Born Into a Connection: Interview with Sarah Glidden
Sarah Glidden is a cartoonist working out of Brooklyn. In 2008, she won an Ignatz Award for her travelogue mini-comic How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less. That same comic has since been published in color as a Vertigo graphic novel (TFT review here). Glidden’s memoir is currently available in stores today.
She is currently working on a graphic novel project tentatively called Stumbling Towards Damascus, about the process of journalism and the way in which news is gathered and reported.
The Faster Times: In the first few pages of How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less, you talk about deciding to go on Birthright to find out a little bit more about the conflict in Israel. Why was the conflict so important to you in the first place? Why did this stand out amongst all the other various political conflicts and debates throughout the world?
Sarah Glidden: It does seem sometimes like the conflict in Israel gets a disproportionate amount of attention from the rest of the world, especially when there are so many other conflicts going on that could benefit from a little more international help. The difference is that I grew up hearing about how important Israel is. I would say that my family was more culturally Jewish than religious, but my brothers and I did go to Sunday school and we studied for our bar and bat mitzvahs, so we were repeatedly told that Israel was our homeland, that it was a place for our people and that we should feel like it was our country too. You are encouraged to have a relationship with Israel. But the thing about relationships is that they’re very simple when you’re a child. When you get older they get more complicated and take a lot of work.
TFT: What made you eventually decide to go to Israel?
SG: So when I got older and started paying attention to the news more and I learned more about what was going on in Israel it felt really personal. Whenever I would hear about something that the Israeli government did that was oppressive or violent towards the Palestinians, I felt like I was partly responsible. I was a really sensitive kid and I turned into a sensitive adult and it really upset me to hear about everything that was going on over there. Violence and exploitation anywhere get to me. But with Israel I felt really torn because I was angry at the country for being part of the problem but I simultaneously wanted to defend it when people started talking about what it was doing wrong. I talk about this in the book, but Israel to an American Jew is like family. You are born into your connection to it and sometimes you get really pissed off at it, but when other people start attacking it you take it personally. “Don’t you say that about my uncle! You have no idea what he’s been through!”
Anyway, for a while in my 20’s I wanted to deny that connection all together and just let myself be angry with Israel without thinking twice. I think I wanted to go there so I could be sure that this was the right way to think about it. But that’s not how it ended up going.
TFT: Was there any part of the trip that you didn’t include that you regret not writing about?
SG: There’s no one incident that I regret not including, although there were a lot of funny or interesting anecdotes that had to get cut. But I do wish I had had more room to include some of the conversations I had with other people on the trip about how our relationships with Israel were shifting. The trip really had an impression on a lot of people. One girl I talked to had come from a more right-wing family and hadn’t thought a lot about the Palestinian side of things and she told me that the trip had forced her to face some of this in a way she hadn’t before. It had shifted her towards a more moderate point of view. This was interesting to me because I had had kind of the opposite experience, coming into the trip from the extreme left and moving away from that polar end of things.
TFT: To what extent did your trip to Israel and your subsequent writing about it change your relationships with family or friends?
SG: I really thought that it would while I was on the trip, and I was terrified about that. In my relationship with my boyfriend at the time and a certain group of friends, politics was something that we talked about a lot and it had become a huge part of my identity. I thought I had a pretty solid grasp on how I thought about things. So when I started questioning my own thoughts on the conflict I thought that I was going to lose the respect of these people who had come to like a Sarah with a certain set of politics. Which is ridiculous! Who bases a relationship on personal politics? I had to learn how to separate these things from what actually matters in a friendship. So no, it didn’t end up changing anything, although I think maybe the people in my life have heard more than they ever wanted to about the Middle East. I talked about it way too much when I started working on the project. Now I kind of try to avoid the subject.
TFT: Do you think How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less is a guide to understanding Israel, or is it mostly a story about traveling in Israel?
SG: I think its the story of someone trying to understand a complicated place. I really did want to come to some conclusion when I went on that trip but being there I saw how naïve that hope was. But I think little by little my character comes to accept that its OK not to take a side and that you can have conflicting points of view on an issue. With anything complex that matters to us, we want some sort of validation that what we feel is ok. I was looking for someone else to tell me that the way I thought about Israel and the “situation” was the right one so that I didn’t have to worry anymore about whether I was wrong. But in the end I realized that you can’t rely on someone else to tell you that you’re feeling the right thing, you have to just accept that you’re on your own. All you can do is try your best to learn as much as possible and be open to other people’s points of view, but there’s never going to be some kind of end to it where someone says “congratulations! You have found the truth!” What comes with that is also learning that you shouldn’t try and convince other people to think like you. None of this is specific to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict either; it can apply to almost anything.
TFT: What do you want your readers to come away with after reading the graphic novel?
SG: I guess I hope readers can come away from the book feeling like they’re not alone if they’re confused and that maybe being lost in the big gray area in the middle can be better than being certain you are right.
TFT: Did your trip to Israel change your self-perception as an American-Jew?
