• Miki Goerdt

A Graphic Novel as a Tool to Empower Those Who Are Marginalized



A graphic novel is art. It can be a healing art. It can also be a tool to empower those who are often invisible in the dominant American culture.

Thanks to the local bookstore One More Page, I recently came across two graphic memoirs of individuals with marginalized backgrounds: Robin Ha’s Almost American Girl and Malaka Gharib’s I Was Their American Dream. Each story was remarkably personal and touching. They describe the experience of being “the other” and the difficulty of belonging because of their cultural heritages and races, in addition to their parents’ divorces and other life struggles. Understandably, Ha and Gharib have experienced emotional pain. At the same time, their stories reflect so much personal growth and meaning.

At the end of the novel, Ha briefly reflected on the process of creating her graphic novel. Her reflection reminds me of the healing power of artistic expression. She describes that creating her comic was a way to understand what happened to her, especially her big and sudden transition from South Korea to America. Writing the novel was a way of making sense of emotionally distressing, traumatic events. Art therapy, as we know, is an effective way to re-examine and reconstruct traumatic events because it does not require verbal fluency to tap into non-verbal memories. Sometimes it’s just too difficult to describe an emotionally distressing event with words. In the book Art Therapy & the Neuroscience of Relationships, Creativity, & Resiliency, Hass-Cohen and Findlay (2015) assert that making meaning of distressing events is an important part of the healing process. Memories of traumatic events are often colored with intense, negative emotions. These emotions often distort memories and obscure the true meanings of these events, and they may bring negative influences to the concept of self. Re-examining events and reconstructing their meanings can lead to healing by helping us tell more coherent narratives about ourselves relative to the events. What is a “coherent narrative” about oneself? It is a story that is accurate and told in such a way that it lets us integrate it into our sense of self (that is, our own concepts about who we are). Without an integrated sense of self, we can’t function in a socially healthy manner or make plans for the future. Knowingly or not, Ha’s amazing graphic novel demonstrates this art therapy approach.

It is also important to note that, through their stories of unseen, Ha and Gharib validate the invisible stories of other marginalized individuals. As an immigrant myself, some parts of their stories were familiar; at times they brought tears in my eyes, because I shared the same pain---the pain of being othered, of discrimination, and of living in a place where I couldn’t fully be myself. The validation of seeing oneself in another’s story can bring comfort and resilience, making one feels less alone. For marginalized individuals whose stories are silenced or unacknowledged, these two novels can be quite empowering.

These authors chose graphic novelization as their mode of artistic expression. How do you want to express your story?

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