Comic Scene

“There‘s a story to be found on every corner”

Barbara Yelin © Martin Friedrich Barbara Yelin © Martin Friedrich Munich-based artist Barbara Yelin has been to Cairo, Delhi, Surabaya and Bali as a guest of the Goethe institute. In her latest graphic novel Irmina, she tells the story of an independent young German woman who attends Commercial School in London. She falls in love with a black Oxford student from Barbados but eventually becomes a supporter of the Nazi regime. The questions Yelin poses are still relevant today.

Irmina is based on letters and documents your grandmother left behind when she died. What fascinates you about her story?

Above all, I have a question: How could this young woman, this nonconformist in search of freedom, become a supporter of the National Socialist system? Irmina is inspired by contradictory pieces of information from my grandmother‘s biography which I used like puzzle pieces to form the story. In addition, I took narrative liberties, of course.

How did you do your research?

I looked at different biographies and the historical background. I read diaries of contemporary witnesses and novels. I found information in archives online and offline. Also, I worked closely with a historian, Dr. Alexander Korb. I tried to find out where the everyday life of this middle class woman whose husband served in Hitler‘s SS* clashed with politics. Which Nazi crimes might she have witnessed? What must she have seen?

When Jews are humiliated in the streets, she looks the other way.

I want to pose the question at which points Irmina is able to to take control of her fate. Time and time again, her plans are thwarted by current events. Yet, there is room for manoeuvre in making decisions. She thinks she has to choose between freedom and social advancement. She doesn‘t realize that many private decisions have political consequences.

Do we face similar decisions today?

Of course, life in Nazi Germany and life in Germany today are not comparable. But let‘s consider our consumer behaviour: We decide if we buy clothes produced with cheap labour. We know that citizens of other countries are exploited, and that our willful ignorance makes that possible.

Irmina and Howard, the Oxford foundationer from Barbados, get to know each other because they both are considered “other” by British society – she is deemed a “bluestocking” and a “German Fräulein”, he is called “darkie”. How did you develop these characters?

I tried to imagine how people treated them, how someone like Irmina might have reacted to that and what the consequences would have been. Irmina possesses a certain austerity and gruffness, she is a difficult character to begin with. Howard is much more perspicacious. I get to know my characters by drawing and writing dialogue. I explore their facial expressions. I try to find out what they say and when they say nothing at all.

In novels about the Nazi era, free-spirited characters like Irmina are usually cast for the role of the resistance fighter. Do you consciously break that narrative pattern?

Indeed I wanted to avoid literary clichés like that. Stories like this one are always about the question of what oneself would have done in the same situation. It‘s an agonizing question. You can chose the easy way out by identifying yourself with a certain type of person. I wanted to eradicate this distance, accept my character‘s contradictions. It was not a pleasant experience.

Irmina by Barbara Yelin © Reprodukt Verlag How did you choose the style and colouration of this graphic novel?

There was a long phase of trial and error. In the first chapter, I use light blue as an accent colour. After that, all colours darken, and the accents are done in a bright signal red. Early on, there‘s free space on the pages, my characters have a lot of room. As the story progresses, I confine them into frames, and I zoom in. I want my readers to feel that Irminas world becomes smaller and her mind narrows. At the end, when Irmina, now an old woman, visits Howard at his estate on Barbados, I used yet another colour to illustrate the passage of time. For me, darkness is an important stylistic device. Dark spaces encourage contemplation.

In 2012 and 2014, you worked with young illustrators in Cairo. What is the impression of the Egyptian comic scene you took home with you?

In comparison to the German or French scene, it‘s very small and young, but there is great potential. These artists are very motivated, they have pressing questions. They ponder recent political events. There‘s an indescribable insecurity and frustration after the failed revolution. But they‘re also under an increasing pressure to make money with their art.

In October and November 2012 you were invited to the Indo-German Urban Mela in Delhi as an artist in residence. You documented your stay in a sketchbook. What have you experienced there?

It makes a huge difference whether you show a building that appears in every travel guidebook or look at what happens fifty metres to the side. That‘s how I discovered this scene of young Muslims playing cricket: There is a Hindu celebration taking place, giant, artfully decorated demons explode and in the midst of it all, these boys are playing cricket as if they didn‘t even notice. Usually, people were interested in my work and treated me with great respect. Only once, when I was drawing two street children, someone shooed me away. He said that Dalits didn‘t deserve so much attention. I love it when people come up to talk to me. There‘s a story to be found at every corner. You just have to look and listen.

*The Schutzstaffel, abbreviated SS and translated to protection squadron, was a major paramilitary organization of the Nazi party under Adolf Hitler.

Elisabeth Dietz
works as an editor and social media manager for the literature magazine BÜCHER. She lives in Berlin.

Translation: Elisabeth Dietz
© Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi
November 2014

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