Mona Eltahawy: Goddess of Solidarity

Article published on 28 April 2017 on (now closed)

When people spew biased discourses about Muslims – putting more than a billion people spread across the planet into one tiny box for their own comfort – I do two things: I show them a picture of my maternal grandmother, praying in her Rolling Stones tongue and lips logo T-Shirt, and I quote Mona Eltahawy: Either from her excellent book Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution or from one of her many talks and tweets that every day, add more weapons to my Muslim woman toolbox to fight against harmful perspectives of who I am and who I can be. And thanks to Mona Eltahawy, I have an array of wonderful tools to play with.

Sekhmet, the ancient Egyptian goddess of retribution and sex, adorns the inside of one of Eltahawy’s forearms, while ‘Mohamed Mahmoud’ the name of the street where she was attacked in November 2011 during the Egyptian revolution, next to the word ‘freedom’, defy the scars that were left there when she was sexually assaulted by the police. They broke both of her now tattooed arms. In 2012, Eltahawy wrote about this violent assault in a powerful piece for Foreign Policy, Why Do They Hate Us? which she expanded into her book Headscarves and Hymens. Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution.

While Headscarves and Hymens offers a comprehensive account of internalized misogyny, sexual harassment, domestic violence, gender politics and women’s rights, leaning on facts and the painful stories of so many women, it is also a deeply personal book. Mona Eltahawy’s rage for justice informs each sentence of her work, and because she speaks from an authentic place, she shakes you to the core. While the focus of Headscarves and Hymens is on the Middle East, Eltahawy manages to bring the scope of the book to a much wider geographical level, reminding us that misogyny is everywhere, and that our battle against patriarchy is global. 

One story of domestic violence from Lebanon catapulted me to Turkey, where the police is also known for its capacity to face a woman covered in bruises and on the verge of death with a pseudo-impartial ‘we cannot interfere in a family matter’ stance. My heart aches when I read Eltahawy’s words saying that “many women expect to be beaten”, because I know she is right, I recognize that terrible cycle that begins inside the home within so many patriarchal cultures. In Turkish, the word elegy (ağıt) is described in the Turkish Language Association’s dictionary as follows: on one line, it is a lament or elegy for someone departed, and on the next one, it is a lament for a bride. For some women, marriage can be equal to death. That’s how institutionalized misogyny is in many countries across our world. 

As an Egyptian-American, Eltahawy is in a perfect position to speak up against anyone who tries to silence Muslim women, whether it comes from within or outside of Muslim communities, especially in the West where discourses portraying Muslims as a monolithic entity, and reducing Muslim women to their headscarves arise every day. 

 “I am here to confuse you,” Eltahawy says in a TED talk on Muslim women’s image and bodies. While she probably manages to confuse many people who feed on stereotypical perspectives on what it may mean to be a Muslim or about Islam in general, she offers me – and I would imagine many Muslim women like myself – clarity. 

Eltahawy is an empowering voice for countless people through all the work she does, also beyond her writing, fighting daily against exclusion, undemocratic practices and ideas, globally. She uses Twitter in an insightful way to raise awareness on key issues such as female genital mutilation or violence against women and LGBTQ, and, to foster solidarity. While doing so, she is also forced to – such is the unfortunate reality of Twitter – respond to the numerous trolls that try to silence her daily. But she has thick skin, remember, she has Sekhmet on her forearm, and a lot of rage inside. 

One recent example of how she uses Twitter to gather stories and invite women to speak out is #DearSister. After she received an e-mail from a stranger lecturing her on her views, hidden behind the patronizing “dear sister, I say these things with greatest certitude of your Islam”, ‘Sister Mona’ masterfully took on Twitter to start a conversation. Within hours, thousands of women responded with their own experiences of being lectured by their “brothers”. Here again, Eltahawy’s approach revealed the many frustrations of Muslim women without ever turning them into victims. 

This use of Twitter as a tool to engage in a conversation with as many people as possible while also expressing her own views is extremely constructive. Last month, Eltahawy was in Rwanda with the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM) to participate to a commemoration of the Rwandan genocide. “I am here to learn from and show solidarity to genocide survivors,” she wrote on Twitter, “Their strength and insistence on justice and reconciliation are incredible.” 

The year before, she was in Bosnia and Herzegovina, visiting a former rape camp, raising awareness on the horrors perpetuated by a war that took place only a couple of decades ago. Weaving those stories together requires much effort, it would be a lot easier to sling a few slogans and write articles here and there, feeding into the ongoing polarized discourses that keep arising in our world. Eltahawy knows better than that. She works every day to keep away from empty portrayals.

I believe Mona Eltahawy is one of the most important feminist voices in the world today. She manages to link different issues around feminism from across the globe, moving away from the toxic West vs East dichotomy, showing that identity is fluid and complex. She keeps shaking people’s assumptions, always remaining critical of all sides, because at the very core of her work is a fight against injustice. She is not afraid to call out the hypocrisy of the left that says she might be feeding extreme right discourses. She knows that is a possibility, which is why she shouts loud and clear that she won’t allow any racist and bigot – no matter where they are from – to use her discourse to spread more hatred. 

“Girls and women are forced to be cultural vectors. Their bodies are the medium upon which culture is engraved, be it through headscarves or cutting. But women are too often barred from authoring the culture that marks them – and only by refusing misogynistic culture can they become the authors of their own lives,” Eltahawy writes in Headscarves and Hymens. While she places herself at the center of the issues she tackles, writing from a deeply sincere place, she gives enormous space to voices around her – online and offline – and creates a platform for many people to express their own stories.

In Headscarves and Hymens, Eltahawy mentions that a male editor once tried to dissuade her from the personal, asking her bluntly who might care about what happened to her. “The most subversive thing a woman can do is to talk about her life as it really matters. It does,” she writes. It does indeed. Every single word Eltahawy utters brings us one step closer to equality. But as she also highlights in her book and her discourse in general, change must come from the inside – we, women; we women with Muslim heritage – only we can make a difference inside the societies that we are part of. 

