David Naimon: Welcome to Between the Covers, Joe Sacco.
Joe Sacco: It’s a pleasure to be here, David.
DN: Let’s begin with the originating impulse. What was your original interest in centering the indigenous people of the Northwest Territories in this book? How did the actual experience of being up north come up against your initial imagination of the project?
JS: Initially, I wanted to do a book about climate change. I wanted to do a book that encompassed a number of different places to see how indigenous people relate to resource extraction, which is always the first point, we can say, of climate change. It’s about resources being extracted, and CO2 and all that stuff. I went to the Northwest Territories, first, because I thought it would be easier than other places to go. It would get me accustomed to talking to indigenous people, and seeing how that was going to work out, and Canada is close. I thought it would be cheaper, which it wasn’t. So I went up there. It was ostensibly for a magazine piece. When I was up there, I saw a lot of things that were quite different from what I thought I was going to see. My perceptions beforehand were changing pretty rapidly when I was there. The main thing I noticed was that it wasn’t such a monolithic story. I thought going up there, that I would find mostly indigenous people, very opposed to resource extraction, and that’s not what I found. I found some of that, of course, but I found variations in that theme or even people who are much more gung-ho than I imagined. That became a bit more complicated. I also realized that there were a lot of other things going on that had affected the indigenous people of Canada that had to do with colonialism. So it became just a bigger project in my mind, and I realized, I better just focus on this one place, and do it right, then spread myself around different continents, doing a comparative story, which would be great. But comics take a long time, so I just realized, I better concentrate on one area.
DN: You mentioned very briefly, in this answer that you thought it was going to be cheaper. It’s closer by than going to India or going to Palestine. How remote were you? I’m imagining it’s the remoteness that’s part of the expense.
JS: The remoteness is part of the expense, because ironically, where they’re extracting oil and natural gas is not where it’s cheapest. It has to be refined or processed elsewhere. I had a guide there, who had initially proposed coming up there in the first place, named Shauna Morgan. We were going to drive, and you drive basically to these remote communities which are up the Mackenzie River valley. It’s basically sub-arctic, just below the arctic circle. It’s a very long drive, but we wanted to get a sense of the country and the size of it. But it’s expensive to drive, it’s expensive to stay in these communities. They have these containers where you can rent for the night, but they’re quite expensive, and just the logistics of the whole thing, it was much more expensive than I thought. I felt like I really couldn’t spend more than a few weeks at a time. I did two trips up there.
DN: Yeah. I suspect a lot of listeners of the show probably know your work already. But you’re also only the second person to come on the show to talk about a “graphic novel” in its 10 years. There are likely a lot of people listening, where this might be their first encounter with one, and with comics journalistic storytelling. So I was hoping before we dove into Paying the Land and the story and specifics of what you’re doing, we could first orient people more broadly to the way you tell stories generally, how you position yourself when you do, and what the politics are of how you position yourself. What I mean is, I think of your manifesto at the beginning of your book, Journalism, that really, in a lot of ways, tries to distinguish yourself from journalism’s image of itself in its most traditional sense. From the idea of a journalist being invisible, objective, and seeking balance because your work, generally speaking, foregrounds the subjective nature of storytelling or of reportage. Not only has yourself as a character in it, but also the process of you getting the story, of you learning the story, and how you learn the story becomes part of the story. So I was hoping maybe you could talk a little bit more about the ethics, the aesthetics, or the politics of making these choices for you before we talk about how you position yourself and how you tell the story of Paying the Land.
JS: I studied journalism at the University of Oregon, and my first desire was to become a hard news reporter. I never really thought of drawing or comics in terms of a career. That was just something I’d been doing since I was a kid. It was important to me. It was more than just a hobby, but I never really came up with a way that could be a viable means of living. It was hard news what I wanted to do and that didn’t work out. When I got out of the university, it didn’t work out, so I had to find something else to make ends meet, and eventually, I fell back on drawing and I started to do comics. My first comics were pretty satirical and all that, but at some point, I wanted to actually see a place and go and do a travelogue. But when I was there, and the first place I went to was the Middle East, it was the Palestinian territories, and this was in the early 1990s, the journalistic training really kicked in. So more than a travelogue, it became a journalistic inquiry. I was interviewing people trying to get quotes right, trying to fill in the picture to make a good study of what I was seeing, and the people I was talking to. Comics developed, for me journalistically, quite organically without really overthinking it or coming up with a theory beforehand. The thing that I realized, in just the natural organic way I was doing the stories, was I was drawing myself into the picture, because my encounters with people seemed really important, how they were responding to me, the outsider coming in, asking these questions. It could show people being hospitable, show the tensions I had sometimes with people. It was a natural outgrowth of some of the earlier stories I was doing about my own life, just to draw myself as a figure. I began to realize that was actually an important component of what I was doing because it was showing me as an outsider in a community. In other words, in journalistic training, the way I was taught was that the journal stays out of the story, is kind of the fly on the wall doing this reporting. I soon realized that you’re not really an all-knowing, all-seeing demi-god that really understands the situation completely. You’re learning as you’re there, and you’re having encounters that color the stories you’re getting, and that maybe tell you something about the societies you’re placing yourself in. Drawing myself in the picture became a signal to the reader that this was a very subjective experience, that I was stepping away from the objective journalism that I’d been taught. That followed through with all my work. I’m always a character, you can always judge my work as something that is done by an imperfect being, trying to get information, learning as he goes along.
DN: One of the things I notice about you as a character in this book versus the others, is that you seem like a smaller and a quieter presence, and it made me wonder if there were ways this project differed than others that resulted in this, if maybe collaborating with, or interacting with the Dené people differed from talking to Palestinians or Bosnians in a way that reflected the way you ended up portraying yourself.
