin stayed in Ming Hsieh after speaking to sign copies of her book and speak with fans directly.