The Graphic Novel as a Vehicle for Immigrant & Refugee Stories

Image courtesy of State Library of New South Wales

Image courtesy of State Library of New South Wales

A Museum of Vancouver event titled Uncovering Gold: Chinese histories through graphic novels, video games, and data visualization raised the question for me of where the graphic novel format fits within the context of immigrant and refugee stories. Held this past January, the event in part featured a conversation with author David H.T. Wong about his graphic novel Escape to Gold Mountain.

A story about Chinese immigration to Canada and the United States spanning over a century, as I learned more about it I became curious about the graphic novel as a vehicle for telling immigrants’ and refugees’ stories. Largely situated in the realm of oral storytelling, their stories lend themselves heavily to visual accompaniments – be they photographs or realia in the form of clothes, letters, and the like.

Beyond this tendency for accompaniment by visual representation, Duncan Jepson makes a very interesting observation in his explanation of storytelling as occurs more generally in the context of storytelling across the Asian subcontinent. In “Why Asia is Obsessed with Graphic Novels and Comics”, Jepson points to an inherent tradition of illustration and other forms of visual representation such as puppetry.

Saying that there has been a long-standing custom of reliance “primarily on the power of oral storytelling to communicate wisdom and ideas”, he goes on to say that aids such as puppetry “were used for centuries in villages and towns up and down the continent, from Indonesia to Mongolia, India to Japan”. He further comments that “the use of striking images and graphic representation to accompany oral accounts was part and parcel of everyday Asian life”.

Image courtesy of Musee McCord Museum (through Flickr: The Commons)

Image courtesy of Musee McCord Museum (through Flickr: The Commons)

In more contemporary times, we have the likes of Wong’s novel and Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (the latter entirely illustrated) conveying the enormous potential of the “illustrated text” to relate experiences of leaving one home to make another home in another land.

So where are the other such stories told in this format? More graphic novels from newcomers from other lands, across time, making Canada their new home?

Looking into this subject, I’ve realized that I’ve essentially come across a new project for myself. While there are many written for Young Adult audiences, those published for Adult Collections seem a “slice” of what’s out there. While I have found one other novel –  a story of Irish immigration to the United States, in Derek McCulloch’s Gone to Amerikay – as of yet, I have not found other graphic novels about immigrant and refugee experiences to Canada, or to other parts of the Commonwealth, Europe, or the United States.

I am convinced that they are out there. If any of you know of titles and authors, please share with us.

For the moment, I leave with you with an intriguing partnership between Asia and Europe. Called Lingua Comica,  it “promotes the discovery and the building of new  relationships between Asians and Europeans in the Comics and Graphic Novels field”. While outside of the Canadian realm, it looks exciting and could lead to some discoveries on a more global stage.

Regardless it be relatively new literary territory as far as this particular thematic strand in the graphic novel format or not, for those interested in exploring or indeed in writing and illustration itself, exciting discoveries are likely to be made!

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5 thoughts on “The Graphic Novel as a Vehicle for Immigrant & Refugee Stories

  1. Jamie Fong

    G.B. Tran’s Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey was the first title that came to mind. It’s about the author’s delving into his own family’s history as the son of Vietnamese immigrants who fled Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon.

    Reply
  2. fongolia

    G.B. Tran’s Vietnamerica: A Family’s Journey was the first title that came to mind. It’s about the author’s delving into his own family’s history as the son of Vietnamese immigrants who fled Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon.

    Reply
  3. Laedee Chai Post author

    Jamie, fantastic, thank you! Read the synopsis, looks like a great read. This area of writing and illustration, be it from the lens of first generations or those of latter ones is really exciting to explore. Much appreciated!

    Reply
  4. Matthew Murray

    I haven’t read it yet, but I think The Four Immigrants Manga sounds really interesting: http://www.amazon.ca/The-Four-Immigrants-Manga-Experience/dp/1880656337
    It was created in 1930s America by Japanese immigrants. Really neat! If you click on the cover on Amazon there’s a big essay about it (though no examples of the art).

    I did some searching and also found this: http://www.amazon.com/El-Iluminado-A-Graphic-Novel/dp/0465032575 Which seems like it could be neat, there’s an article here: http://abcnews.go.com/ABC_Univision/News/comic-book-reveals-untold-story-hispanic-immigrants/story?id=17813117

    I could probably spend all day doing research on this, but I should probably work on my homework instead…

    Reply
    1. Laedee Chai Post author

      Hi Matthew,

      Thanks a lot for these suggestions, they look great! The research into this theme and format is definitely exciting (and yes, can go on for quite some time!). A lot of richness in this segment of a library’s collections and it’d be great to see more.

      These suggestions are much appreciated, could be helpful for many of us in doing Reader Advisory.

      All the best with school!

      Reply

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