When Cheryl asked me to facilitate speakers who were writing narratives but were cartoonists, I mentally rolled my eyes. Then I muttered to myself, "Cartoonists presenting at a plain-language conference? Now, the dumbing-down is real!" But it was late in the planning and I didn't want to ask for another session.
Good thing that I didn't! Here's the story.
The first "cartoonist" was David H.T. Wong, author of Escape to Gold Mountain, A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America (2012).
I finished reading his 239-page book a few days ago. Yes, it's that long. And this over-150-year history of how the Chinese have been treated, and how they endured, is a stunning history book. In fact, I learned about all kinds of mistreatments and discriminations and cruelties that I knew nothing about. Yes, I had heard of the legislation restricting Chinese immigration in both Canada and the USA, I had heard of the Head Tax, and our PM's apology to the Chinese a couple of years ago. But the significance of these racist decisions and other behaviours I didn't know. The absence of this kind of information in our educational system saddens me.
In fact, in Canada, it is parallel to the educational vacuum we have about First Nations people and their significance and value to our history. When I read John Ralston Saul's A Fair Country, I felt I had been waiting all my life to have a more balanced view of colonial history and the role First Nations played.
Well, what can I say about David's "graphic history"? To me it was a very fine academic surprise. As an illustrated history (more accurate than "cartoons";), it contains:
a Table of Contents (aptly titled Contents)
Introductions by (1) a professor and founding member of the Canadian Historical Society of BC, (2) an American Ethics Studies Senior Lecturer at University of Washington, and (3) a third with the Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project at an Asian Pacific Museum
a glossary of Chinglish
an illustrated timeline
a travel map and introduction to David Wong's family
13 chapters powerfully and cleverly illustrated with developing characterization and plot
Notes and References
David Wong personalizes this history by writing about his own family's story of hardship, courage, and triumph over five generations. But most interesting of all was my realization that the visual portrayal of such a painful and sensitive story turned out to be such a success. Rather than degrading or dumbing down the substance, it inspired me to keep "reading". Yes, it was reading. Some of the conversation balloons were bigger than usual cartoon speech holders, but the details were concrete and clear and in plain language. The combination of historical facts and people combined with the pictures spellbound me in a way that mere text would never have done.
I began to wonder whether some emotional topics, for example, in fields such as history, education, health and medical fields might at times be more effectively portrayed with graphic narratives.
Then I turned to the book by the second presenter, Sarah Leavitt, entitled Tangles, A Story about Alzheimer's, my mother, and me (2012)
Sorry everybody. This will be shorter.
Sarah's book, a graphic memoir, is 125 pages but it is just over 8" by 10" in size, two inches wider than David's. It is an illustrated narrative about the last six years Sarah spent with her mother before she died. Her text is a tidy hand-written font without balloons. Sometimes she uses a comic space that is just text. Sometimes there are three comic spaces with developing facial expressions and no text. If she is lying down on a couch and sad, she takes two long spaces for the sadness. If she wants to highlight a poignant event or gift, she uses a whole page of space with a tiny diagram and short text. All the white space leaves room for the reader's emotional reaction.
As someone who has had a family member die of Alzheimer's, I found this book particularly relevant. We learn about all the stages--from the early signs and diagnosis to her death and the related effects on the family. This story is more like an autobiography because Sarah reveals all kinds of personal information about her life, relationships, and personality. And we're admiring of her, annoyed and interested in her, switching amongst these as she moves through the moments, experiences and encounters with her mother. She tells us about incidents from her childhood. They affect how she reacts to her mother's illness. Slowly we begin to love Sarah and her mother and family as we get to know them through the Alzheimer's process. She gives the reader an astonishingly honest and open portrait of herself.
Again, this particular story, with its characters' fears, annoyances, creativity, spontaneity, and love, embraces its readers in a way mere words might not. I acknowledge that many stories may only be written with words and that they may be completely emotionally affecting.
But I have learned that visual narratives or graphic histories can work wonderfully in certain contexts. Two media in one book combine their skills more effectively than I ever imagined. I have changed my mind. Cartoons are no longer "just comic books".
by Christine Mowat
Founder and Past President, Wordsmith Associates
Past Chair, Plain Language Association InterNational (PLAIN)
Originally posted on PLAIN's forum. Reprinted with permission from Christine Mowat