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Monday, May 30, 2016

What it takes to be included in an anthology of graphic non-fiction from India

Last week, A.P. Payal, a young lecturer at the University of Delhi, became a published author. Her work of graphic non-fiction has been included in an anthology, First Hand, which was launched at a function in the capital on May 26.

On behalf of the many aspiring authors out there, among whom are my students, I conducted an e-mail interview with Payal (disclosure: she is my niece) to better understand what it means to work as a comics artist. Here is the text of the Q&A:

1. How did you get this project?
I follow Yoda Press/Yodakin on Facebook. They shared a call-for-proposals asking artists/writers to submit ideas for a short piece of graphic non-fiction. I was very excited by the fact that they were encouraging first-time comics artists to contribute. I jumped at the idea and got my proposal ready.


PAYAL WITH A COPY OF FIRST HAND

2. Did you meet the other authors before you began work on your story to get an understanding of the overall theme of the anthology?
Yes. Vidyun Sabhaney Shohei Emura at Captain Bijli (the co-facilitators of this project with Yoda Press and People Tree) organised short workshops for contributors to meet up and interact with each other. They also organised talks with published authors and comics creators so that we could learn from them. While not everybody was present at these events, the interaction with other contributors as well as established artists helped me a lot. It helped me think of pictorial storytelling in different ways.


THE TITLE PAGE OF PAYAL'S WORK

3. How did you get the idea for your piece? And how did you go about researching this story?
As a five-year-old I would listen with rapt attention to my paternal grandfather talking about the family's great escape from Burma (now Myanmar) during World War II. As he described the dense forests on the mountains of Burma, I would try to visualise their journey in my mind. This project gave me the opportunity to finally put those images to paper.

Unfortunately, my grandfather died years before I could take down his narrative formally.

My aunt (his niece), Sreedhari Soman, was eight years old when the family fled Burma and this graphic narrative is based on  her recollection of these events. By combining my aunt's memories with my research, I attempted to recreate what they may have experienced.

My research consisted of reading scholarly articles and books that I accessed via the university. I read some first-hand accounts of similar migration stories in books, on blogs, and on websites. I also searched through books at IGNCA (Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts) to collect reference images/maps of Burma from 1941-42. Specialised naval archives online and websites with photos of military gear from the time were also very useful.

4. Why did you go the graphic route (instead of telling a text-only story)?
I have grown up reading comics. Despite being a student of literature, I find myself naturally drawn to images. As a research scholar, I have spent a lot of time reading and researching visual art. This was a story that I really wanted to tell and I suppose I wanted to challenge myself by using images to tell it. As a medium, comics helped me to position this tale of survival within a historical context.


A DOUBLE-SPREAD FROM PAYAL'S COMIC

5. How long did it take for you complete your story (from beginning to end)? Which software program did you use? Or were the illustrations and the lettering done by hand?
After multiple phone conversations with my aunt, it took me a little more than a month to put together the story and the sequencing of the panels. I also collated the academic research during this period. Collecting reference images was a continual process and went on over many months. It took me about two or three months to ink the illustrations on paper. I scanned the illustrations and used Adobe Photoshop to edit them. After the images were placed sequentially in Adobe InDesign, I placed text boxes and keying in the text. The PDF and the InDesign files were sent to the designer Pia Alize Hazarika. She chose a more appropriate font for my submission and put everyone's entries together.

6. What were the problems that arose during this project and how did you overcome them?
Initially, I was to work with an artist. That didn't materialise, luckily, because I was very keen on doing the comic myself. As I am not a full-time artist and lack a certain artistic finesse, I was quite worried that I might not be able to convince the publishers about my visual style. However, they supported me and encouraged me to take my time and slowly raise my own level of illustration.

I initially insisted on working with charcoal pencils but they suggested that I shift to ink. That really helped me to give detail to the piece, which made the visuals take on a life of their own.

I suppose the fear of rejection and pushing myself to be better were the real challenges that I had to overcome. Making comics is a long process and there are no short cuts. If you make a mistake while inking, you might have to go back and start from scratch. I learnt not to compromise and that was the best part.



7. What kind of feedback have you got so far?
I have mainly heard from friends and family till now. They have all been very appreciative. The best feedback that I received has been from Orijit Sen. I am a huge fan of his work and at the book launch he appreciated my academic rigour, the attention to detail in the piece. It was surreal to hear that coming from him. I look forward to hearing more from people about the comic.

8. Now that you're a published graphic author, do you have plans for more books?
I definitely want to take this forward. I am currently working on a collaborative project with a friend. I do hope that one day a publisher will have enough faith in my story-telling (and showing) abilities to trust me with an entire book.

  • Watch Payal answer questions at the launch of First Hand:
  • Hindustan Times calls the anthology "One-of-a-kind". Read the article here.
  • You can buy First Hand on Flipkart (the publisher, Yoda Press, is going in for a second print run) here.
  • Yoda Press is raising funds "in order to compensate the contributors (artists and writers) of the comic for their hard work". If you would like to help, you can do so by clicking on this link.
  • Last month, Payal was featured in The Indian Express for her unique method of teaching Shakespeare to college students by using tarot cards. You can read the piece here
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UPDATE (August 29, 2016): Here's a photograph showing the protagonist of "Rangoon to Vadakara", Sreedhari Soman, holding a copy of First Hand:


Sreedhari Chechi (Elder Sister) was eight years old when she trekked from Burma to India with her family. She now lives in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.

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