“Home is where the hurt is, and home is where we must start to heal.” Mona Eltahawy gives me the strength to do that, unapologetically, and I encourage every woman and man out there who is searching for ways to express their voice to pick up this book, and wake their inner resilience to fight against the patriarchy. 

Snapshots of a Comics Artist: Interview with Beldan Sezen

Originally published on, 11 April 2017

Beldan Sezen is a comics artist and visual storyteller based in Amsterdam and New York. Daughter of migrant workers, she grew up in Germany. In her second graphic novel, Snapshots of a Girl, published in English in 2015, Sezen tells the story of her coming out as a gay woman, through a series of fragmented moments of her life. These snapshots beautifully capture Sezen’s sensitivity, creativity and talent as an artist and a writer. We meet in the old Jewish neighbourhood of Amsterdam to discuss LGBTQ issues, identity and how comics can take us beyond all kinds of borders.

I think identities are like labels, you use them to communicate.

Surrounded by the neighbourhood’s rich and painful history, we immediately jump into the question of identity, its multiplicity and fluidity. Sezen has lived in several cities and continues to move a lot these days for her projects, “I’m pretty much the same person wherever I go. In one chapter of the book I talk about labels – I think identities are like labels, you use them to communicate. And it is not so much that I change when I move from place to place, but the framework of identity changes. How I’m perceived in Istanbul is different from how I’m perceived in Germany or in New York. In Germany I am Turkish, and there I would define myself as a woman of colour. Whereas in New York, being Turkish has a totally different meaning. There I can pass as white – although I never really pass as white. I adapt because I have to deal with that framework.” 

Sezen manages to express these questions beautifully through comics, a medium she loves, and especially in Snapshots of a Girl

“I can be anything in comics, I can draw what I want and the responsibility is not with me to make the connection. I provide two pictures and in the tiny space in-between two frames, the reader makes the connection, the assumption. If I draw one person with a gun in the first frame and I draw a dead person in the next one, the reader kills that person. Comics are the best way for me to express myself.” 

Sezen went to live in Istanbul for a while in the 1990’s, at that time, she had the need to search for an identity, to belong somewhere within terms defined by concepts of a nation, but now she says she doesn’t think about identity in terms of nationality anymore, “I don’t think in borders, although I must deal with them every day. It’s such a foreign concept to me now, I don’t care much about it anymore”. Sezen found the perfect medium to express such ideas: comics allow her to go beyond ideas of borders. In her graphic memoir, she plays a lot within the possibilities offered by the medium itself, illustrating this very idea that borders can be erased: she alternates between longer and shorter texts, speech bubbles and paragraphs, full-page images, frames and no frames, presenting a manifold outlook on a life story. The narrative is scattered because the subject of the book is complex. 

“I was first asked by an Italian publisher – the first publisher of Snapshots, if I would write a graphic memoir. My first reaction was no! Because I felt overwhelmed and thought I had nothing to say. Then they asked me to write about my coming out, and that’s how I decided to focus on certain moments that had to do with my coming out.” 

The idea of snapshots fit Sezen’s purpose perfectly. Unlike autobiographical graphic novels illustrating the artist’s life story from childhood within a specific political climate, Sezen’s moments offer a fragmented perspective from one member of the LGBTQ community through the protagonist’s adult life spanning almost two decades. Focusing on the subject was more important than writing about her life, says Sezen, who also reminds me she doesn’t represent any group but herself. However, knowing that it is still very difficult for people to come out as LGBTQ, especially in Turkey where both our families come from, wouldn’t it be a good thing if this book or Sezen herself became a role model inspiring people? 

“I don’t have to be a spokesperson for a community to be a role model. I can’t deny that I have put something out into the world, a work about coming out, on being lesbian, a Turkish lesbian amidst both Islamic and Western cultures, nonetheless. Just like I tried to find role models in my own youth, I support anyone who puts this kind of work out into the world.” 

Snapshots isn’t translated into Turkish yet, however, Sezen was in Istanbul last year, working on a project around Butch identities for which she received a Global Arts Fund Award by the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. This work was published by monthly women comics magazine Bayan Yanı. But not all subjects work in every place – “cultural settings matter, and as an artist and writer, you relate to that setting.” 

Being gay was not the issue. Fitting into the structures of society was.

It was therefore key for Sezen to be in Istanbul to explore that subject and express her own perspectives in her work.

In Snapshots, Sezen comes out to her father, her mother and her aunt. She has sent the book to her parents, and despite not understanding English, they were “very proud of it”. At one moment in her graphic memoir, Sezen writes “Being gay was not the issue. Fitting into the structures of society was.” 

She illustrates this to me with the following example: Her first graphic novel, Zakkum (a graphic murder mystery) also touches on LGBTQ issues and includes a lesbian couple, and before being published, it was exhibited in her family’s hometown in Germany. 

“I hung all the blown-up pages. Everyone I knew from my childhood came – my parents, family members, friends and neighbours. Being lesbian was not for one moment a problem. They were all very engaged, reading and looking, then discussing. Because it was in English, their children had to translate for them. They laughed about the ending, and me being a lesbian was not an issue. It was just beautiful.” 

Maybe this type of understanding and acceptance is possible through works of art, books and stories. 

“Probably, but I also think we can achieve it through being honest with who we are. Coming back to our discussion about framework, and what I also mention in Snapshots when coming out to my aunt: The problem usually is about the setting and the society we’re in. In my family, the concern was more about what would happen to me. But this is my personal experience.” 

Sezen acknowledges that there are many different experiences out there and that she finds hers particularly positive. This doesn’t diminish the impact of her work and the emotional effort it must have taken to write such a book, “It takes some courage to stand up for yourself. But if I don’t do that it doesn’t fit, and I cannot expect someone else to say who I am.”

