Geneviève Castrée: The Impossibility of Autobiography
March 18, 2013
Hazlitt talks with the Quebecois comics artist about her new book Susceptible, the influence of Montreal's underground comics scene, and the difficult of art of diaristic writing.
Her publisher Drawn & Quarterly describes Susceptible as Geneviève Castrée’s “debut” graphic novel, which is true enough, but don’t assume she’s a rookie: it follows a string of shorter comics, numerous recordings under the bandonyms Woelv and Ô PAON, and appearances in various gallery shows. And one of Susceptible’s central themes is that she was never allowed to be a novice for very long. The use of nicknames for major characters (the protagonist is called “Goglu,” for example) and fragmentary narrative muddy her story’s autobiographical aspects a little without obscuring its stark details.
Raised by a young, mercurial single mother in Quebec, her biker father absent and distant amidst B.C. wilderness, Goglu emerges from teenage self-destruction and the squinting disapproval of maternal boyfriends into a tentative independence. All this is rendered in evocative watercolour tones, the almond-eyed figures and free-floating compositions sometimes resembling visual art or book illustration as much as traditional cartooning. When flames waft from the family’s TV, or Goglu dreams about the aftermath of the École Polytechnique massacre, the imagery’s strange serenity makes its violence still more disquieting. Castrée’s writing is diaristic, down to the sardonic, funny asides: she says that British Columbia is like “a mythical kingdom where dads go to disappear,” and after recounting a boyfriend’s dismissal of her, adds “it’s ok, he’s not that interesting anyway.” I can’t imagine anyone ever saying that about Goglu, or Castrée. She emailed these answers from her current home in the Pacific Northwest.
You’re a multidisciplinary artist—you also make music and sculptures, for example—and I was curious about how you came to each of those mediums. When did you start drawing comics? Do you think the different practices inform each other all?
I was really into drawing and making art in general when I was a kid. I drew my first human figure at age two: a guy wearing a hat with a feather in it. I started drawing comics when I was really young. I remember being nine and being obsessed about comics in a way that I knew I wanted to turn it into my job as a grown-up. There weren’t really many successful comic authors from Québec at the time so I always kept in mind other career possibilities, archeologist, astronaut, always something more adventurous. As a young teenager I struggled with various problems at home and at school, and eventually discovered the underground comic scene in Montréal. I got involved really quickly, participating to photocopied anthologies, making my own mini-comics.
Music came later. It had always been something I wanted to do, but it required more self-confidence. There is something super embarrassing about making music if you think about it too long. You have to be impulsive. I tried to learn how to play guitar a few times and then decided just to play whatever notes I could come up with. I am a very visual guitar player. Having music in my life has been weirdly healing and cathartic, it’s more immediate, it’s a good way to get rid of your demons.
Both drawing and music are forms of meditation to me. I tend to zone out. What is truly improvised is what I have been making out of porcelain. I make small sculptures, nothing really serious yet. The clay goes from being super wet to being gritty within minutes it seems, so I am starting small. I am also playing around with where the clay decides to fall onto itself, using that. It’s not as dainty as when I am drawing, and I have little control or preparation over it. So again, this is a positive development. I don’t want to feel trapped by the things I do. I don’t want to be expected to do only one thing for the rest of my life.
Do you remember the comics you were first obsessed with? When you brought up Montreal’s underground scene a bunch of people popped into my mind, Julie Doucet and others, but I’m wondering what your earliest exposure to the medium was, maybe because you have this unusually illustrative style, almost like a classic children’s book at times.
The first comic books I ever read were Tintin, The Crab with the Golden Claws, The Blue Lotus and Tintin in Tibet, in that exact order. I have a weird memory for that type of details. I grew obsessed with those, but also with Mafalda, a character drawn by an Argentinian cartoonist named Quino, which was pretty huge in Québec in the eighties. People wore t-shirts and had posters with Mafalda on them. As a comic book character, she is brilliant, a little girl with strong opinions living in a country where the government is super corrupt. Obviously I didn’t understand most of it at the time. I also loved the Scrameustache, which was this cute cat-looking creature who had adventures in space. That was definitely more of a kid thing, less interesting to read as a grown-up.
Julie Doucet is the most obvious comparison when people talk about my work. I don’t really know what to say about it anymore. On the one hand she was most definitely a big influence, she was the best. Also, it is clear that she is sorely missed in the comic world. She left a big hole. But I read other stuff, too. I first heard of the possibility of underground comics in Montréal when I read a women’s magazine my mom had brought home from work, Elle Québec. Later my estranged father took me to a comic book store called Legends in Victoria, BC when I visited him. That is where I discovered Julie’s work, as well as Renée French, Chester Brown and a bunch of others.
Maybe there are cartoonists out there who work really hard on perfecting their style. It’s hard for me to relate to, I just sit down and although it comes out better as the years go by, I don’t really practice. Whenever I try to draw from life I feel like I can’t shake off the way I draw, my personal quirks. It just comes out that way. If anything I feel like I have more control over my hand-writing. That has changed more over the years.
Has the improvised nature of those sculptures affected the way you draw at all? Cartooning is so meticulous and controlled in comparison, and artists seem to chafe against it a lot.