JS: I think you’re right. I try to think of myself in a different way just because I was talking to indigenous people. I wanted to be careful about how I was talking to indigenous people. There’s so much politics around talking to indigenous people so I’m very aware of the moment in a way. It was clear that I wasn’t really a part of the story, and I really, as much as possible, wanted things in the people’s words. Of course, I’m showing my interactions with people. Sometimes we’re going on little adventures and all that, but I didn’t really need to hold the story together as a character as I did, let’s say, in the Palestinian book, the first book I did, which is a series of episodes that were linked by my character. I found I was doing some of my stories a bit differently. I was told, “When you’re speaking to elders, indigenous elders, don’t interrupt.” It became something that helped. I noticed in interviews I’ve done in other situations, I have a tendency to interrupt, to talk over someone’s answer, you see your faults in a way when you actually really try harder to listen. That was quite a bit different for me, was to let people’s answers unfold without me trying to corral them into a point I was thinking they were going to make. In that sense, there were some differences, and in that way, I think it was actually a good experience for me, because I learned to accommodate myself with the way people have to meet and talk and reciprocate when they’re dealing with each other.
DN: Yeah. In one interview, you said that you had to make sure, in some of these more remote communities, that they understood what you were going to do with the information. Some of the communities didn’t have as much exposure or had little exposure to “Western media.” I’d be curious about the process of how you oriented them to the project. Then how much or how little distrust or wariness you encountered, given the history not just of cultural genocide but also of cultural appropriation and extraction.
JS: When you’re speaking to elders there, as I said, you’re on listening mode and I think especially when people first meet you, some people aren’t expecting that transactional thing that, “He’s a journalist. He’s getting information.” They want to get to know you. I would introduce myself as someone who was going to do a journalistic project. I would ask, “Can I take notes?” And the answer was no. “Can I record?” The answer was no. This happened not on every occasion by any means. But it happened to the point, especially at the beginning, that I felt, “Okay, they’re expecting something different from this conversation than a journalistic transaction.” I had to accommodate myself to that. But it was difficult because then what I would do is reconstruct a conversation that night, for example. Then bring it back somehow and say, “We talked about all these things. Would you be comfortable with me putting these things in it? Are these your words?” They would accommodate me with that. They would say, “No, that’s not exactly what I meant.” They would give me quotes, if you know what I mean. But in other cases, I realized that it’s just an awareness when people are telling you something very personal, about some spiritual value. I thought I’d better just check to make sure that they understood that I was maybe going to use this in a story. In one particular case, the person said, “No, I’d really rather you didn’t.” It just helped bring my antennae out. In fact, it was at the very beginning I had those sorts of issues. Later, I tried to be very, very clear about what I was going to do, even more clear. I would really try to say, “Please let me record because I really want to have these things in your words.” The truth is, there’s a real range of people and what their experiences are. A lot of people are used to researchers. They’re often signing release forms and all that sort of thing. There are people you’re meeting that are quite well educated in the Western sense, and they get what you’re doing. But still, just in general, I think the important thing I came away with, is just to listen better. They’ve had issues with people coming up and taking stories. Then they never really get anything out of that, like they value their own, what they call, traditional knowledge. That’s very important to them. In some ways, you feel like you’re there, like an extracting industry, you’re extracting traditional knowledge. I was just trying to be careful with that, and see myself as someone told me, “Try to see people as they might be seeing you through eyes that are used to people coming and exploiting, exploiting land and exploiting them.”
DN: When I was interviewing Molly Crabapple, she was talking about the ways drawings versus photographs gave access. For instance, when she was covering the trials in Guantanamo, photographers weren’t allowed to take pictures, but she was allowed to draw everything except for the faces, I think. Perhaps because of an unexamined bias that drawings are perhaps less serious, less threatening, or less accurate than photos, she was not only able to get around censorship in going to the Guantanamo trials, but also to show censorship, to show a blanked-out face, or a blacked-out face to show what she’s not allowed to draw as a presence in the actual drawing. Obviously, you’re able to go places with your drawings that you couldn’t literally go. Say a jail, an Israeli jail cell with a Palestinian in a jail cell using first-person accounts and your own imagination that a photographer couldn’t do. But I wondered also if drawing provided you a way to establish rapport in real-time, if there’s something less threatening and invasive than taking a photograph. I wonder if taking a photograph feels more like taking, and if drawing something feels like producing. I don’t know if I’m making sense. But I wondered if there was some way in which the mode itself was a way to create trust.
JS: I’m not entirely sure, but the second trip to the Northwest Territories, I was able to show photocopies of something I produced for a magazine about the first trip. That was really useful, to have something to show people and say, “This is the work I’m doing. See, I’m showing your lives in this way.” That was helpful. That’s been helpful to me before even in the Palestinian territories when I was able to bring the first book I did about the Palestinians to show them, when I was researching the second book. People see pictures, and they get that right away. They get what you’re trying to do, and maybe they even begin to understand better your questions that are sometimes asking a lot of visual detail. So they’re able to work with you more on the interview, if you know what I mean. That has been useful. It’s usually when you show people images of their own lives, where a bell is struck for them, and they go, “Okay, I know what you’re doing. I see what you’re doing. I see value in this project.” You say you can take people into places you haven’t seen, and that’s true. In this particular project, the stuff I was most worried about getting wrong was when people described life in the bush. That involved a lot of visual research in archives to see how people lived in the bush 50 years ago, almost 100 years ago. I took a lot from that, and I ended up sending that first chapter, which is very much about life in the bush to some indigenous people, including the main character, the only character really, in that story, Paul Andrew in Yellowknife. He managed to see it and give me a thumbs up or thumbs down. Fortunately, it was a thumbs-up, and so that matters a lot to me, too, to get that affirmation, especially about something like that, with a lot of details about tents, about dog sleds, and about just life in general. I wanted to get the tone right, not just how things looked, and how things were tied up, or how fish were gutted. But I wanted to get the tone right and he seemed to like it. That is always really important to me, to have that validation.
DN: In case you just tuned in, we’re talking today to Joe Sacco about his latest book, Paying the Land. Let’s talk briefly about that opening chapter. The book opens with the phrase, “You Find Yourself in the Circle,” and an image of a baby being held aloft from a moose skin boat, the umbilical cord still attached. We spend the first chapter in the voice of someone who is clearly not you. Later, we learn it’s Paul Andrew, who you just mentioned, remembering his childhood days living on the land in a largely traditional way. There are tents, guns, and stoves and twice-a-year trips into town. But otherwise, there feels like there’s this cohesive circular sense of identity and reciprocity with the land. We never see you in this chapter, but we know you’re there because of a couple of questions you asked our narrator from off of the margins of the page, also because you include bracketed words in the dialogue balloons, where the story is being told by Paul Andrew. Words that let us know that you’ve transcribed someone speaking, and you’re indicating where a word has been dropped by the speaker and is being added by you for legibility. At least for me, this touch which runs through the book, feels like a way that you’re establishing trust with me, with the reader, that you’re indicating that you’re going for a certain high level of accuracy and reflecting the story the way the people live it, and want it to be told, but are also indicating when you’re needing or deciding to add something of your own. Do you see that as the purpose of the bracketed words and a way of establishing a certain parameter between you and the reader?
