The Art of Storytelling: A Conversation with Lila Quintero Weaver
In 1961 at age five, Lila Quintero Weaver immigrated to the United States from Argentina with her family. A lifelong artist, she is now a recent author; the graphic novel, Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White (U of Alabama P, 2012), is her first publication. In this autobiographical narrative, the author-illustrator recounts the Quinteros’ immigration journey and the racial turmoil they witnessed in 1960s Alabama. A review of Darkroom, co-authored by Janis Breckenridge and Madelyn Peterson, appears in the July 2013 edition of CiberLetras.
Janis Breckenridge, Associate Professor and Chair of the Spanish Department at Whitman College and co-editor of Pushing the Boundaries of Latin American Testimony: Meta-morphoses and Migrations, specializes in literary and visual testimony, cultural representations of human rights and graphic novels/comics.
J.B: Lila, thank you so much for talking with me about your recently published testimonial narrative, which you have presented in the form of a graphic novel. Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White is a coming-of-age story that tells two distinct but interrelated tales: that of an immigrant child’s efforts to come to terms with her cultural identity and her evolving perceptions and understanding of the Civil Rights movement. In fact, one could say that the book’s structure shifts to reflect the protagonist’s expanding worldview, with the familial story slowly dissolving into the historical content of racial conflict. Can you tell us more about the way in which you braid these two stories in your graphic memoir?
L.Q: Janis, thank you for your deep interest in my work. I love nothing better than a good conversation.
The timing of our arrival in Alabama put current events at our backdoor. It’s what I lived and witnessed and felt should be central in this memoir because it has the strongest ongoing repercussions in my immediate culture. The secondary story is my immigrant experience, which gave me an outsider’s perspective and informed my evolving worldview. Had my family settled in another region of the country, who knows which themes would have presented themselves?
I have always puzzled over why racial upheaval made a deeper impression on me than it did on many others who stood equally close to the fire. I still don’t know the answer, but I can hazard a guess. I came with outsider’s eyes and had just the right temperament to be riveted by what I saw. I kept looking. It’s why I have a story. What was happening around me was much bigger than any individual and sometimes my narrative takes a birds-eye view with little Lila nowhere in the frame. I don’t mind disappearing; and even when I do, the reader is still seeing my world through my eyes because I’m the curator of the images.
J.B: What would you say is the effect of focalizing this tense historical period from a child’s curious but not fully cognizant perspective? And, why did you choose to also include the voice of an adult narrator who maintains a more mature understanding of the racial tensions in which she grew up?
L.Q: To the first part of your question: it seemed critical to include the sense of horror I felt when I witnessed blatant segregation. Part of my horror was at the nonchalance of white people towards these same things—adult white people! How could a young kid see what adults appeared to blindly ignore? That was one of my questions going into the memoir.
Concerning voice: Finding the right tone was no easy trick. I had to ask myself: If I write in a naive voice suitable to a five-year-old, what happens as the character ages? Also, I wanted to include episodes that I didn’t witness and didn’t recall hearing about during childhood, such as my parents’ experiences in the Deep South prior to the dismantling of Jim Crow. It would have felt dishonest to portray those stories from a child’s point of view because I wasn’t there. The same thing can be said about the violent events that occurred in Marion. I began my approach with a vague recollection of my father’s account. It took quite a bit of research for me to discover the fuller story. In other words, my understanding of what happened came too late for me to couch it in childlike terms. In a way, the drawings carry the child’s eye and the text delivers the adult voice, although that’s not uniform throughout the book.
J.B: Let’s go ahead and talk more about the visual imagery. Darkroom displays an impressive variety of visual techniques and page layouts. I am particularly interested in the ways that you visually depict race and ethnicity as well as the powerful interaction of text and image to represent bigotry and racism. How did you take advantage of the graphic medium to denote racial difference and condemn prejudice?
L.Q: Racism is such a layered thing. Its superficial aspects are easy to portray in scenes, and this worked well enough for recounting episodes and settings. But then there’s a subterranean network of unwritten social rules that defies depiction.
