Trio of graphic novels tell powerful migrant stories
Images of refugees and migrants flood our newspapers and screens every day, but their individual stories are often reduced to a series of stereotypes. Ironically, comics — so often associated with all kinds of crude stereotypes — are becoming an important resource for artists, activists, and refugees themselves to convey personal and powerful stories of war, displacement, and relocation.
In a slightly different vein, Poppies of Iraq is a captivating graphic memoir that shows how war-torn Mosul was once a thriving and religiously diverse modern city. It is co-written by the established comics colourist Brigitte Findakly — who was born in Iraq but left with her family as a teenager — and her husband, the well-known French cartoonist Lewis Trondheim.
They may have collaborated on the book, but the story is entirely Findakly’s: it is her memoir of growing up in a middle-class Orthodox Christian family who remain loyal to the Iraq they love, despite its gradual disappearance first under Saddam Hussein and then the Islamic State.
Poppies of Iraq is clearly intended for Western readers (it was translated from French). It follows in the tradition of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, tracing the intrusion of an oppressive regime into family private life from the point of view of a child, so that readers less familiar with this history grow in knowledge along with the protagonist. As much as she shows the family’s incremental loss of freedoms, Findakly is nostalgic for the lost pleasures of childhood — including picnics and picking the eponymous poppies — and melancholic about her middle class family’s decline and eventual dispersal around the world.
The authors’ use of a classic French style of rounded caricatures, clear lines and lively colours recalls such childhood classics as the Madeline books and The Little Prince. The conventional comics grid is replaced by looser framing: the words of the adult narrator appear over sequential small, borderless rectangles (often six to eight a page) that offer little vignettes into a past life. Actual photographs appear as well, grounding the story in reality and haunting it with faded black-and-white snapshots of the past.
Each in its own way, these superb graphic narratives add nuance to conventional ideas about refugee lives. They also reveal a central paradox in contemporary graphic storytelling: despite their obviously unrealistic and caricatured representations, comics can sometimes generate more empathy and understanding than either pictures or words alone.