JS: That’s just my journalistic training, really. We were always told that you don’t add words or subtract without either putting in ellipses to show that something’s dropped out. That might be important but you don’t think it is, necessarily, or it interrupts the flow. Yes, you do put in a word in brackets just to keep the flow going. Though, I’ve had people tell me, including my editor that the brackets are really disruptive. It’s just me as a journalist. I still have that ethics of journalism where I cannot condense people’s thoughts without letting the reader know that I’m condensing their thoughts. So I had a lot more brackets in the book—and the biggest editing I had to do at the very end of this process, and editing I had to do directly on the original art because I don’t even know how to use Photoshop, I have to say—my editor thought there were too many brackets and it was interrupting the flow itself, so we made a fair compromise, I think, where I put things back into people’s diction if we both felt that it made sense in that way. The quotes are accurate. All the quotes are accurate, and that is very important to me.
DN: I’m very pro bracket. I’ll just say that, I feel like that’s a crucial way for me to trust you taking me through the story, is the bracket.
JS: That’s the idea. The idea is journalistic accuracy, and journalistic techniques might look a little odd in a comic book and might not flow in the exact same way that people are used to. But that’s just who I am, and it’s not going to go away.
DN: Yeah. Could you speak just briefly to accuracy and subjectivity? Because I think a lot of people would maybe reflexively think that accuracy goes with objectivity. But really, it feels like your book is both very subjective and very accurate.
JS: I think journalistic objectivity, as it was taught to me in journalism school, is really an impossibility, and it’s not something that should be strived for, because I think it often leads you into fooling yourself that you’re doing a service to the subject. We’re taught in journalism school that if you want to put in accrued terms, that there are always two sides to every story, and that you should show both sides. Of course, I think you need to show different versions of the story or give different ideas, but the fact that there are two sides to every story doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re both equally right, or they’re both equally wrong. I’ve heard journalists say things like, “Well, I’ve pissed everyone off. I must be doing something right.” I never really think in those terms. I think you should strive for what is the truth of the situation, and that’s what I’m going for. I have my own prejudices going in. I want people to know that I am an imperfect journalist going into a place. But also I choose my subjects because I have sympathy for them. I’m interested in what the Dené people have to say about resource extraction in their own lives. I don’t want to balance that with what resource extraction industry is saying about what they’re doing, and what the Canadian government is saying about what they’re doing. I want to maybe touch on it, but I’m not trying to wash out one with the other. I have a point of view. It’s signaled by the fact that I’m actually a figure in my drawings. You’re seeing a lot of things through my eyes. I’m comfortable with my worldview. I’m comfortable with my subjectivity. Where objectivity broke itself on the anvil of reality had to do with the Palestinian situation, because I grew up thinking Palestinians were terrorists, and I realized that was because of objective journalism that was telling me that this had happened, there had been a hijacking, there’d been a terrorist attack, there’d been a commando raid. Those are all objective facts, but they didn’t provide me with background, with other facts, or with any holistic picture of what was actually going on. Through these cherry-picked facts, I had a very skewed idea of a whole group of people, and that example has served me well throughout my entire career, where you have to separate what are facts from what is the truth of the situation because facts can be ordered in any way to come up with any idea that you want.
DN: The first time we actually see you, Joe Sacco, in the book as a figure is fittingly in the second chapter, which begins to introduce the encroachment of “Western influence” on the region and opens with you and your guide also going into the region. This is also where it feels like the imagery shifts where we start to see the frames or boxes that delineate scenes that people are most used to seeing in comics, whereas in the first chapter, there really are no divisions or borders. But as the book progresses, it becomes clear, also why I think the first voice in the book is Paul Andrew, because his life straddles a divide between the life before a circle of meaning and a life after, which feels like a different set of circles or cycles of dependency. Whether it’s alcohol and drugs, welfare, or physical and sexual abuse, and a world where every option seems to be a bad option to a greater or lesser degree. I wondered if perhaps the central exploration of the book is not your initial impulse to discuss resource extraction, but how this one circle is broken and this other set of circles is created. I guess in that light, I was wondering if you could orient us to the scenario of residential schools, and how they were the vanguard of cultural genocide in Canada, because it feels like in a way, at least as I walk through with you, it feels like that is one of the big things that you discover, and then spend a lot of time unpacking in terms of the ways it’s reverberated into the present moment.
JS: That’s what I meant when I said that I went up to do a book about resource extraction and pretty soon it became a book about a lot of other things. But definitely, the residential school is something I’d read about beforehand. But it’s only really when I was there, that it became very clear to me that this wasn’t just something that had happened to the Dené people or the indigenous people of Canada. It was one of the primary things that happened to them, and it’s something, that even though the residential school system is finished, is continuing to happen to them. Basically, from about the 1850s on up to about the 1990s, indigenous people, indigenous kids were taken from their families and put into school systems which were not just meant to get people to read and write. The point was to, and this was outlined very specifically by the first prime minister of Canada, the purpose was to break people from their culture. It was to turn indigenous people into some form of a white person to Christianize them, to eradicate their languages, to make them think like white people and ultimately be useful to white people as wage laborers. There’s no other way to see what happened except through those terms. So I have a number of characters in the book which describe to me in some detail what happened to them. How, let’s say in the case of Paul Andrew, a plane landed near the camp and an RCMP, a Mountie basically, and a couple of other people came out and just took some of the kids with them and flew them off to who knows where, basically, because the parents did not know where their kids were going, sometimes in these situations, siblings were split up, and these kids suffered horribly from this, of course. They were away from their parents, away from the land, and they were regimented. They were made into some, like I say, some version of white people, and it’s had a tremendous impact on indigenous people in Canada. When these kids eventually returned to their homes, they had been traumatized by all kinds of physical abuse, in many cases, sexual abuse. They often came back not really knowing how to speak their language anymore. Not being able to speak to their grandparents, for example. This basically, cut them off from their communities, and the people who’ve been successful at doing it, it’s taken them a long time to reestablish those connections with their traditions, with their culture, with their language. But many people, as you can imagine, succumbed to things like alcohol. They were self-medicating. They were trying to get through the day after being traumatized for years and years and years. This has not only affected the people who went through the residential school system, but it’s affected the children of those people, because trauma is visited again on the next generation, and then the next generation. You’ll see the cycle of domestic abuse and alcoholism that has pervaded the indigenous communities. So what you’ve taken, communities that were very, very strong, which I’m describing in the first chapter, had a great sense of themselves and where they belonged in the scheme of the cosmos basically, in very profound ways and you’ve cut them from that. The residential school system has pervaded every aspect of people’s lives, how they deal with each other, how they deal with the Canadian government, how they approach land claims. It seemed to infiltrate every bit of their lives as I said.