I am not sure if it is the sculpting, or just some hangups I feel ready to let go of, but I think I am in the process of getting better at accepting mistakes, the stuff I can’t control. It has been really rewarding to give my hands or the materials I use just a little bit more independence. I am still pretty fussy. I have no problem with re-doing something from the beginning if I am not happy with it. And actually that is the best way sometimes, once in a while I’ll realize I have worked on something too long for it to be any good, so I start over and make a simpler version.
You’ve described Susceptible as “autobiographical,” but the central characters are all identified by nicknames (Goglu, Amere, Tete d’Oeuf) and the narrative is this non-linear cascade of memories. Were you trying to avoid the traditional memoir’s expectations of unadulterated (not to mention impossible) fidelity?
I keep repeating myself, but true autobiography seems impossible once it has been put on the paper. And then it loses even more of its meaning and credibility when it is read by someone else, through their filters. The best way I found I could share these memories was to do it in the style of “Susceptible”. What happened when I was a kid are fragments in my head, so I have fragments in the book. They do follow a timeline, they are in order. They are not everything that ever went on, but they are all true to what I remember and to what some of the other people present remember. I changed the names for two reasons: First because if I had used real names these people would still have been “characters” in my version of the story. Second because I was scared shitless. I don’t think my childhood was over-the-top terrible, but I was raised in this “What happens in our home is nobody’s business but our own.” type of way…So for me to expose so much of these sordid little details to any kind of readership was a big step.
I think the Quebecois specificity of characters like Mafalda or Scrameustache underlines your own background—French is your first language, and this book was also written in French originally, right? There’s the great little moment when Goglu hears her father’s English as an illegible scrawl. Was it difficult translating those very linguistic barriers into a different language entirely?
The book was written in French first, yes. The French version has a colour, a nuance in the language that is lost in the English translation. The French version has more of a sense of place, and perhaps even a sense of time. Expressions fall out of fashion, you know? I translated the book myself thinking that perhaps it would allow the words to still sound like me a little.
Those linguistic barriers were one of the hardest things to get across in comic book form. I borrowed that trick Chester Brown used in Louis Riel with the chevrons. I hope it came across to my readers. That is still one of the most complicated aspects of my childhood when I exchange stories with strangers, the fact that my dad and I didn’t speak the same language.
I was struck by how issues of class and economics recur throughout the book, e.g. when Amere is worrying about her mortgage. She’s portrayed as being capricious or even cruel at times, but you still make it clear that this is a young single mom struggling to support her daughter and forced into difficult choices because of that (staying with Amer, for example).
Honestly, issues of class were not really on my mind when I made the book. In my twenties I felt like so many of my friends were trying to highlight how poor they were when they were kids, almost as if a person should be ashamed of the comfort they experienced as children. Sometimes it feels as though having had a childhood where you had enough love, enough food, enough encouragement is super uncool. Anyway, the difficulties I was trying to get at were more on an emotional level. Here is this young mother raising a kid on her own while all her other friends are still so young and childless. She likes to party and her friends are still partying. And then she is trying so hard to move her and her child out of poverty, which she manages to do. But when it comes to her staying with her boyfriend I think the reasons go beyond class, they are deep and mysterious.
You drew Susceptible while living in the Pacific Northwest, not that far from where your father ends up in the story—do you think that influenced your depiction of Quebec at all? Even when the background is pure negative space, I felt a strong sense of place on the page.
That’s interesting. I was hoping the book would feel like it takes place in Québec, and then in British Columbia. I was hoping it would translate. I think me living on the West Coast for the last fourteen years has greatly influenced my idea of Québec. Maybe I am more sensitive to its culture than I used to be. It’s kind of a thrill to be in an airport and overhear people talking and detect the accent, even when the person speaking is too far away for me to hear the actual words, I can tell by the cadence or even sometimes the clothes they wear that they are from Québec. Now that I live in the United States I find Québec to be even weirder, even more of a rare treasure. t’s a complicated place and while most English-speaking Canadians can jokingly imitate what we sound like, tons of Americans have no clue. Their knowledge of North American geography and history doesn’t always include us.
This isn’t really a question, but that theme of ancestries and the tree/plant motif in the opening made me you wonder if you had seen Shary Boyle’s Canadian Artist project and its huge family tree.
I love Shary Boyle so much! I had the chance to meet her at a festival in Switzerland a few years ago and she is an incredible artist. Extremely inspiring. I am a big fan and try to follow her work as much as I can but I have not seen her Canadian Artist project. I will check it out. In my case, when I made my book I didn’t think drawing a plant to symbolize my family and roots was that groundbreaking. I actually based my drawings on a squash plant with blossoms. I have been sort of obsessed with the idea of burying a full squash in the ground and watching it grow. Will it rot? Will it sprout leaves?
And finally…what are you working on at the moment, comics or otherwise?
I tend to have too many projects on the go and I have a hard time putting the finishing touches on them. I have been carrying around ideas for at least another three books. And there is the music side of my life, too. I have been neglecting some of my life priorities…In the immediate future: I have put together a one-day festival in the town where I live, Anacortes, Washington. The festival coincides with an exhibition I curated at a very nice gallery in town. Fellow Canadians Julie Doucet and Nadia Moss are in it and so am I and there are six other artists. [The festival is called the Anacortes Unknown Music Series vol. II: “OURS”] It’s good to get out of this navel-gazing zone I have been in for the past three years.