In the Graphic Memoir, Dare to Disappoint, Özge Samanci Talks about Growing up in Turkey

Originally published on (now closed), 23 May 2017


What’s it like to grow up in Turkey in the 1980s and early 1990s? Marzena Sowa wrote Marzi, a graphic novel about her childhood in 1980s-era Poland. Marjane Satrapi created Persepolis, about her childhood during the Iranian Revolution, Riad Sattouf tells the story of his childhood growing up in Syria and Libya in The Arab of the Future, and now, we have Özge Samanci who tells her own story of growing up in a post-1980 coup in Turkey. Her graphic memoir, Dare to Disappointspans slightly over a decade, starting with Samanci’s childhood in her native Izmir, until her university years in Istanbul.

It is always fascinating to experience historical, cultural and political shifts in a country through the eyes of a child, and comics are an excellent medium to draw the reader right into the center of that individual’s universe and their imagination. While Turkey’s history is certainly rich in tensions and conflicts, it is Samanci’s own world is what makes this graphic novel striking.

In the beginning of the book, we see little Özge walk in her underwear and tank top in front of a picture of Atatürk hanging in the family home’s dining room, “I should have put on my skirt to walk in front of Atatürk. I am sorry. I am sorry” we read in her thought bubble. Right next to the frame of the founder of the Republic stands her cool and independent uncle who tells her she is being brainwashed at school. It is a funny yet troubling scene: the cult of personality around Atatürk is real. As Samanci reminds us in her graphic novel, students repeat the famous oath starting with “I am a Turk, I am honest, I am hardworking…” 800 times before they graduate from primary school.

We meet six-year old Özge as she starts to dream about going to school, standing on her balcony at home and looking through binoculars at her sister Pelin waving back at her and her mom from the school yard. It is a lovely scene that sets the tone and energy of this little girl who is eager to learn, and to grow up. Samanci’s style also captures the clash between the girl’s dream and the reality of the world that surrounds her in lovely and subtle ways: she uses traditional square frames, vertical rows, large images at the centre of a page to try to show there are many possibilities – to tell a story, but also to lead a life. Next to minimalist line drawing she also uses collage and photographs, bringing us back to reality but always through the lens of the child and the artist.

But growing up in Turkey is not the same as growing up in a Western country – as Samanci also beautifully illustrates in her book: Özge is having an argument with the poster of Commandant Cousteau that her mother found in a foreign magazine, and that Özge hung up in her room after she had been fascinated by a documentary she had seen on TV: “Don’t imitate your sister. Do what you want to do.” Cousteau tells her. Özge responds, agitated and slightly hyperactive: “How am I going to learn scuba diving? There is no school for that. How am I going to get a boat? You were born in France. You got support from the military. You are a man and I am a woman…and this is Turkey!" she ends up shouting at him. She silences Jacques Cousteau’s voice by pasting a periodic table over his face. Only towards the end of the book will she be ready to face him again.

Samanci’s family leads a modest life, her parents are both civil servants and the harsh liberalization of the country’s economy, introduced by then Prime Minister Turgut Özal will open up doors to even more inequalities across the country. If civil servants want to make as much money as their more entrepreneurial friends, “they know what to do” Özal famously suggested, opening the door to bribery, leaving an indelible mark on the country’s psyche. On top of this, the influence that was received from the West through popular culture was that of the TV show Dallas and its wealthy oil owning and feudal Texan family, which everyone watched on the single TV channel. They sometimes would escape Texas as they captured a broadcast from the Greek Islands not far from their city, to watch more cartoons.

Throughout Samanci’s story, we also learn about the Turkish education system and how it pushes people in a specific direction: becoming employable, and leaving no space for dreams or personal achievements other than ones endorsed by grades. This is also what their father tells both Özge and her sister: “In this country, if you are a woman and you don’t have a job, you are ZERO, nothing, NOTHING!”

While Samanci is trying to figure out what she wants to do, what she likes, whether she can both go to drama school and go on studying maths at university… the country is going through a series of political turmoils: General Kenan Evren amends the Constitution, which will impact human rights and freedom of expression, Turgut Özal brings neo-liberalism to Turkey, Feytullah Gülen starts to plant the seeds of conservatism and Islamic values, and the violence generated around the Kurdish conflict increases massively. All these issues are still disturbingly resonant in today’s Turkey. The Samanci family has a broken radio which can be seen as the unfortunate metaphor of polarization in Turkey: either you cannot hear anything, or if you turn the knob just slightly, it becomes too loud. “There was no in-between”.

While these difficult issues are omnipresent in the background, Dare to Disappoint is first and foremost a coming of age story of a girl thirsty for adventure, in love with the sea, and trying to hear her own voice amid all the tensions that surround her. She asks the very question we all ask ourselves: how do I become the person I want to be without disappointing my parents or family? There is no simple answer, but most of the time, you just need to dare to disappoint everyone else in order to be yourself. 

Reading Captain America today: Jason Dittmer on Superhero Narratives and Politics

Originally published on (now closed), 20 June 2017

We all know superheroes, even if we have never read a single comic book. They have been part of popular culture for decades, reaching wider audiences every day through blockbuster Hollywood movies. What narratives do these superheroes embody? What influence do these comics have in setting the political stage? Political geographer at UCL and comics scholar Jason Dittmer examines the metaphors, narratives and geopolitics of the superhero genre in a fascinating book: Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero.

The density and language of academic books may leave readers hesitant to dive in, but while Dittmer’s analyses are detailed and very well argued, they are never boring, offering many ‘aha’ moments as the topics discussed throughout the chapters relate to many political issues we are facing today in our societies. And in this day and age of Brexit and Trump, a conversation about Captain America and nationalist superheroes seems more than necessary.

