I Live Here
Mia Kirshner, J.B. MacKinnon, Paul Shoebridge, Michael Simons, primary writers/artists
Ann-Marie MacDonald, Lynn Coady, Joe Sacco, Kamel Khélif, Chris Abani, Karen Connelly, Tara Hach, Lauren Kirshner, Valerie Thai, Niall McClelland, Seamrippers Craft Collective, Tina Medina, Julia Feyrer, Tiffany Monk, Charlotte Hewson, Sean Campbell, Phoebe Gloeckner, Julie Morstad, Karen Comins, Lackson Manyawa, Felix Yakobe, Edward Kasinje, contributing writers/artists
Pantheon, October 2008
Because it’s easier than talking about the content, I’m going to start my review of I Live Here, actress Mia Kirshner’s labor-of-love examination of human rights abuses suffered by women and children around the world, by discussing the presentation. Simply put, it’s stunning, certainly among the loveliest, most lavishly and thoughtfully designed books I’ve seen this year. The “book” consists of four slim, separate softcover volumes, each one reminiscent of a small notebook or journal, encased in a surprisingly sturdy, unfolding slipcase, the texture of which evokes the white paint/plaster/whiteout/whatever that is comprises the cover’s visuals. Each volume focuses on a different region where suffering is endemic: Ingushetia, a Russian republic that serves as home for thousands of Chechen refugees; the refugee camps (more like internment camps) along the Burma-Thailand border where members of the Karen ethnic group have been herded by Burma’s military dictatorship, as well as the Thai cities where Burmese refugees often end up as sex workers or domestic servants; Ciudad Juárez, the Mexican border city that serves as a narco capital and the site of literally hundreds of murders and disappearances of women and girls, many of them unsolved; and Malawi, an impoverished African nation where the rate of HIV infection hovers around 20%. Kirshner and some of her collaborators (Sacco, Simons, Gloeckner, and MacKinnon) traveled to each place, and the information and material they collected formed the basis for a variety of reportage, memoir, fiction, poetry, illustration, painting, photography, collage, comics, and assorted other visual and textual accounts of what’s going on in these places.
It’s all beautifully done, and virtually never maudlin, self-indulgent, or over-designed, which is something of a miracle given the subject matter and the sheer number of contributors. Kirshner’s eye for detail is impressive for a first-time author, but I don’t think she ever gives in to the temptation to oversell the import of a shared moment or specific insight (even regarding her family’s experience with the Holocaust or her own rape as a teenager, both of which inform her intent to create this book); the focus is still squarely on the full contours of the human catastrophes to which she bears witness. Moreover, while I Live Here can only be called a graphic novel in the very loosest sense–sequential art driven by panel transitions accounts for exactly two subsections of the whole project–Kirshner and her main collaborators bring a comics sensibility to the entire affair, concentrating on a juxtaposition of text and image that conveys more information than simple illustration. Sometimes this can be fairly complex and unexpected, as in the needlepoint and craft works that accompany an account of a murdered young woman in Juárez. Other times it’s as simple as just explaining what we’re seeing: In the Burma/Thailand volume, there’s a powerful one-page sequence of 12 increasingly out-of-focus snapshots captioned, in white-out, “Self-portraits—She took one picture every hour while working her shift in the brothel. She had six clients in 12 hours.” Some contributions rely on the way the text is presented: What looks like four pages of word-find puzzles in the Juárez volume turns out to be names of dead and disappeared girls written out end to end; a series of short first-person accounts of life in juvenile prison in Malawi is illustrated by Malawian signmaker Edward Kasinje, whose visual representations of their words end up reminiscent of the type-based work of Ray Fenwick.
The actual graphic novelists involved in the project hand do memorable work here, unsurprisingly. Joe Sacco’s strip “Chechen War, Chechen Women” contains some of the best art I’ve ever seen from him, his figures containing a searing, prophet-like power. This is also where we get our first good look at Phoebe Gloeckner’s experiments with digitally manipulated photography and doll-making, in a monumentally upsetting series of diorama-like depictions of the rape and murder of women and girls in Juárez. Her overripe, disturbingly childlike imagery is juxtaposed with flatly literal translations of reports on the crimes from the Mexican media and police documents (“Said, ‘she leave her children to me because I am now without work. She should know how tempted, and no right has to anger with me when she is not there.’”).
As is probably apparent by now, this is devastatingly, soul-crushingly sad material. It clearly got to Kirshner, who admits as much throughout the book, after seeing a series of photos of carnage taken by a Chechen refugee, after visiting Juárez. As her journeys go on, the books feel less comprehensive–I think each subsequent volume is a quicker read than the one before–as if Kirshner eventually lacked the heart to throw it all at us again and again, preferring impressions to examinations. There’s stuff in here you’re going to wish you could un-read, un-see. You’ll cry. (It was a short fiction piece about a Karen child who had to leave her dog behind while fleeing her village and wondered if the dog was sad because he couldn’t understand where his masters went that got me.) You’ll start making comparisons in your head: Is Juárez, with its recognizably North American pop-culture and commerce, more or less upsetting than the familiar Eurasian rubble of Chechnya? Is the perfect storm of man’s brutality to man in Burma and Thailand more or less unjust than the avalanche of disease in Malawi? Is hopelessness quantifiable? If the world is the sick, unfunny joke these stories of these places suggests it to be, there’s something heroic about those willing to go out of their way to hear that joke be told, is there not?