Let’s begin with how whites ascribed racial identity for everyone else in southern society. I grew up observing this practice and wanted to explain the insidiousness and absurdity behind it. The best vehicles I could find were metaphor and diagram. Categorizing people by skin tones is chasing after the indefinable. One way to make this visible is through a spectrum between absolute black and absolute white. The gradations are infinite. There’s also the one-drop rule, which I decided to take it to its literal absurdity through an ink dropper and a glass of milk.
For balance, I wanted to show that a version of this racial caste-making occurs in South America too, but with a narrower spectrum, where the range of hues runs between cream and brown. This became more personal when I discovered my father’s ID booklet and saw that he’d been assigned to the lower caste of “trigueño,” so of course the booklet made my point in concrete fashion.
When you speak of “interaction of text and image,” my mind goes straight to the spread depicting the literacy test. I wanted to show a black voter applicant struggling through the test and simultaneously provide a glimpse of the test questions.
Sometimes actual newspaper pages gave me stark textual imagery that needed no additional manipulation. One drawing shows the front page of The Birmingham News. On it is a headline with a photo of a burning bus. This was coverage of the Freedom Riders, who passed through Birmingham six weeks after I arrived in the United States. I didn’t have a close connection to that event, but it was one of many horrors going on during those years.
Incidentally, on the back page of that same newspaper, there’s a smaller article about a white couple being taken to the woods by vigilantes who stripped and flogged them. Their crime? They socialized with black people. I doubt many readers of Darkroom have noticed that article, but like the front page, it’s a replication of what was printed in that issue.
J.B: Speaking of skin tones and the spectrum of black to white – I was struck, as a reader, with how young Lila’s non-whiteness helps her to see racial injustice; yet her non-blackness, inclusion in white society, and childhood innocence seem to protect her from ethnic prejudice aimed at herself as an immigrant. That is, she describes her Latin American heritage and features merely as a rarity for Southerners… although she clearly suffers consequences for socializing with black people.
L.Q: Recently while I was giving a book talk, an African American in the audience said to me, “You were a fly on the wall.” In another setting, someone remarked that I “had no dog in that fight.” It may be true that I arrived in the South with no preconceived notions—since I was too young to have them—but a five-year-old is capable of detecting cruelty and disdain. It didn’t take me long to choose sides.
My family landed here when there was no built-in bigotry against Spanish-speakers. We were mostly regarded as objects of curiosity. But if we’d been more notably “other” in our skin tone or features, I have no doubt that the reception would’ve been less welcoming. Unfortunately, suspicion of outsiders is widespread in today’s South. You’re probably aware that in 2011 Alabama enacted one of the nation’s harshest sets of laws aimed at immigrants. The bed of resentment towards Latinos is well established now. I may be exempt from the hostility because I’m white enough, speak English fluently and am protected by U.S. citizenship, but my prejudice meter gets tripped on a regular basis by the reactions and comments of many Alabamians.
J.B: You mentioned the
two-page layout in Darkroom that reproduces the voter literacy test. I
assume you have seen a posting that is getting a lot of shares on Facebook
recently following the Supreme Court’s decision on the Civil Rights Act, one
that similarly makes available just such an impossible exam? Voter suppression
is clearly a topic of national debate at the moment.
I am also intrigued by another set of two-page layouts in Darkroom, those that reproduce an elementary school textbook titled Know Alabama. In many ways, including such documents within the graphic text works to ground the young protagonist’s personal impressions and observations into their historical and cultural contexts. The father’s photographic documentation also lends an adult’s more authoritative perspective to the story.
L.Q: Yes, I’ve seen the literacy test from Louisiana. It’s maddening proof of how desperately the Voting Rights Act was needed.
The page spreads from Know Alabama have brought some of my strongest reader reactions. People of my generation—and older—recall the actual textbook from their own elementary years. It’s nice when these folks speak up at author events. I’ve also encountered readers that didn’t live in the South or are too young to remember those times and they’re often shocked by the textbook in a way that other, more familiar elements of the Jim Crow era no longer hold the power to do.