Dittmer sets the tone of the book from its cover, by choosing the painting “Massacre in Haditha” by British Jordanian artist Tanya Tier, a reinterpretation of Pablo Picasso’s “Massacre in Korea” (1951) in which Picasso expressed his horror at the American machine-gunning of civilian refugees during the Korean War. These refugees had been trying to get behind American lines during the early stages of the war to avoid being caught between the two armies; however, the Americans, concerned about North Korean infiltrators, massacred the whole group. As Dittmer explains in the book, “Picasso’s painting can be understood as representing a violent, geographic concern about shoring up the barrier between “our” territory (behind the lines) and its constitutive outside.” Moved to rework the painting for a more contemporary audience when she saw the mirror image of Picasso’s vulnerable civilians in the twenty-four Iraqis murdered by American Marines at Haditha in November 2005, Tier used the visual language of superheroes; these iconic fictitious characters so entrenched in American culture. Quoted by Dittmer in the very first page of the book, Tier explains:

“[T]he powerful imagery of the superhero is a reference to the jingoism and propaganda deployed by governments and western media commentators when reporting the conflict. The US government in particular needed to establish and convince the public—in the most simplistic of terms—that their soldiers are the “good guys.” Donning the superhero uniform gave the troops permission to become defenders of the faith, protectors of the American people and safe-guarders of American interests. The way the conflict was being portrayed in the US media reduced it to the level of comic book fantasy or video game, an imaginary world where the good guys (“us”) always triumph over the bad guys (“them”).”

It is captivating to dive into geo-political analysis through the lens of comics, which is not something we are used to doing. “I can safely say I was the first person in geography to turn their attention to comic books” says Dittmer, “it comes from having read superhero comics from when I was a teenager. Then during my PhD on Media Representation in Central and Eastern Europe during the NATO and European expansion (1999 to 2003), I became interested in the way places were represented in media. I went back reading superhero comics on a road trip. I could remember Captain America stories but looking back at them with the theoretical knowledge behind me, I realized it is a totally compelling kind of narration of a nation. It made me think about how much of my view of America had been informed by reading Captain America comics. It seemed natural to go back and start looking at those comics, and excavate more of those stories and how they changed over time.” What Dittmer imagined would take him a year expanded in time, as he started researching Canadian and British superheroes.

While the creation of these narratives is very much anchored in the three countries Dittmer focuses on in the book, these comics tell a lot about their relationship with the rest of the world, and how they shape non-Anglo-American readers’ perspectives – especially of the US. As Dittmer explains in the book, the size of the US comics market makes it the indispensable arbiter of what will be published, even in regards to other countries’ nationalist superheroes. But this hegemony is not purely economic and includes politico-cultural terms. “Not a day goes by when I go to central London that I don’t see a Captain America T-Shirt” says Dittmer, “besides the one that I am wearing” he adds, laughing.

And, they can’t all be tourists, he notes. The superhero movies are certainly the main reason for this explosion of popularity, “I think there is something interesting about the way these movies have helped promote these heroes in many places. It has nudged political cultures in different ways. The US, UK and Canada are the three countries where superheroes are on fertile soil, but the movies battered that door down a little more. People are more likely to come to superhero stories through the movies than through the comics.”

Superheroes and Feminism

In his book, Dittmer spends a certain amount of time analyzing and exploring issues around representation, looking at gender, diversity and multiculturalism. He addresses the simple question “Why are almost all superheroes male?” from two perspectives that he introduces as follows: first by looking at the masculine superhero body in action, through which the state is produced as a ‘hard’ masculine shell protecting the ‘soft’ feminine nation. And secondly, that of the textual representations of domesticity and feminist values. In its chapter focused on gender, Dittmer examines masculinity and misogyny, hetero-heroism, and feminism. “There has been a concerted effort to break out of the old mould” says Dittmer, “almost every single character has been feminised and diversified – I think that the industry realised the previous model was a death spiral: since the late 1990’s it’s become more inward looking, trying to keep the fan-base happy, and that fan-base has gotten older, and it’s hard for new people to get interested since many stories also became so dark. Sometimes, when I read Captain America I wonder who all those characters are. And some story lines appear that I hadn’t read before, so it can be difficult to follow. They knew that the way it was going was unsustainable, so they moved towards more diversity.”

A Marvel executive had announced that their emphasis on diversity may have alienated readers, creating quite a stir among many people celebrating and advocating for more diversity in comics. “I’m not surprised that sales have gone down,” says Dittmer, “the trick is to get new people to read them. Because of the way comics are bought and sold, it is very hard for new readers to discover them.” He adds that including more diverse narratives into comics is clearly going to be a process. “The economic logic revolves more around the movies, these comics are – to me – kind of incubators of story lines, characters, and of course, a fan-base. I think the comics do not have to sell enough to cover their expenses, they can run at a loss and make billions on the next Avengers movie. That’s why I think they do themselves a favor by diversifying their characters: for one, many of the actors – at least in the Marvel movies – are looking into moving out as they’re getting old, so you’re going to have to replace these characters. They’ve also taken a lot of heat being pretty white male, which is the legacy of these characters from the sixties. So now you have a new opportunity to take some of the new characters and move them to the big screen and solve a lot of these issues”.

This process cannot happen without bringing diversity into the industry, starting with writers and artists. 

 “It is essential,” Dittmer agrees, giving the examples of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “an amazing thinker on race” who has written a few issues of Black Panther, and G. Willow Wilson, one of the creators and veteran writer of Ms Marvel. Dittmer says he welcomes anything that will freshen the genre and bring in new perspectives: “having a wide range of voices offering a nuanced take on things is very important, especially that there unfortunately is, within superhero comics, a strain of misogyny and racism.”

Unfortunately Marvel has since canceled Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay's Black Panther comics because sales were low. 

As already highlighted through the painting chosen for the cover of this book, Dittmer opens the door for an in-depth conversation about representation and the way narratives shape our visions of the world. “When I finished the book,” says Dittmer about the painting, “I got in touch with my contact at Marvel to ask for permission to use as many images as I could for the book. They’ve been very generous and allowed me to use many good ones. But they were also concerned about the title of the book, which could have sounded like a title for one of their own stories, so they wanted to see the cover to make sure it didn’t look like one of their comics. It took them two minutes to get back to me after they saw my cover: nobody was going to mistake my book for a Marvel comic. I thought it was great because they understood what the cover of the book was doing and they were OK with it.”

