In April of 2014, a group of women came together for a workshop run by Delhi-based comics creator, illustrator, and animator Priya Kuriyan and German comics creators and editors Larissa Bertonasco and Ludmilla Bartscht (who co-founded the Hamburg-based Spring women’s artist collective and magazine). The result of that week-long collaboration is the 14 striking and engaging stories of Drawing the Line – each illustrating the diversity of women’s experiences of India.
The Collection begins with an introduction where Nisha Susan, who is a partner at Grist Media and editor of feminist zine The Ladies Finger, reviews the events which the anthology is meant to address. As she writes, “On December 16, 2012, a young physiotherapy student was gang-raped and brutally beaten in a bus in Delhi. A little over a week later, she died. The uproar this terrifying news caused has never quite died down. Ever since, the debate around sexual violence in India has stayed heated and frequently infuriating” (1). Susan moves from there to point out the unique dilemma of increasing attention and essentialization of rape as a “‘Third World’ problem” – as well as the powerful move by young and older feminists alike to “broaden the conversations…to talk about work, pay, love, marriage, disability, caste, sex, and everyday sexism” (1). After reviewing the various works in this collection, Susan ends by pointing out that “This is a wonderful time to be a feminist with greedy eyes” – and Drawing the Line certainly proves that (3).
The stories start with cartoonist and graphic designer Harini Kannan’s humorous account of an infant girl’s entry into the world in “That’s Not Fair,” where said infant notes in utero that “It’s high time I came out and taught this society a goddamn lesson!” (10). Then, Mumbai-based Ditti Mistry illustrates a personal experience of discovering sisterhood in the world of public transit in “Mumbai Local.” Both Kannan and Mistry’s entries graphically rely on relative simplicity – the former to better imbue her story with humor and the latter to offset the graphic complexity of Mistry’s account, while infusing the women she meets with humanity.
From there, Illustrator and artist Reshu Singh’s “The Photo” puts the reader into the life of a young woman afraid of becoming what she appears to be – a young woman on the verge of marriage. Singh’s story stands out for her playful ink-work and lively lines that bring Bena’s experience to life with engaging page designs that defy panels and jump off the page as part of the protagonist’s need to create her own life story.
Next, in “An Ideal Girl,” Soumya Menon reinterprets the well-known Indian Ideal Boy posters that educated young people on how to best behave (and somewhat resemble “Goofus & Gallant” State-side). Her piece is followed by “Ever After” by Priyanka Kumar, which illustrates an afternoon of tea, television, food, friends, and the desire to escape. The sometimes trippy story – where objects and patterns repeat in the place of dialogue and thought – defies understanding, likely as the story itself engages with the need to find one’s own way through life and never settle for the narratives broadcast into our homes. Following Kumar’s story, the similarly texture-oriented “The Prey” by virtual artist Neelima P. Aryan explores a story written by her blogger-mother Prasanna Aryan of a girl defying expectations. Like Kumar’s story, “The Prey” defies expectations both narratively and visually – with a style akin to the intense repetition of Gond traditional painting that creates texture even as it reorients readers to a different way of looking at the world.
Like Menon’s take on the Ideal Boy posters, Bhavana Singh reinterprets skin pigment as an anti-hero in “Inner Beauty & Melanin” – a story that seems at least somewhat rooted in Chris Ware’s aesthetic style and tendency to layer narratives over one another.
Researcher, designer, and illustrator Deepani Seth then explores the discovery of secret places in our everyday lives amid one woman’s work at a beauty parlor and walk home with “The Walk.” Seth’s story seems to evoke one of the major themes of this anthology – namely the exploration of others’ worlds and lives as a way to better understand our own. As the narrator notes, “Looking into the stories of others / finding parts of yourself / some familiar, some new. / Suspended in a quiet comfortable blankness / that holds within it several unheard stories / keeping them / even as the owners and creators of those stories come and go, like travelers, like seasonal nomads moving between temporal spaces” (88-94).
Next up, Ita Mehrotra details her meetings with Manipuri activist irom Sharmila in ” The Poet, Sharmilla” and attempts to reconcile their conversations with her own experiences of Delhi. Then, in “Asha, Now,” Hemavathy Guha portrays one woman’s experience with sexual abuse within her own family – and the difficulties of both understanding and living with such violence. In the story after that, illustrator, comics artist, and one-half-of-Urban-Lore Kaveri Gopalakrishnan provides a lodestone for the anthology with “Basic Space?” In this series of six 1 to 2 page comics, Gopalakrishnan explores the need to draw lines around personal space, the different lines different women draw, the ridiculousness of common advice, how cats model good boundary-marking, what a better world would be like, and the need to let go of drawn lines. And she does so with a simultaneously humorous and critical tone – and engaging yet defiant line-work that makes one aware of both the limitations and the advantages of the comics page.
The author of the next story is GBC collaborator Vidyun Sabhaney – comics creator, writer, editor, publisher, and otherwise awesome comics folk; so, I may be a bit biased. Yet, Sabhaney’s “Broken Lines” starts with a compelling issue – not knowing where she’d read the violent story of a woman whose fingers were removed – only to discover it was a cautionary tale of West Bengal legendry. The conclusion for her starkly and evocatively illustrated story is a powerful and haunting question: “[H]ave I become so used to stories of unresolved violence that i could see no difference between a mythological tale and a report of a real crime? A voyeur in troubled times, and these broken, merging lines” (137-8).
Drawing the Line does not end with that question; instead, we jump into illustrator, writer, and cartoonist Angela Ferrao’s “Ladies Please Excuse” where we follow a young woman’s job search as she is repeatedly confronted with sexism – from questions about ovulation to her well-employed brother’s cluelessness. Last but far from least, artist, designer, visual storyteller, illustrator, and animator Samidha Gunjal’s “Someday…” illustrates one woman’s transformation into the goddess Kali in order to best respond to the similarly remarkable transformation of men into sexist ghouls. This is followed by a brief conclusion where the editors each reflect on their experiences in organizing the workshop and the eventual anthology. The stories thus end on a whimsical note – and a powerful one – where women share in a diversity of experiences founded upon friendship and collaboration but never fully encapsulated in any one story.
This vibrant collection thus illustrates the many experiences of women in India in direct contrast to the essentializing tendencies criticized directly in the introduction and implicitly throughout the many stories. With a variety of backgrounds, visual storytelling styles, and experiences of the world, the contributors to and editors of Drawing the Line truly fight back – with dignity and an appreciation for both individual voices and the wondrous cacophony of community. In so doing, this anthology combats easy narratives in favor of placing the power of storytelling and meaning-making in the hands of the many – and in the hopes that someday, we can all erase the lines we’ve drawn and finally savor napping in public.
For more information, here’s the Kickstarter for the North American edition from Ad Astra Comix, which only has a little over 2 days to go at this point. You can also see the Mary Sue’s coverage, the Huffington Post’s piece, Women Write about Comics, Panels.net‘s take, Report24CA,TopYaps‘s coverage, and Ad Astra Comix themselves. I also highly recommend “An Introduction to Drawing the Line” on Medium, but especially if you’re feeling uncertain if this collection is as great as I (or others) make it out to be. Note: that final piece focuses on the original Indian edition, which came out last year through the fantastic Zubaan – an independent feminist publishing house based in New Delhi that never ceases to produce great works.
Finally, many thanks to Meghna Singh at Zubaan for providing the above excerpts from Drawing the Line – and to Priya Kuriyan for providing introductions, too!