DN: Yeah. This 150-year period of kidnapping children, forcing them to speak English and practice Christianity, and all the various sadistic things that happened in the schools, was ultimately called cultural genocide by the Canadian government itself, as part of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. I wondered, if you could just touch on both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the payout that happened to the indigenous peoples of Canada. Also, your thoughts on that reckoning in relation to the United States. Do you feel like Canada has had more of a reckoning than the United States? Do you feel like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is something that has moved things forward, if we can say forward? Or at least up and a step towards reparation?
JS: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an offshoot of a class-action lawsuit brought against the government of Canada by survivors of the residential school system. The payouts were something separate from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission but were somehow also linked to that process. The problem with the payouts, as was described to me by William Greenland, who works with indigenous people on domestic abuse issues, is that a lot of people who testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were re-dredging a lot of very terrible traumas and they were giving testimony. In doing so, a lot of things that they have been trying to suppress with alcohol were coming back up. When they got payouts, he told me, some of them had a lot of money suddenly, and basically just drank themselves to death. So there’s that aspect of it. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, I think, rightfully said that cultural genocide had been perpetrated on the indigenous peoples of Canada. I think it was a very useful thing, in that people were able to tell their stories, and it became very officially recognized as part of a record. I think the Canadian government squirmed hearing those words by this independent commission, and eventually has apologized. I think all those things are to the good. Obviously, in the United States, there’s been no reckoning that I can see with what happened to indigenous peoples here. What they did in Canada is for the good. There’s an indigenous intellectual named Leanne Simpson and she makes a point that whatever the truth and reconciliation did that was good in getting Canada to look at what had happened during the residential school period, it’s also an official thing. Does everything stop? Is everything tied with a bow once this commission announces, “Okay, it’s cultural genocide”? Actually, the effects of the residential school system will continue, probably for generations. It’s still unwinding, like colonialism itself, it’s still unwinding.
DN: Yeah. It seems like a lot of communities, especially when there’s a scarcity of representation, are wary of having their, let’s say, “dirty laundry” aired to the world publicly. Like if there’s a scarcity of representation of a group, often they just want to have their best face put forth to the public. You do frame it really well. I mean you do frame that all of the things that are going on now, drinking to extended blackouts and premature death, astronomical suicide rates, sexual abuse within the community that is five times the national average, is all coming from this protracted trauma from the residential schools and this complete and intended breakdown of intergenerational knowledge. But I did still wonder if there were parts of the community you encountered that didn’t want these things, these struggles that are going on within the community now to come out, because one of the great things about the book is you have so many people who are speaking by name. We get to know people first and last name, obviously, they’re willful participants, but you go to some very fraught and dark places with them around recovery, and around reclamation of traditional skills, around bringing back language, but also around abuse that has been suffered or abused that has been passed on from generation to another. Were there any sense of people you encountered that wanted to close ranks around that? The way you might see in so many other communities when you don’t see a lot of people of that community in literature?
JS: What I was told to be careful of was, someone actually told me and it wasn’t an indigenous person, was, “Don’t bring up residential schools,” because that person was worried that it would create someone reliving their trauma in front of me and that might not be a good thing. But the thing is a lot of these things came up organically without me probing. Talking about alcoholism, talking about what people had suffered in residential schools, I never pushed people to tell me what they weren’t going to tell me. Some people sometimes would say, “I’ll tell you this.” Of course, you just respect that. I didn’t probe in that way. But things like residential schools and alcoholism in particular were things that were always hovering in conversations. People would often mention that they had been drinking, and they stopped. It came up and they told me about these things in pretty organic ways. There might have been a couple of cases where I sat down with someone and said, “I want to talk about residential schools,” but those were cases where people told me what they wanted to tell me and no more. Alcoholism came up quite a bit. People are very aware that it’s a problem in Northwest Territories. It’s no secret, in other words. I only obviously put in what people told me and what they seem to be comfortable telling me at the time. The important thing for me, because if you see the structure of the book, I start talking about the problems before I really get into the reason why. I don’t talk about what happened, the cruelties, and the trauma of the residential schools, until I’ve already let people know that there’s a big problem with alcohol, and the community seem somehow adrift from all the things that had made them so strong before. It’s important to show the context of these traumas and to really point the finger where it should be pointed, because to me, when people tell me about the alcoholism and other problems within the communities, it’s about colonialism. To me, I see colonialism when people talk to me about alcoholism. There are things that did not exist before contact and certainly did not exist before the residential school system, basically, tried to misshape people. What’s important to me is to put it in the context and to show what the damage colonialism can bring upon to people.
