On Thursday, February 27, cartoonist Kevin Huizenga visited Bryn Mawr to present “In Plain Sight: Reading Pictures,” a presentation followed by a conversation with Dr. Shiamin Kwa. Kwa, an Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at Bryn Mawr, invited Huizenga to campus for the lecture and also for a visit to her Introduction to Chinese Literature course.
The poster from Huizenga’s Bryn Mawr lecture and Q&A (For more information, please visit the Bryn Mawr website.)
Dr. Kwa received her BA in English Literature from Dartmouth College and her Ph.D. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from Harvard. Her first book, Mulan: Five Versions of a Classic Chinese Legend, with Related Texts, is a collaboration with Wilt L. Idema, published in 2010 by Hackett Publishing. In 2013, she published her first monograph, Strange Eventful Histories: Identity, Performance, and Xu Wei’s Four Cries of a Gibbon (Harvard University Asia Center), and she has also written about the Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia, and Italian opera. She is now at work on a literary history of the play The Orphan of Zhao, which brings together nearly all of her interests, and a biography of Genevieve Wimsatt (which, Shiamin adds, does not!).
Strange Eventful Histories features a cover by cartoonist Tom Gauld and reveals Kwa’s affection for comics and comic art. Shiamin and I first met as undergraduates at Dartmouth in the early 1990s, where, as I mention in our conversation, she introduced me to Matt Groening’s Life in Hell collections. In the following conversation, I ask her about her fascination with Kevin Huizenga’s work, her interest in comics, and her thoughts on the act of translation and its relationship to the art of words and pictures.
What inspires her academic work? “I think of my life as a state of perpetual preparedness for being dazzled,” she explains.
We began this email conversation on March 5, 2014 and completed our edits to it on Sunday, March 16.
BC: Before we talk about Kevin’s visit, I’m going to ask a very standard question: When did you first become interested in comics?
SK: I grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and I have great memories of my grandfather taking me out with him to get his newspaper. I would always get some treats: one of the treats was always a comic book. This was Malaysia, so I would mostly get Dandy or Beano, or sometimes an Archie comic. Otherwise my childhood in comics was Lat, MAD, and Classics Illustrated.
[Shiamin added a follow-up to this answer in another email conversation from March 7.]
I just want to (briefly) return to No. 1.
The question about when did you become interested in comics bothers me, because I do sense that there is sometimes a weird distinction being made about liking comics—like it’s a kind of secret handshake that is indexed by memories of carrying a certain colored bag on Wednesday afternoons. I definitely do not think of it that way, and so I answered your question in the way I would answer the question “When did you become interested in food?” or “When did you become interested in music?” which is to say, “How did you become interested in this as a topic for intellectual or scholarly inquiry?” The genre itself is not obscure or should not inspire wonder that a college professor would be interested in it, right?
Another way to answer the question would be to say: I just like stuff that is good. To me, that is the first order of business. I think of my life as a state of perpetual preparedness for being dazzled. Criticism is a way to express how that lambent experience has been accomplished.
BC: That’s true. I think my question reveals my own obsession with comics and nostalgia. Because they are so often associated with childhood memories for some readers, comics sometimes serve as a catalyst for interesting discussions of what’s been lost or ignored. I think you can tell I’m really asking more about your story than the story of your relationship with comics. Maybe I should be more direct in my questions!
I want to be cautious here, however. In The Future of Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym does offer a kind of warning on the first page of the book: “Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy” (xiii). I’m beginning to think that, in the act of criticism, we begin with a statement, I remember, but we must quickly ask, Why do I remember? Or, What do I want to know about what I think I remember?
I know there’s not much of a question there, so I should ask this, since I know you’ve mentioned it to me before: What drew you to MAD? I ask this because the first comics you shared with me when we were undergrads were Matt Groening’s Life in Hell collections, which owe an enormous debt to MAD and the underground comix MAD inspired.
SK: No, I think you are right on about this (and it is hard to be a dodgy interlocutor when the interview is being given by someone who has known me since I was 17—ah, our salad days), and we have spoken about this before. My enduring interest in questions of language, identity and performance have a lot, maybe everything, to do with how I grew up.
