Having spent her writing career giving voice to the women in her life and their inherited trauma, US author Nadja Spiegelman is now working to give voice to the women affected by and resisting the Trump regime.
For those of us who were taught to read for symbolism in literature, we know it’s easy to fall into the habit of looking for it in our own life too, to romanticise day-to-day existence. However, whether complex, mystical or religious, using symbols to examine life can be a constructive enterprise.
In her memoir I’m Supposed To Protect You From All This (Text Publishing, 2016), Nadja Spiegelman navigates the contradictions and complexes that make up a person. Spiegelman assumes the role of biographer once shouldered by her father, Art Spiegelman, who interviewed his own father about the Holocaust to write Maus, the Pulitzer-Prize winning graphic novel. Nadja’s depiction of her mother, New Yorker art director and children’s book publisher Françoise Mouly, is neither entirely scathing nor saccharine. In general, Spiegelman’s narratives and projects allow for a fulfilling exposition of what it means to be a woman.
I meet Spiegelman as she visits Melbourne for Melbourne Jewish Week, in the wake of Sydney Writers’ Festival, to discuss her memoir and the feminist pacifist protest zine, RESIST! that she has been making with her mother since the election of Donald Trump.
‘The election was traumatic for everyone – nobody that I know saw it coming,’ she tells me. ‘I was in Paris. I went to bed a little past 2 am. My mom was in Times Square, on her way to do an interview on French radio about the first woman president’. The end of that sentence, the first woman president, has such an auspicious aura to around it. Instead, Spiegelman woke up to a string of text messages: ‘NO NO NO – this can’t be happening.’
The zine was born from this political fervour, the urge to make something in response to colossal shock and imminent change, to herald women’s voices in the Trump era – indeed, the first volume is titled ‘Women’s Voices Will be Heard’. ‘The return to print is real, the desire for connection,’ Spiegelman says. Working on the project with Mouly over the months leading up to Trump’s inauguration, the first volume comprised of 40 pages of original cartoons and graphics. Comics have traditionally been largely male-dominated, rendering it difficult to get varied visual depictions of women. In the submissions made to RESIST!, you get hundreds of different ideas of what a woman is.
Spiegelman recalls something her mother said to a journalist: that she just wanted to be happy after the inauguration, she wanted something to celebrate. So on 21 January, the day after the inauguration, Spiegelman and her mother drove down to Washington and distributed the first volume of RESIST! at the Women’s March. ‘And that feeling of “we made this, it’s concrete, there’s all these volunteers with us, we are handing it to all these women who are eager to have it, and excited about it”… I was really proud and I was really happy. The march itself and that moment really made me believe in sisterhood, community and the ability to create change.’
Much of the way Spiegelman approaches the editorial and artistic curation of RESIST! is mirrored in her desire to understand and foreground women as complex, multi-faceted people. This comes through in I’m Supposed To Protect You From All This too, as she works to align often-dissonant recollections of the same events. The submissions received for the second issue of RESIST!, she says, were predominantly about anger, specifically women’s anger.
‘Women have a right to be angry… Female anger is powerful, and needs to be given voice and space.’
‘Women were angry, and women have a right to be angry… Female anger is powerful, and needs to be given voice and space,’ she said, noting that they let the response shaped the issue rather than directing a voice. ‘So we made the theme “Grab back”, and we made it about that anger’. This way they curated to respect the diversity and the range of female voices present, with the emphasis on perspective.
Where RESIST! encompasses the breadth of womanhood, I’m Supposed To Protect You From All This focuses on examining Spiegelman’s relationship with her mother. Written over seven years from when Spiegelman was 21 years old, and collated from hundreds of hours’ worth of interviews, it details the stories of her matrilineal heritage over four generations, starting with her mother, then her grandmother and back to Mina, her great-grandmother.
The memoir is interwoven with Spiegelman’s reflections on growing up, her understanding of intergenerational pain, and what other familial complexes lurk beneath the surface. Each generation repurposes the past as they need, yet truth is never posited as the ultimate pursuit. Overall, Spiegelman says, the process gave her the ability to see ‘[her mother] not just as a mother, but see her as a person, a person with a complex past.’ Shu-Ling Chua, in her review of the book for The Lifted Brow, puts it a different way: ‘Mothers were daughters too, once.’
The other motivation for the book came out of a ‘need for self-definition’, Spiegelman tells me. Other than wanting to understand her mother, the project was a roadmap to growth: ‘She wasn’t just born Venus on a half shell, a perfect, powerful person who never seems to cry.’ Spiegelman pauses for a moment. ‘She became herself through traversing these difficult spaces, and maybe that’s a route that I can follow.’
