Using Graphic Memoirs to Tackle Tough Topics

Oct 24, 2018

Librarian Marissa Lamer has come to appreciate the powerful messages that can be relayed in graphic novels.
Credit Wikimedia Commons

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast is a compelling graphic memoir about the struggle Chast goes through as she watches her parents age and eventually die.

Although I have seen my parents grieve the loss of three of my grandparents, I have not yet experienced that kind of loss firsthand. And it’s definitely not an experience my parents felt necessary to discuss with me or vice versa.

People don’t talk about death and dying in our culture, even though it affects every single person at some point in their lives. However, Chast’s memoir broached the subject in such an endearing and accessible way that it got me thinking: what is it about graphic memoirs that make addressing such difficult, even taboo topics more approachable than a traditional novel?

Hello, this is Marissa Lamer for the Radio Readers Book Club and I am coming to you from the public library in Hays, KS. Growing up I was rarely exposed to any type of graphic novels and comics. As I worked my way through college towards a career as a librarian, graphic novels became a genre of literature that grew increasingly intriguing, especially ones that were memoirs and nonfiction. I hesitantly started with a small graphic novel every now and then but have slowly come to truly enjoy and appreciate the value they add to reading.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant is a blend of comic strips and paragraphs of memoir. Chast finds the humor in an otherwise depressing time in the life of both her and her parents. For example, her mother’s increasingly outlandish stories help ease the pain of death reflected in more somber moments like when Chast stated “I could see that they were slowly leaving the sphere of TV commercial old age and moving into the part of old age that was scarier, harder to talk about, and not a part of this culture.”

The illustrations provide context and a visual for the parts of Chast’s story that are the most emotional and difficult to express in words.

Graphic memoirs like Chast’s make tough topics more accessible. They provide an abundance of extra layers in the writing style, illustrations, and format of the book that a traditionally written memoir cannot provide.

Scholar Eileen M. Richardson describes this advantage, “graphic novels are more than just stories with pictures; they have engaging illustrations that help readers infer the emotions and motivations of characters as well as more fully understand the twists and turns within the plot.”

Using visuals along with text can provide greater insight into the human condition and subjects that are tough to talk about or lay outside our cultural spheres.

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to graphic novels exploring thought-provoking subjects.

Here are a few to add to your reading list: Maus by Art Spiegelman is a two-volume, Pulitzer-Prize-winning graphic novel. The only graphic novel to be awarded such an honor. Animal characters are used to stereotype different races and nationalities illustrating the story of Spiegelman’s parents surviving the Holocaust and his relationship with his father.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi is another two-volume memoir of a girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. It paints a vivid portrayal of life in Iran during a turbulent time through the eyes of a child.

The March trilogy by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin has won multiple awards and chronicles Lewis’ thoughts, feelings, and experiences throughout the Civil Rights Movement. The illustrator uses emotional black-and-white imagery which captures the raw emotion of people portrayed during this pivotal time in history.

Once again, this is Marissa Lamer coming to you from Hays for the Radio Readers Book Club. I hope you have enjoyed reading Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? and the next time you are deciding what to read, you consider adding a graphic memoir to the list.

Citations

Eileen M. Richardson. “Graphic Novels Are Real Books”: Comparing Graphic Novels to Traditional Text Novels. The Delta Kappa Bulletin: International Journal for Professional Educators. January 1, 2017.

Recommended Readings

Lewis, John. March #1-3. 2016

Satrapi, Marjane. The Complete Perspolis. 2007

Spiegelman, Art. The Complete Maus. 2003