Dittmer amply evidences the overtly nationalist focus of superheroes, but “rarely are they called to defend the international system of nation-states itself,” he argues in a section on superheroes and sovereignty, except with a character introduced in Captain America in 1985: Flag-Smasher. It is particularly interesting that he is a supervillain whereas for someone envisioning the possibility of a borderless world, Flag-Smasher could be seen as one of the good guys. 

“He starts as an idealistic character,” Dittmer explains, “smashing flags against the nation-state. But Captain America stops to listen to him at some point. You see, it’s not his ideas that mark him out as a villain but instead the manner in which he goes about it. It’s a technical way in which you can make him a villain. In the later comics, Flag-Smasher becomes duped via some chemicals to work for Red Skull, a supervillain fronting a big multinational corporation. The authors morph Flag-Smasher from this kind of liberal international to a neo-liberal globalist – I do like the fact that they took him and used him as a sort of symbol of a changing nature of globalization: from a utopian to a dystopian one.”

Captain America in the Age of Trump

Dittmer wrote Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero years before Trump’s rise to power. In the book, he quotes a dialogue between Red Skull and Captain America that one cannot help but feel like it was a bad omen for today’s America. The villain tells our hero that he has no need to destroy America, “Not when your pathetically diverse, patchwork country is capable of doing so – all by itself, from within. Your nation is a cauldron of hate waiting to erupt, a cesspool of violent thoughts looking for release.” Dittmer explains that this passage from a 1996 issue “foregrounds the fact that America itself is not innocent, it does have all of this racism. These repeating scripts of American identity as fragile and in need of protection not only position American identity as virtuous and open-minded but also highlight the vigilance needed to police that identity. Racial strife is instigated by America’s enemies and is never a pre-existent problem.” 

More recently, Dittmer penned a piece entitled “What can Captain America teach us about the state of US politics?” for Huck, in which he illustrates using several examples that comics can tell us a lot about the racist Alt-right and Trump’s ascension. During our discussion, he explains how Captain America popped out in social media during the US elections, “Trump supporters imagined Trump as Captain America, as that masculine vision of mastery: that everyone else is tied up in bureaucracy and he’s a corporate man who is just going to come in and cut through the BS. It is a superhero way of talking about things, “I’m the only one who can fix this” – this is a direct quote – and his obsession with the body. There is this kind of fascist dimension to his own body esteem and the way he measures it to other people. You can perceive him in the mould of superheroes, and there was a lot of un-ironically produced material about Trump as Captain America. Then there also was anti Alt-right material produced, with Captain America punching Nazis and Richard Spencer, Indiana Jones also came up – these are quintessentially American characters fighting back. They are prosocial figures who act on anti-social means. This mirrors the doubleness of superheroes. Captain America in particular: he was created to fight Nazis, but he is blond-haired and blue eyed and his name is Steve Rogers, and he’s got this perfect Aryan body. There is an ambivalence to the whole thing which allows it to be taken up by people with very different visions of America.”

After discussing American, British and Canadian superheroes, we wonder if there is a possibility for a European superhero? A predictably unsuccessful Captain Euro was created a few years ago, but now that we live in a post-Brexit and Trump era, in which Angela Merkel states that Europe can no longer rely solely on the UK and the US, does that European hero have a better chance of succeeding?

“There are a couple of reasons why Captain Euro didn’t work,” says Dittmer, “one is narrative: it was painful. Like it or hate it, the superhero genre thrives on violence, and Captain Euro was about peaceful negotiation and resolution of difference. That is wonderful for kids’ nursery rhymes but it is never going to work in this genre, unless you massively remake the expectations of everyone reading them. And the other reason is because British Eurosceptics got hold of it and made a huge thing out of its propaganda value – it was literally caught up in what we will later know as Brexit politics. However, we now see a new EU taking on a more muscular form. Paradoxically, losing one of its major military powers in Britain may make it a stronger foreign policy force. That kind of independence will potentially make Europe a more superhero-type actor.”

Superhero comics have been called the creators of the myths of our contemporary age and through Dittmer’s work and our conversation, it becomes very clear to see how powerful a medium they are and how much they can, and do, speak to political and cultural issues.

Hannah Berry Takes Aim at Media and Politics in her Latest Graphic Novel: Livestock

Hannah Berry is one of the wittiest people I have ever had a conversation with. And I am so happy she is a comics artist as well as an active Twitter user – where she also shares the weekly cartoon she creates for the New Statesman – so that I can extend our exchanges to other spaces. It doesn’t matter if I am only a reader in most cases: she captures the world we live in so intelligently that I always feel included in the humorous way in which she expresses her perspectives.

It is no surprise then, that I have laughed reading every single page of Livestock, a painfully necessary satire on the media, politics and the celebrity-driven world we live in. One might wonder if it is still possible to satirize media and politics nowadays, “when everything seems to have become a parody of itself” says Hannah Berry in this video interview for the Literature Showcase. “I don’t know what has happened recently but everything has become so ridiculous” she adds. It has indeed. Looking at headlines creates two main reactions in me: either I want to move to an uninhabited place where there is no internet, or I get angry and want to respond to injustice in tweets, Facebook posts, and going to protests, which in turn makes me want to move to that uninhabited place again. But Hannah Berry’s Livestocktook me out of this vicious circle, as she has chosen an excellent medium to react to this world: comics. It is perfect for this kind of satire, as Hannah confirms herself, “the media is visual and immediately recognizable, it’s all about catching attention”, and it makes it “quite easy to satirize visually,” she adds.

Livestock’s cover girl is singer Clementine Darling who has rocketed to stardom, but is clueless about how the system around her works, whether it is politics, the media, or show business. She is being operated like a puppet by a sarcastic, efficient and detestable management team, part of a corporation that has a frighteningly strong grip on media and politics. Several controversial policies are being dealt with across the story, a major one coined the “Frankenstein Bill”, is a law that has been around for five years permitting private enterprises to create human clones. To which one of the characters invited to BBC Newsnight responds: “It was just a tiny clause in another policy. So no one spotted it. I mean who reads these things? They’re so long.” Lack of transparency, corruption, untrustworthy government, media manipulation and above all, inefficiency… Popstars have become propaganda robots in the hands of their devilish masters who can go as far as killing their own clients to create a good story and influence the media, hence the country’s political agenda. Clementine is being taught entire responses to political events by heart, she can even be declared pregnant when needed. As Berry explains, she is used as “an elaborate distraction technique, so that the population looks at this shiny pretty thing on screen and ignores the embarrassing other bits and pieces that are happening in the political world.”

