Interview: Sarah Glidden on “How to Understand Israel”

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Sarah Glidden is the remarkable cartoonist behind How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less–a book released today that documents her experiences on a Birthright Israel trip in 2007, as she grapples with history, culture shock, and the looming question of Palestine. (We previewed it here a couple of days ago.) She talked to us about the book, as well as her upcoming Kickstarter-funded trip to Turkey.

TECHLAND: Congratulations on funding your Kickstarter project, “Stumbling Towards Damascus.” How’d your plan to visit Turkey come about?

SARAH GLIDDEN: Well, I’ve been interested in journalism for a long time. It seems to be something that we almost take for granted, especially now that you can get so much of your news for free on the Internet. It’s easy sometimes to forget that there are real people behind every story, and not many of us know what it actually takes to get that story in the first place. So I’ve always been really interested in journalism (and in fact even wanted to be a photojournalist at one point), and I have always wanted to know a little more about the nuts and bolts of getting a story together.

(More on Techland: Exclusive Preview: How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less)

It so happens that I have some friends who formed an independent multimedia journalism collective at around the same time I started making comics. By the time I was working on the Israel book, they had gone from just three freelance journalists with a blog to a group of people who really knew what they were doing, were getting published by major news outlets, and were making progress in a field that was dying in print. As a friend, I want to know more about their process, but as someone who is just fascinated by journalism in general I thought that if I could “embed” myself with them on a reporting trip, I could look into how it all works. We have been talking about working together on something like this for a long time, and now the timing is finally working out for us to do it.

It’s interesting that you think of what you’re doing in How to Understand Israel as not journalism: it’s not necessarily the kind of journalism one sees in a daily newspaper, but it’s still observing stuff around you and trying to convey it accurately.

I’m not trained as a journalist, so I can’t say with confidence what defines journalism, but to me HTUII60DOL is more memoir than journalism. It’s just tipped way too far towards the subjective side of things, and I really tried, when writing and drawing the book, to be constantly reminding the reader of that subjectivity. Which is not to say that journalism isn’t subjective–I actually think that all journalism is necessarily at least slightly subjective. But a journalist is searching for answers, and writes about their findings. I think that on the trip to Israel that I created the book about, I was searching for answers too, but the book ended up being about that search itself, and less about what I found out.

(More on Techland: The Secret of “All-Star Superman”)

There are a bunch of sequences in the book, actually, where we as readers see things that we wouldn’t have seen if we’d been present–symbolic elements. What kinds of challenges did you have trying to show your perceptions in a drawn, nonfiction context?

One of the problems I came across was that there are a lot of scenes where I was taking in something that someone was telling me–a personal anecdote, or the narrative of some historical event. I think the impulse in comics is to just draw that event happening. But I’m kind of wary of approaching something that way, because I don’t actually know for sure what it looked like. I don’t know what people wore, what kinds of buildings were there, et cetera. And the truth is that, when you’re listening to someone tell a story, your brain doesn’t just start playing a movie in your head to accompany their words. Sometimes you imagine people and places, but sometimes you will just get a glimpse of an image, or maybe you’ll think about something else. Maybe you notice something on the ground while you’re listening, and that reminds you of a personal memory that now relates to this story in a new way. So I tried with “Israel” to find a way to express how I was thinking in comics form. There are times when I drew an event happening, but I wanted to find a way to make it clear to the reader that all of this is emanating from my brain. The whole book takes place inside that head space.

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