Category Archives: Books

Graphic Novels in the Classroom

Experiencing Fun Home by Alison Bechdel in Prof. dr. D.M. Oostdijk’s class, October 15, 2015.

By Amrita Das

Fun Home 2015 - Prof Oostdijk's Class

“What’s lost in translation is the complexity of loss itself. In the same box where I found the photo of Roy, there’s one of Dad at about the same age” (Bechdel FH 120).

Alison’s Bechdel’s graphic novel and memoir Fun Home (2006) is a complex, delightful, tragic, inter-textual text that offers the best of the visual and written medium. It deals with the coming-out of two characters, Alison the protagonist and her father Bruce. But, the novel is about much more as students discovered.

On October 15, 2015, Prof. dr. D.M. Oostdijk taught a Bachelor’s class on Fun Home that combined living in a visual culture, American Literature and pedagogic elements. Students were asked to make a poster presentation on panels from Fun Home that they would present to visiting High School students from the OSG in Hoorn.

Prof. Oostdijk began the class with some profound observations about the world we live in today. It is a visual age in which we are bombarded with images on a continual basis. This reverberates in our daily existence – television, screens, advertisements, signs, posters, flyers, even the word is (to quote W.J.T. Mitchell) an image. On paper it transforms, making what is written a multi-medial experience. How do we deal with this?

W.J.T. Mitchell’s book on Picture Theory (1995) makes us mindful of these aspects. It is about becoming savvy on the facets of visual culture. It is not merely the prerogative of intellectuals and academics — visuals are pervasive. It confronts children, and makes us question what is it that we see? How does it affect our mind? And, what does it imply for the future?

We do not have answers to these questions. Nevertheless, it is important to ask them. The fuelling of a critical mind that investigates these practices is vital to the task of literary studies and also for the Humanities.

As our first step into investigating Fun Home we delved into the differentiation between a comic book and a graphic novel. The comic – by definition – deals with aspects of comedy. The comic book is a form of entertainment, which is lighthearted, jovial and fun. Fun Home is different. Bechdel calls it a “traginomic,” a pun that is an amalgamation of the words tragedy and comic. Though, the book is more a graphic novel than a comic book.

In the book The Graphic Novels (2015) authors Jan Baetens and Hugo Frey argue that between the two genres lie, “…common scales of differences.”(7). They discuss four ways of distinguishing comic books from novels:

  1. Form
  2. Content
  3. Publication format
  4. Production and distribution aspects

In conclusion, it was well established in the class that while comic books are an escape from reality graphic novels were an immersion into it.

Fun Home is not about fun, it hides within it the funeral home it houses. The gothic font used in the cover, in its connection with Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the fall of Icarus, Oscar Wilde, amongst many other inter-textual elements; it is evocative of how knotty human relationships are. In loving her father Bechdel has to accept and deal with the inadequacies that make the man. In this she is confronted with her own struggles. She tries to elucidate this by reaching out to several texts, contexts, characters, that she uses to connect her story to a larger fabric.

The story is the narration of imperfections. But then who decides what is perfect? Who chooses the definition of normal? To quote from Anna Karenina, which begins with the line: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What are the variables in happiness and unhappiness? Isn’t the presence of happiness splendidly built on unhappiness? How do we know that we are happy if we haven’t been unhappy? The Bechdel family in their moments of vivid isolation harbor genuine warmth too. Illustrated in how Bruce plays with Alison wielding her like an airplane and their bath-time routine, in which the washing with water is almost redemptive. There are pockets of contentment in this dismal family-life.

The book questions family values but fortifies the need for love and physical affection. It destroys sexual and gender norms and asserts that as human beings we need to be sensitive and compassionate. Perhaps, we need to rethink the walls that we build, the boundaries we construct, and what is it that we hold so dear that we do not wish to lose at any cost?

The posters made by the teams reflected all these themes. They encapsulated how the words and images in Fun Home work cohesively in order to narrate the story. They are not in binary opposition to each other. Quite like happiness and unhappiness, which are often placed as counterparts but actually work together. Like sides of the same coin. The textual content combines with the graphic content to explore subtle aspects. The drawing of body language in the novel, managed to find definition in exercises posed by the students. Again, pushing our preconceived notions to breaking point.

The creating of posters in order to tell the story of a graphic novel was an effective way to engage the students into the process of making visuals. In this the class had a meta-quality. While the students selected and presented to the High School students they were also participating in visual culture. Their choices, medium, and agency, heightened the experience. Their awareness then moved towards deep learning through activating their minds.

In the end, the winner (democratically selected by the High School students) received a box of chocolates. This process connected the students to what their criteria were in appreciating the visual presentations that they had seen. As we laughed about the movie-quote from Forrest Gump (more visual culture), “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” The class rolled up its posters and moved outside into the world.

