I have been meaning to feature this deeply disturbing documentary-graphic-memoir-journal detailing the lives of displaced individuals, child soldiers, sexually prostituted young women, murdered women, juvenile prisoners, children dying of AIDS for awhile now. But the totality of the narrative frequently overwhelms me. I am glad I found the courage to finally tackle this journey of Mia Kirschner (along with J. B. Mackinnon, Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons) that attempts to cut to the heart of voicelessness and despair. It also fits well with our current reading challenge:
Created by: Mia Kirshner, J B MacKinnon, Paul Shoebridges and Michael Simons
Published by: Pantheon (2008) ISBN: 0375424784 (ISBN13: 9780375424786)
Bought a copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.
As can be seen in the image above, there are four different mini-booklets/ journals/ graphic memoirs within this compendium.
I find the first book to be one of the most difficult to get into, as it seemed too esoteric, dense, and introspective. The narrator’s own personal story blend into the story being presented, the blurring of boundaries alongside the cryptic (albeit poetic) language made it difficult for me as a reader to fully understand the intention of the author initially. However, as each story gradually surfaced, I simply went along where it took me.
What stood out for me here was the story of Hedda, a musical prodigy forced to live in a cramped living space alongside the rest of her family. While their circumstances are considerably better when compared to other displaced people from Chechnya who are living in refugee camps, it is clear that the ravages of war have rendered Hedda practically voiceless, her speech muted and halting, her music depicting the darkness within her as she plays Beethoven in their prized piano that they miraculously managed to bring with them.
The backdrop of the second book is the ethnic cleansing systematically perpetrated by the Burmese military, resulting to the displacement of 500,000 to 1 million people, a number of whom live in the refugee camps set up along the Thailand-Burma border. The refugee camps – from the way it was described – function more like prison camps, as those who seek refuge are not given papers, not allowed to leave the premises, and live in such squalid conditions that I as a reader wonder whether they were better off where they originally came from. However, survival evidently trumps the indignity of not having toilets and legal rights.
This book also highlighted the narratives of child soldiers who were basically given the choice of either being arrested for some petty crime they have committed (such as vagrancy or stealing a phone) or joining the army. Not much of a choice, really. It also shows how the young men would desert the Burmese army which essentially treated them more like slaves. They usually end up in the opposing enemy camp, the Karen National Liberation Army, where they find a sense of affinity, and work towards eventually exacting revenge upon the Burmese soldiers who abused them. And the cycle continues, the lines between one side and the other obscured by starvation and whoever is able to provide the confused boy-soldier the basic necessities to survive one more day.
The stories of the sexually prostituted females in Thailand are equally harrowing – the homemade abortion sticks, the brothels, the mindlessness of it all. Yet, there are attempts at some stunted version of deliverance:
Book Three brings the reader to Juarez in Mexico, where the narrator makes her anguish more keenly felt as she presents these vignettes of missing, murdered women, and the raging injustice of everything that she has been witnessing thus far.
A twenty-five-kilogram FedEx box. It arrived at my house four months ago. I needed to tell your story somehow, knowing that maybe this was none of my business. So before I cut the box open, I promised you my cuts would be soft. I was trying to cut you free.
Claudia, I’m ashamed to say that many of the promises I’ve made I have broken.
This narrative had a stream-of-consciousness feel to it, as the narrator attempts to make sense of and at the same time tell Claudia’s story. There is no redemption to be found here.
Book Four is even worse as it features Malawi, with the “wasting disease” (AIDS) killing off infants and adults alike. The poverty is so palpable that the creators created this short fable highlighting this sense of hopelessness and despair:
The illustrated narratives do not make light of the gravity of the situation, yet there is a dark fable vibe to the story that seems so unreal because of its close intimacy with death.
Yet its truth is so glaring that it seemed almost necessary to dress it up with some butterflies and fairy tale borders, and tears that would form a lake.
It is also in this last book that the narratives of the juvenile prisoners in Kachere were depicted, misery piling up on top of more misery.
Ingushetia, Burma, Juarez, Malawi. I’m left with this kaleidoscope of sensations and images. Child soldiers trying not to cry, my own heart lurching. Fear at the edge of an empty space in Mexico. Miriam and Sunshine. The sound of rats on a metal roof, startling that specific silence that accompanies loneliness.
I am not sure if it would have helped if the creators of the book provided some means for the readers to obtain more information if they wish to reach out and provide some form of assistance. There is no closure to the narratives, as should be the case, given how displacement continues right here, right now. As a reader, though, I am left reeling with such a relentless laying bare of wretchedness with no end in sight. Even the seemingly-positive stories are tinged with irony and a clear sense of inevitability. This book is clearly not for the weak of heart. While incredibly important and heartfelt and well-intentioned, I did hope for some way through which readers could be empowered and energized to do something, or drive even the most jaded reader to some form of social advocacy, rather than this humming white noise of passivity signifying hopelessness that is almost catatonic in its inertia. Do not look for deliverance here. You will have to carve it out for yourself.
#LitWorld2018GB Update: 35/36/37 of 40: Thailand, Malawi, and Russia (Chechnya)
Other countries include Mexico (Juarez) and Burma