The Sugarfree Blog is setting out to explore ideas outside the mainstream conceptualization of children’s literature. We would like to explore questions that provoke thoughtfulness and perhaps emotional response. We want to include multiple perspectives and use the space for invited guests to write about the topics in children’s literature that they feel should be discussed more. These posts are likely to take an academic tone, but we hope that they will be accessible to a wider audience. Here, I discuss insiders’ “authentic” graphic memoirs in an abridged version of my recently published article in Bookbird: “Othering Authors in the Name of Authenticity”:
Since 2000, a few popular graphic memoirs about childhoods in the Middle East translated from French have been published in the US: Marjene Satrapi’s Persepolis recounts her rebellious youth in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution; Zeina Abirached’s Jeu des Hirondelles [A Game for Swallows] relates the stresses of a community living through the Lebanese Civil War; and Riad Sattouf retells his transient years following his father from France to Libya and Syria in the time of Pompidou, Gaddafi, and Hafez al-Assad in The Arab of the Future. Although these stories are perhaps more different than they are the same, in common they represent the Middle East and Middle Eastern characters to a Western audience from the perspective of an insider-author who left the Middle East for the West; they might all be described as authentic. As I refer to them here: insiders’ “authentic” graphic memoirs.
These graphic novels were contemporaneous with Muslim outrage at cartoon depictions of the prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him – pbuh), highly publicized provocations that led to protests and attacks in Denmark and across Europe in early 2006—including France, where these graphic memoirs were first published. The satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo—where Sattouf was once a cartoonist—was later targeted in well-known attacks in November 2011 and January 2015; and yet again just recently. In this context, the graphic novel becomes a symbol of free speech and artistic expression—values associated with Western democracies—contrasted with the censorship-by-violence of the Othered Muslim extremist.
Western (white settler) acceptance of a narrative, in this context, perpetuates the us/them dichotomy by absorbing the author into the West as an accepted Other. While stories of and by the Other(ed) may intend to shift Western readers away from exclusionary primary group identification, my/our/your/their desire to understand the Other on specific terms remains problematic. For example, while I/we/you/they may accept Muslim author-illustrators, many Western readers did not come to respect the Muslim desire to omit Muhammed (pbuh) from graphic representations.
Broadly, I argue that this genre—the graphic memoir—troublingly lends itself to an affirmation of the West while audiences make this affirmation invisible by naming the authors Other. Here I focus on The Arab of the Future (1) to assert that the presence of negative portrayals of characters makes visible white supremacist ideologies, ultimately driving audiences—particularly selectors of texts for children—to reject this story more than the others. However, I believe Sattouf’s work has the greatest potential for critiquing the contemporary complexities of the legacy of settler colonialism. I will continue to name “white settler” in reference to how this legacy continues to shape how I/we/you/they view the world.
I enter into this dialogue with respect for the #OwnVoices movement. I recently heard the distinction that texts should not be just about representation, but a political stance and message. To truly empower storytellers, I/we/you/they might do well to deeply examine the role of the adult consumer/selector of these narratives to understand better how that political message gets taken up in public discourse by dominant groups. I ask, do I/we/you/they truly move away from the desire for representation into the political stance that underrepresented authors take, especially when this stance is unpopular, disagreeable, or challenging?
I use this paper to explore the issue of how Western (white settler) audiences use and come to accept narratives of the culturally- and geographically-distant Other. I use “white settler” throughout this paper to broadly refer to a mindset influenced by a cultural position built upon a legacy of colonialism and White supremacy, which may not be actively endorsed but certainly resonates through generations and thought. Readers (including students) should access stories told by members of a variety of cultural groups and should have access to stories by and about identities and communities with which they associate—narratives are powerful. Here, I raise my concern about what is possible if a Western (white settler) audience is not cautious about my/our/your/their desire for the Othered author.
In seeking out authentic stories to bolster representation on Western bookshelves and reading lists, I/we/you/they must be cautious of the colonialist tendencies that can accompany this pursuit despite its noble intentions. First, seeking out these books may be an example of what Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang call external colonialism that feeds the appetites of the colonizers. My/our/your/their appetite, I believe, could be understood as a move to innocence, according to Janet Mawhinney, or one of “those strategies or positionings that attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all” (Tuck and Yang 10). I wonder, are these books, to adapt Tuck and Yang’s thinking, serving “to allow conscientization to stand in for the more uncomfortable task” (19) of shifting from reconciliation to incommensurability? In other words, is reader consumption of the Other in narrative leading to knowing of/about as opposed to more meaningful action or more insightful considerations or knowing with?
