Drawing From Life: Alison Bechdel

ARTS, Books

img_alisonbechdelNew Zealand Festival Writers Week
Embassy Theatre | March 9

Alison Bechdel considers herself an archivist. The idea of documentarian or “truth-teller” was a recurring idea in her New Zealand Festival Writers Week session. Autobiography is an archiving of truth, but a truth from a single perspective, the author of Fun Home came to find out. She has a preoccupation with lying she nicknamed “Catholic damage”; a reason she gives why her stories are autobiographical and her drawing process is methodical. Bechdel tells us while drawing Dykes to Watch Out For she often “drew from her head,” from memory, but she has come to take digital pictures of herself in various poses and now draws from them. As a result her drawings have become more “realistic and elaborate,” a style you can see changing from early Dykes to Watch Out For comic strips to her most recent memoir, Are You My Mother?, published in 2012. It’s a process she describes as a narcissistic preoccupation with truth, and one she hopes to get away from—she would rather draw more freely in the future, and adopt a technique like the Japanese ‘sumi-e’ ink drawing method.

The idea of truth being so fluid and at the mercy of other perceptions is a common source of inquiry and a repetitive notion in all arts criticism, yet Bechdel’s determination to present the truth is aggressive and new (this determination has led her down many web-based rabbit holes in the search for a particular advertisement from her childhood). She asked her mother if she got Fun Home right, to which she was answered with a definitive “no,” at least in regards to her parents’ relationship. But it is Alison Bechdel’s story rather than anyone else’s. It took her seven years to write, and she looked to the books her father loved. Those influences crept into Fun Home, particularly in terms of the structure—it is not chronological, but thematic.

The only feedback she got from her mother about Are You My Mother? was a curt, “it coheres.” While writing Fun Home put her father to rest in her head, writing Mother has not had the same effect, “that story still remains elusive.” Writing about her family has made her feel “queasy,” so she is moving away from family memoir, and working on a new book (still autobiographical) about fitness fads, titled The Secret of Superhuman Strength.

Moira Clunie chaired the session wonderfully; she was well prepared and had a great rapport with Bechdel, covering topics from process to literary criticism to which Bechdel jokingly replied she only started drawing comics to avoid the critics of literature or fine arts. It is ironic now that comics and graphic novels are criticised these days—Bechdel thinks if she were to become a cartoonist now, “well [she] just wouldn’t.” Ample time was left for audience questions, of which there were many, as expected with a figure with such an engaged fan base as Bechdel.