Passing for Human is a graphic novel by New Yorker cartoonist Liana Fink. It is a sort-of memoir of Fink’s life, a sort-of study of her matrilineal line, a sort-of consideration of what it means to be female and what it means to be an artist.
The central concept is that women are born with a shadow, but somewhere in the course of their childhoods their shadow goes away. It’s a loss of innocence, but also a loss of hope. Whether through death, assault, or economic realities, the women in Passing for Human have to abandon their childhood dreams and opt for a compromised life.
There’s something nice about how the shadow metaphor is reminiscent of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. And it’s helpful that Fink can draw two-way conversations between women and their shadows, rather than thought-bubbles of existential doubt. The other great literary device that Fink conjures is to name all chapters Chapter 1. It’s a way of questioning the narrator and forcing the reader to consider the veracity of the story (and any story). It’s a way of demonstrating Fink’s own sense of confusion, as she tries to write Passing for Human without the aid of her shadow. Without the confidence of her youthful artistic voice.
“Everyone has a shadow. But not everyone’s shadow can move, and talk and think on its own.
My mom had always known she had a living shadow. The shadow was precious to her, and because of this, she never showed it to anyone.
The shadow knew my mom better than my mom knew herself.
It helped her choose books to read, and read them with her.
In high school, it had nudged her towards the people she could learn from…
And away from those who wished her harm.”
I haven’t read enough graphic novels to draw any great comparisons, but I like that Fink incorporates herself, as author, at the drawing table, in the same way Art Spiegelman does in Maus. Grappling with the best way to tell a sensitive story. Throwing out pages after we’ve read them. In Spiegleman’s case it was the Holocaust. In Fink’s case it’s her family’s stories, spun into fable.
Fink’s drawing is loose and simple, and her book’s message is similarly open-ended. There’s no great moral, no finely-detailed perfectly-coloured interpretation. There’s room for the reader to think.