DN: In case you just tuned in, we’re talking today to Joe Sacco about his latest book, Paying the Land. Let’s pivot to resource extraction itself, the thing that originally brought you to this project, a desire of both to do something on climate change, but obliquely, but also to do something that wasn’t about war. In your manifesto at the beginning of Journalism, one of the things you reject is the notion of fair imbalance, which you’ve talked a little bit about already today. You quote the British journalist Robert Fisk who said, “Reporters should be neutral and unbiased on the side of those who suffer.” To me that seems clear in your work as an ethos, whether it be Bosnian, Muslims, Palestinians, or African migrants. You aren’t on the side of the Israelis and the Palestinians, but on the side of the dispossessed. Even as you tried to portray the complex reasons and realities and contradictory narratives. But without knowing much, one might imagine that Fisk’s motto could also apply here, that you’re on the side of the Dene, against the forces of resource extraction. But as you’ve alluded to the situation that you encounter as really different, you’re clearly on the side of these indigenous communities. But it feels like to be on their side is to show a full spectrum of their relationship to resource extraction, which isn’t usually one of clear opposition. I was hoping maybe you could talk to us in more detail about what you discovered with regards to indigenous relationships to resource extraction in the Northwest Territories. Then how you go about, as you did with alcoholism, for instance, contextualizing this extremely complex relationship that’s happening now.
JS: I think the relationship that indigenous people have in the Northwest Territories to resource extraction is related to what happened to them as colonialized people. They were basically forced off the land. If people didn’t want to send their kids to residential schools, the only alternative was to have a school built in your community and move into the community. So people stopped living off the land. What you have then is the vast majority of people in the communities I went to, the people have been turned into wage laborers basically. They used to survive off the land, now they’re wage laborers. The only jobs available are the extraction jobs. Those are the only real jobs available that actually pay relatively well. There are government sector jobs and there’s welfare. Those are the alternatives. People’s relationship with resource extraction is quite realistic. For those people who, their only employment is out in the oil and gas fields, they want those jobs. They are much more interested in having the jobs and maybe trying to figure out a way that the impacts can be mitigated. I never met any indigenous person who didn’t qualify, what they were telling me about resource extraction by saying, “We have to take care of the land first, that’s the most important thing.” All of them said that. But then within that, some people were just opposed to it, because they didn’t like the idea of chemicals being injected into the land for fracking, and where those chemicals are going to come up, and what are those chemicals. Other people are just thinking, “We need jobs here. How else are we going to survive?” They see the old ways are just no longer practicable. People have lost a lot of their bush skills. There was one community, I was in Toledo, where there’s quite a range of ideas about what resource extraction meant, and it wasn’t just about the land, it’s also what it means to a community, when you build a road to a community and make it very accessible so that resources can be extracted around it, if you’re bringing in workers who aren’t indigenous, you’re bringing in trouble, you’re bringing in alcohol, you’re bringing all kinds of things, you’re raising the prices in the hotels, the places that are being rented. There are issues that come with accepting resource extraction. Some people are opposed to that and some people are opposed to just what the extraction is doing to the land. But like I say, it wasn’t monolithic. There are a lot of people on different sides of that issue. Also, something that I’ve seen, too, is sometimes between communities, there can be problems. In the south of the Northwest Territories, I looked at two communities. One of them was called Trout Lake at the time, now it’s called Sambaa K’e, and the other one is Fort Liard. They’re both sitting on a substantial amount of natural gas. One community is very cautious about what that might mean to it if they open up for development. The other community has been much more gung-ho under the chief they had at the time. You’ll find there are conflicts that develop between indigenous communities, because if the boundary between those communities hasn’t been settled, then it’s going to be an issue. There are a lot more things going on when you’re talking about resource extraction. It has to do with what people think about the land, what they think about development coming in. Then it has to do with, “Where is our boundary?”
DN: It made me think of situations also that seemed similar in the United States. Some of the research that I had done for preparation with different indigenous poets who’ve come on the show, discovering that the relationship between the Navajo and coal mining, and that the Navajo have the third largest coal mining business in the United States, and obviously, we know of the indigenous people blocking the pipelines, but also the indigenous people working on the pipelines. But also where you and I live, Joe, there are many tribal nations that are involved in timber and timber harvest. They say something similar to what you heard over and over again in the Northwest Territories. It’s better to control resource extraction than to have it control us. In a way, it’s like the different options on the table are different degrees, methodologies or limits around extraction. But non-extraction is not really one of the central options.
JS: I’d say most people, even those who felt themselves quite close to the land and to their traditions, didn’t foreclose the idea entirely of resource extraction. But I did meet people who would like to get away from it totally. I think for me the surprise was, I thought there’d be much more opposition than I found. But then when you see the economic realities of the place and like you say, what are the options. Welfare? Is that an option? Maybe you could say, it helps people and all that, but it also creates a cycle of dependency that might not be healthy for people who were very strong in and of themselves beforehand. Government jobs, okay, that’s one thing, but that’s also a system that is quite bloated and as they say in the Northwest Territories where the most governed people on earth, they have so many systems of overlapping government structures. There are so many government workers there. I won’t say that’s a form of welfare. But in some ways, it begins to seem like it.
DN: I did appreciate how we see this full spectrum like I’m thinking of Darrell Beaulieu.
JS: Oh, yeah. Right.
DN: Who’s very pro-fracking, and he’s pro to the idea that the community will succeed by creating more jobs, bringing more work to a community that has astronomical unemployment. He says also, I think correctly, that the Dené are conflicted about resource extraction, but so is the world. Then he says to us, “If you don’t feel comfortable with extraction, stop using your car, and your iPhone.” But then there are people like Amos Scott who’s a younger generation, one that is trying to reconnect what has been lost culturally, who also says that even if the Dené do everything right by the land, even if they right themselves to the land, re-establishing a true reciprocity with the land, this notion of paying the land where the caribou would be healthy again, where the Dené people consider themselves the caribou people, there would still be climate change, because of what’s going on everywhere else, and it would still affect them more than most people. Which he said with a lot of, obviously, justified anger. I don’t know, it feels like getting this full spectrum in a weird way, Amos Scott and Darrell, even though they have extremely different responses, one super pro-industry and one reconnecting to lost traditional skills, they seem like they share, or at least partially share the same analysis of the way they’re trapped in this cycle.
JS: Both Darrell and Amos understand that they are in a wider context, a worldwide context that the climate change situation isn’t just a matter for indigenous people to solve and to block. They are caught up in capitalism like all of us are, and they have to feed themselves, and they understand this. Whether they want to go ahead with it and roll with the cards that capitalism has played to them, or whether they are critiquing it, like Amos is, and recognizing it, but understanding that they are in that structure. They both understand that the paradigm we live in is capitalism.
