Midway through Welcome to the New World: Waking Up in Trump’s America, the powerful, poignant new graphic novel based on the true-life story of the Aldabaan family from Syria trying to find peace and stability in resettlement as refugees in Connecticut, a single frame leaps away from rigorous documentation, and takes us into the imagination of teenaged Naji.
The elderly Eleanor informs her young neighbour she lives alone, with her family “usually too busy to check on me” but on her wrist is an emergency bracelet that will bring help whenever needed. Naji muses, “Wow! Nothing like that back home.” The rest of the page is a wordless image of distressed Syrians fleeing a ruined cityscape, each one trying to summon help via their own emergency bracelets.
It is moments of inspired interpretation – and carefully measured artistic license – like this that elevate Jake Halpern and Michael Sloan’s otherwise rigorously factual graphic journalism to spellbindingly effective. From its inception as a series of strips in The New York Times, the project distinguished itself with its viscerally personal approach to the Aldabaan family’s experience in America. Then, in 2018, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, only the second-ever long-form graphic narrative to win after Art Spiegelman’s landmark 1992 citation for the extraordinary cats-and-mice Holocaust memoir, Maus.
Last month, Welcome to the New World was launched in expanded book format for the first time.
Halpern (he is an acclaimed reporter, while Sloan is described as “the illustrator”) explains in an appended chapter entitled “Methodology” that he was approached by the newspaper “to create a graphic narrative that would chronicle the arrival and experience of a single family [of refugees from Syria], with a particular focus on the perspective of the children.” Then, “on November 8 – Election Day – I met the Aldabaan family, just hours after they landed”.
With the help of a copy of Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel masterpiece about growing up in revolutionary Iran, Halpern won the collaboration of two brothers and their families, who had survived the siege of their hometown of Homs, and subsequently fled to Jordan, before successfully petitioning for relocation in the US. “Because this book is not a memoir, but rather a work of journalism, the story also needed context and fact-checking, beyond the family’s own accounts and experiences,” he said. “I did everything possible to probe for the truth and resisted the temptation to take anyone’s account at face value.”
That effort pays terrific dividends, because Welcome to the New World comes at its story from several different angles at once. “I retained editorial control over everything – the authority of ‘final cut’ if you will – but this project simply demanded a level of collaboration that I had never considered in any of my previous journalistic projects,” Halpern admitted.
The result is seriously compelling: a portrait of a family in desperate transition, as well as a country going in different directions at the same time. It is also an outstanding example of the seemingly endless potential of comic books and graphic novels (the terms are largely interchangeable) in journalism.
To be sure, the book does benefit from an immensely likeable cast of characters, expanding from the family at its heart to allies and supporters who emerged to help at crucial junctures. There’s “the transportation team” of wild-driving eighty-something volunteers, and when real crisis strikes, the unlikely guardian-angel-figure of Nancy Latif – a 70-year-old self-described “fixer” - descends to the rescue. At another point, despite having “no references, no employment history, no credit history” they are finally settled in a secure home thanks to a landlord who had himself been a refugee (from Vietnam).
I found Welcome to the New World at its best when exploring the conflicted interior world of its subjects: Naji and his sister Amal navigating high school, and their parents coming to grips with vastly transformed lives. At one point, the older Aldabaans despair – “[they think] we’ve been brainwashed, converted by the Zionists” – about explaining to family back home how Jewish-Americans are some of their best friends, and their younger daughters attend a Jewish day camp where they learn songs in Hebrew. Another epiphany comes when her mother tells Amal to protect Naji from bullies “even if they pull off your hijab.”
Halpern has said, “I come from a family of Holocaust survivors. The issue of refugees feels very personal to me.”
He recounted, “I was there with Michael the day the family arrived. When I woke up, The New York Times said, ‘Trump Triumphs.’ I thought to myself, this family landed in one country and woke up in another. It was obviously hugely meaningful to refugees everywhere, but it was also intensely meaningful on a micro level for this family. I think in my mind what always makes the most powerful story, is a small personal story with a high dramatic stake. In this case, it was what it means to be a refugee in the Trump era.”
An inclusive America
Welcome to the New World is certainly that, but also an immensely moving portrayal of the principled, inclusive America that still exists – although beleaguered – in many of its institutions, systems and citizen networks, along with an impressive old guard of what is often disparaged as “bleeding heart liberals”. Many selfless deeds accumulate to payoff, until we are told in the book’s epilogue that Naji “has repeatedly made the honour roll at school” and his sister Amal is also doing well. Their father works at Amazon, earning $16 per hour, while their mother (who was an artist in Syria) has “started a small catering business and continues to paint and draw”.