There are plenty of boxes that we will land up opening and closing. It is moments of introspection in classes such as this that makes us aware how we label these boxes and what are the pictures that we choose to keep in them.

(The following article appeared in the VU Literature & Society website.)

Friday Book Market at Spui

Every Friday there is a Book Market at the Spui, Amsterdam. On this day there is a peppy vibe to the place. Antique books, quirky books, second-handbooks, new books and forgotten books all find their way to stalls here. The keepers are friendly. People seem to have time. A certain stillness. Browse and be. No hard sell. No interruptions. The only contact is between you and the books. You touch, you flip pages, you read a page here and a blurb there, and you move on.

I come here to absorb the spirit. Often to remind myself why I made the choices I did. Words become dust motes. People fade to the background. Sounds filter to a muffled white state. I leave parts of myself in the corners. And I collect new ones that I want to carry.

Of all the things I have experienced in this city – this market is closest to my heart. Along with the OBA. That I will save for another day. When it’s not Friday. Till then you will find me here. 


The Blossom on the Bough by Anne Dowden

Last year at the ISA (located in Amstelveen) I bought this second-hand book. The book was last issued from the library in 1995 and they had decided to part with it. I paid very little for it.

Firstly, I love botanical drawings. The precision with which they are made is stunning. My pictures veer more towards kawaii, anime, folk art, lacking realism and aiming more for abstraction, exaggeration (not as much as caricature) and sometimes color. Botanicals remains a field I am greatly attracted towards and can not replicate. I love the work of Marjolien Bastin and Beatrix Potter. In my dream house I often imagine a stark plain white wall corridor of botanicals ranging from the Mughal botanicals to the more modern works of Vera Scarth-Johnson, with a Bastin squirrel here and a Potter rabbit there, and at the end of the corridor you would find a cottage garden with a pond and warm welcome corners, and butterflies.

Secondly, what attracted me to this book were the library cards at the back. While studying in Delhi, in school, in college and at the British Council Library I remember using library cards. The stamp on the book a reminder of when the book was due but what I liked reading most (apart from the text) were the several names before me who had read the book, and my name and date there present with the rest, marking my place in the history of that book. When we moved to Dubai in 2004 I got a digitised card to the library and this sojourn with names I did not know ended, well almost, once I found a bus ticket in a book, a postcard in another, my mind trying to weave tales around these forgotten objects. When I chanced upon the website Forgotten Bookmarks imagine my joy and relief that there were other people like me.

I had written earlier about my love-hate relationship with electronic reading devices, I think this might well be one of the reasons the acceptance has been a hard one. Anyhow, I leave you to enjoy the pictures of this book, which has brought me much joy.

Anne Dowden’s The Blossom on The Bough 

Paris in the rain

Saturday, January 10, 2015, I was to be in Paris for the day to meet poet and translator Marilyn Hacker. I had many questions about her experience with the ghazal and ghazal poets; she was generous enough to offer her day to me. On Monday 5th I booked my tickets to travel by the Thalys by Wednesday the 7th – Paris was not the same. Two hostage crises bolted through the city.

I stuck to my decision to travel. On the Friday – 9th – a day before my travel my friend asked me, “Why are you putting your family through this, traveling to Paris now?” I wanted to calm her fears. But I don’t think I was able to. I just could not think of anywhere I would have rather been than in Paris. That somehow the terror, fear, the tendency to self-preserve would not, and could not hold me back. Indeed I could have rescheduled but I did not want to. I wanted to meet Marilyn. I also wanted to see Paris, like when you approach your friend to hold her hand, to let her know she will be okay when things go wrong, not just in the summer when the air is crisp and flowers are in bloom, but in winter when it’s cold and the body struggles to stay warm. The combination of these two interwove to help me make my decision.

It was an unusually gray and stormy day. The Thalys had delays while the wind waged its battle I prepared my questions. Within me was this surging tide to go forth, to ask, to inquire, while this emotion presented itself there was also this ‘manthan’ (inner churn) – poetry in the midst of turmoil. Agha Shahid Ali toyed with the takallhus Shahid – witness and beloved. Marilyn had written that her name was not as meta as Shahid’s, when the jokes on Marilyn came out she left the room. Kashmir. Palestine. Poetry. Paris.

Online I read articles on the cities of the world and the need of the hour being introspection. Why indeed is the second generation of migrants turning elsewhere to answer their religious and cultural quandaries? Have the countries they were born and brought up not nurturing? Or had they been brain washed? Was there another kind of schooling that created the other kind – this kind – what kind? There is no straight forward answer. God needs protecting. Caustic, sarcasm, dripping ink in pen, then blood, lots of blood, blood everywhere on the pages, on tables, the floor, oozing from wounds, the American ghazal – of Adrienne Rich, Sharon Olds, Aimee Nehukumatahil talk of wounds, of hurt, Rich even says the way in which we murder is not the same anymore. Who is the gazelle today? Who the hunted, who the prey, who the hunter, who the almighty, Agha Shahid Ali “By Exile” wrote exiled by exiles, is this what is left of us? Birds fly over the landscape — Mahmoud Darwesh had asked where do birds fly after the last sky? Where do they go from here? And who are they? What hurts their heart? And what sort of God needs protection that too from creatures as fragile and faulty as us humans?