Berry’s drawings are vibrant and full of astonishing and funny details. For instance, she likes to include herself and familiar faces in her stories, like her fellow comics artists looking at a pyramid of champagne glasses at Clementine’s arch-enemy Coral’s book launch party, sighing “I never got this at my launch!” to which Hannah herself responds “I never even got a launch”, and they end up leaving the party running away with an armful of champagne bottles. She even turns the queen of comics Posy Simmonds into a dirty limericks’ writer, delighting the “crowd with bawdy poems during [a] powercut”. Berry justifies this funny habit of hers in her blog saying that spending a lot of time working alone, she becomes “easily amused”. This is good news for us readers. 

Other details are inserted into the “What’s Trending” pages, which act as chapter headings and include headlines and advertising that tie in perfectly into the overall story. Some are true gems, like a face cream that can, according to the package, “rejuvenise, retaliase, revitalux” on which a news item proving that “bad skin care can make you fat” is pasted. Berry makes these correlations plentiful, and it works.

While the visual aspect is key in this media-oriented narrative, writing contributes greatly to making this book so strong: it is sharp, intelligent, and never drops the pace. Reading Hannah Berry’s story made me feel as if I were watching a top-notch comedian, The Thick of it or Veep. But unlike a performance or a TV show, comic books allow the reader to take the time they want on each panel and frame, grasping every layer of meaning, all without disrupting the reading experience. Each moment you manage to catch is a victory as a reader, and each time you choose to pause – as your eyes wander back and forth between frames – is a space to dive deeper into the story, and even, towards reflection. While Hannah Berry’s writing is extremely funny, you can also feel her concern about the way politics in the UK, and internationally, impact our societies. She paints her perspective masterfully, working by hand – using acrylic ink on paper to create texture –as she creates very elaborate and precise work. She explains in this video about the process that it takes: four to five days to work on a single page. The way she constructs the frames on each panel and her use of colour clearly show her proficiency with the medium. Each choice she makes draws us further into the story. 

Hannah Berry.jpeg

I particularly love pages such as the one that takes place in a coffee shop, which presents a fully drawn page on which two strips are collated, illustrating multiple things happening at the same time in one place in a very precise way. And that is what this book does: it scrutinizes the political and media landscapes we are immersed in, giving us moments of respite through self-deprecation while in the end, it encourages us to get back to working on building a better world, far away from such hideous systems. 

Women in Comics Today: Ms. Marvel, Atomic Blonde, Monstress and Bitch Planet

Originally published on (now closed)

The box-office success of the Wonder Woman movie has created a massive wave of enthusiasm for film goers and comic book readers across the world, showing that placing a woman at the heart of a story – in an action movie nonetheless – is not only possible, but it's also about time this happened! Popular culture is still overwhelmingly male-oriented, and far too white, but with an array of talented writers and artists creating new characters and reinventing known ones, the focus on putting men first is shifting. Major characters no longer fit the white male model, but embrace the diversity of voices that exist within societies, away from stereotypical depictions; giving readers the opportunity to recognize their own experiences in all these characters’ stories.

Let’s look at four comic books from four different genres that all have women as their main protagonists: A Muslim Pakistani teenage superhero from New Jersey, a Cold War British spy working in Berlin right before the fall of the wall, a group of women sent to prison on another planet, and a fantasy epic set in a matriarchal war-thorn universe. These are fantastic characters and stories that will surely inspire readers across the globe.

Ms. Marvel, Volume 1
By G. Willow Wilson

Written by G. Willow Wilson and illustrated by Adrian Alphona, Ms Marvel is my favorite heroine. For the first time in my life, a major story was telling me, from page one: see, this could be your story too. That moment occurred when 16-year old Kamala Khan, a Muslim Pakistani-American living in New Jersey, is standing in front of a sandwich shelf and starts smelling the greasy BLT she looks at longingly. No matter the level of piousness you grow up with, many Muslim families that I know and have befriended over the decades I spent growing up and living in Europe – including mine – forbid their children to eat pork. It is not the end of the world, and smelling bacon is allowed. It is typical for any teenager to long for something they cannot have, and this is one of the many character features we see in Kamala Khan. She is a high school student with shapeshifting abilities, and her parents don’t allow her to go out at night when most of the villains usually decide to strike, so while she has to battle the many petty restrictions most teenagers are facing regardless of the cultures they come from, Kamala is always caught between those and her need – and capacity – to save the world. She is not unlike Peter Parker in that sense, except that she is a young woman, she is Muslim, and she needs to have her own movie soon. 

The Coldest City
By Antony Johnston

Lorraine Broughton is one of the best agents of the British secret service. Strong, fast, and razor sharp, she is one of those people who were born to do the job they do. She is sent to Berlin just a few days before the fall of the Wall in order to get an important file. The graphic novel was first published under the title The Coldest City in 2012. Written by Antony Johnston and illustrated by Sam Hart, it is now a feature film starring Charlize Theron as Lorraine Broughton, aka Atomic Blonde. In an interview at the International Premiere of the film in Berlin, Johnston said that to him, writing a female action hero came naturally since he grew up watching Alien and being inspired by protagonists such as Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley. The idea of a female superhero never seemed strange to him and, as he says rightly, “it shouldn’t be strange and unusual”. The Coldest City/Atomic Blonde offers a fresh and unapologetic look at espionage fiction, a genre that has far too often been dominated by male characters. Looks like this is going to change.

