In Passing for Human, Liana Finck’s achingly beautiful graphic memoir, she goes in search of that thing she has lost—her shadow, she calls it, but one might also think of it as the “otherness” or “strangeness” that has defined her since birth, that part of her that has always made her feel as though she is living in exile from the world. Finck is on a quest for self-understanding and self-acceptance, and along the way she seeks to answer some eternal questions: What makes us whole? What parts of ourselves do we hide or ignore or chase away—because they’re embarrassing, or inconvenient, or just plain weird—and at what cost.
Recently, Liana spoke with Read It Forward’s Jesse Aylen, the conversation ranging on everything from what art can mean for women to why illustration is an empowering, enduring way to tell our stories.
READ IT FORWARD: From reading Passing for Human, it’s clear that you come from this dynamic, very creative family. How has your upbringing and your family’s art shaped your own development as an illustrator?
LIANA FINCK: I want to say come from a half creative family. One of my very favorite books is Howard’s End by E.M Forster, which is about these two families. One is this very artsy, intellectual English family that has roots in Germany and they love the opera and arguing about politics. The other family is this new money British family who like watching horse races and investing. My family was like that, where my dad is this very cut and dried doctor, his family prides itself on its lack of sentimentality and on being WASPy even though we were Jewish. They love to talk a little bit about the weather and not about anything else.
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My mom’s family is this loud, intellectual bird-like family. My mom fell in love with my dad. She left her life of city things and her career as an architect to live with him in the country. She thought his uprightness and beauty were the real thing, what artists strive for. She dedicated her life to him, and built him this beautiful modernist house under a mountain and gave him two kids. It’s a book about what is art? Especially for women, does it have to be tied to a speedy city life and a career, or can it be more private, strange, and unknown? I grew up in a place where there wasn’t a ton of art, but in our little bubble of a family, my mom reinvented the art world and told me all these stories.
RIF: How did you decide to write your memoir?
LF: In a really stupid way. I just desperately wanted to work on something. And when I started this book, I was at the very beginning of my career and I didn’t have editors interested in working with me. The easiest thing to do when you’re in that place is to make a book, because you don’t need feedback and you don’t need someone to sign off on it.
I can make cartoons because every time you make a cartoon, you have to go looking for someone to publish it, but you can work on a book for five years and then go looking for someone to publish it. The subject of the book wasn’t important to me at first, and it went through many different phases. It started as an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. It became fiction, and eventually I edited it until only memoir was left, which I think is probably at the heart of everything anyway.
RIF: What was the writing process like? Did you find it challenging?
LF: I really enjoy thinking, and exploring, and coming up with ideas. What I don’t love is trying to make something presentable, which is a real feat. When you’re a graphic novelist, I think that’s 95% of the work. I wish I hadn’t jumped into trying to make things presentable the second I had an idea. I wish I had spent time enjoying coming up with ideas and because of that I started the book a million times and kept failing. This book is told in a series of chapter ones and each of those were chapter ones of unfinished books.
RIF: It seems like every artist has their own individual style that reflects their taste. I’d be curious to hear how you came into yours, and if there are artists who have inspired you?
LF: Yeah, my style is very simple. I draw in a thin pen. It is also very proletarian. I draw on printer paper, I work very fast. I don’t like beautifying things, I try to be really efficient.
RIF: Not too precious, suffering over every line.
LF: That’s reactionary. It comes from having been more precious and having felt like drawing anything for the public was a test where if you don’t get it perfectly, the public won’t want it. I had terrible writer’s block when I was starting to become a graphic novelist. It was probably depression from the age of 13 till 25, when I shifted from being a kid who draws to being a person who wants to make a career as an artist.
I think my real talent is for showing emotion and all of that was lost when I overworked things. When I was 27 or so, I decided I needed to be quick and I didn’t let myself labor over things, and I think that coincided with starting to sell more cartoons to the New Yorker. It came from confidence and it suits me. I wonder if I might relax a bit and be a little more playful with details in the future. My favorite artists are the ones who influenced me the most, probably Saul Steinberg and Roz Chast.
RIF: I also wanted to talk about the concept of the shadow in your book. It’s about finding one, losing one, about learning from one. It’s such a lynchpin point for the journey and I’d love to hear how you settled on the idea and what it was inspired by. Is it from creation myths or other cultures?
LF: It’s definitely deeply from other things. I think Peter Pan played into it and Carl Jung played into it, and Isak Dinesen has a bunch of stories about this opera singer named Pellegrino Leoni. It’s a bit anti-Semitic if I remember correctly, but her shadow keeps following her around and she can’t escape him.