Bambi was sleeping on my bed when I left. He had kicked the duvet off, it half-covered his thin frame. His mouth was open. I could see his chest heaving steadily. His eyes twitched just a little. Was he dreaming? Would he ask for me when he woke up? Or would the iPad and Skylanders distract him enough for him to forget me just that bit – his forgetting me would hurt me. Ostriker had written in her essays in The Mother / Child Papers (1980) about birth and war time, the poignancy of the words raise a lump to my throat and I swallow it back with bad train coffee. The last time I was in Paris I was pregnant with Bambi.


A long-winding dark bent wooden staircase curled up three floors to her small door; Marilyn opened it with a warm and gentle smile. Her office-living areas were covered in books. On the prayer stand open was the Arab to French dictionary, we both look at it, I tease her, “Is this what you have been worshipping Marilyn, have you done your hundred Bismillahs?” She laughs, “Oh yes I’ve been praying to irregular verbs.” She makes me coffee upstairs in her kitchenette with a Lebanese flag, over buttery croissants and raisin rolls we discuss ghazals. Her mind is sharp, wise, knowledgeable, a polyglot; she switches from Rumi, to Darwesh, to Ghalib, to Mimi Khalvati with such ease and grace. Somewhere my own ideas stretched, some modified, and some get fortified. While I start to understand Shahid better, women and the ghazal remain deliciously complicated. As a researcher one tends to be clinical about the work we study, for the artist it is more organic, natural, and inexplicable. She talks about her inclination towards anonymity, the idea to remain unknown – nameless, her last poetry collection was called Names (2010), she does not use the takallhus sometimes she alludes to it but most of the time she drops it. She says she enjoys doing that. It is fun to work with forms, to see how it functions, how far you can go with it, how much will it stretch. The ghazal becomes play-doh in my head and I start imagining what color it would be. I ask her how she knew about the ghazal, it was through Adrienne Rich, and Shahid, about Shahid she says, “He was very loved.” I can imagine that Shahid in his living room surrounded by his friends reciting poetry while the fragrance of a good rogan josh wafts from the kitchen. We discuss the differing styles of Shahid and Roger Sedarat. We analyze what it means for me an Indian living in Amsterdam to come to Paris to talk about an Arabic but more Persian-Urdu poetic form with an American-Jewish female poet, we notice the irony of it, also noting of how people and forms travel.

Marilyn takes me out for lunch to her neighborhood café. Where we meander away from the ghazal to nation states, and borders, and Paris, her reason to live in Paris was that she kept coming back to it and one day she decided to stay, she liked it there, her life, the book stores, the ability to have several literary options at her doorstep and the fact that she had studied French Literature in her youth. We talk of Beirut and our experiences with the city. She talks about Mosul and Syria.

I leave her apartment at five. She gives me her new collection of poems – with new ghazals – A Stranger’s Mirror (2015) – it is not yet in the stores, and she insists that I would understand it. I accept it. She gives me another book for Bambi. It is The Honey Hunter (2013) by Karthika Nair and Joëlle Jolivet; it is set in the Sunderbans, close to where I was born. I think of Bambi, and home, Marilyn smiles at me like she knows what I am thinking.

I go to the North Bank and walk along with the Seine towards Notre Dame across the bridge of locks, it is teeming with people professing their love, kissing, locking their locks, I pray for the bridge to hang on to its knobs and not collapse under the weight of too-much metal. The Seine looks angry. The sky is dark gray. The gothic elements of the cathedral look menacing. Every store, each corner has signs for Charlie. The air is somber.

I arrive at the station early. The taxi driver from Notre Dame to Gare du Nord tells me that on Sunday the 11th there will be a big demonstration to show solidarity and unity for Charlie. He says it is important to show it – that through this demonstration people want to stand together for Paris. He grew up reading Charlie’s newspaper and he could not believe what happened in the last two days, he says he has lost his ability to react, “Charlie was always poking fun at everyone, even himself, and I grew up reading his pages, this is my Paris, these are people from my childhood.”

It is pouring. The rain – “Even the Rain” (thank you Rafiq Kathwari for a poem I carry with me everywhere) – I am soaking wet. The Gare du Nord station is cold. There is police and military everywhere. I have to sit there and wait. Gare du Nord is no waiting room. But I have Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (1990) for company. There is a lover’s tiff in the station, it gets physical, the military officers step in, it is like a dance, the officers don’t really do anything, but they watch, they don’t say anything, they observe other people watching the couple, the couple, the officers movements are orchestrated, slow and mindful in comparison to the fighting fish who seem random – jerky – slowly as the couple moves away, the officers move as well, their faces are expressionless.