Bitch Planet Volume 1: Extraordinary Machine
By Kelly Sue DeConnick

Created by Kelly Sue DeConnick, 2014 Best Writer Eisner Award nominee, and Valentine De Landro, Bitch Planet is set on an isolated planet that serves as a prison for “non-compliant” (NC) women. The prisoners tattooed with “NC” are sent to this planet run from Earth by – you have guessed it – men, to live their lives “in penitence and service”. In this dystopian world, Earth is under the authoritarian rule of the Council of Fathers, a group of men pretending to be priests, leading the world in a kind manner, while in reality they have created a dictatorship. Public attention is captivated by a sports game called “Megaton” and the Fathers decide to field an all-women team of convicts to compete, “to increase engagement” of the viewers. The expectation is that these women will be beaten, and possibly killed, by the professional, gladiatorial athletes of the sport. The women have different ideas, and while they build their Megaton team, we learn their stories. This comic book series deals with issues many readers across the globe will be familiar with: political oppression, women’s rights being taken away, violence against women, patriarchies deciding how the world should be and making anyone who decides differently – mostly women – pay the price.

Monstress Volume 1: Awakening
By Marjorie Liu

Written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda, Monstress is an epic fantasy comics series that started in 2015. In this interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Liu explains that she “wanted to write about girls and monsters, which has been a theme of mine from almost the start of my career — girls and giant monsters, and the supernatural. I wanted to tell a story about war, and surviving war — and I wanted to set it all in an alternate Asia.” The main protagonist Maika is an escaped slave, and part of her journey is to try to find out who she is. The story is set in a war-torn matriarchal universe and the book very successfully explores themes such as racism, slavery, exploitation, and memory. It is a world full of strange creatures, which are gorgeously drawn in a manga-inspired style by Takeda. Monstress is another compelling read that makes you wonder why on earth did we wait so long to put women at the centre of our stories.  

Celebrate and Read the Works of Women Writers from Turkey

This article was published on December 20, 2017 on (now closed)

Turkey is making the headlines on a daily basis for its persecution of innumerable writers, journalists, academics, intellectuals but also any citizens who dare to speak out against the government. Resisting official narratives and standing up to those in power has been a decades-long reality for many writers in Turkey, and while one hopes a country will move forward towards a more democratic society, today’s climate shows the opposite happening, and not only in Turkey. It is in this difficult political context that affects all members of society that many writers attempt to have their voice be heard, to express their views and their imagination. I invite you to celebrate and read the works of four very different contemporary women writers from Turkey, in both fiction and non-fiction, translated into English in the past ten years.

Asli Erdoğan

“For some, writing is a lifestyle; for me, it is an act of survival. I have to write to be able to continue living,” says writer and columnist Asli Erdoğan in this video interview. She has a rich literary oeuvre including novels, novellas and short stories, yet, very little of her work is available in English. In 2016 she was widely covered in the international press when she was imprisoned by the Turkish government under charges of terrorism for the columns she had written for the now-shuttered daily newspaper Özgür Gündem. Only The City of Crimson Cloak, translated by Amy Spangler, was available until now. This is fortunately going to change, with The Stone Building and Other Places, translated by Sevinç Türkan to be published this autumn. In this book of interlinked stories, Erdoğan tackles the very complex and painful subject of torture and imprisonment in a subtle manner, without ever falling into a cheap narrative of suffering. Her novel, The City of Crimson Cloak takes place in Rio, a city where Erdoğan lived during the time when she was working on her PhD as a physicist. The main theme of this novel is the body, as she explained in an interview: “Usually the way I treat the body is as a wound. My protagonists, women most of the time – although I do write about men too – are usually wounded, or visibly scarred. The whole city of Rio is used as the main protagonist’s body, also as a prison – the enlargement and contraction of the self. As if her body is reflected onto the city. It’s a game of mirrors between her and the city and they are reflecting each other. The body exists in all its secretions – it is rare in literature to read about women’s bodily fluids. It becomes more and more oppressive on the reader. Violence is one of the themes I tackle, in many indirect ways, first embedded in the language. Even in my columnist work, I try to use what I learned from writing The City in Crimson Cloak.” 

While dealing with extremely complex, tragic and wounded individuals and situations, Asli Erdoğan always manages to put the humanity and fragility of her characters first.

Perihan Mağden

Perihan Mağden is one of the most perceptive observers of popular culture and media in Turkey, and an incisive chronicler of their effect on society both as an essayist and a fiction author. Five of her novels are currently available in English: The Messenger Boy Murders, translated by Richard Hamer, Two Girls, translated by Brendan Freely – and adapted to the cinema by Kutluğ AtamanEscape, translated by Kenneth Dakan, and Ali and Ramazan, translated by Ruth Whitehouse. Throughout her work Mağden tells the story of those that society forgets, such Ali and Ramazan, the two orphan boys who fall in love, or Behiye and Handan, the anguished teenagers lost in the immense city in her novel Two Girls. All these characters are lost within an intolerant society towards those who are different or in need, forgotten and rejected by the government, the military, or their parents. The extraordinary impact of Perihan Mağden’s portrayal of these characters stems from her depiction of the human and not the victim; she never falls into easy sentimentality or clichés. Perihan Mağden does not want you to cry about the fate of these characters, rather, she reminds us of their, and also our, humanity. While often based in difficult societal and political contexts that can differ from what can be experienced by the readers of her work in translation, Mağden’s characters carry a universal language and message about the human condition.

Nurdan Gürbilek

Nurdan Gürbilek is one of the foremost cultural critics of Turkey. A brilliant academic, thinker and writer, she is the author of eight collections of essays written between 1992 and 2015. A selection of these essays was published in English as Living in a Shop Window: The New Cultural Climate in Turkey, translated by Victoria Holbrook. Gürbilek’s work is essential reading for anyone who is interested in trying to understand Turkey’s cultural and political climate today. Her writing dissects cultural expression in the years following the 1980 military coup, as she looks at literature, popular culture, and politics through a sociological and philosophical eye. As the renowned Turkish academic Jale Parla puts it, “From the exhibited corpse of a murdered pornography artist to the tamed and agonized picture of an anonymous child that decorates the walls of the Anatolian coffee houses, Gürbilek presents a gallery of portraits that reveal the cultural codes of a society that experienced - and is still experiencing - the impacts of a series of upheavals and radical transformations...”

