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[Saturday Reads] A Visual Feast And Literary Tome Layered with Musings On Cultural Authenticity in A Massive Graphic Novel

... in Craig Thompson's "Habibi."

SaturdayReads

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.

I have long been intrigued by this graphic novel, and bought it several years back. I am glad that our current reading theme has given me the perfect excuse to crack this massive comic book open to determine for myself whether it is as good as most everyone thought it was when it was first published in 2011.


Habibi (Amazon | Book Depository)

Written and Illustrated by Craig Thompson
Published by Pantheon (2011)
ISBN: 0375424148 (ISBN13: 9780375424144). Literary Awards: Harvey Awards Nominee for Best Graphic Album-Original, Best Artist (for Craig Thompson), Best Cartoonist (for Craig Thompson) (2012), Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards for Best Writer/Artist (for Craig Thompson) (2012), Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Graphic Novels & Comics (2011), IGN Award for Best Original Graphic Novel (2011). Bought a copy of the book. Book photos taken by me.

The multiple awards and recognition that this book has deservedly received, as noted above, are clear evidence of its being a visual masterpiece. I was in awe of the detailed, lifelike etching from Thompson’s skilful fingers, which apparently was injured prior to his creation of this graphic novel that has taken him six years to complete.

It is also clear that Thompson has a gift for storytelling: it is circuitous, flowing inwards, almost ouroboros-like in its complexity, looping back into itself, in a seemingly never-ending cycle – this one of women as sexual objects, the hustling for survival among the poor – all mixed up in Arabian stories of the desert, myths, Biblical narratives interspersed with the Koran, and Arabic calligraphy for its “aesthetic” rather than meaning as what Thompson has noted here.

The book also has a coming-of-age angle to it, the journeys towards self-knowledge mixed up with guilt and subsequent self-loathing; it is a visual smorgasbord for young teenage boys on the cusp of adulthood with its all-too-graphic illustrations depicting the female form in all its glory. There is unbridled lust very carefully reined in with self-mutilation, musings on self-annihilation, and righteous fervor. I personally found it excessive and gratuitous – even as I marveled at the patience it must have taken for Thompson to complete this project of his: a self-flagellation of sorts? Or some form of redemption, maybe? That is the clinician in me wondering.

I won’t mention anything about the plot or the story itself, for fear of revealing too much information. What prompted me to read this was the aura of mystery surrounding the narrative. I read up on some of the reviews of this graphic novel to see whether there were any points raised regarding cultural authenticity, but did not really find that many – or I may be looking at the wrong places. I also looked forward to reading whatever Author’s Note can be gleaned in the end, but only found multiple references and citations.

There was none of the author’s inward journeying, prompting him to write something that is outside of his own culture (I did read about his extensive travels in Morocco in my google search about the graphic novel), there was little mention of the research he has undertaken to determine the parallels between the Catholic/Christian Bible and the Islamic Koran (although I would assume from his list of multiple references that he has done considerable work in this regard). I would have wanted to know more about how he learned Arabic calligraphy and his supposed claim about using another culture’s mode of communication and linguistic discourse as his visual “aesthetic”; and whether he had reservations, if any, in portraying Dodola as the mythic, sexually alluring Scheherazade figure against a backdrop of the Arab region, and if he had apprehensions about the narrative being perceived as irreverent or just outrightly disrespectful – and whether he did not find this to be any of his primary concern, except for the fact that he is simply out to create the narrative in the most faithful way he could from his mind’s eye. I am more than certain he had a few Muslim beta-readers examine the novel for glaring cultural inaccuracies and portrayal – but as a reader, I would have wanted to determine how he navigated this process and discourse.

The graphic novel is ambitious in scope, earnest in its portrayal of love bound up in guilt and betrayal. I am certain the graphic novel would be experienced differently by readers coming from different backgrounds, and would be a good take-off point for further discussions.

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).

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