by Sarah McNicol
Comics are, of course, found in many cultures, from Japanese manga and Chinese manhua to South and Central American historietas, and Filipino komiks that draw on traditional folklore as well as elements of mainstream US comics. Moreover, it has been argued that comic books “have always been attuned to the experiences of immigrant Others” (Davis-McElligatt, 2010: 137). Graphic narratives have long played a crucial role in representing and constructing immigrant subjects and the immigrant experience. Today, several of the most widely known graphic novels address issues of migration including Chris Ware’s (2001) Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and Shaun Tan’s wordless graphic novel (2007) The Arrival. The latter is often said to depict a universal story of migration, telling “not an immigrant’s story, but the immigrant’s story” (Yang, 2007). Nevertheless, it is explicitly the story of a man’s migration as he leaves his wife and daughter behind to make a better life in a new land. At the end of his struggles, the man reunites with his family who, it would appear, settle seamlessly into their new life without experiencing any of the hardships he has endured. Discussing literature more broadly, Pavlenko (2001: 220) argues, “immigrant women’s stories were continuously ignored by the literary establishment” despite the fact that female migrant life writing often explores different themes from those of traditional male autobiographies.
‘Graphic Lives: telling Bangladeshi migrant women’s stories through graphic narratives’ aims to go a small way towards redressing this balance. It is a project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and run collaboratively by Manchester Metropolitan University and a local charity, Hyde Community Action, that works with women from the British Bangladeshi community in Hyde (Greater Manchester). Over a period of five months, the nine women at the centre of this project explored their own life stories and the historical narratives of their communities through workshops on life history, cross-cultural storytelling and digital skills, as well as visits to Manchester Museum and the Whitworth Art Gallery to engage with collections. They then used a mini tablet computer and a simple online comic creation tool called Book Creator to communicate their own multimedia story using photographs, drawings and text. The aim of this method of comics creation is to give the women themselves opportunities to construct and tell their own stories, in their own voice and in their own ways. So, whilst some produced drawings that they then scanned and added to their comic, others searched online for stock images and yet others made copies of their own family photographs and digitally altered them to avoid individuals being easily recognisable. In producing their final comics, most of the women used a combination of these methods.
The textual element of comics can be particularly complex in migration narratives: words from other languages may be used and also the type of English used may vary. Several of the women had very limited English and so wrote in Bangla. This was then translated into English by another member of the group. Shahida’s comic shows an example of this. We offered the option of typing in Bangla, but this was an unfamiliar process for the women, so they preferred to write by hand and scan the text into their comic.
The opportunity to tell their stories using a multilingual and multimedia approach was therefore important in allowing the women to express subtleties and ideas they may lack the skills or confidence to express in English. It enabled them to focus on the form and content of their story and to explore wider possibilities rather than being limited to what they could express adequately in English.
Telling women’s stories is important because the majority of research that has been undertaken into Bangladeshi communities in the UK has been focused on public life and is therefore almost exclusively male (Alexander et al, 2010). Most Bangladeshi women look after their home and family but we know very little about domestic and family life in Bangladeshi migrant communities. This project therefore focuses on what has been described as “the drama of the domestic and the everyday” (Laydeez do Comics, nd): issues outside the public sphere, and therefore often overlooked, but of central importance to the lives of Bangladeshi women.
While each of the women, naturally, created a very individual comic telling her own personal story, there were a number of common themes. One of the strongest, and most frequent themes, was the closeness between the women and their family in Bangladesh. Despite living far from their families and having very limited opportunities to visit, the women felt a very strong connection to parents, siblings and even extended family members such as nieces and nephews in Bangladesh. Siddika, for example, created a whole comic around this theme; each page of her comic is dedicated to a different family member (or group) she misses. While many of the women adopted a chronological approach, starting their story in Bangladesh and then describing their life in the UK, Siddika chose to produce a comic without an obvious narrative. Her story is a series of fragmented menories, perhaps illustrating that, as Hillary Chute (2010: 4) describes, “images in comics appear in fragments, just as they do in actual recollection”. Similarly Shahida’s comic slips backwards and forwards between the UK and Bangladesh and between the past and present, thus reminding us that life stories may also be told or written in ways that are very different ways from familiar Western concepts.
