On May 18 at the Conference on Jewish Story, Tahneer Oksman will participate on the Memoir panel. We thought it would be a good idea for you to know her and her work ahead of time.
Tahneer Oksman is Assistant Professor and Director of Academic Writing at Marymount Manhattan College. Her articles on women’s visual memoir have been published in journals including A/B: Auto/Biography Studies, Studies in American Jewish Literature, and Studies in Comics. She is currently at work on a manuscript on Jewish women’s graphic memoirs.
For more information on the Conference on Jewish Story, contact barbarakrasner(at)att(dot)com.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What got you interested in graphic storytelling, and in Jewish identity and women’s in particular?
Tahneer Oksman (TO): I was initially drawn to graphic storytelling in graduate school when I was introduced to Joe Sacco’s work. Sacco is a graphic journalist — he draws what he sees, and his books, like Safe Area Gorazde, about the war in Eastern Bosnia, remind you that there’s always a person behind the story, no matter how objective that story is meant to look or feel.
Later on, when I decided I wanted to write my dissertation about Jewish American women’s literature, I happened upon Aline Kominsky Crumb’s graphic memoir, Need More Love, at a used bookstore. The book was so hard to categorize — it’s composed of republished comics, images of paintings, photographs, and diary entries. And Kominsky Crumb draws in such a bold and unappealing manner that I had difficulty understanding at first just why I was so drawn to her work. But it was for the same reason that I felt so drawn to Sacco’s, even though their styles are completely different. On each page, Kominsky Crumb reminds her reader that there’s a real person behind every image. She manages to somehow pull you into her story even as she constantly reminds you, hey, this is just one version!
TWM: What do you think graphic treatment adds to the body of literature?
TO: I think a lot of people, including me, have a particular idea of what “good” or “high” literature is supposed to look or sound like. It was initially difficult for me to see how I could take a form unfortunately titled “comics” and show how it’s actually just another way of telling.
But now I know that the interaction between words and images can actually work together to tell a story that couldn’t be told in any other way. If you’ve read Art Spiegelman’s Maus, for example, it becomes clear how the emotional resonance of that story is embedded in the way he tells it. Spiegelman is a great writer and archivist and artist (though he may deny that last one), but most of all he’s an expert diagrammer. He knows how to make every inch of the page work together. To me, that’s how comics is akin to poetry. It’s about slowing down. Every word — every mark on the page — matters.
TWM: What makes for a good graphic memoir?
TO: I’m drawn to works that speak on many levels — that are focused not just on whatever series of events happened, but also on questions of representation. The best graphic memoirs are interested in the project of autobiography (visual or otherwise) as a conundrum, whether ethical, formal, moral, or personal. They reflect the struggle of what it means to take your world and transform it onto a page (or screen — lots of excellent webcomics are out there as well).
I love novel-length graphic memoirs — like Maus or Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but I’m also very drawn to ones that play with form by breaking representations of life into short vignettes that don’t necessarily add up. I’m thinking of Gabrielle Bell’s brilliant work, The Voyeurs, or Vanessa Davis’s Make Me a Woman, or really anything by Canadian cartoonist Julie Doucet.
TWM: Are you seeing more graphic memoirs in the marketplace? If yes, why do you think that is?
TO: It seems like the market for graphic memoirs has exploded in the past fifteen years or so, and especially since Spiegelman published Maus. I think the extraordinary success of that book really paved the way, as people started to see how powerful the form could be.
There’s still a lot of confusion, though, about what comics or graphic narratives are, and that can have an adverse affect on those tied to the medium. I often get a raised-eyebrow reaction when I tell people the topic of my first academic book, which is Jewish women’s graphic memoirs. As a mentor once said to me, “Jews, women, and comics — well, now, you’ve gone and triply marginalized yourself!”
TWM: What will be the single most important take-away from your talk on the memoir panel at the upcoming Conference on Jewish Story?
TO:I am going to talk about the ways autobiographical comics can help us rethink our identities — including what it means to be Jewish. I think that, due to its visual nature, the graphic form can help us see how much our identities are dependent on relationality — on the ways we view ourselves in relation to our past, present, and even imaginary selves, and also on the ways we view ourselves in relation to others.