Books graphic novel Literatura Europa Nonfiction Reading Themes

[Nonfiction Wednesday] Mastering One’s Past in Miriam Katin’s Graphic Novel Memoirs “We Are On Our Own” and “Letting It Go”


Myra here.

We are delighted to join the Nonfiction Picture Book meme 2017 hosted by Alyson Beecher @ Kid Lit Frenzy. We would also be linking our nonfiction choices with our reading themes throughout the year.

While these are technically not picturebooks but graphic novel memoirs, I was just too enamoured by Miriam Katin’s works that I can’t help but share them with you here, plus it fits our Literature Europa reading theme to a T.

I heard Katin speak in a panel during the Singapore Writers Festival last year. She was sharp, funny without meaning to, and brutally honest. I loved her. Naturally, I bought all her books that I can find.

We Are On Our Own

Written and Illustrated by: Miriam Katin
Published by: Drawn & Quarterly, 2006
ISBN-10: 1896597203
ISBN-13: 9781896597201
Bought personal copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.

I have read quite a number of stories about the Holocaust, and the well-written ones leave me feeling gutted each time, much like this graphic novel memoir by Miriam Katin.

This is a harrowing portrayal of young Miriam and her beautiful mother’s narrow escape from the Nazi invasion of Budapest. From a cultured, cosmopolitan woman of considerable influence, Miriam’s mother burned all the family’s possession, faked her own death, disguised herself as a peasant woman, and escaped on foot with a young child in tow, all the time hoping that her husband would eventually return.

Her beauty was both a blessing and a curse, as she could not truly make herself inconspicuous even if she wanted to. But she had wits and a bit of good fortune on the side as she found people who were able to provide help, albeit reluctantly; and people who wanted to exploit her vulnerability.

Miriam Katin admits in her Afterword that much of what she has written here are imagined memories and vague recollections of what her life as a child was like, fed with letters and postcards written by her mother to her father.

What makes this memoir unique is the presence of faith in the beginning (as seen in the image above) gradually eclipsed by darkness in the end, the total unapologetic loss of faith, with the father’s realization that “we are on our own” and “that’s all there is.”

Letting It Go

Written and Illustrated by: Miriam Katin
Published by: Drawn & Quarterly, 2013
ISBN-10: 1770461035
ISBN-13: 9781770461031
Bought personal copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.

Unlike the first book, this is a contemporary portrayal of Katin’s life in New York and what she has made of it with her family, her musician husband and vagabond son who travels everywhere. There is also a more meandering quality to this narrative as Katin struggles where to begin and how to write it exactly.

Much of the struggle lies in how Katin would reconcile her seething, latent anger of her buried past with the fact that her adult son has chosen to live in the very city she has hated for so long: Berlin.

To add further insult to injury, her son whom she thought she has shielded from this reality, this life, now wants to become a European citizen through the fact that she used to be a Hungarian citizen before fleeing from a country that nearly decimated her entire family because they are Jews. Her source of pain and anguish is the very city her son now wants to embrace as a lost and forgotten part of himself.

Katin attempts to make sense of her remembered history of the Berlin of 1945, and juxtaposes it with the Berlin of the present with the “beer bike”, the “cozy corners,” the “pretty music everywhere.” There is also self-deprecating humour here that is partly neurotic yet cleansing too at the same time. Without her realizing it, her son’s personal journey and homecoming has started her off on a journey that she herself needed to take within herself: a vergangenheitsbewältigung of sorts – a mastering of one’s past. These are graphic novel memoirs that are unafraid of vulnerability and raw pain, and definitely a wondrous addition to anyone’s library.

Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

5 comments on “[Nonfiction Wednesday] Mastering One’s Past in Miriam Katin’s Graphic Novel Memoirs “We Are On Our Own” and “Letting It Go”

  1. annettepimentel

    I hadn’t known these! Makes me think of John Lewis’ autobiographical graphic novel trilogy about the US civil rights movement, March.


  2. Wow! Those are amazing. They might not be picture books, per se, but they are so important. I’m always on the lookout for Holocaust books to engage older kids. I’m going to have to re-read Maus to see what age I feel those are appropriate for, but will have to grab these for my collection.


  3. That second title reminds me so much of my grandfather – he fled Poland alone as a teenager, and refused to have anything to do with the country that he felt had abandoned him and his family. It wasn’t until he was a very elderly man that he started reading and speaking Polish again. Wounds that deep can take decades to heal, can’t they?

    What beautiful, beautiful reads.


  4. I’ve been so impressed by the innovative storytelling graphic novels have used especially of late to tell these kinds of stories.


  5. Pingback: [Saturday Reads] Graphic Memoirs by Female Writers – Gathering Books

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