For most of the women, Bangladesh was a place and time when they were happier and under less stress. Even though they may have experienced upsetting events in their early lives, such as the death of a parent, the women’s memories of growing up in Bangladesh were overwhelmingly positive. In contrast, life in the UK felt much more pressured. In some cases an idealised version of Bangladesh became almost a metaphor for happier times. Fatima’s comic is an example of this: when talking about Bangladesh, she produced a page filled with bright blue sky and vivid pink writing. This is a sharp contrast to a page about her life in the UK when she expresses the dark feeling of seeing her dreams go up in smoke, as the image shows.
As Urszula Chowaniec (2015: 140-41) argues, “Exile shows that identity is not a stable, once given and persistent quality”. The idea of a discontinuous identity featured in many of the women’s comics: who they were in the past is not necessarily who they are now. For many, such as Fatima, there is a sharp contrast between the ways in which they depict their lives in Bangladesh (then) and in the UK (now): this is apparent in the text, images and colours they use in their comics.
A common theme in many migrant narratives is the struggle between the need to behave in ways that are considered appropriate within a particular culture, while also integrating into a society with different cultural norms. This issue is particularly pertinent for women who typically face greater pressures to conform to socially acceptable behaviours. For migrant women, therefore, integration into a new society is far from a straightforward process. For the women in this project, this issue was further complicated by the fact that they were expected to join their in-laws’ household when they first arrived in the UK. This meant finding their place within a new family. The complex relationships within extended families could place considerable pressure on the women as daughters-in-law as Juie’s simple, yet effective, drawing shows.
Through representing and sharing women’s stories and heritage, the Graphic Lives project has aimed to challenge preconceptions; to widen representations of migrants from those (often negative portrayals) commonly seen in the media; and to put forward alternative representations that focus specifically on women’s stories and experiences. Ultimately, we hope that this will change attitudes and behaviours and improve understanding and cohesion.
Telling women’s migration stories through graphic narratives has allowed for different themes to emerge than might be the case in more traditional formats, as well as allowing women access to alternative ways of representing their experiences. The use of a comics format in the project has been crucial in allowing stories, feelings and memories to emerge that might not have done so otherwise, and more importantly allowing these to be shared.
There is more information about the project and workshop activities, as well as copies of the finished comics, at http://www.esri.mmu.ac.uk/resprojects/project_outline.php?project_id=180.
Sarah McNicol is a Research Associate in the Education and Social Research Institute at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. She has a background in adult education and libraries and is currently working on a number of community-based projects that involve comics creation.
Alexander, C. Firoz, S. and Rashid, N. 2010. The Bengali Diaspora in Britain: A Review of the Literature. Bangla Stories.
Chowaniec, U. 2015. Melancholic Migrating Bodies in Contemporary Polish Women’s Writing. Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Chute, H. 2010. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. Columbia University Press.
Davis-McElligatt, J. 2010. Confronting the Interactions of Race, Immigration and Representation in Chris Ware’s Comics, in D. M. Ball & M. B. Kuhlman (Eds.) The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing is a Way of Thinking. University Press of Mississippi.
Laydeez do Comics n.d. Home page. http://laydeezdocomics.wordpress.com/ (accessed 27 Oct 2017).
Pavlenko, A. 2001. Language Learning Memoirs as a Gendered Genre, Applied Linguistics 22(2), 213-40.
Yang, G.L. 2007. Stranger in a Strange Land. The New York Times http://www.nytimes.com/2007/11/11/books/review/Yang-t.html?_r=0 (accessed 27 Oct 2017).