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American Widow:

A 9/11 Memoir

So where were you on 9/11? That date has come around again, triggering memories of seven years ago. All of us have our own stories. My Mum and I had just flown in from London to New York La Guardia the day before, arriving late afternoon on Monday September 10th 2001. We I had been all set to fly on that fateful Tuesday until a last-minute change of plans. That sunny morning we were upstate, about 2 hours north of Manhattan, not far from Hudson, at my brother Tony’s place deep in the densely wooded country. As we woke up on our first morning there, we might never have put on the TV news, if not for an early phone call from Peter Stanbury in London alerting us.

I remember going for a walk later that day, taking Tony’s dog, to get some relief from the emotional turmoil of us all being cooped up and glued to the news channels. I needed to breathe in some fresh air. It’s quite remote where he and his wife live, beautiful woodlands and hills looking out across to the Adirondack Mountains. And then I heard a machine gun firing off at some distance away. I was told later that some neighbour of Tony’s was known as a bit of a survivalist type. I remember waking several times that night and hearing huge military planes rumbling overhead, and of course no other commercial planes in the sky. I couldn’t help imagining what might have happened if my Mum and I had flown on a later flight and feeling so lucky and grateful for is both being OK.


Cover by Art Spiegelman
The New Yorker, Sept 24, 2008

A few days later I remember walking into a store and seeing Art Spiegelman’s cover for The New Yorker that week. It was one of the first graphic responses I’d seen, his black-on-black image of the Two Towers, so simple, sombre and powerful. Reactions in the form of comics and graphic novels have followed since, notably Spiegelman’s series of full-page comics, echoing the original Sunday funnies, under the title In The Shadow Of No Towers. A fascinating new book by Max Page entitled The City’s End (Yale University Press) surveys "two centuries of fantasies, fears, and premonitions of New York’s destruction", showing how varied yet persistent these imaginings have been, constantly adjusting to the social, political and cultural climate of the times. Noting that in the immediate aftermath, literature proved far slower than movies to tackle the themes of 9/11, Page hails Spiegelman’s 2004 collection of his pages, published by Pantheon and Penguin: "Into the void of conventional literature, Art Spiegelman launched the first and still the most significant literary work on the meaning of 9/11." Page does an amazing job gathering these visions of the Big Apple’s demise from all sorts of media, including comics. In fact, putting aside the fund-raising mainstream tributes and anthologies and the "official" 9/11 Report in comics form, several other graphic novelists have subsequently dealt head on with this subject.


World Trade Angels
by Fabrice Colin & Laurent Cilluffo

One brilliant example was World Trade Angels, published in 2006 by Denoël in France, written by French novelist Fabrice Colin and drawn with ‘Clear Line’ diagrammatic design and sophisticated layout and colouring techniques by the French-born New York-based illustrator Laurent Cilluffo. Bart Beaty, perceptive Canadian critic and author of Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s (University of Toronto Press),  hailed it as "certainly the finest comic to have been produced about the events of 9/11 to date", and summed up the story as follows:

"World Trade Angels tells the story of Stanley Middle, a man whose life is dramatically changed by the events of September 11th, when he loses both his father and his pregnant fiancee. Stanley retreats into a world of his own imagination, living out a fantasy where these deaths did not occur, stumbling through his new life until it is disrupted by Sarah, the new lover with too many questions. But just who is Sarah? A girlfriend? A projection of his subconscious mind? An angel?"

You can read Bart Beaty’s full review here. Let’s hope World Trade Angels finds the wider readership it so deserves but for now it still awaits translation into English.

In the meantime, American Widow is a new American graphic novel which focuses on one victim of the 9/11 attacks, Luis Eduardo Torres, or Eddie, the Colombian-born husband of Alissa Torres. She was seven and a half months pregnant at the time. Eddie had only started a new job in the World Trade Centre on Monday the 10th, and when the time came, he jumped. Somehow, to find an outlet and perhaps some catharsis, his widow Alissa wanted to convey her experiences and feelings through writing. She chose to do so through comics, but how does a total novice set about doing this? Initially she wrote out her script "in Microsoft word using text boxes for the panels. In each box I wrote descriptions of what I thought should go in them along with dialogue and thought ballons." She had planned on telling it from her perspective but without actually appearing in it herself, until N. Christopher Crouch, a School of Visual Arts professor, insisted that it wouldn’t work without her in it. Alissa revised her script still further, re-envisioning the images, how many panels per page and what images and words belonged in each. She also "spent a lot of time doodling and found that I was very good at - and enjoyed - conceptualising the artwork. Too bad I wasn’t very good at drawing."

The next crucial step was for her to find the right artist. Not easy, and it took a long time. Alissa wanted a woman to draw it: "It’s hard to articulate the difference between a man’s and a woman’s work but I knew that a female artist was what the project needed." Eventually, she discovered New York Times illustrator Sungyoon Choi and from her first samples knew that she was right for the project. "Some comic art is cluttered, making it a battle to get through each page, but Choi’s work was very succinct with a lot of white space and great composition. And it was extremely heartfelt."

A bond developed between the two women as they worked closely and intensely, meeting often and revising and improving each new set of pages as they took shape. Sungyoon helped Alissa make those tough but vital decisions, "where to cut art, what to condense and what to expand." Alissa has nothing but thanks and praise for the illustrator: "This book had been my therapeutic anchor for so many years and I am grateful to have found someone who was not only creative and who could endure this labour intensive project, but also someone I trust on a purely emotional level." And now that long gestation and collaborative process are over and this September 9th Alissa’s graphic memoir is finally published as American Widow.

