Boston-born Seattle resident Sarah Glidden is celebrating the release of Rolling Blackouts, her most recent work in the bourgeoning field of cartoon journalism. The 2008 Ignatz Award winner for “Best New Talent”, Glidden travelled through Turkey, Iraq, and Syria with a pair of journalists and captured poignant, sometimes painful, moments with residents of these pivotal nations. This book follows her acclaimed 2010 effort How to Understand Israel in 60 Days (DC/Vertigo Comics, now also available through Drawn and Quarterly Publishing). I had the pleasure of listening to a presentation from Sarah this past August while attending a conference on International Journalism at Harvard University. Throughout the course of four illuminating days, I, along with a roomful of other teachers, were educated about the current state of journalism, both domestically and around the world. While each speaker was engaging and articulate, Sarah had a presence that was truly unique and a talent that deserves international celebration. I hoped I would be fortunate enough to have her respond to an email looking for an interview and within days, I had the following questions answered. I cannot thank her enough for her articulate and thoughtful responses. Rolling Blackouts is published by Drawn and Quarterly Publishing and is available now (https://www.drawnandquarterly.com).
Which of the individuals interviewed in Rolling Blackouts was the most illuminating in terms of the human toll of these wars?
Really everyone we interviewed had something valuable for us to pass on to others. But I think one of the most important things we took away from our interviews that we thought our readers should know is that these countries (Iraq, Syria, Iran) are more like our own than we may sometimes think. I think many Americans or Europeans look at Iraq or Syria and see poor, underdeveloped nations, but these were countries where the majority of people were middle class and well-educated. People had a lot to lose. It’s perhaps an easier narrative for us to believe that Iraqis or Syrians fleeing war in at home would rather be in Europe or the US because these places are better than their home countries ever were, but that is not the case at all. Most of the people we talked to just want to go back to their homes, to live in safety, and to be able to provide good lives for their children just like anyone.
Also many of the older Iraqis we interviewed said specifically that they did NOT want to resettle in the United States. Not surprising seeing as how it was the US that invaded and started the war that destroyed the country. But I think many Americans just assume that everyone wants to come here. That is not the case.
One of your travel companions was deployed to Iraq in 2007-did his impression of the country change as he was now in a journalistic role? How did his opinions of the war change (if at all?)?
I think his impression of the country and the war definitely did change, albeit not on the timeline that some of us were expecting. I don’t want to give too much from the book away, but once he heard testimonies from middle class Iraqis who he could identify with I think it really drove home the realities of the war and how it affected people.
Why do you believe the people of the Middle East are so eager to speak to an American journalist? Was there any sense of anger towards you for representing “us”, the nation that invaded and forever altered their lives?
There was definitely anger! Like I mentioned above, there were more than a few times when someone told us they would like to be resettled “anywhere except for the United States.” And I think it meant something for people to be able to say that to an American. Many of the refugees we spoke to had never had any direct contact with Americans, had never had the opportunity to even say “I hate what your country has done to ours”. Nothing can heal what our government did to them, but I hope being able to speak their minds to us was at least a little cathartic.
When compiling a book such as this, is there ever a temptation to ask questions that will lead into stories worth of a text? Or can one simply listen and still be engrossed by what is said?
My role in reporting for this book was mainly to take a backseat and observe the reporters I was following, so I didn’t really have the chance to do my own interviews. I did ask my own questions as well, but I tried to limit how involved I got so as not to interfere with the work that was being done. There were definitely moments when I wanted to butt in! I especially wanted to be careful when talking to people who the journalists were doing more in depth reporting on, such as Dan the ex-Marine and Sam Malkandi, the Iraqi Kurdish man who the journalists were interviewing for a documentary. There’s a lot of downtime with subjects like these and there’s always the temptation to ask questions, but I did my best not to stick my nose where it doesn’t belong. But obviously the journalists from the Globalist know what they’re doing and there was much to take away from just being able to sit in on their interviews.
How quickly does a work like Rolling Blackouts come together; meaning, once you have the premise, how do you first begin getting the story told?
The whole process took almost six years from start to finish! So clearly comics journalism isn’t the fastest way to tell a story. It was also my first major work of journalism, so I was working at a slower pace as I was learning the ropes as I went along. I actually had the idea to do this project about a year before we left on the reporting trip, and I used much of that time to give myself a crash course in journalism, reading books on it, dissecting articles I liked to try to see how they were pieced together, working on smaller projects. After the reporting trip, which was a little more than two months long, it took me about a year to transcribe the hundreds of hours of audio I had collected plus find the right framework to tell the story.
The Seattle-Globalist is a non-profit journalism company-do you believe that a non-profit put people more at ease than a more stereotypical media conglomerate would not?
I’m not sure. I honestly think that for many of the people we interviewed, it didn’t really matter. Most of them had never spoken to a journalist in their lives, so what was important to them was that someone was there to listen and was going to pass their story on to others.
Placing your stories in the form of cartoons, I believe, makes them broadly accessible to students and interested parties of various ages, but is there ever pushback from people who believe that cartoons minimize/trivialize these events?
I’m sure there is pushback out there, but I honestly haven’t really experienced any of it myself, to my face. When I’m interviewing, I’m very lucky in that many people love art and love to see drawings get made. I usually show them some samples of my work and they right away understand what I’m trying to do; they can see that I’m not there to make fun of them or draw them as caricatures. As far as readers and the public go, I think there are some questions about how serious comics can be, but there are more and more comics journalists putting work out there every day and so much of it is very high quality that people are getting used to the concept. And they like it!
You provide extraordinary insight in Rolling Blackouts as an outsider peering into the lives of these distinct people-are there any examples that you know of in which people within the Middle East are doing journalism similar to yours?
I’m not really aware of any Middle Eastern cartoonists working in comics journalism, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t out there. I have come across quite a few cartoonists from the region working in memoir or political cartoons. The Lebanese comics anthology Samandal collects comics work from across the Middle East and some of it is autobiographical and touches on subjects like war and displacement. There are also some cartoonists going through extraordinary hardships and making work about it, like the Iranian cartoonist Eaten Fish who was detained in an Australian detention center for three years. https://eatenfish.com/2016/07/20/first-blog-post/
Your work is quite serious but elements of humor that reflect a genuine humanity in the midst of nightmarish suffering-considering the cartoon characters currently running for President (one in particular), would you ever consider crafting a more satirical work? [I have heard that Trump likes sarcasm]
I wish I could do good political satire but I don’t think I’m very funny in that way! And there are plenty of sharp cartoonists out there making that kind of work. I really like the political satire that Matt Bors does. (Full disclosure, he’s been my editor on my short comics journalism works for five years so maybe I am biased)
Your first book addressed Israel and now you capture images of life in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria-will the Middle East continue to be the focal point of your work?
I definitely wouldn’t rule that out, but I don’t think I will be consciously focusing on that region over others. I’m really quite interested in immigration and refugee issues, which has a direct tie to the Middle East right now (among other places). But I’d also really like to focus on some comics that are a bit closer to home. The US certainly has enough fodder for a career’s worth of comics!