The Arty Semite

Graphic Novelist Returns to Berlin

By Michael Kaminer

  • Print
  • Share Share

Miriam Katin appears naked in one panel of “Letting It Go,” her new graphic memoir about coming to terms with her past as a Holocaust survivor. But the rest of this novel-length confessional comic is even more revealing.

Her first full-length work since 2006’s award-winning Holocaust memoir “We Are On Our Own,” “Letting It Go” chronicles Katin’s emotionally charged visit to Berlin after her son and his girlfriend relocate there. Katin’s fury over the move mellows to resignation, and finally acceptance, though her emotions surrounding her own history remain ambiguous. The book spares no one, least of all Katin, who unflinchingly depicts her self-doubt, angst, and bodily functions. Her cartooning style is masterful, maintaining classical elements while subverting genre conventions into a singular work that’s fluid, vibrant, and potent. It’s also hilariously funny.

Katin’s work is part of the exhibit “Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women,” which I co-curated and which the Forward is sponsoring. The traveling exhibit will open at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach in October. Katin spoke to The Arty Semite from her home in New York.

Michael Kaminer: “We Are On Our Own” was published in 2006. Why so long between books?

Miriam Katin: I guess first it was exhaustion. I was ready for a next project and then I allowed time to pass, luxuriating in smaller commissions. Enjoying some of the recognition that was a total surprise.

Also at that time we had to take up the care of my mother-in-law and I was glad that I had no great deadlines.

The book is called “Letting It Go,” but there isn’t a cathartic moment when you let anything go. Can you explain?

Oh yes, this is a question that is coming up all the time. They ask me pointedly: “Sooo???”

And I am very quiet and taking my time in saying, well, no. It looks like I should let go but it is just a valiant try, or perhaps a quest, and surely a way to go on living with this reality.

There is a getting-used-to factor and sort of making the experience of Berlin and Germany an ordinary everyday thing. Bringing it down to just “life here, life there.” Working the survival instinct. That’s me.

What’s your thought process when you’re deciding whether to depict certain scenes — like the diarrhea incident at the Berlin hotel? Do you ever think, “This is too much, I have to tone it down or leave it out”?

I take courage from other women artists — the audacity of Lynda Barry, Phoebe Gloeckner, Diane Noomin and of course Alison Bechdel. Not for a moment I thought to leave that scene out because the very drama of it in my life that night, I believe, gave it power.

Yes, my husband went ” Oh. How can you? ” And that’s the point.

You’re quite merciless on yourself in the book; everyone else makes it sound like you’re overreacting to your son’s move to Berlin, including your mother. Is that how it all played out?

Yes. It was like an ultimate revenge of Hitler on me. I did not exaggerate any of it.

Was the process of writing the book, in fact, a letting-go?

Well, I had to deal with it somehow, so any other plan was immediately dropped away. From the time in 2009 when we decided to take a trip that included Berlin, for only a few days, my brain was writing and drawing. What else was there to do? Our friends insisted that I will fall in love with Berlin but nobody had the burden that I had. Would I let go? I didn’t know.

I just went into the process of recording, drawing, writing, taking every picture with the plan of maybe using it.

How did your husband and son feel about their portrayals in the book?

My husband Geoff — a great man. Well, he sort of understood it, did not quite agree with my problem but I guess he humored it. My son acted kind of puzzled but tried to understand. After all he knew the background. The portrayal? They are ok with it.

What does a graphic memoir offer you, as an author and artist, that a conventional autobiography would not?

I guess I am an artist of sorts. An illustrator, I hoped. These stories of my family were like a running narrative in my mind through my life. An unwanted, uninvited presence.

They begged to be told. But I am not a writer. And I thought, who needs another Holocaust book anyway?

Then when I first discovered the comic medium I thought that with drawing and some writing I can tell my story.

Even though the book is about coming to terms with your past, there are no flashbacks to your experiences. Why is that?

This book was created in “real time.” I was creating it while it was going on. The past is my first book. This one will not make much sense without reading the first one.

What’s next for you?

Ambient Pleasures. No kidding. I hope.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Miriam Katin, Michael Kaminer, Graphic Novels, Comics, Books

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.