DN: One of the things I was surprised about was how many of the Dené people you profile had held prominent political office within the Northwest Territories. Something that feels different to me than in the United States. I was hoping maybe you could talk about these two generations that you foregrounded, a younger one whose parents include former premiers of the Northwest Territories, and other political figures whose parents might have been more radical at one point with the American Indian Movement but are have now moved into political movements, or like governmental political movements. But then also this younger generation, the children who are being groomed to be future leaders but are involved in groups like The Dené Way, which feel more like they’re trying to bridge that gap that was created by the schools.
JS: I talked to some older people who had experience growing up in the bush, but then had spent time in residential schools and they’re from that generation. They’re from a generation in the 1970s that helped block a pipeline project down the Mackenzie River Valley. That was quite militant, that it had grown up in the 60s and 70s, had seen what was going on around the world including the American Indian Movement, the Civil Rights Movement. I think there were a lot of people around the world at that time that felt like there was almost like this popular front of agitation. They were part of it. So I wanted to tell the story of how they ended up becoming part of Canadian mainstream politics because this really went against their grain. Basically, what they were told by their elders was that, get involved in the Canadian government’s politics, become politicians, we want to negotiate with people across the table that are us, that look like us, that are Dené. Some of these militants, people like Stephen Kakfwi and Jim Antoine, I would say bit their tongues and did that. They got themselves involved in the political mainstream to get what they could for their people, and I think to a large extent, they feel that they’ve succeeded. It might not be perfect. They might not have great love for all those institutions, but they were there to do a job. The generation that followed, in fact, some of their children, are the ones I spoke to, have less connection with the land than their parents, and have a very strong critique of Western civilization and what it’s done to them. That’s the one thing that I was always really, I won’t say surprised, but it really struck me was the great critique of capitalism and what the West has done. But they are even less connected to the land than the elder generation was, so they have to start this project of culturally reinvigorating themselves, getting their language back, learning to be on the land again, because what they all recognize is that the land is what really gives them definition as a people and what gives them strength. They’re much more self-consciously Dené, the younger group. But fascinating, coming up with a project, they’re trying to go forward really against a lot of odds.
DN: Yeah. You talk about two landmark cases between the Dené and the Canadian government, the Paulette case, and the Berger hearing. The former when the Dené asserted aboriginal rights to 400,000 square miles and the second around a proposed natural gas pipeline through the Mackenzie River Valley. Like everything else, there’s this wide range of opinions and stances taken on whether to negotiate, how to negotiate, whether to negotiate together, or whether a certain community would go its own way. I was marveling at how you presented this material. I was marveling, much as Art Spiegelman, the author of Maus, was also marveling about the same thing in your Zoom conversation with him earlier this week, at how you were able to deliver so much information in a way that was entertaining, that kept the reader engaged, while also being complex and pedagogical. Spiegelman was interested in how you kept the page interesting for the reader in these moments specifically, rather than what he would describe as a static assembly line of talking heads. But I was hoping maybe you could just talk a little bit about text image in these moments, because this book is edifying and entertaining at the same time, and it’s remarkable how much you’re giving us history in an extremely complicated way, while also giving us a story essentially, visually, and textually.
JS: I appreciate that. That’s the whole trick, is to take something that I find interesting and complex and see if I can make all that accessible to a reader in a way that isn’t going to seem just like a straight lecture. You learn this stuff over time, I think. If you look at my early journalistic work, like the Palestine book, it’s very text heavy. It’s too text heavy. Over time, I’ve learned to make sure that all the text I was going to put on one page is now spread over to two or three. There are ways that are pretty obvious, in other words, that you can bring a reader along. If the place is engaging, especially visually, it’s engaging, a lot of the work is done for you. The Northwest Territories is really beautiful. It’s really striking, and so there’s a lot of great imagery you can use to help the reader along. Then, of course, it’s a matter of looking at the material, telling yourself, “Well, what are the essential parts that need to be told?” Of course, that takes a considerable amount of time organization and reading things through over and over again to make sure you’re not tripping up with little details. The details can be important, but often, too many things can get in the way. I try, as much as possible, to let characters tell these really complex stories. That was the trick with this story, rather than just being the voice of wisdom, recounting all this information, I let people, who were actually intimately involved in the negotiations explain why they made the decisions they made. I think that’s how I decided to carry the story. They told the stories as they wanted to tell them. Perhaps, you could say imperfectly, they might have left a couple of things out. Obviously, it was their subjective take on these political processes. But I think that it’s much more important to mix up or to show the relationship between human actors and what happens historically because it’s humans who make history. So I was lucky to be able to speak to a lot of these people who could tell me what had happened.
DN: Right around that time when you’re talking with Spiegelman about this, he brought up some of your influences. For instance, the Flemish painter Bruegel. But you also brought up some literary influences. You brought up Céline and also poetry in a general sense. I was hoping you could talk a little bit about those influences, or other influences that are potentially literary influences that affect the way you’re placing text in relationship to each other and also text in relationship to image.
JS: Ferdinand Céline was one of those writers whom I read when I was in my twenties. I was so struck by the rhythm of his work. You have to get the right translation, of course. But he would have these phrases that were just really powerful and punchy and separated by ellipses. Often, these phrases were somehow repeating an idea, but in a different way. But the accumulative effect was really powerful. I was interested in how can I transport that punchy staccato rhythm into comics, and it’s actually relatively easy. You can cut captions so that they’re just single phrases and spread them on the page. In doing that, not only are you having these punchy phrases that are individuated through a page, but you can also lead the reader’s eye with those captions, taking the reader across images that may be a counterpoint, or maybe make the point more emphatic. This notion of tying the actual written word on the drawn page to the drawings and integrating those things has become part of what I’ve learned to do over a long period of time. The poetic stuff is important to me, and I’m saying this as not a great reader of poetry or not someone who’s reading poetry all the time, but there’s so much concision that has to take place when you’re doing comics with the words. To me, I often read out what I’ve written out loud. I want to hear the rhythm of them. I want to hear the way the words will sound to a reader. In that way, I relate it to poetry where the way words sound together really matters to me a lot. I’m often really teasing those things out.
DN: I was surprised to learn that you start with the text when you’re doing layout on the page. Is that right? That you take these text balloons that you’ve cut out in a little ashtray next to your desk, and place them on the page before you know what you’re going to draw?
JS: That’s generally how I do it. I look at my script, I don’t storyboard, so I’m a little unusual as far as what most cartoonists do. I want something spontaneous to happen the day I’m actually going to draw. I decide how much of the text I’m going to put on the page in front of me. Then I decide how I’m going to break that up, like literally what’s going to go into what balloon, what’s going to go into what caption. Then I draw out those word balloons, thoughts, or those phrases. On a piece of paper, I cut them out, and then I place them on a page, and I place them in a way immediately I think, “Okay, the page can flow in this way.” Because I’m always thinking of leading the reader’s eye, what images can go here that are going to fit with these words? Ultimately, I’m a words-guy in a cartoonist body. Words are really important to me.
DN: You come originally from the world of underground comics, so influenced by people like Crumb. In one interview, you were talking about how at the very beginning of doing Palestine, you were still drawing everyone with that bigger caricatured style, but that you were getting some pushback both from Arabs and Jews that had trouble with the way they were portrayed in comics journalism. So you moved pretty quickly to a more naturalistic, accurate style, rather than the exaggerated cartoonish style, except of yourself. In your manifesto in Journalism you say, “I try to draw people and objects as accurately as possible whenever possible to my mind. Anything that can be drawn accurately should be drawn accurately—by which I mean a drawn thing must be easily recognizable as the real thing it is meant to represent.” Then later, you talk about how the subjectivity of an illustration and the accuracy of an illustration, as we’ve discussed, are not mutually exclusive, but can co-exist. I guess it made me wonder about the role of the imagination in Paying the Land. Obviously, you weren’t there when Paul Andrew was born in a moose skin boat or at the fish camp, where his family set up by the river or at the Paulette case negotiations, and I wondered if in those moments, do you give yourself more artistic license to allow your imagination to have more leeway? Or do you still feel tethered to the importance of an accurate representation around the things you haven’t seen?
JS: Accuracy matters to me in terms of what people said, that matters the most is the words have to be right. When you’re drawing something, I try to be as informed as possible about what I’m drawing. In particular, when it’s something I haven’t seen. So I’m relying on photo evidence. Sometimes, I’m going back to the person to say, “Did it look like this?” As much as possible, I’m trying to be accurate, but there’s just no way, with drawing, you can be just precise. There is a subjective element to drawing. It actually is subjective. The act of drawing is a subjective thing, and it became clear to me, as I was undertaking comics journalism, that the accuracy of the quote and the subjective nature of the drawings just had to co-exist, and I realized it was always going to be a tension between those two things. But to me, the tension is the glory of comics, in a way. Especially like in that first chapter with Paul Andrew, I didn’t see someone holding up a baby. He didn’t tell me he was held up to the sky. Even that would be a story that he was told ultimately, but I’m trying to get into the spirit of what it must have felt like to be in a loving group of people where you had a place, where you had a real sense of your self-worth and dignity. So it’s a spirit that I’m trying to portray. Obviously, that’s a very subjective thing to do. But as far as the dog sleds, the tents, all that, of course, I’m trying to draw them as accurately as I can without having seen the particular ones they were using.
DN: Given that a lot of these imagined images are also in engagement with archival photos as part of your scenario, I wanted to return to the contrast between photos and drawings once more, and also again to Molly Crabapple, because in her book Brothers of the Gun, she was recreating scenes from poorly shot, smuggled out photos from ISIS-occupied Syria, but also from her co-writer’s memory of what he saw that the photos did not capture. In a way, a similar scenario to the Paul Andrew, where you’re going with his memory and also with archival photos. This is something that she said when she was talking about her book Discordia. She said, “Picasso’s Guernica doesn’t explain what a body looks like after a carpet bombing, but it does show the agony of war. When I drew, I could see nothing more clearly than the space between my art and its subject.” When I was talking to her, I wondered about that space between art and subject. If the way the art didn’t accurately portray, the subject was also, in some cases, still reaching for a different type of truthfulness. I was thinking at the time when I was talking to her about the writer-photographer Teju Cole, when he was asking the writer John Berger why he didn’t do photography, and Berger said that for him, to photograph a subject was to foreclose some part of what he could write about. I guess I wondered if somehow, that space that Molly describes between her work and the world it depicts, do you recognize yourself in that? Do you recognize something about her description of that gap as maybe being a productive, creative gap?
JS: Yeah. I think that’s an insightful thing she says. I think what you’re trying to go to, if you’re trying to be true to your subjects but knowing that you can never be accurate in the photographic sense, is you’re trying to get to an essence of something. There are images I draw where just the way the page is designed, for example, there’s a scene where Paul Andrew as a young child is describing himself feeling like he’s part of a circle. He’s in a circle, and I draw aspects of Dené life being conducted by his family around him, and he is actually in the center, and there’s a white space around that is circular. That is trying to stay within the spirit of what he’s saying, and not just have just words on a page, and showing his face or something. You’re trying to accentuate the essence of what you think he’s trying to say. You’re always going to be an interpreter, I think. You’re always going to be the one who’s going to make decisions to get across what you’re feeling they’re trying to tell you. You’re an intermediary and your work is an intermediary in that whole process. But that’s okay. That’s the artistic side of what I do, and in some ways, that’s part of the journalistic process, because I think sometimes essential truth can be told with art that can’t really be told with photographs.
DN: In your Lannan Foundation talk, you juxtapose a photograph and a painting. A photograph from the Vietnam War of the chief of national police executing a Viet Cong suspect on the streets of Saigon during the Tet Offensive, one that I think a lot of people know. You juxtapose it with a painting by Goya called The Third of May 1808, which shows Spanish civilians being executed by French soldiers. Could you talk a little bit about what you were trying to show by comparing and contrasting these two executions, one photographed and one painted?