None of this is easy. Halpern notes “how difficult it is for refugees to build sustainable lives in America, even when they have the help of devoted supporters”, but there’s no doubting the positive trajectory in this family’s lives. Naji himself told NPR that “we all realise that it’s a good thing for us, especially now that we are helping our family back home. So, at the end, it helped both of us. If we were there, we wouldn’t be able to help them. We always make sure we take from us and give to them.” He anticipates even better days under a new President, “we hope something new is changing. This election will be better.”
A great tradition
It’s an interesting question to ponder, with the election imminent next week, and the increasingly realistic prospect of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris replacing Donald Trump and Mike Pence. To find out what he thought about that possibility, I emailed Halpern and asked if he thought a change in leadership would make a difference for refugees. “I believe that a President Biden would restore the great tradition of allowing dissidents to take refugee on our shore – a tradition which dates back to the very founding of our nation – and is an integral part of what has always made America innovative, inclusive, and dynamic,” he responded from his home in Connecticut.
Halpern told me that he had two main inspirations for Welcome to the New World, including Spiegelman’s Maus. “I found that book so haunting that, each night, when I finished reading, I often could not sleep,” he said. “The other book that inspired me was [the late Congressman, and Civil Rights movement hero] John Lewis’s trilogy, March. I think the pictures – especially Michael’s illustrations which brim with warmth and humanity – make our story more accessible. Many people might be reluctant to read a 75,000-word nonfiction book about war and displacement, but they will gladly look at a comic. I also love that even my 11-year-old son can read and appreciate the book.”
This is something I strongly relate to, since my own three sons consistently devour relatively sophisticated material in comic books that would never hold their attention in another medium. This is especially true for non-fiction: from Joe Sacco’s fantastic contemporary reportage to Shigeru Mizuki’s multi-volume History of Japan and Guy Delisle’s travelogues. Over the years, I have come to rely heavily on these books to round out and fill in the blanks of their otherwise-straightforward school-board education.
But one huge gap has always rankled: what I perceive as the nigh-total absence of good work on India. The way I read the situation, there are Yūkichi Yamamatsu’s two riotously funny Stupid Guy Goes to India manga books, and Sacco has an outstanding story on poverty and caste – Kushinagar first appeared in French in 2011. But the sheer quality of these exceptions only highlights the glaring absence of anything else.
The situation has always struck me as especially galling because the Indian genre started so very promisingly with Orijit Sen’s (sadly almost impossible to access now) 1994 River of Stories, tracking the political, social and environmental problems during the building of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Then, with Sarnath Bannerjee’s 2004 Corridor and Amruta Patil’s 2008 Kari, there were brilliant and meaningful Indian graphic novels on par with any other global literary culture. But after that, the needle barely moved. From my perspective, it seems like that pioneering trio is by far the most significant, and along with Appupen’s hallucinatory futurism, they remain largely by themselves in terms of both quality and output.
A valiant job
But when I emailed him at his home in Berlin to seek validation for my longstanding prejudices, Sarnath Banerjee firmly demurred. “Comparing the stuff made in India to the highly coddled world of Anglo-American and European publishing to my mind is unfair,” he said. “Often, you find Indian experts rattle off the names of western comics artist without really knowing all the things happening underground in India. This is truly sad. Vernacular publishing is at least better at this. The books reach their readers. People claim their own local writers and artists.”
Banerjee elaborated, “Indian publishers and agents have done a valiant job. They have been systematically adventurous, in some ways much more than their western counterparts. Great works come out from here, except the local distribution is poor and there isn’t any real patronage. If you want to be accepted in the West you have to write for them, which means you have to simplify your politics, and become a cultural Sherpa. Pulitzer is an American prize given to Americans only. If a German book gets translated in English, they are flown from Dar-es-Salaam to Dundee by Goethe Institute for promotional tours. The British Council will regularly tour with all their young authors all over the world. We too get a chance now and then, but usually it is from European organisations. Other than that there is simply no support structure.”
Giving me lasting food for thought, Banerjee concluded, “My opinion is that the most interesting comics are coming from, and will continue to come from South and South East Asia. I feel there is a saturation in western themes, and also the sheer relentless of the west trying to figure out the world. Even non-western stories have to be told from a western POV or at least made comprehensible to western readers. This mean simplified politics, and reinforcement of the same stereotypes. My opinion is that western comics publishers don’t get the particularities and specificities of the ‘others’. They would gladly do a Syria story, or migration from Africa, or acid attacks, or honour killing, but when it comes to an indigenous form of modernity very few people – at least in the comics industry –
have any clue.”
Vivek Menezes is a photographer, writer and co-founder and co-curator of the Goa Arts + Literature Festival.