Interview with Barbara Yelin What a Graphic Novel Can Do

Barbara Yelin
Barbara Yelin | Photo: Barbara Yelin

Barbara Yelin was born in Munich in 1977 and studied illustration at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences. She was awarded the Best German Graphic Novel Prize at the PENG awards in 2015 as well as the bayerischen Kunstförderpreis in the literature category for her book, “Irmina,” which tells the story of a young German woman’s life in Nazi Germany. As a guest of the Goethe-Institut Toronto, Yelin is attending the Toronto Comic Art Festival (TCAF) to present the English-language edition of “Irmina”. Before her visit, Yelin talked to us about the creative process behind “Irmina”, the importance of colour in her work and her role as an author.

In previous interviews, you have emphasized that you begin your work with a question that you ponder for over a year. When you started “Irmina”, what questions did you consider?

The basic question I had with “Irmina” was, “How can a woman like Irmina give up on her original life goals and dreams while fundamentally changing herself?” This question had not been answered even when I found my grandmother’s box with the old letters, notes and photos. I was able to reconstruct some parts of the story with those materials, but I found I was constantly asking myself how something like this could really happen. On the one hand, I was curious about the fact that so many Germans in Nazi Germany turned a blind eye to the persecution of Jews out of fear, security or even due to thoughts of self-preservation. On the other hand I tried to get to the bottom of why people were silent why nobody wanted to talk about or critically reflect upon things they knew or even somewhat-knew about.

Silence and choosing to look the other way at crucial moments during the Nazi Germany are key elements in your graphic novel. How did you manage to portray those themes using pencil drawings?

There is a lot of detailed, historical research on what really happened during Hitler’s Germany. Besides the existing diary entries and notes, most of the research is based on historic testimonies and lived memories of that time. This meant that I could work with these themes. I mainly wanted a detailed and authentic insight into people’s everyday lives in order to understand their behavior as much as possible. From a drawing perspective, I tried to illustrate the external limitations of the dictatorial regime while showing the internal restrictions going on inside Irmina’s head. To represent this, I tried using narrower [comic] panels for some sections. Throughout the book, I had sections, which were filled with a darker shade and some that were lighter, clearer. Everything Irmina sees or hears comes through the cracks of the living room curtain or through the Volksempfänger (a radio that was used specifically for propaganda), which only broadcasted Hitler’s speeches. The filtered world of Hitler’s words permeates Irmina. On the large centrefold spreads throughout the book, the reader sees what actually happened, what is obvious, what people are looking away from, like the burning synagogue on Chrystal Night (a pogrom against Jews in November 1938), for example.

Do colours have specific meanings in your illustrations?

Before “Irmina,” I almost always used different pencil shades of gray in my work. For “Irmina,” I implemented the additional use of colour on purpose. Primarily, I wanted to create a specific colour space with which I could not only convey dark moments, but also Irmina’s open-minded thoughts, especially in the beginning of the story. In addition, I used colours as accents. At the beginning of the story, I used the colour blue in order to show the reader the freedom and opportunities Irmina had when she arrived in London. In the middle part, red represents the violence and power of Nazi Germany but also the bloodshed and in particular, the guilt Germans must carry. In the last part of the book, turquoise marks the story’s turning point: Irmina’s hope for a better life by Barbados’ turquoise ocean. As well, the book has many situations where the reader might question Irmina’s behaviour or suffer with her. I wanted neither to make any decisions for the reader nor judge Irmina in any way. What I wanted was to leave an open margin for the readers to think about for themselves. I believe that’s something that the graphic novel can do.

As supported by the Goethe Institut, you have illustrated comic diaries about social movements and changes in the arts scenes in Cairo, Delphi, Surabaya and Bali. Do you see yourself as an observer or communicator?

That’s an interesting question! Maybe I am both. When I am abroad and trying to capture a picture and tell a story, I am certainly an observer. I would call myself that because the process of drawing requires a higher amount of dedicated observation time than taking a photo or passing through a situation. When I’m preparing my illustrations for a blog or a website, they become a sort of commentary. Nevertheless, I would not call it journalistic work. I would rather bring the smaller pictures to the reader’s mind than focus on the big political or social problems. I do that because I am completely convinced that the smaller stories are often more helpful in pointing to the larger context.

At this year’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), you are going to present the English version of “Irmina.” Have you found that publishing “Irmina” in the English-speaking book market has opened new prospects for you?

Definitely, yes. There are not many English versions of German comic books so far. Because of that, I really appreciate that there are still graphic novels reaching the American or Canadian book market. Of course, there are many inspirational comics coming out of North America. Without them, there would not be such a growth of comics in Germany. That is why I am really proud that a graphic novel like “Irmina,” which deals with Germany’s Nazi past, has been translated into English. Especially since the feedback in England, where the English version of „Irmina“ has already been published, reflects the readers’ challenges in dealing with their own ambivalent feelings towards Irmina and her actions.