I made so many different starts of this book, and one which became the third chapter started out as prose. I was fed up with drawing and I thought, “Okay, I’m going to make a prose memoir.” I wrote this first chapter that’s pretty close to the text that ended up in the book, and I remember writing a punchline cliffhanger, where I find out that I’ve lost my shadow and it made the chapter work. I think a lot of this book came from poetic turns of phrase that later became plot.
RIF: Speaking to that cyclical aspect, how did you get there as a device? It’s such an interesting facet; you learn different things about yourself, but also about your family and about your shadow.
LF: The way this story is told is that I start it and it says chapter one and then the chapter progresses, and there was a point at which I realize that I’m not telling the right story. You see me at my desk ripping up what I’ve made and then it shows me again sitting at the desk and I start writing and it says, “Passing for Human: Chapter One.” I just kept thinking one of these chapters is going to turn into a whole book.
RIF: And be a launching point for the rest of it.
LF: I also thought all this work I’m doing is good, and I want it in the book, I just don’t see how it can turn into a whole book. I’m naturally a short story teller and not a novel writer, and I was getting around that. A lot of people who make novels maybe would prefer to do shorter things, but there is incentive to work on a novel just because that’s what books are these days, or a memoir.
But I had the idea to use it as a device, and I think I was under pressure. I thought I really need to find an agent and a publisher and publish this. And I think it was just laziness which I was avoiding. I often avoid laziness because I’m very well-meaning and hardworking and upstanding like my dad, but when I’m forced to be lazy is when I come up with actually good ideas.
RIF: I want to talk a little bit about one of the most unique sections, when you actively switch from this standard white paper/black ink style to the reverse, and you tell the shadow narratives through black backgrounds with white ink stylings. What made it imperative to tell the shadows’ stories and to do it in such an intriguing way?
LF: Thanks. That’s the last chapter, also totally the laziest chapter. It’s so easy to do that. You flip it in Photoshop. I really drew it in black pen and white paper like the rest, and it’s actually a much faster drawing style and looser storytelling style than the rest. I think that’s the real me, and that’s why it’s the last chapter. It really was the last chapter I worked on, and as I worked, I gained confidence, labored less, and had more fun.
RIF: It definitely shows in the read. Your previous book, A Bintel Brief, looked at a piece of the immigrant experience and Passing for Human takes an introspective turn. What is it about illustration that makes it an impactful way to tell these kinds of stories?
LF: I think comics are such a tragic form actually. It’s so weird. Why do you need both words and pictures? It’s clunky, but I think we comics artists do it because we know that pictures are the ultimate way of telling stories. That’s the first way we told recorded stories as cave people. And that’s really what words are. Words really are pictures and this is so utopian, but I think I’m striving for a really simple way to tell stories with pictures.
RIF: You also have rats that come up on your shoulders in the book.
LF: They were dinosaurs at some point. I changed it at the last minute.
RIF: How did you decide to use rats? Usually, it’s this angel-devil dichotomy.
LF: That started as words, I just wrote ‘the fears that gnaw.’ I write on autopilot, in a kind of dream state. When you write a graphic novel ideally you have ideas, and then you illustrate them and there is not a lot of subconscious that plays into it.
Anyway, those just started as this really drifty idea that just fell into the book, same as the shadow. And I thought, “oh my gosh, fears that gnaw. How would I draw those? It just sounds like rats. It should be rats.” When they became dinosaurs, it was me overthinking it and being like, “Oh the lizard brain.”
RIF: Fears that roar. Looking at other graphic memoirs or memoirs in general, are there authors or titles you think people should be reading?
LF: Oh my goodness. Gabrielle Bell, everything she’s written. I’ve been obsessed with Tyler Roberts lately, she does memoir comics also. I’m obsessed with Jillian Tamacki, Eleanor Davis, Ariel Schrag, Lauren Weinstein, Josh Bayer.
I just discovered Posy Simmonds, who’s an English writer, and Ruby Elliott, also English. There is a re-release of a Saul Steinberg book that’s integral, The Labyrinth, it’s re-released by New York Review of Books. Oh, I love these people.
RIF: How do you find them?
LF: It’s mostly finding a publisher I love. I love these indie publishers; Koyama Press, and NYRB Comics, and I trust them. It’s also from having friends and going to comics conventions. What I love about the comics world is it’s so small and so democratic, and you can be really brilliant and not make a lot of money and not be well known and that’s just the purest art.
RIF: Do you have any hope for what people will take away after they read Passing for Human?
LF: I don’t even know if I want it to be a good book. It feels really important to me, like I got something out that was important, but if it is a good book and if people do take something away from it, I want them to take away the same nostalgic feeling that I get from reading a book, that childhood is so precious and it’s gone now. Also, some feminist rage, this book comes from a place of that, but it doesn’t embody it so much.