Following a chance meeting at the Frankfurt Bookfair this October, we were lucky enough to get the opportunity to speak to Amsterdam-based German Graphic Novelist Beldan Sezen in advance of the UK publication of her new title Snapshots of a Girl. Conversation about comics soon broadened to discussion of the the problem with the western narrative of ‘coming out,’ the film industry and the joy of being able to laugh at oneself.
A great moment in the book is when you decide to be a graphic novelist. There isn’t much discussion there of the process between deciding that and then having Snapshots of a Girl published. Could you talk a bit about what came between?
I left that part out of the book because it didn’t serve the story. I decided to become a graphic novelist, very dramatically, during New Year’s eve in 1999 (yes, into the New Millennium with a life altering decision), when I spent the evening trying to tell a story by pictures.
I got extremely frustrated that I couldn’t get the drawings ‘right’, so I grabbed the phone book to see if there’re any drawing classes I could attend. I found something called the Cartoon School, a two years education with a weekly evening class and applied. From there I was lucky to get an internship with an animation studio here in Amsterdam, Lawson and Whatshisname, run by Greg Lawson, who’s talent was to know how to tell a story!
The difference for me between animation and cartooning basically is I’m making a film on paper. In all that time I was busy letting all kind of artistic out puts have their ways. I’m mostly self-taught, meaning learning by doing. I did drawings on canvas and paper which led to exhibitions and publications in magazines, developed my love for film editing, since this too, is all about telling a story in motion, found my ‘alter ego’, a cartoon named Miss Egg, which allowed me to comment on happenings around me and, finally, came across a call for a comic book competition, which led to my first comic book Zakkum – A Graphic Murder Mystery. It took me five years to finish it because, again, I learnt by doing and did it ‘on the side’ in my spare time, in between my three supporting jobs as a freelancer. Zakkum was first exhibited as an installation in a museum space in 2009 and then published in 2011 by Treehouse Press. It was Shaun Levin who so generously offered me the publication after I won their 3-in-1 chapbook contest. And all of a sudden I was a published graphic novelist. And then, in 2010 during a Comic Jam in Beirut I met Federico Zaghis and Guido Ostanel of BeccoGiallo, who dared me to write a graphic novel about my life. My first reaction was “no” and three years later there was Snapshots of a Girl, which was first published in Italian by BeccoGiallo as Sulla Mia Pelle. In those three years two more stories wanted to be told, so I did #Gezi Park during the summer of 2013 and a short story which got accepted into an Italian anthology.
Could you talk about the development of your style? You don’t use traditional comics panels but instead use looser, more irregular amalgamations of words and pictures. Where does that come from?
I work within a very intuitive approach. My main desire is to serve the story that wants to be told and from there I see how it lays out on the page. Movement and composition are important from me, and I’m interested in exploring the use of frames. Frames are more to me than just a border for a drawing. They are an equal part of the tools depicting the story. My influences are Charles M. Schultz for expressing things with just “two dots and a line”, for composition and timing definitely the works of Chris Ware and Bill Watterson. Joe Sacco in regards of comic journalism.* Also, I guess filmmaking had quite some influence in how I work. I videograph dance performances, to think in motion and edit the story visually is somewhat key for me. When I was growing up, the mainstream industry was dominated by male cartoonists. It’s cool.. just that I’m really happy that by now there are more and more (how ever identified) women graphic novelist, agents, societies,…, standing their ground.
*Read Turnaround’s musings on why comics by men are more likely to be classed as ‘journalism’, while comics by women are more often called ‘autobiography’ here.
Moving from form to content, could you talk a bit about the idea of the ‘coming out’ narrative. You speak in the book about your resentment of having to – i.e it’s only a hurdle you have to face because people assume you are straight in the first place. Thinking of media, books and popular culture, what coming out stories did you read?
Not many, then again.. it was the 70s and 80s… When growing up there were those moments in tv-series that had a “lesbian”-issue. Never sex or real engagement but almost always a problem. Like in Hillstreet Blues or Family (with said Kristy McNichols). Tiny moment’s of recognition in the popular media culture. Later books, yes, like Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown and Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling of my Name. And of course, all those crime and mystery novels, just to read something about a somewhat normal lesbian personage and relationships, murder aside. The murder or crime hardly ever mattered. Luckily there was the strong feminist, radical non-mainstream culture, and movies by Ulrike Ottinger, movies like Flaming Ears and Born in Flames. My favourite comic was Hothead Paisan by Diana DiMassa! Still today she is one of my favourites; for her humour and outspokenness, for daring to change the perspective and for showing me a world I truly could connect with.
Coming-out stories that were and still are missing are those from people who don’t fit the female/male binary in any way. This includes the point of view of non-mainstream lesbians. Although this is covered in comics like Pregnant Butch and in Jennifer Camper’s work (Rude Girls, Dangerous Women and Jucy Mother), it is overall underrepresented.
As for what of my experiences were spoken about before, I should definitely mention Alison Bechdel’s work, Dykes to Watch Out For and her later graphic novels Fun Home and Are You My Mother. She made me feel at home by visualising the awkwardness of dating (through her character ‘Mo’) and reclaiming sexuality (through her character ‘Lois’), building communities and families that were different yet possible. She also spoke about the importance of women bookshops which ‘back in the day’ were so much more than just a place to buy a book.
Your publisher is Arsenal Pulp Press – could you talk about what you like about them, and about any other books published by them that you think are important?
I met Brian and Robert from Arsenal Pulp Press at Frankfurt this year and it was just lovely. I like that they take risks in publishing titles that might be a bit daring and not necessarily predictable successes. It’s a cool feeling to see my book standing next to Blue is the Warmest Color and to know that they’ve published Queer anthologies which also included Shaun Levin’s work.
There’s a real sense of humour in your book, which I enjoyed. Can you talk about what being able to laugh about your experiences means to you?
Laughing about my experiences, about myself and the situations I find myself in, is like dancing at my own party. And since I like to dance and since it’s my party, I’d like readers to join in and enjoy the dancing.
Thank you Beldan!
You can buy a copy of Snapshots of a Girl on the Turnaround website or at any good comics shop. On this Saturday, 21st November, Beldan will be signing at Orbital comics. She welcomes you to join her there.
Post by Clara