This week we read Maus Book I & II. No matter how many times my students or I read it, it always hits hard. Spiegelman really paved the way for comics to be taken seriously. In fact, the Pulitzer Prize made a special category for Maus because it wasn’t fiction and they were like “What is this beautiful painful thing and how do we talk about it?”.
If you don’t know much about Maus, it’s a work of graphic nonfiction, a memoir of Spiegelman’s process of understanding his father’s time in Auschwitz. It’s actually that and so, so much more. The characters are masked as animals (Jews as mice, Nazi’s as cats, etc.) and this is a deeply symbolic representation of identity. The book doesn’t shy away from the impossible horrors of the Holocaust, or what it means to be a child of a survivor.
Alongside Maus, we read a great article by Susan Ketchum Glass “Witnessing the Witness: Narrative Slippage in Art Spiegelman’s Maus.” What really hits home with this book is the literal palimpsest nature of the text. Not only is Art interviewing his father about his survivor story, he presents two selves for each of them. There’s Artie (as a young man), Art as the author of the text wondering if he has the ability to make such a thing, Vladek (the young man in Auschwitz), and Papa (Art’s aging father he is interviewing). At times these four selves collide on the page in ways that are only possible in the comic book landscape. Literally, past and present are represented in ways that shows the impossible and ever present nature of trauma, survivor, PTSD, and being a child of survivors. While many of us might not have family who survived the Holocaust, many of us can still relate to the painful trauma that parents carry from other forms of diaspora, immigration, and otherness.
As a kid born in America with parents on both sides who’ve had to survive something, the book gives me hope and teaches me patience. My father was a 1-year-old during the eve of India’s Partition and he was carried by my Sikh grandmother in gruesome circumstances to the new land south. My mother’s family fled Germany to Poland, etc. during WWII but she was born post-war with the scars of the past still looming. My parents did everything to make sure we succeeded. They instilled an impossible work ethic, but somehow they also gave me enough room to be creative, which, if you’re a child of immigrants you understand how crazy that is.
The Holocaust is still an extraordinary horror that we should never forget. Perhaps, too, regardless of our family’s history we can try to understand our identities in relation to theirs. Maybe this is what life is, essentially. Trying to move forward by understanding what’s behind us. Not freeing ourselves from the past, but honoring it, and through that process, giving ourselves permission to continue.
If you haven’t read Maus, please do. It’s one of the most important books. Period.