Award-Winning Books graphic novel Reading Ruminations Spotlight

[Saturday Reads] ‘Disturbed’ by Sacco’s Palestine – A Book Club Discussion at NIE


Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just book love miscellany in general.

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My book club has just recently discussed Joe Sacco’s Palestine this month. Many thanks to Pansing Books for providing our book club, GatheringReaders at the National Institute of Education, several copies of the book, as well as free copies of our next book Eyrie by Tim Winton. Just a few of my book tribe here:

I was not able to take photos of Asst/Prof Prudence Wales from Visual and Performing Arts and A/P Maureen Neihart, Former Head of Psychological Studies and Office of Academic Quality Management.

If we were to sum up our thoughts about Sacco’s Palestine in one word, it would have to be “disturbing.” One of the issues raised by the group was authenticity: Does Sacco’s insertion of himself in his journalistic memoir render him more or less credible? Does this kind of ‘transparency’ make the narrative less meaningful or more authentic?

We also discussed the silenced voices of those who are perceived as ‘the others’ and how this kind of strategic, highly-calculated, and relentless process of deindividuation can ultimately affect any living and breathing human being without a home or a country to its name, their very anger and indignation muted or put on hold, the world is busy thank you very much.

Given that we are all coming from different backgrounds, it was interesting how we had intersecting viewpoints about a variety of themes such as the capacity of people to lead seeming parallel lives – on the one hand, these atrocities continue to happen and occur as part of people’s very existence; while on the other, people remain oblivious and largely indifferent to these acts of inhumanity.


We also explored the seeming psychological need for Sacco to pour out his demons through pen and ink for the world to do with it what they will so long as he is able to spew them out in such graphic in-your-face imagery. We talked about the [in]capacity of literature to move people into [in]action: whether literature can still spark a social justice movement that spreads out in waves vis-a-vis people’s desensitized nature with heinous crimes perceived to be a given or a matter of fact, so long as it does not happen to us personally. We also touched on the evolving nature of graphic novels and its use in the classroom, and the age appropriateness of certain reading materials for young children as we explore light and darkness. Needless to say, it was truly a meaningful conversation among like-minded individuals, and I am glad to finally have people to discuss this graphic novel with.


Here is my review of Palestine from last year when we had our War and Poetry reading theme:

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Story and Art by: Joe Sacco
Published byJonathan Cape, 2003
Copy provided by Pansing Books. Book photos taken by me.

One of the reasons why we have reading themes here in GatheringBooks is that it allows us to legitimize our book hunting expeditions and provides us with opportunities to discover authors or illustrators that we would otherwise not have known. Joe Sacco is one of my greatest comic-book-creator discoveries this year. He is a league of his own. He has crafted a niche for himself with this unique blend of graphic-novel-journalism with Palestine winning the American Book Award in 1996. I do not remember being this affected by a graphic novel, except perhaps when I read Art Spiegelman’s Maus I and II, which is the first graphic novel to ever win the Pulitzer Prize.

Just like Abirached’s graphic novel A Game for Swallows, this one is also purely printed in black and white. However, there is a looming, in-your-face quality to Sacco’s artwork that almost screams at the reader to PAY ATTENTION, READ, WAKE UP, ARE YOU BLIND that almost slaps the reader senseless into some semblance of understanding of what is happening in Gaza. I first learned about the Gaza strip when I taught in Bahrain and my teacher-students mentioned the atrocities that continue to happen in that area that left me feeling speechless and thoroughly ignorant and hopelessly naive about what is happening in the world. Sacco, with his keen journalistic eye, unpacks the thick layers of deception that bury startling truths in Palestine, linking it to formal proclamations which he has unearthed through comprehensive and detailed research, teasing out the seemingly-endless arguments that are often raised, on this Ouroboros-like issue between Israel and Palestine.

The fact that Sacco freely admits to being a vulture feeding off people’s pain and misery is firmly established, openly acknowledged, and even satirized in his writing as you can see in the page spreads below:


The fact that he thinks of all this as nothing but “data” for his comics, and the seemingly chop-chop-highly-efficient way in which he deals with such stark and blindingly-horrifying stories, curiously renders him even greater credibility – precisely because there is transparency, and even a travesty of his intentions, no matter how noble (or ignoble) they may be.


The fact that refugee camps are made into a living tourist attraction do not escape Sacco’s sharp, self-deprecating gaze, that almost borders on self-loathing. I was also struck by how helpful and hospitable most of his informants are (tea, tea, tea everywhere, and yes with extra sugar too in some households), despite the fact that they see its futility, that one can almost feel the aggression and accusation leaping out of the comic panels as could be seen below:



And this does not only happen in one occasion, but several:


To which Sacco responds by saying “I don’t know what to say to her” and asking where his shoes are. I also had a clearer sense of why the Palestinians continue throwing Molotov cocktails or stoning the soldiers despite the Israelis’ evident power, their glaring upper hand, and the fact that they can come down on these teenagers with all the wrath of all the universes combined:


This “something that is inside us” is not all stones, blood, and vengeance – there is also light amidst darkness as evidenced in this old man’s tale:


The notion of absolute power corrupts absolutely is clearly evident in this ruminative panel that disturbed me to no end:


The contrasting views on “peace” by the Israelis and the Palestinians are also evident here in Sacco’s graphic novel:

An Israeli’s Notion of Peace


A Palestinian’s View of the Peace Process


This graphic novel gave me nightmares. So much so that I had to seek out Sacco’s “Footnotes in Gaza” to read right after. I don’t claim to be an expert on this particular issue. But I know something about displacement, heartbreak, and losing everything that I valued and held dear to me. I am no stranger to staggering loss and free fall. Nothing of this magnitude, however. Nothing of this league. Maybe not in several lifetimes, even. The experience of reading this book is akin to eating the forbidden apple from the Tree of Knowledge. It has changed me and made me look for shelter and search for leaves to cover my nakedness and sheer ignorance.

9 comments on “[Saturday Reads] ‘Disturbed’ by Sacco’s Palestine – A Book Club Discussion at NIE

  1. Marjorie

    Thank you for sharing your book group’s experience and I look forward to future posts. Your review really gets across how searing Sacco’s work is… I have been wanting to read this for a while but haven’t had the mental space that I fear is necessary. Maybe I need a book group to make myself sit down and read it… 🙂


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