Thursday, March 30, 2023

It Won't Always Be Like This by Malaka Gharib

If I wanted to be reductive, I could say that the comics memoir comes in two main flavors: childhood and trauma. They're a bit like chocolate and peanut butter, in that they can - and often do - mix, but they can be found separately as well.

It Won't Always Be Like This is a comics memoir, entirely on the childhood side. It's the second book by Malaka Gharib, whose I Was Their American Dream was, I understand, a different memoir of the same childhood.

And what I like about it are the ways it fits comfortably into a clearly-defined genre, telling its story in a lively, accessible style and with a quietly confident and reflective tone. I like that it's a good book of its genre, that it understands what a "comics memoir of childhood" includes, and does all of that in an engaging and open-hearted way.

Genres aren't bad: they tell us important things about the books we might read, not least whether we do want to read them. Won't Always Be is a memoir in comics form of a childhood in the late '90s and early '00s, by a woman of mixed Egyptian/Filipino heritage, focused on her summer visits to her father's new family in Egypt - and it tells that story strongly, in the ways that readers of comics memoirs expect and enjoy, with real insight and depth of meaning.

It opens with Gharib at the age of nine, just arriving in Cairo and being surprised to meet her father's new young wife Hala. Over the next few years, Hala has three children, and Gharib also spends time with cousins closer to her own age. Won't Always Be is a very episodic book, as it has to be - it covers more than a decade, and she's only part of this Egyptian family for a couple of months a year, as a break from her "regular" life back in Los Angeles.

It's more about her relationship with Hala than about her relationship with her father, though, as someone who once spent a summer visiting a workaholic father in a strange hot climate, I sympathized with her attempts to both connect to her father and define herself separately from him. It's a bit about how she fits in with the larger family, but more in the sense of a general growing-up memoir: I'm even more different over here than in my everyday life, so what does that mean about me?

Gharib is the primary focus of her book - it's not quite a "how I grew into the adult I am now," since this is only a small slice of her childhood, but maybe it's a "how this distinctive aspect of my life molded me, without me realizing at the time." The secondary focus, particularly towards the end, is Hala - as Gharib grows up enough to empathize with her, to think about what Hala is doing and feeling, what her life is like.

Gharib draws her story in an energetic, somewhat loose style - I feel like a lot of comics memoirs do something similar, settling into an art style with large open faces and minimally-depicted backgrounds to symbolize childhood. Her lettering is similarly loose and lively, giving the whole thing a personal, conversational tone - the pages don't look rushed, but they look quick, like Gharib is telling this story to us immediately, without filters.

Again, this is a strong example of the comics memoir of childhood, "I lived in this foreign place" subcategory. I think these are often marketed first to younger readers, as models for their own lives or just parallax, but this is an adult book by an adult looking back, so there's no reason to limit it to that audience.

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