Why MAD? First, it is that they were around—I was a voracious reader, so I read whatever was to hand, which ran the gamut from old copies of Reader’s Digest, to all of the many Enid Blyton series, to the Penguin classics at the library to books that my mother picked up at the airport when she was coming back to Malaysia from the U.S. (I cannot say I would want my eight-year-old to read The Bluest Eye, though that is in fact one of my sharpest reading memories!).
What drew me to them were those [Al Jaffee] fold-in back covers. I recognized the tone of the magazines, but the cultural references were not my own. I lived in Brookline, MA, for a year in 5th-6th grade, and then moved back to Malaysia again. Then came back and lived with an aunt in Delaware in 7th grade. The rest of my family emigrated to the U.S. when I was in the 8th grade, and we all moved together to Florida.
I guess you could say that the leitmotifs of my childhood and adolescence were 1) trying to catch up on an “American childhood” that I missed, and 2) trying (unsuccessfully, may I add) to fit in. Actually, I guess you could say that I was unsuccessful with the catching up, too, as there isn’t a generic American childhood, and certainly not one that can be accomplished through watching TV reruns and reading lots of Judy Blume, but I certainly tried. So I guess now you’ve forced me to tell you “a story” although I’m not sure that I’ve told you “my story.” You would probably be better at telling that than I would.
BC: I’m curious about the distinction you make between “a story,” the one you just told, and “my story,” which would be impossible for anyone to tell. The artistic, critical, and popular success of books like Maus, Fun Home, and March suggest that comics might be at their best as a form when they set out to explore the tension between “a story” and “my story.”
SK: Well, I think there are the stories that we privately nurture, and then there are the self-conscious and performative stories that we share publicly. Because you and I have known each other for so long, I can’t quite tell the difference in this case! But yes, this also brings up another aspect of why comics are so appealing to me, which is the way that they feel so much more ready to contribute to a sense of affective resonance. There is a real thingness about comics, as there is—to me—with going to the opera or other similar live performances. I love to read, of course, but books and poems are marvels of the mind. I love going to the opera, or the symphony, or to watch dance, but for the most part I am watching interpreters of someone else’s mind. Comics are especially marvelous to me because of how they express both mental agility, and bodily control. I am over-awed by this combination of a deeply intelligent mind using a deeply intelligent hand to create this work. It’s astonishing, actually.
BC: I’m glad you talked about your interest in opera and in performance, because I was going to ask you about the intersection between music and comics. When I read Groening’s comics today, for example, I always hear The Smiths. Most of the comics I’d read up to our first year of college were very serious, as was most of the music I listened to, but your affection for Life in Hell and Morrissey’s lyrics gave me a hint (at 17!) that a sense of humor and mischief was also really vital and necessary.
I’m trying to find a way to bring this all back to MAD, but I don’t know what Morrissey thinks about Al Jaffee’s fold-ins, so maybe I should get back to Kevin!
What first drew you to his work?
SK: The incredible sense of control of his work, and I mean that on every level. I think that this is an artist who thinks seriously about form, and whose works reward you for reading carefully. I think the reason that I found his work so attractive was that I am basically an old-fashioned formalist close reader, and I get very excited about the relationship of a work’s structure and its content.
I also get excited about how different modes of narrative work together, which is why Kevin’s work is so compelling to me; he employs a full range of these different vectors of meaning, and makes them work together. There is always a payoff in his stories, and the beauty is that they are not always what you might expect.
Actually, this is a question that Kevin asked me, too, and the short answer is that I have no idea. I thought I had first encountered his work in one of those “Best of” anthologies, which inevitably triggers an Amazon binge, I’m afraid. But since those binges are so frequent (ask Robert [Shiamin’s husband]), it would be impossible for me to tell you anything other than that I ordered Curses on Amazon in January 2011. That means that I was living in Texas at the time, and reading a lot of comics, in general. I do remember reading his contribution in No Brow’s “The Double,” Issue 6, which has a Tom Gauld cover.