I wanted to include these documents because they render certain pervasive attitudes of the era concrete. The textbook demonstrates how sanctified this romanticized version of the Old South was, with its absurd spin on happy slaves. It’s a frozen slice of what passed for scholarship and education then. In fact, one of the authors of the textbook was the head of the history department at the University of Alabama. Know Alabama was revised in subsequent editions, but these attitudes are far from gone. The Old South still has legions of defenders who glorify the suffering of white southerners during Reconstruction while minimizing the suffering of slaves.
A similar rewriting of history has occurred with respect to the events of 1965. I offered the literacy test as one proof of voter suppression. But I’m still hearing refutations, some filtered and second-hand, some straightforward. For example, there are current and former residents of Marion who still want to blame Jimmie Lee Jackson for provoking the state trooper into shooting him.
It angers me that sympathies fall so predictably along racial lines. While I was putting the book together, my anger about current attitudes alerted me to the possibility that I too could be guilty of twisting history. I was concerned about presenting a grossly one-sided picture of things, so I needed these anchors, as you put it, for my own memory retrieval and to test my biases on the subject. Again and again, documentation from the era jolted me back to the realization that things truly were every bit as heinous as I recall them.
J.B: To that end, a thematic thread appears throughout Darkroom related to the act of seeing and seeing clearly: optometry exams, and more specifically, vision charts. At the same time, the child begins to draw well when she refuses to strictly adhere to the ideal proportions of the human figure she has been taught and instead provides more realistic representations of individual people – in other words, she begins to draw what she actually sees. There’s a strong connection between the child as witness and the child as young artist.
L.Q: The fact that I’m extremely nearsighted and that my father took up photography as a sideline coincided nicely for the sake of visual themes. After all, the human eye is a model for the camera, each being an apparatus that receives lights and produces images.
I saw so many possibilities in the parallel metaphors of impaired and corrected sight running alongside visual media, including eye charts as elements of design, but also in home movies, cinematic movies, newspapers and the role of photographic documentation in the Civil Rights movement. All of these supply not only commentary on society and my evolving ability to see and reproduce what I saw through drawing, but they also contribute arresting elements of design that appeal to my artist’s eye. And many of them echo the black-and-white motif.
I pulled in the ideal proportions of the human figure to propose another parallel. The student artist is being taught to produce idealized figures, not humans as they actually look. We’re familiar with this ongoing form of blindness in how women are depicted in advertising and other media, but it also resonated for me as a Latina in the 1960s who never saw herself among fashion models and rarely on the movie screen. Nobody used the words “ideal woman” when referring to the pale-skinned, blond and svelte Elke Sommer and other Hollywood idols of the day, but the message came across.
J.B: I found the inclusion of visual echoes or reprises throughout Darkroom to be particularly impactful. The technique of repeating images—such as the close up of Lila’s eyes and particular events she remembers seeing of segregation—not only functions to visualize the protagonist’s memory and process of understanding but also triggers the reader’s active participation in the act of remembering; by having seen these images before, we too become witnesses to segregation and racism.
L.Q: I didn’t want to pound readers over the head with “remember this?” I hoped that by reintroducing certain images, they would follow my personal evolution. Good design often echoes itself. You hear it in music. You read it in novels. Something that is established at the beginning comes back around at perhaps a different angle or in a variation that carries fuller meaning the second or third time around.
J.B: Let’s talk for a minute about the use of the language in the book. Despite the importance of the family’s immigrant identity, there is only minimal use of Spanish in the text. When it does appear it is in the form of relatively simple sentences that are rather directly tied to the visual images—comments in the grocery store regarding food items for example. How did you decide when to use Spanish and what led you to include translations too?
L.Q: Decisions about language were tricky. Spanish was my parents’ default language at home and with family members. To authentically reproduce their dialogue would have required copious amounts of bilingual text, resulting in clutter and confusion.