Further, in seeking to know of/about, I/we/you/they desire representation and risk valuing these works exclusively through the White gaze: a filtering of experience, discourse, knowledge, values through a dominant lens, which Toni Morrison elaborates by noting it is “as though our lives have no meaning and no depth without the White gaze” (qtd. in Paris 218). As Eboo Patel describes: “Every society has dominant groups that, either overtly or unconsciously, organizes (sic) the patterns of life around their preferences” (n.p.). The framing of characters as Other and naming books “diverse” to justify their “inclusion” on reading lists and in curricula parallels what Paris calls out in another field: “educational researchers name people and communities not as they are but as the academy needs them to be along damaging logics of erasure and deficiency” (217). He also notes: “‘Diversity’ and ‘inclusion’ may be the subtlest, and so in some ways the most dangerous, in their centering of whiteness” (219). I suggest that I/we/you/they too often name within the white settler colonial gaze.
This study emerges from my work as an instructor of a children’s literature course for mostly white, female, undergraduate education majors—a demographic I define as a subset of a Western white settler audience. I used Clare Bradford’s critical content analysis to contextualize and consider The Arab of the Future in relation to the notions of insider-author, positive representation, and upholding the West. I selected this graphic memoir as a course text, reading it before the Fall 2015 semester. My initial reading was personal, but I was deeply engaged pedagogically, considering what content, contexts, and perspectives were made available. Specifically, the settings—France, Libya, and Syria—stood out to me as ways to connect literature to global events. I considered how progress was entangled with Eurocentrism and settler colonialism, and referred to book reviews (by Nader Atassi; Leila Lalami; and Adam Schatz) to understand wider social response as represented in mainstream media—and I considered this reaction through a lens of critical whiteness.
My/our/your/their appetite to know the Other should not go unquestioned. By asking “who has the right to write?” we dive into a complex discussion of cultural appropriation: of narratives and of authors. My hope is that the appropriation of authors by an audience does not become lost in my/our/your/their liberal desire to avoid authorial appropriation of narratives and to diversify bookshelves. Readers seeking out authentic stories to represent diversity need to be cautious of the colonialist tendencies that accompany this pursuit.
In closing, Tuck and Yang request of us that “we can be more impatient with each other, less likely to accept gestures and half-steps, and more willing to press for acts which unsettle innocence” (10). They go on:
We don’t intend to discourage those who have dedicated careers and lives to teaching themselves and others to be critically conscious of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, xenophobia, and settler colonialism. We are asking them/you to consider how the pursuit of critical consciousness, the pursuit of social justice through a critical enlightenment, can also be settler moves to innocence—diversions, distractions, which relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility, and conceal the need to give up land or power or privilege. (21)
Their message resonates with me as I attempt to bring texts into the hands and minds of teacher candidates, and through them to their future students.
I/we/you/they may believe a first step toward social change is inclusion of books written by authors from a range of cultural backgrounds (namely, insiders’ “authentic” graphic memoirs), but labeling an author “insider” does little to break down binary categorizations derived from Othering. Perhaps I/we/you/they want authors to be “inside” another culture when their texts align with Western values, affirming the West and its worldview from outside. The insider-author conceals the pro-Western perspective, so the Western audience hears what they want to hear—a justification for their privilege—from the oppressed minority with whom I/we/you/they sympathize in a move to innocence, which undermines any critique of Western imperialism.
I/we/you/they might begin to ask why they require Others to be less than or to assimilate, and what this means for understanding Othered authors who may be pressured to assimilate to be published; or how these narratives uphold certain values over others. I argue a book like The Arab of the Future should provoke readers’ curiosity about their beliefs, not just animosity toward the beliefs of a dislikable character. Those who strive to diversify bookshelves might do well to consider how tightly I/we/you/they hold the reins of the publishing industry and the barriers to access that prevent storytellers from voicing dissent and alternate worldviews.
 I use forward slashes to reflect the multiplicity of my subject position as one within a community, but not speaking for, while also indicating my self-positioned otherness within this community; and to address an audience that may or may not be complicit, without erasing my confession of guilt in this dynamic—the triad of settler-native-slave (Tuck & Yang, 2012): an accusational-confessional stance.
insiders’ “authentic” graphic memoirs
You can find a full list of references with the article:
McCarthy, M. D. (2020). Othering Authors in the Name of Authenticity: Critiquing Colonialism with The Arab of the Future. Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature, 58(4), 22-30.
insiders’ “authentic” graphic memoirs