Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #58: Poppies of Iraq by Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim

France now has a minor tradition of "I grew up in a Middle Eastern country, and got out before it became a hellhole" memoirs in comics form, from Persepolis to The Arab of the Future. It only makes sense, since France was the imperial power across several of those countries, back in the day, and they've taken in a large number of refugees and migrants in recent years.

The most recent of those books to hit US shores is from Brigitte Findakly, noted French colorist and artist. She worked with her husband, Lewis Trondheim, to organize her memories into short vignettes, one page or several long, and then Trondheim drew those pages, some of them originally for a comics app and a newspaper website. Eventually, those pages were long enough for a book -- or maybe the original few pages spurred the book project, or were spun off the already existing book project; it isn't clear -- and so we got Poppies of Iraq.

Findakly and her family got out of Iraq in her teens, in the mid-70s -- before the Iran-Iraq war, long before even the first Desert Shield/Storm. And she's telling a mosaic here, with each story an individual small piece of the life of her and her family. So this is somewhat lighter than those similar books I mentioned above; Findakly had a quirky childhood, and some of her extended family has had horrible things happen after she and her immediate family got out, but it's not a story about bad things happening to her. Instead, Findakly tells vignettes about a childhood in a country slowly sliding into autocracy and Islamism, turning away from Europe and from modernity and towards corruption and the cult of an idealized leader. (Aside from having to replace that word "Islamism," that may describe other countries much closer to home.)

Trondheim is invisible in the story: he's part of Findakly's life, but not the part she's describing here. He doesn't appear in the book at all, though his eye and pen created every line in it. He uses small, doll-like figures here, with big heads, lines for eyes, and no fingers or toes -- simplified people for a story that's anything but simple.

Poppies of Iraq is not a story with a message: it's the story of a life, or of part of a life. Findakly was happy, as she shows us -- as happy as a child with loving parents usually is. But her country was growing worse and worse over those years, and, looking back, she can see how it happened. Again, this is not a story with a message. Findakly has no prescriptions to keep other countries from following the same path, or other, worse ones. She just has her own story to tell, and memories of times happy and sad. That's plenty, though: Poppies of Iraq is a lovely book about an interesting person in an interesting time and place.

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