Three Films Bring the World of Books to Amsterdam's Documentary Film Festival

Published on November 24, 2017 on (now closed)

The 30th edition of the of Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA) opened on 15 November and continues until 26 November, programming no fewer than 300 documentaries, introducing the viewers to different people and places through the eyes of filmmakers. Three very different films — Eating AnimalsEx-Libris: The New York Public Library, and Dreaming Murakami — bring books to the screen through adaptation, exploration and imagination.

When Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals was published in 2009, it made Nathalie Portman turn from vegetarianism to veganism. Both the writer and the actor decided the book should be made into a film and asked filmmaker Christopher Quinn if he would like to make the documentary. 

“From the first discussions I had with Nathalie and Jonathan,” said Quinn during the Q&A following the screening of the film, “I knew that I didn’t want to make this a first-person journey, I didn’t want to replicate the same process Jonathan went through in the book. It is great and it is one of the reasons why I love the book – which is a personal experience about his grandmother going through the Holocaust. It is very profound.” Quinn added that his previous films were always character driven and that he liked to stay close to his subjects, as he does brilliantly in Eating Animals. It allows him to “exist with them for a while and let them tell the bigger story through their own eyes.” 

This approach makes the documentary a companion to the book rather than a replica. The testimonies from the farmers add another layer to the narrative: “the rusting of America can be felt in every breath of the turkey farmer,” said Quinn. His perspective is intelligently layered and refreshingly non-militant or preachy for a documentary showcasing the damages farming and giant corporations cause to animals; to society and its most vulnerable communities; and to the environment. A combination of carefully used archival footage from slaughterhouses, interviews, informative passages narrated by Nathalie Portman, and beautifully poetic shots of the American rural landscape make Eating Animals more than a film about animal welfare and social justice. It is also an ode to the beauty of nature, and a cry for more humanity in a rotten system.

Ex-Libris: The New York Public Library is a three-and-a-half-hour-long love letter to libraries and every single person involved in keeping libraries alive. Frederick Wiseman, an extraordinary filmmaker whose rich oeuvre spans more than half a century and close to 50 films – including previous focuses on institutions, such as the National Gallery in 2014 – offers an incisive insight into this iconic American institution. We see fragments from public conversations held at the New York Public Library with writers and artists such as Richard Dawkins, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Yusef Komunyakaa or Ta-Nehisi Coates, highlighting such themes as the beauty of facts, poetry in science, art and politics, the role of autobiography, slavery, or the African-American experience. Front stage and behind the scenes, Ex-Libris goes everywhere: From the boardroom to the education work and outreach programmes, to the office and technical staff, Wiseman shows us, in total absence of any hierarchy, that every single person working for this institution deeply cares. While doing so, the film also highlights the relevance of libraries and their key role within communities. Ex-Libris also offers a revealing portrait of America’s socio-political and economical context, and how it affects various communities in drastic ways.

Edmund de Waal is the last artist and writer to appear in Wiseman’s opus: we see him at the end of the film, in a fragment taken from his conversation with Paul Holdengräber, in which de Waal, citing Primo Levi says: “Method is interesting, be very very careful when you describe how something is made, how it comes into shape, as process is not to be skated over, the manner of what we make defines us.” A magnificent conclusion to an unforgettable cinematic journey.

Filmmaker and writer Nitesh Anjaan attended a lecture by literary translator Mette Holm a few years ago and, mesmerized by the process of translation that Holm described, decided he wanted to explore the subject further. The art of translation isn’t the only thing that motivated Anjaan to make a film with a literary translator as his subject – one writer unites the filmmaker and translator: Haruki Murakami. Based on “Super Frog Saves Tokyo”, one of the short stories in After the Quake, Anjaan's Dreaming Murakami follows Holm as she works on the Danish translation of Kaze no uta o kike (Hear the Wind Sing), the author’s debut novel. The film brings us inside the mind of the translator, but also into the universe of the writer, as perceived by the filmmaker. 

A translation between languages, cultures, contexts, and medium, the film is an ode to imagination, creativity, and process. Whether you have read Murakami or not, or are affiliated in any way with translation, you'll find a variety of angles to explore in this cinematic dream. You may find yourself geeking out about all the 

Murakami references, or the questions Holm is faced with regarding the process of translation, or you'll simply discover a brand new artistic universe. Imagination knows no limits...

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Where to find me

You may have realised that I don't blog that often on this website. The reason is very simple: my work is scattered a bit everywhere online. I am very active on social media, and lots of my thoughts and processes are documented on my Facebook and Instagram pages. I am also on Snapchat (as ayserin), doing some silly stuff - isn't it what Snapchat is about? And you can find me daily on Twitter (@ayserin) as well, where I share recent info about my activities but mostly content I find interesting. I also have a Medium page where I publish writings on arts and culture. And last but not least, I am making videos on YouTube, mostly in French, in which I try to explore certain themes especially around literature and translation. 

I also continue my work on City in Translation and Meydan | La Place, two of my personal projects around literature and translation - which are very dear to my heart. 

Next to my own pages and projects, I write for a variety of online and offline media. For a complete list, see my writings page. I am also regularly invited to speak and participate to various events or give workshops, if you're interested all dates are in my calendar (overview listed below).

And sometimes I go chill near the flamingos living in my neighbourhood. 

I hope to see you in these different places!

Upcoming events:

Past events

My YouTube Channel

I have recently started making videos - quite simple and focused on literature mostly, but also filming exhibitions, trying to tell a "docu" style story through this exciting medium. At the moment, I am working in French because of the fantastic community that has started building around François Bon's work on his channel.

I am currently in exploration mode, trying to understand why I sometimes prefer to use video than writing, like with this video about the exhibition Colonial War at the Resistance Museum in Amsterdam. 

I may start working in English, but for now, I feel a lot more comfortable talking to this community of writers and translators I know and I feel safe with, in French. 

Do have a look: