Soviet Daughter and the Potential of Graphic Histories
Very briefly, I want to write about Julia Alekseyeva’s Soviet Daughter in the context of a growing body of graphic histories. Professional and aspiring historians can learn much from such accounts, especially in how we might be able to use artistic reconstructions and visuals to supplement more traditional historical forms of presentation like photographs, prose, and charts and graphs.
Soviet Daughter is a graphic novel telling two not-exactly-parallel stories. First, there is Lola, who died leaving a memoir to her descendants. Born in 1910 in Ukraine, Lola lived in the Soviet Union throughout most of the 20th century, and her sections of the book are mostly concerned with her struggle to survive and the various jobs, political activities, and love affairs she had during her life. The other, much smaller, part of the book concerns Julia Alekseyeva herself and her own struggles with Jewish identity, politics, and other more contemporary problems.
Because of this dual nature, although Soviet Daughter is widely reviewed as a memoir or autobiography, this characterization only sticks to Julia’s part of the book. These frame and contextualize the other parts of the story, and are key to the overall strategy of Soviet Daughter, but they can also serve to obscure the fact that the majority of the book is a graphic history that uses many of the narrative techniques and research methods of conventional histories.
Alekseyeva’s aims are obviously different from that of the academic or journalistic historian, being a more literary attempt to grapple with the meaning of a particular person in her own life, but even in this intimate context her work functions as a history. It is assembled from the author’s analysis of and selection from a primary source (Lola’s memoir), and narrates this history in a narrative sequence that’s meant to convey a particular truth about the people and events contained in it. Now, it’s true that Alekseyeva uses exact quotations from the memoir to narrate the story, but the substance of the story is incomplete without the drawings and visuals, which are every bit as interpretive and synthetic as a professional historian’s account.
Now, most historians don’t convey their analyses and findings in a primarily visual medium. That is not to say, however, that historians do not use visual means to convey information. Most of the time, however, these visual artifacts are photographs that are contemporary to the time and place being studied or charts and graphs that convey quantitative information or simplify complex systems and theoretical arguments. What I think Soviet Daughter and other graphic histories––either more journalistic like those of Joe Sacco or personal like Persepolis––challenge us to do as historians is consider the value of visual reconstructions and what role they can play in our work. By visual reconstruction I mean commissioned or self-produced visual representations of our arguments and narratives. We can keep our professional standards, footnotes, and so on, and ensure that readers are well-informed of the reenacting quality of these visuals, but they might be able to capture particularly difficult and ambiguous aspects of our histories that are not so amenable to prose explanations or more traditional graphic methods, especially when photographs might be inaccessible.
We as historians embrace and use prose because of its capacity for precision and the relative ease with which we can critique and utilize information conveyed through prose. That said, prose is not the best means of communicating either every idea or to every person. Not every human being learns best or can even easily understand highly abstract prose, and a history constructed through serial art but subjected to rigorous review might be a way to reach new people and to provoke new kinds of thinking about history, especially its visual and spatial aspects.
Someday, we might have an entire group of people who work as historical illustrators, working with authors and students to create well-researched and evocative images that can convey new understandings of history. At first, such works might seem like provocations, but we have to understand and utilize the full range of communications methods in history or else our marriage to prose might prevent us from fully exploring certain topics. And graphic history/memoirs like Alekseyeva’s show us that it can be done, though it might be for us to prove whether such a form is financially and professionally viable.
At the very least, it is worth considering as one of the many tangential possibilities available to historical scholars today and in the future.