Gauld’s cover for Strange Eventful Histories. Read more about the book at the Harvard UP website.
I am going to ramble a bit here about Tom’s book cover for Strange Eventful Histories, so you may want to edit this out, but the reason I wanted Tom to do my book cover, in addition to the obvious fact that he is genius, has to do with this obsession I have with windows and mirrors. I love this trope of catching a glimpse of your reflection and not knowing it is yourself (this happens to me ALL THE TIME on department store escalators, or in mirrors in restaurants), and of appraising that familiar-looking stranger; and I also love its obverse, which is looking at something that is other and seeing oneself. I think the latter is basically a description of reading: immersing yourself in someone else’s self, and feeling that it is your own self, or recognizing a stranger as yourself.
The book I wrote was about a set of plays written in the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), in which each play tests out questions about the persistence of a “self.” I told Tom about the book in general, and sent him the chapter about a reincarnation play, in which an old monk is reborn as a courtesan, but doesn’t remember who he was/is. In any case, I see this in Kevin’s work, too; the defamiliarization of the familiar, and always, always, observing. I hope that Kevin will do the illustration for my next book cover. Ahem.
BC: That defamiliarization is an element that I read as a hallmark of American comics, the disassociation in the DNA of characters like Superman. But narratives like Maus, John Porcellino’s Perfect Example, and Carrie McNinch’s diary comics, for example, all explore the sensation of disassociation, a state that seems to find its perfect expression in a form that is itself about the interaction of what is read or seen and what is invisible—the blank spaces between the panels that Scott McCloud talks about in his discussion of “closure.” Do you read this sort of defamiliarization as a kind of alienation effect, something related to Brecht’s idea of Verfremdungseffekt? A means of creating distance so that the reader (or audience) has space for reflection?
SK: I think about it in this way: our world is about distinctions, and the sorting through of distinctions. Comics are just more honest about it. The spaces in between don’t necessarily have to be sites for reflection or meaning searching, just as pauses in conversation do not have to become heavily freighted with the same. But sometimes they do, and sometimes they are. I like to think of the spaces as having equal weight, but not a preponderance of the weight, either; that is, at its best the two are working together to create meaning.
BC: Is there a particular story of Kevin’s that stands out for you?
Well, they are all so different. If you are asking for a recommendation, I would have to say…read everything! He is currently finishing the fifth Ganges and Fantagraphics will collect all of them in one volume. I am really looking forward to this. The Ganges series is so formally innovative and profound, but also just very funny.
BC: How did your students and your colleagues respond to his presentation? What issues did you and Kevin address in your Q&A?
SK: Everyone loved him, and it was a standing room only crowd of students and faculty—I don’t know, I don’t really want to put into words what I perceived other people to feel, but I think I can say with confidence that everyone was really inspired by his remarkable combination of deep intelligence and sincerity. The Q&A ranged from students asking very specific questions about why he chose to depict things a certain way to my asking him about whether he walks a lot.
BC: What did he say about his walking habits?
SK: Haha. That he walks a lot.
BC: How do comics and graphic novels figure into your work as a scholar and as a teacher?
SK: Sometimes I think that I am all over the place in my interests, but when I am trying to be generous with myself, I think that my interest in comics as a scholarly topic has to do with my interests in semiotics and narratology in general. It’s basically a way of testing out ideas about how we read signs, and reading comics is about reading signs.
In terms of teaching, I am incredibly lucky to work at a college that is committed to supporting interdisciplinary programs and events. The Mellon Creative Residencies Program funds events such as these for the faculty and students in the Tri-College Consortium (Haverford and Swarthmore are the other two colleges), and I applied for a grant to invite Kevin out to Bryn Mawr to give a reading and also to visit my Introduction to Chinese Literature class. I cannot say enough about how wonderful this Creative Residency has been, because the truth is that as much as I learned from Kevin’s class visit and his lecture/Q&A, the best part of the residency for me was the series of conversations that we had while waiting for a train to The Barnes Foundation or stapling handouts for the students in my office before class.
I should also add that he is an incredibly nice, sincere person and so unbelievably modest. There were many times, however, when he would say things like “it’s so simple it’s not worth saying” or “it’s the easy thing to do” where I mentally (and sometimes, out loud) appended “…if you are a genius” to the sentence!
About the Intro. to Chinese Literature class: this is the class that you will be visiting in April, Brian, so you already know about this project. Basically, I am asking my students to make a visual adaptation of a Tang dynasty poem, which may be a comic book, illustration, even a Lego stop-motion movie! Kevin shared an adaptation of a poem that he had recently done for a book commemorating WWI.
This was all inspired by my feeling that comics as a medium can share a lot with poetry, especially Kevin’s work: visual economy, playing with perspective, playing with notions of time, attention to and respect for form.
BC: I also should mention that when I visit we’ll be talking with your students about comics and memory and, more specifically, about Julia Von De Bur’s new minicomic Life in Bodies of Water. And speaking of your class, I’ve been meaning to ask you about how your work as a translator relates to studies of words and pictures.
Julia Von De Bur’s new minicomic, Life in Bodies of Water
In her essay on Art Spiegelman and W.G. Sebald in the first chapter of The Generation of Postmemory (Columbia UP, 2012), Marianne Hirsch argues that the kind of “visual literacy” required by narratives like Maus and Austerlitz involves an act of translation. The photographs in Sebald’s novel, she writes, seem to “require a particular kind of visual literacy, one that can decode the foreign language that they speak, for in Sebald’s formulations, they don’t just utter ‘small sighs of despair,’ but they do so in French, ‘gémissements de désepoir’” (52).
Do you have any thoughts on reading—especially reading narratives with words and pictures—as an act of translation?
SK: First of all, I want to thank you in advance for coming to speak to my class. They are so lucky! Don’t let them sweet talk you into sharing embarrassing stories about me—besides, there are too many!
Your question reminds me of the Philip Larkin interview in The Paris Review:
Robert Phillips: In one early interview you stated that you were not interested in any period but the present, or in any poetry but that written in English. Did you mean that quite literally? Has your view changed?
Philip Larkin: It has not. I don’t see how one can ever know a foreign language well enough to make reading poems in it worthwhile. Foreigners’ ideas of good English poems are dreadfully crude: Byron and Poe and so on. The Russians liking Burns. But deep down I think foreign languages irrelevant. If that glass thing over there is a window, then it isn’t a fenster or afenêtre or whatever. Hautes Fenêtres, my God! A writer can have only one language, if language is going to mean anything to him.
I love Philip Larkin, and obviously I don’t totally agree with him—or I hope he’s wrong—considering what I do, but I think there is a certain degree to which all acts of reading are acts of translation. Actually, all transactions are acts of translation. That is true for reading different languages, texts from different time periods, and, indeed, for reading other people. Who is this person, and what is s/he trying to tell me? How do I understand this with respect to what I already know?
BC: What comic or graphic novel are you reading right now that you’re excited to share with other readers?
SK: Reading? Who has time to read? I’ll have to get back to you on that one! If pre-orders count I just ordered Jiro Taniguchi’s Furari. I recently re-read Lynda Barry’s Freddie Stories, and I am currently reading Dakota McFadzean’s Other Stories and the Horse You Rode in on.
Huizenga’s The Wild Kingdom (Drawn & Quarterly, 2010)
Thanks again to Shiamin for talking with me about her class and about Kevin’s visit. This is the first in what I hope will be an occasional series of short conversations with colleagues and friends about comic books and comic art.
My goal is also to provide readers with an archive of observations on recent lectures, conferences, and exhibits about comics, especially from the point-of-view of teachers, scholars, and writers sponsoring those events. The 17-year-olds that Shiamin mentions in this conversation, I think, with their copies of Miracleman and Life in Hell and Swamp Thing, would be pleased to know that reading comics continues to promise these baffling, often dazzling moments of possibility.
Boym, Svetlana. The Future of Nostlagia. New York: Basic Books, 2001.
Hirsch, Marianne. The Generation of Postmemory. New York: Columbia UP, 2012.