Each generation repurposes the past as they need, yet truth is never posited as the ultimate pursuit.
Last year in Kill Your Darlings, Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen wrote: ‘When you write about people you love, you risk hurting them’. And yet, there’s always that underlying promise to deliver intrinsic truthfulness in memoir. When I ask Spiegelman about this, about how she countered the dichotomy between respecting family secrets and telling her account of her family’s personal history, she doesn’t look fazed – both her mother and grandmother consented to having their stories and interviews recorded for the book.
Spiegelman mirrored the same informal interview process her father undertook, in documenting the interview process itself, the way the story of their relationship unfolds in real time. After interviewing her mother, she flew to Paris to interview Josée, her grandmother, who lives on a houseboat on the Seine. Spiegelman anticipates a difficult time speaking with her grandmother – but, au contraire, Josée is open, welcoming and willing to tell her part of the story. In Josée’s stories, we see the intergenerational pattern of strength budding from resistance and pain. We see willful women who inherit a complex form of resentment towards their mother.
The motif of waves and water is ever present throughout I’m Supposed To Protect You From All This, the book opening and closing with stories of Mouly going swimming. Josée’s life post-divorce, living in a houseboat on a river, might suggest an ebbing and flowing of her perceived role as a mother, subsequently a grandmother. Much as the ocean demands a response from even those wading in the shallows, Spiegelman presents the notion of motherhood as a reflexive one. In the book, she writes:
I saw all the ways in which she worked to be a very different mother from her own. And I also saw how much the past, so long kept secret, pulled us into formations like a deep ocean current, from so far below that we barely knew we were not moving on our own.
Much as the ocean demands a response… Spiegelman presents the notion of motherhood as a reflexive one.
I ask Spiegelman whether she was worried about being faithful to the real people in her family by writing them down, in creating characters of her mother and grandmother. She acknowledges the transformation required in translating a real persona to the page, but in real life, she says, ‘none of us are characters, we are all narrators of our own lives, and we also think of ourselves as the narrators’.
She also refers to the fluidity in her family between narrators and characters: ‘I’d grown up with the sense that we are always both,’ she tells me, ‘we’re ourselves and the characters that the people see ourselves. At some point my father said to me, “there aren’t just four people, there are eight people. We see the best version of each other and the worst version of each other”.’
In both the book and our interview, Spiegelman talks about this desire to explore memory as a device in storytelling, about memories as fleeting, malleable signposts which gradually erode down to a skeletal frame: ‘Pure memories are like dinosaur bones,’ she writes, ‘discrete fragments from which we compose the image of the dinosaur.’ The book’s epigraph reads ‘La mémoire ne nous servirait à rien si elle fût rigoureusement fidèle’ – ‘Memory would be of no use to us if it were rigorously faithful.’ Spiegelman’s senior thesis at Yale University also explored this, a coming-of-age story intermingled with vignettes from her mother’s past, about growing up in France.
Throughout her work, she presupposes a desire for truthfulness, but there can be no fidelity afforded to collective memory. At times, her own recollections of events or habits are unreliable – she vividly remembers her mother‘s perfectly applied red lipstick, yet Mouly contradicts that memory, stating that she never wears lipstick – it’s Nadja who does that. Spiegelman’s conscious construction of how memory interplays and construes one’s life is done so deftly, alluding to memories as intangible structural forces in our developing as people: they are ‘breathing creatures that roam our past’.
[Spiegelman] presupposes a desire for truthfulness, but there can be no fidelity afforded to collective memory.
As we finish up our conversation, I ask one more question: does she get frustrated when memoir as a genre is written off as something lesser than the documentation of human identity? In response, she reflects on a moment of doubt around her ability to write on a topic she ‘had no authority’ to write on. So much of the genre deals with the notion of women feeling like ‘they only have authority as themselves when it comes from a place of suffering or victimisation’.
Memoir can an accommodating genre, and it remains powerful for women who desire confessional expression. Memory is most vulnerable when responding to trauma or highly emotional situations…by letting our emotions colour those experiences, our memories take on their own form, and in turn, we too use them to define ourselves. But she also says that memoir needs to encompass those ‘quieter, smaller, happier stories or [women have] to write a memoir that intermingles with fiction, so it feels like women have the widest range of authority of stories that they are able to tell.’
In her story, her life and philosophy, Nadja Spiegelman is attracted to stories of women that ‘keep expanding the definitions of what a woman can be’, she says. ‘I love women. Profoundly. On every level.’