One alternative was to use English exclusively and by some means signify when it stood in for Spanish. Jessica Abel does this in her graphic novel, La Perdida. She places arrow brackets around translated dialogue, but it takes a special note to readers to explain her approach. I preferred taking a simpler route, reverting to Spanish when language use was the point of the scene and otherwise sprinkling in phrases to retain the flavor of my bilingual background. When I translated trivial bits of Spanish, such as the grocery list, I was probably acting out of an impulse honed in childhood: that it’s rude to leave anyone out of the conversation. Another point of consideration for how much Spanish to include was the state of my fluency. I understand nearly all spoken and written Spanish and speak well enough to get by, but committing words to print is another matter.
If Darkroom were primarily about the immigrant experience, I would have put more emphasis on language use, bilingualism, and language as the common ground between diverse Hispanic communities. The case would have been stronger for devoting more text to Spanish.
J.B: Although Darkroom was published just within the past year it has already appeared in French translation. I notice that there are significant differences in the cover art between these two versions. The original text features a nearly full-page sketch mapping Lila’s flight from Argentina to the U.S., pointing to the foundational role of the family’s immigrant status. In contrast, the cover of Mémoires en noirs et blancs showcases a stark tale of social injustice, systematic oppression and racialized violence.
L.Q: In the cover for the U.S. edition, my family’s immigration is rightfully depicted as the backdrop for everything that followed. Luckily, I was allowed a strong voice in the final design—a favor not usually granted to authors—and I felt the cover should give equal weight to the book’s themes, immigration and race.
The French publisher took a different tack. They preserved the interior layout of pages, but redesigned the cover based on their perception of French readers’ interests, more toward the Civil Rights aspects of my story.
J.B: And that brings me to the question of audience. Darkroom has been received as a text aimed at young adults. Was this your original intention? How would you describe your ideal reader or target audience?
L.Q: I didn’t purposefully target young audiences. But this goes hand-in-hand with the graphic novel. Fans of the genre, no matter their age, know to find graphic novels in young-adult sections of most public libraries. Even so, since I have no super heroes or cool Manga protagonists in my book, it came as a surprise to learn that kids as young as the seventh grade were reading it.
My ideal reader is someone of any age deeply interested in art forms that explore American culture and history. During the writing, I visualized this reader as occupying a narrow segment of the population, but my expectations were shattered as soon as I started meeting readers. For example, I discovered that although many older people are unfamiliar with graphic novels as a genre, they have been willing to give mine a try. I believe that this is because personal accounts of the Civil Rights movement continue to resonate and my book strikes them as coming from a fresh point of view and with an entertaining approach.
J.B: To conclude our conversation, would you be willing to provide a sneak preview of your current works in progress and your future publication plans or dreams?
L.Q: At this writing, I’m entering the fifth draft of an illustrated middle-grade novel. It’s my first serious attempt at long-form fiction and I’m lucky to have a mentor along for the journey. If my first idea doesn’t pan out, I have a few more stories in the queue.
I also have deep interest in several nonfiction topics that I might ultimately develop into comics form or some other visual expression. They almost all gravitate toward capturing the voices of marginalized populations, especially the elderly, the poor, and ethnic minorities.
You ask about dreams. My greatest area of unfinished business is the study of Spanish. I’d like to achieve something close to fluency, not an easy task at my age and in a setting where formal Spanish instruction is mostly targeted at beginners. But my father taught himself to read and went on to study dozens of foreign languages and other areas of scholarship. He devised his own learning methods and sought out books and other resources through old-fashioned, pre-Internet research. He was driven by wonder and curiosity. I’m claiming those traits as my own.
J.B: Lila, thank you so much for sharing your thoughtful remarks with me. I look forward to reading your upcoming works.
L.Q: Janis, it has been a pleasure. This has been a marvelous exchange, thank you again!
Weaver, Lila Quintero. Darkroom: a memoir in black and white. Tuscaloosa, AL: U of Alabama P, 2012. Print.
---. Darkroom: Mémoires en noirs et blancs. Trans. Fanny Soubiran. Paris: Steinkis, 2013. Print.