By Sarah Shaw
Graphic novels are not only fantastical stories about superheroes and science fiction. Lately I’ve been reading a selection of (mostly) nonfiction graphic novels that simply tell stories through the combination of text and illustrations. From a Cuban love story to growing up in the midst of the Islamic Revolution to life as an expat in Burma, here are three excellent choices to read during the winter vacation.
Genre: sequential art/graphic novel, travel, memoir, nonfiction
Summary: Guy Delisle, a French-Canadian animator, spent a year in Burma while his wife worked for Doctors Without Borders. Through sequential art and slapstick humor, he recounts his daily life in a country that monitors one’s every move and uses isolation as a form of social control.
Commentary: Delisle’s life in Burma was very sheltered; he mainly worked from home, took care of his one-year old son, and hung out with other expats (his favorite place being the Australian club.) Nevertheless, the way he recounts his daily life is both humorous and fascinating. His simple line sketches, scattered with small details, allow one to envision life in the expat bubble of a dictatorship. I like how each chapter consisted of one story or anecdote, rather than one long, ongoing narrative. After each page, I became more inspired to write my own illustrated chapters about life abroad.
Rating: (5/5) *****/*****
Genre: sequential art/graphic novel, historical fiction
Summary: This Cuban love story, which transitions between the 40s and the present, is based on the true story of Grammy Award–winning Cuban pianist and bandleader Bebo Valdes. In the novel, Chico is a pianist and Rita is a singer. One night, they perform together, and soon enough, they form a strong bond through music and romance. Chico constantly tries to swoon Rita, but she can’t decide whether she wants him (with all his flaws) or not. Through Mariscal’s colorful illustrations, he follows their tumultuous relationship from Cuba to the United States.
Commentary: There’s no need for much text in this beautiful novel, filled with vivid illustrations of Havana’s past and present, as well as a scattering of images from the United States. I lingered on each page, immersed in the bright colors and flawless line quality. Although I enjoyed the story, especially reading it in Spanish, it was very easy to predict what would happen next. I would recommend watching the animation, which brings the illustrations to life with the sound of Chico on the piano and Rita’s soulful singing.
Rating: (4/5) ****/*****
Genre: sequential art/graphic novel, non-fiction, Iranian history, memoir
Summary: Persepolis is a coming-of-age memoir that takes place in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution. Satrapi presents us with an honest account of her childhood among political upheaval, as well as her high school years in Vienna, Austria, her journey back to Tehran, and her final decision to leave Iran forever. Satrapi’s tales of growing up are highly relatable, even though they take place in the midst of revolution, war, and adaptation to life abroad.
Commentary: A fellow Peace Corps volunteer recommended this graphic novel, and frankly, I’m surprised that I’d never read it before. I learned so much about the history of Iran through Satrapi’s personal experiences, and I was surprised by how open-minded her family was. The narrative was fascinating and complemented Satrapi’s simple, high-contrast drawings. (The animation is excellent as well.) Towards the end of the novel, I discovered that Marjane Satrapi and I almost have the same birthday, which practically makes us twins.
Rating: (5/5) *****/*****
*I have files of Burma Chronicles and Persepolis, so let me know if you’re interested.