Alissa structures her account into 18 chapters, each of which opens with an establishing date or period to ground the reader. These dates move back and forth through time, before, during and after 9/11, beginning with the moments of the attacks and winding up on their first anniversary. All the while she is pushing her narrative forward through her struggles and mixed, conflicting feelings coping with the grieving process, the birth of her son and the tangled web of charitable, corporate and governmental agencies and the rapacious media while she is in search of financial support, compensation and some meaning and hope. Even within a chapter, Alissa can shift the timing. Thanks to the complete fluidity of comics she can recreate memories from the past, including telling moments from Eddie’s history, or imagine how things might have turned out so differently. Interwoven throughout the book are flashbacks to their lives together, beginning with their first nightclub encounter downtown, their first embrace beneath the Two Towers, their courtship, marriage and Alissa’s pregnancy and a fantasy of how Eddie could have been at the birth of their son. In an especially chilling sequence she imagines herself with Eddie during his last moments in the crumbling World Trade Centre and embracing him before taking his hand and jumping with him. All these hypertheticals play over and over in her head: "So many what-ifs, and I still wake up to this same life without you."


American Widow

Writer and artist are in perfect harmony here. Sungyoon’s drawings are crystal clear, understated, her faces and figurework subtly expressive, only occasionally veering into caricature to convey the crazier or more grotesque figures Alissa encounters. Sungyoon’s weakness at times is in perspective when exteriors and buildings shrink out of scale, as in the family home on page 21 or the church on page 71. This minor flaw is amply made up for, however, by the sophistication and inventiveness of her layouts and transitions, solving and visualising with Alissa the nuances of her highly personal history.


American Widow

For example, the two women make excellent use of one loaded recurring motif, the couple’s twin bed and images of Alissa with and without her husband at her side, often shown from above, on several occasions filling a whole page. The first shot of this is early in the morning of 9/11, when Alissa lies awake, angry at Eddie for some unspecified reason, him under the bedclothes, her uncovered, distant, turning away from his touch, later that tragic day, while walking the dog, even fantasising about leaving him for Hawaii and finding a hunky blond surfer there. These scenes of beds accumulate in power: Alissa is shown floating in a black background, surrounded by talking heads of family and friends, or by quivering speech balloons from unhelpful charity workers, or later by their balloons which start coiling round her legs, arms and neck, ensnaring her. Other bed images show an unidentified burn victim whom she hopes might be Eddie, and Alissa lying depressed after giving birth, staring at the ceiling and the repeated light fitting, not wanting to move. One whole, unusually charged chapter shows her asleep and alone in their marital bed, and yet sensing the "high-voltage of our lust and love." She dreams of the bed spinning and it "being rocked by a giant celestial hand", sensing Eddie’s presence and trying to communicate back, but waking up: "I make contact only with my own skin."


American Widow

Alissa puts a lot of the focus of the book on the extraordinary Kafka-esque administrative nightmare she has to navigate post-9/11 to get her claim for help processed and on the frequently insensitive or exploitive types she comes up against. She parallels this in the flashbacks to Eddie’s challenges from authorities as an illegal immigrant, first in Mexico and then in New York. Alissa doesn’t shy away from exposing the blatant opportunism of politicians and the media, the changing, sometimes hostile attitudes towards the 9/11 survivors and claimants, the airlines’ scheme of making their compensation payouts conditional on renouncing all legal redress against them. Revelations also come in the surreal, upsetting scenes when she is promised something of Eddie’s remains and journeys out to Fresh Kills, Staten Island, where all the debris from the WTC is being picked through. All the while, through all these emotions, she is trying to come to some sort of resolution to her painful loss.


American Widow

So far, the book has been printed in black with only a pale, wistful blue as the second colour. Other colours arrive only in the last chapter at a crass anniversary reception and photo opportunity which she and her baby boy reluctantly attend on September 6th 2002. As a speech from First Lady Laura Bush is read out loud, the display of roses on the table in front of Alissa turn a patriotic red, white and blue. Over the next page, from the whole-page silent panel of the tiny figure of Eddie falling from the Tower, we come to a sudden spread of full-colour, filled with 45 photographs of Eddie, dating from his brand new job’s security pass back to childhood snaps in short trousers. Seeing these photos, perhaps all that Alissa has managed to gather, brings home the real, fleeting and absent human being we have come to know and care for through the book.

Facing the prospect of spending September 11th 2002 in New York, Alissa manages to escape to Hawaii, going back to relive their earlier holiday there. Waking again in the small hours of that September morning, she finally writes to Eddie: "Dearest, Sorry we argued about nothing." Her anger seems calmed now. And later, onboard a boat with others who lost family members, the colours return, in flowers once more but now they are the blossoms they throw onto the water in remembrance. Seeing colour again suggests that she can see the world again. She concludes with a single colour photo of herself and her little boy, floating like the flowers in the blue sea, smiling, and accompanies this with a moving caption: "Although I was so confused by who I was and how I was supposed to be, I knew so fiercely that I was alive, together with my son, and that it was a beautiful day."

A soft-edged, whole-page panel of a clear blue sky began the book, followed by another in which a bird flies across it. That same sky ends the book, suggesting a new day. While much of her first-person voiceover has clearly been speaking directly to Eddie, calling him "you", trying to communicate with the man who is no longer there, it becomes clear that she has conceived the book finally as much to speak to her son, to their son; one panel says as much: "This is all for you." Hers is an honest, heartfelt and ultimately hopeful confrontation with tragedy, which Alissa and Sungyoon have written and drawn for all of us.

More pages from American Widow are available to preview here.

Posted: September 11, 2008

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American Widow
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