The train back to Amsterdam has police doing checks – they are still looking for the girl my co-passenger informs me, she also points out — good thing you do not look like her despite your dark hair. I nod, not saying anything; I try to make my face expressionless. I don’t think I am good at this. For the rest of the journey I remain buried in Kureishi. By the time I reach home – it is the middle of the night, stillness, Bambi is in bed, Purab’s waiting. The day drains away in the shower, steam, quiet, words forming, Seine curling, qafiyas, radifs, buttresses and mornings. They always come. Like the radif. Somehow even when the sun does not shine, the day starts, life moves.

Is my uneasiness nurtured or organic?

The past few weeks I have been toying with the idea of getting an e-reader. Many of the books I need for my research and some of the books I want to read are located in and sold from places where shipping and handling charges are way over the price of the books themselves. I do understand the price of transport and duties; my interests though have weighed towards my meagre pocket as a PhD student. Selfish indeed!

When the newly launched promised a ‘cheap’ Kindle Paperwhite via they got my attention. I realized, still the kit would land up being 145-euros-approx. If I signed up for a particular credit card I would be spared 30-euros. A concept I find disturbing and problematic. That I don’t subscribe to the idea of the credit card also adds to my dismay. How on earth am I ever going to keep track of the endless paper trails I drop each time I say yes to possess? What a tangled web we weave when we try to …. (apologies to the Gods of rhyme) try to live (albeit stylishly) within our means.

To add to this – I romanticize the physicality of books. Mea culpa! Sitting in the metro for long hours I often read, or look at the covers of books people are holding, fingers wrapped around paper, eyes darting, some slowly, others fast, a twitch of the lips, a gentle smile, a furrowed line in between the brows – I look for these signs. The language of these books might be different, the topics similar or dissimilar to my taste but in those rare quiet moments I feel a camaraderie. A kinship for those who seek stories and meaning; for those who travel via books in an inexplicable way travel together. E-readers (hence referred to as ERs), indeed, as well denote readership but in isolation, there is no cover peeking through gripped fingers. Thus, offering a privacy that crushes my romantic voyeurism.

ERs, as the publishing industry will argue, works besides and not as a binary opposition to books. Is this how selling out begins? I wonder what happens to the weight of books, carrying Shakespeare’s Sonnets back and forth to university my shoulders ached, my neck struggled, when I downloaded it on to the Kindle app on my phone it seemed to me that I belittled the text. My body asked me to shut up and accept the easy reading of the pixels, wasn’t the backlight in some of these readers meant to delay the formation of cataracts? Despite this, my heart rebels. Is there a strange value in physical weight? (What would the pundits of fashion say?).

I am not allergic to technology. At one point in time in my life I actually studied code (I know – it went the same way as Law School – that is for another day). I am fond of Apple products. I enjoy my HP laptop – bulky and old it has brought me great comfort. I play Candy Crush, and Candy Crush Soda. I blog. I have enjoyed my Moleskin notebooks as well as my Notes app on my iPhone – then why indeed does my heart ache just that bit more when it comes to ERs? And here is the epiphany I came to this morning while dusting my shelves – Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter jutted out – it was a book that belonged to my grandfather, later to my aunt, and then it came to me as I studied Literatures in English. Sons and Lovers, Mill on the Floss, Wuthering Heights, Complete Works of Saki, that old withered copy of Treasure Island that belonged to Purab when he was a wee lad, thumbed down and stained. And, as I touch their spines I feel connected. Odd that connectivity is enabled by technology yet these placid pages are not connected to any hyper networks, or are they? These books had lives, and were part of the lives of people I no longer have with me and of time that has passed.

I remind myself – besides – and not against. How many more shelves will I build? Roughly each wall in my house is either covered in bookshelves or relevant art. Will I be the last generation to appreciate the physical nature of the textbook? I run my fingers on Bambi’s Mercy Watson books, how he loves them, how he pours over his Grapes of Math – like I did – over Grapes of Wrath. I would hope not. But who knows – I am human – and only time holds answers. The knot remains so. As our receptionist shares with me an old volume of the photographs of the American Civil War, I appreciate what I have now – the cusp at which I find myself. Here and there. I gravitate towards that balance I need to find between my nurtured uneasiness and the organic path of publication evolution. Wish me luck.

Though it is not a binary opposition – for more information: click here

Edited to add: With the new billing options turns out Amazon will not allow me to buy certain e-books. I found the June Jordan collection of poems Directed by Desire on Google Play. Just for 7-euros, that too. Looks like using the computer via apps might give me the multi-platform flexibility I need. If you have any ideas / suggestions on this please email me or add to the comments section.