JS: Those are interesting cases because in Goya’s case, when you’re drawing, you’re very intentional about what you’re drawing, and what you’re trying to get across to the reader. Goya, I think people might be familiar with the painting, the French soldiers, you don’t see their faces, they seem to be melded together, they’re pointing their guns, and there are victims that you see their faces, in fact, there’s a guy with a white shirt who has his hands high up in the air, and you’re really struck by his face. Goya is arranging those elements very deliberately to give you an idea of a faceless war machine, executing defenseless people. Now in the case, I think it’s Eddie Adams who took the photograph you’re referring to, it’s one of the most powerful images from the Vietnam War. He said that it didn’t get across what was actually going on that day. Apparently, that Viet Cong suspect or other Viet Cong had executed some people in that place, and this thing was done out of the hot-blooded anger. Eddie Adams liked that general, had spent some time with him, and really thought he was a good man, and later even apologized to that general for the way that picture portrayed, and basically ruined his life. The photograph had its own intent. When you’re an artist, you are deliberate, and you try to bring the reader or the viewer to experience what you’re trying to get across. It’s much more intentional, obviously.
DN: One of the things that really captured me in your talk with Spiegelman again, was you talking about all that you were learning from your mother when you were trying to capture her experience as a child during the bombing of Malta by Germany and Italy. Could you share a little bit of that with our listeners? Because I loved how we’ve talked a lot about you drawing from photographs, both ones that you’ve taken and that are archival, and the differences. But in this case, you’re actually learning to draw through your mother drawing her own memories.
JS: Yeah. Malta was badly bombed in World War II by the Italians and the Germans. I’m from Malta. I was born there and my whole family’s from Malta. I grew up hearing stories from both my parents about the war and what they endured. At some point, I wanted to do a comic book version of my mother’s stories. I think I was living in Portland and she was living in Southern California at the time, and so we did this by a series of letters, where I, basically recalling the old stories, would say, “Can you tell me about the time your friend was killed? Can you tell me about the time you were strafed by a Messerschmitt?” She would write a letter to me with all this information. Just basically a story and I had her words, which is what I used. But there were cases when I didn’t know how to draw certain things, so I would say, “You’re talking about living in a shelter. Can you draw me what the shelter looked like?” My mom, it’s through her I really learned the love of drawing, because she knows how to draw. She used to paint and draw figures, and I would copy them. I’d say, “Draw me a cowboy,” when I was little and she’d draw me a cowboy. That’s where I got my love of drawing, and learned how to draw, and here she was, drawing these little things to help me draw her story. That was actually pretty much the first time I tried to reconstruct someone’s story in comics form.
DN: Returning back to Paying the Land, is it too early for you to know how it’s being received up north? Have there been reviews in Yellowknife’s main newspaper, or elsewhere? Or have you heard anything from some of the people you encountered?
JS: I think that the Radio North, CBC North did a review which I haven’t listened to myself. I try not to listen to my reviews, frankly. [laughs]
DN: You do? Do you avoid them?
JS: There was a period where I’d do, and then I stopped doing it. I sent some boxes of books up there, and as far as I know, they haven’t been distributed yet. They’ve arrived, but they haven’t been distributed, so it’s a little bit too early to tell, I think.
DN: Yeah, if you read a lot of interviews of you over the decades, like I did in preparation for this, almost invariably, when someone asks you what you’re going to do next, you say not only that you’re going to do something completely non-war related, but that you’re specifically going to work on a project that you’ve once described as the Gentleman’s Guide to the Rolling Stones, and another time as “a complete synthesis of Western thought and understanding told as a book about the Rolling Stones.” Yet books come and go that are not this book, and yet again, here we are. I was just curious, what are you going to be working on next?
JS: I’m working on my book about the Rolling Stones. [laughter]
DN: Are you really?
JS: I am. I have been working on this thing for years and years and years, writing a lot of things and now, I’ve been pulling them together. When I was working on the book about the Dené, I gave Saturday over to this project, the Rolling Stones project, until the last eight months, and then I really had to buckle down, and just get the Dené book done. But I’ve been working on it for a long time, and I’ve closed to 100 pages done now. I’m not pulling people’s legs. I’m not yanking their chains. [laughter] This is probably the most important book that Western history will produce since Saint Augustine’s Confessions.
DN: Yeah, I’m sure. [laughs]
JS: I’m going for it, totally going for it. I see it as a series of books that will probably continue after I’m dead. It’s just going to keep going and going. I’m telling you, I’m having more fun doing this than I’ve ever had in my life.
DN: On that fun aspect, when you were talking with Spiegelman again, you were mentioning how it’s way easier and more natural for you to write in the Crumb-like style, in the style of your book Bumf, for instance, that it doesn’t come as naturally for you to write naturalistically and accurately. Is that part of the appeal of what, I’m imagining, is going back to the style you were doing when you were designing album covers or touring with rock bands with the Rolling Stones project?
JS: Definitely. I can’t say about the writing, but the art itself. The way I’ve been drawing my journalistic work has always been really difficult for me. I sweat every drawing. There’s a trick cartoonists know to do, and that’s to hold their art up to a mirror, and when you see the reverse image you can see all the things that are wrong with it. I’m constantly doing that, and constantly having to redraw arms, hands, faces, everything. It doesn’t come easily to me to draw representationally. It just seems to be what needs to be done if I’m going to try to do journalism in comics form. To me, it’s a tremendous relief to draw as my hand wants to draw, which is in the old underground way, where things are much more rubbery, where things are much more exaggerated, and distortion doesn’t matter. That if I distort a face, it’s not a problem for me. I’m actually, intentionally distorting faces. You can’t really get away with that in comics journalism. Part of the fun is just allowing myself to be that seven-year-old again, drawing whatever I want to draw.
DN: One last skeptical question since this has always been the next book. You’ve also mentioned that you were working on a book about a riot that happened in India. Is that something that’s also on the table that you’re working on at the moment, too?
JS: It’s on the table. Let’s just say, I should be working on it. It’s an important story. I have to balance what I think is important to do, which I do think that the book on the Indian riot needs to be done with what I feel I can do right now, and I think I’m a little worn down by my journalistic work over time. So it’s been important for me to do that. The Rolling Stones book is a relief and will give me maybe the energy to do the riot book, which has already started. I already have some pages drawn. It won’t be particularly long. I just have to buckle down and spend a year and a half doing it, and I’ll get to it. I will get to it. I think it’s an important book.
DN: Well, thank you for spending the time with me today, Joe.
JS: It’s a great pleasure, David.
DN: We’re talking today with Joe Sacco, the author of Paying the Land from Metropolitan Books. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.