Chaya & Hasanthika
Chaya Bhuvaneswar talked to Hasanthika Sirisena about “Escape to Buzzkill Falls” over email.
Chaya: For me, even though it's a graphic short story and meant to be read fast like a web comic there's definitely far more to it than what's on the page: the differing viewpoints of the women, for instance. What is the story is trying to say with regards to its concern for their children (and how it pertains to your own present-day anxiety!) By the way, I love how the palpable sense of anxiety and concern gets conveyed through the graphic format. It really fits the mood of this story.
Hasanthika: My piece can be read quickly, yes, but so can a poem. One of my graphics/comic arts students actually provided the inspiration for this piece. I have my students develop a ‘script’ first, before doing the graphics, and this student mentioned to me the writing of the script felt to him not like prose but like free verse. That comment intrigued and inspired me.
I’ve been reading Jane Alison’s Meander Spiral, Explode and one of the points she makes is that we read words linearly moving from one word to the other. Comics and graphics subtly disrupt the process and force the reader to re-think on some level how to read. You have to take in the images—some of which are fairly complicated—and the speech bubbles and then the text itself. So, the experience may be quick but it’s also subtly asking you to reconsider how you appreciate a story.
As for what I’m trying to say, I’d rather leave that to the reader to determine. This version is anti-anxiety. The children’s quote is from W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks and is an important moment in his text, a meditation on the sadness Du Bois feels that he can’t promise relief for injustice but, because history is unpredictable, he doesn’t believe progress is unattainable either. I think this reminder to have humility—I cannot read the future—is what I need at this moment.
Chaya: Can you talk more about your thoughts on craft as it pertains to graphic short fiction? It’s not a genre we’ve seen all that much before—usually confined to “graphic memoir” or “graphic novel” but not as much “graphic shorts.” It's the only graphic short story in the special issue, but it's no less deserving of a conversation about craft—and perhaps because it's the only one, it deserves a more specific treatment.
Hasanthika: I’ve been drawing since I was very young, about seven, and received a BFA with a focus on painting and drawing. But I stopped drawing after I left college. I’ve loved comics and graphic novels for some time, but I didn’t really put together the fact that I can combine my visual sensibility and my writing until quite recently.
My particular interest in the last few years has been on formal innovation with an eye to creating narratives that push boundaries a bit. I’m interested in comics, in addition, because it makes me have to reconsider what good is. You don’t have to be particularly good at drawing to be a cartoonist (though I do think you need an understanding of visual composition). But the process of creating a graphic narrative is sophisticated. I believe Scott McCloud coined the term ‘sequential storytelling’: the idea that images in sequence generate story. The pairing of that with text creates strange and, sometimes, powerful narrative complexities.
For my actual process for this particular web comic, I developed a script. I typically draw by hand but, because of time constraints, I used my tablet to create the images. It takes a few hours to create an image. Once the panels were done I tweaked the text. That said, if I was drawing freehand, I’d have a lot less wiggle room.
Chaya: I’d love to hear more on your views of writers I’d consider “mainstream literary commercial”, successful South Asian diaspora writers. I’m thinking specifically of Mohammed Hanif [because of Kamil’s review of Red Birds] but you could expand this out to many writers and the paradox of how, on the one hand, there’s “no shortage” of desi writers, on the other hand, relatively few taking on themes of gender fluidity, queerness, profanity, nonconformity, etc. It seems like for at least some period of time, as well, most of the challenging or politically radical writing about South Asian experiences was being on the subcontinent rather than in diaspora literature which tended to avoid politics per se and which in many cases romanticized the “immigrant family.” Your thoughts?
Hasanthika: Well, first of all, I don’t know if that critique of desi lit, as being conservative and in many cases, revisiting over-familiar tropes, is old or new. In 2008, Amitava Kumar wrote a critique of Aravind Adiga’s novel The White Tiger that makes some of the same arguments that Kamil makes in his review of Mohammad Hanif’s Red Birds. Before that there was Homi K. Bhabha writing about mimicry. I think the conversation is useful to have, and I do think writers should be held accountable. I just don’t think I’m the person to police that conversation.
I’m simultaneously desi, American, Sri Lankan, queer, realist, post-modern and, yet, the more labels you add, well, they begin to cancel each other out. Those labels are convenient to critics and marketplaces as ways of measuring quality and authenticity but my own personal mission is to be eclectic and expansive. I’m the product of three nations, of immigration and of an elite education that’s given me a lot of privilege. The best label for me, if anyone really needs one, is Edward’s Said rootless cosmopolitan. But you know, I also live in Central PA and when I get a chance I go do archery with Mennonites, which I don’t think Said had in mind when he wrote that essay—so, yeah, I eschew labels.
In addition, I’m a teacher and an editor and I don’t write that many reviews or engage in literary criticism for that reason. I don’t want a potential student or someone submitting a manuscript to believe I’m not open to their vision or view of the world. Of course, I don’t want my students or a writer I’m trying to publish to use clichés or tropes but that’s a discussion I want to work through.
Chaya: Can you comment more broadly about “a queer comics trend”, and where you see your own craft and literary ambitions fitting into that if it does?
Hasanthika: Boy where do I start with that. I think most everyone in the world knows who Alison Bechdel is and Fun Home. I wonder how many people know that the Bechdel test actually comes from her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. There’s an important and influential underground and subversive strain in the comic book tradition: the Comix series for example. This movement was lewd, lascivious, and often an important vehicle for voices that weren’t being supported by the mainstream comic industry. While my graphic story isn’t particularly lewd or lascivious, it builds on that tradition by dispensing with a formal style and tackling a ‘slice of life’ (as opposed to the type of story you might see in a Marvel comic, for example.)
I think, by the way, that the ‘underground’ ethic continues into today. I’m getting to teach Best American Comics 2018 and it’s bawdy, gross, elegant, innovative all the great things I’ve come to associate with comics and queerness!