Interview with Palestinian Artist and Author Leila Abdelrazaq
When I first reached out to Leila on Instagram, I was nervous. Will she agree to be interviewed by follow the halo? Of course, this is a silly question. But my anxiety is justified - Leila is an award-winning Palestinian author who has been praised by the likes of VICE News and The Electronic Intifada. Leila is also a well-known activist for Palestinian rights in her community - in the United States might I add - one of the most difficult places in the world to be vocal about the issue of Palestine. Naturally, I was excited when I received Leila's Instagram response that yes she would love to be part of the issue. So, without further ado, here is our very special interview with Leila Abdelrazaq, Palestinian artist and graphic novelist extrodinare:
Hi Leila! Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m a Palestinian artist and graphic novelist. I was born in Chicago, and grew up between there and Seoul, South Korea, where my family moved when I was 11. I returned to Chicago and studied Theatre Arts and Arabic Studies at DePaul University in undergrad, but I ended up in comics when I began looking for a creative outlet that would allow me to explore the types of political themes I was interested in (the Theatre School I went to was really white.) Now I live in Detroit, where there is a super amazing burgeoning Arab artist scene actually!
Your graphic novel, “Baddawi” is based on the story of your father’s childhood as a refugee in Lebanon. What was the process of putting a novel like this together?
I started working on Baddawi actually as a webcomic, I was illustrating stories from my dad’s childhood, just anecodtes that he told us repeatedly growing up, as a way to highlight Palestinian refugee stories, because I felt like that narrative was left out of dominant Palestine discourse in the United States. After a while of running the web comic, Just World Books reached out and asked if I would want to make it into a graphic novel. They had never published one, and I had never written one, so I agreed! I then began figuring out how to string together the individual anecdotes into a larger, more coheisive narrative and began intensively researching Lebanese and Palestinian history, especially the history of the Lebanese Civil War.
Your work often centers around themes of history and memory. Can you share why memory is important to you?
Memory is important to me as a Palestinian because of the way that oral histories and narratives of oppressed people are systematically erased. I’m also just interested in the way that memory is inconsistent, impacted by a person’s feelings towards an event or their present political circumstances, changes as it turns into a story that is passed down between generations, and the way that memory, as it exists in the mind, toes the line between reality and imagination. From a creative standpoint, I think there are a lot of interesting things you can do when retelling memories because of all of these layers.
Can you share some of your experience being a Palestinian in diaspora? How do you feel that this experience influenced your work as an artist and as a person?
As a Palestinian in the diaspora, especially often growing up as the only Palestinian in my school or community, I often felt obligated or compelled to speak up about Palestine and educate my peers about our struggle. This impulse definitely was a big motivator for my early work. But now, I’m much less interested in defending my humanity or acting as a token spokesperson to non-Palestinian audiences, and more interested in creating work that will speak more directly to other Palestinians, so that we can have more nuanced and critical conversations about where we’re at and where we want to go as a people.
Are there any challenges you face as a young Palestinian artist in the United States?
Many of the same challenges faced by young WOC artists at large, in addition to dealing with Zionists. A few times I’ve wondered if I’ve been denied opportunities because of my political views. And sometimes I come paranoid that people sympathetic to Palestine are supporting my work only because of my political views, and not because of its merits apart from that. Because of that I really really try to push myself to keep growing as an artist all the time.
What is your advice to young artists in Palestine and the region overall?
Don’t sacrifice your political views or moral sensibilities to appease funders, supporters, etc. Just tell your story, from the heart, and people will (hopefully) see the merits in it. Also, when you start to see success, don’t let that make you complacent—always make sure to keep growing. Make work that you want to make, not for followers or because it tells people what you think they want to hear.
Other than being an award-winning graphic novelist, you’ve recently founded Bigmouth Comix. Can you share more about why you started this project?
Like Baddawi, I began Bigmouth as a blog. I wanted to highlight artists that I admired. I soon expanded to a distro, because I was getting a lot of tabling opportunities that are often denied to other artists like myself (basically, artists who are not professionally trained, who are women of color kind of doing things on our own) simply because I had a book out. I didn’t like the feeling I often got at these shows of being a token voice for what I think a lot of people in the US tend to see as an amorphous mass of brown people. I realized there was room on my table for more than just my own work, and I wanted to use my platform to boost multiple voices and narratives.
Bigmouth Comix is currently asking for submissions that “highlight the need for the cultural and academic boycott of Israel”. Can you share more about what you mean by that and why it’s so important?
The idea for this zine came about during the early stages of the March of Great Return in Gaza. Moroccan comic artist Merieme Mesfioui, who put together HALAL Fanzine, had emailed me saying that we should do something to support the march. I suggested that we put together a zine promoting the cultural boycott of Israel. The idea was that we would sell copies of the zine and use the proceeds to raise money for the March, and also we could use the zine as a platform to talk about the importance of boycott, and especially, as artists, the cultural boycott. Boycott of Israel is broadly called for by Palestinian civil society. It is the very least that people can do—refuse to participate in Israeli apartheid. Artists especially, who consider themselves allies to Palestine, have a huge obligation to participate in the cultural boycott—to refuse to display work in Israel, travel there for residencies or projects, and refuse to participate in programs that normalize Israel’s occupation and ethnic cleansing of Palestine. Even participating in a seemingly innocuous art exhibit in Israel can normalize Israel’s actions, by helping to portray it as a “normal” country with a burgeoning art scene, erasing everything from its genocidal policies, to the fact that Palestinian artists struggle to travel and lack the same creative opportunities as Israeli artists because of systematic inequalities and oppression imposed by Israel, as well as the intentional targeting of Palestinian artists by the Israeli state, which has led to a number of assassinations and the imprisonment of many Palestinian artists and writers.
You count Palestinian cartoonist Naji-Al Ali as an inspiration. Can you share more of who/what inspires you?
My early influences comics-wise, the artists that made me want to make comics, have been people like Julie Doucet, Marjane Satrapi, and Joe Sacco—artists with rich, often surreal and multi-layered storytelling, stark black and white art, and a strong political or social framework that is not so heavy-handed in the work, but that clearly informs every creative decision that the artist makes. These days, I’m mostly inspired by the work of the types of artists I feature on Bigmouth’s website—art by women and non-binary people of color, speaking their truths. I draw so much strength and inspiration these days from these artists, the ones that surround me in both my physical and online community. And Bigmouth has actually turned into a great outlet to foster that community for me, it gives me a chance to reach out to and work with some of the artists I admire most.
What are your future plans? Where would you like to see yourself in the future?
Bigmouth is slowly transitioning into a small press, I’d like to see it through to becoming a full-fledged publishing house eventually. Hosting workshops in comics for women from the Middle East here in the Detroit/Dearborn area, to put together an anthology of our narratives. Working on my submission for the Young Artist of the Year Award, which is an animated comic drawing on themes from my most recent short comic, The Opening (Tosh Fesh 2017). And now, in the very very early stages of conceptualizing a new full-length graphic novel that’s different from anything I’ve done before, but I don’t want to say too much about that just yet!
To know more about Leila's work you can follow her on instagram @lalalaleila or check out her website www.lalaleila.com.