SG: The experience I had in Israel was humbling. I realized that as much as I had thought I was well-informed on the political situation there, I actually only had a very basic grasp on the issues and had no idea how complex everything was. Which made me feel like an idiot for being such an annoying know-it-all beforehand. It wasn’t an instant change or anything, but I definitely started questioning myself more than I ever had. I was also came to see how judgmental I could be, how quick I had been to write someone off because they identified as a Republican or something like that. I had seen myself as a worldly, educated and kind bleeding-heart liberal but realized that I could be a real snobby jerk! Sometimes the people you think you have the least in common with are the ones you learn the most from.
TFT: How did Israel change you, and how much of the experience you went through was related to your Judaism?
SG: As for how this relates to Judaism, I’m not sure. Before the trip I didn’t think of being Jewish as an important part of my identity. I’m agnostic, I don’t go to synagogue, keep kosher or observe Shabbat. But during and since the trip I’ve come to see that Judaism is also about keeping close to your family, being concerned with social justice and questioning yourself and your relationship with the world. I used to think that you couldn’t consider yourself Jewish AND question Israel at the same time. On the trip, all we did was question Israel. The fact that the guides and the trip leaders werent telling me that I had to love it unconditionally made me feel more connected to Judaism itself. That may seem counterintuitive, but no one in my generation wants to be told they have to love something or feel a certain way. It just pushes us away.
TFT: What work for the comic did you do while in Israel, and did it affect the experience?
SG: I brought this big thick sketchbook, thinking that I was going to do a lot of sketching, but mostly I ended up writing a lot. I was writing down everything that everyone was saying and also trying to record my thoughts and emotions on things as they came up. Sometimes, like after my little mental breakdown, I couldn’t even figure out why I was so upset. So I wrote “I don’t even know why I’m so upset.” That helped me later when I was writing the comic. I didn’t want to write about what I knew in hindsight was my reason for being upset, I wanted to portray the actual confusion I had felt in that moment. I also took a lot of photos but I would have done this anyway. I’m a photo-addict. I’m not sure what effect it had on the experience though. I find that taking notes always helps me concentrate on what people are saying and keeps my mind from wandering, from daydreaming. So maybe if I hadn’t been taking so many notes I would have missed more of the history that we were being told about. Maybe I would have been more relaxed.
TFT: How did you pitch How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less to Vertigo, and what were their thoughts on the subject matter?
SG: I was really lucky because I didn’t have to pitch this to Vertigo. At the time graphic novels were extremely popular and the recession hadn’t hit yet, so lots of publishers were out looking for new talent. My editor, Jon Vankin, was at the MoCCA fest in New York and he came over to the table I was sharing with about 6 other Brooklyn cartoonists. I had started the book as self-published black and white minicomics and had made two chapters by then, and he asked me about them and ended up buying them. Then a few days later I got an email from him telling me that Vertigo was interested in publishing the complete book in color. I was shocked! And also really excited and terrified. I was pretty new to comics and wasn’t sure if I was ready to work with a publisher as big as Vertigo. But Jon and Karen Berger thought I was ready and that gave me the confidence to do the best I could on my first full-length book. In the beginning I thought they were crazy and I didn’t think my work had anything in common with Vertigo’s other books, but later I learned more about Vertigo and saw that they have a history of publishing work that is political and different.
TFT: While you don’t talk about it too much, what did your trip to Israel teach you about the culture of Israel, beyond just the conflict?
SG: I already knew that Israeli culture was a lot like American and European culture, but I was really surprised by how much I felt like I fit in. It felt familiar. When a lot of Americans think about Israel, we think of what we see on TV: a country bound up in a violent conflict. But that’s not the way life is for most people. It’s also just a normal place with people trying to live normal lives. It’s jarring at first to see young soldiers walking around with guns at a shopping center or to have your bag searched for weapons when you’re entering a restaurant, but you get used to that really quickly. Its interesting to see what people grow accustomed to.
TFT: Do you want to go back and take another trip to Israel in the near future? What would you want from your second trip to the country?
SG: I’d love to go back sometime and I only wish it weren’t so expensive to get there. I would want to visit friends mostly. But I’d also like to finally get to visit the West Bank. On my first trip I didn’t go because some people told me it would be dangerous for me to go alone and I got nervous. It’s funny because it was my Israeli friend who told me it would be too risky to go to Ramalah. Before the trip, there were some people thought it would be too risky for me to go to Israel itself! Anyway, I’ve always regretted the fact that I let this fear keep me away from what sounds like a normal city.
Follow us on twitter@thefastertimes
- 1 First Openly Straight Figure Skater Comes Forward
- 2 Brooklyn Man Now Living Entirely Off Own Beard Garden
- 3 “Cra Cra” Now Official Diagnosis in New DSM (DSM-5)
- 4 OfficeMax Marketing Director Struggling to Make Staplers ‘Sexy’ and ‘Conversational’
- 5 Homeless Guy Woos Silicon Valley VCs with Low-Tech Crowdfunding Startup
- 6 Area Man Tailors Life To Be More Relevant To His Hulu Advertisements
- 7 Fan Banging Furiously on Glass Could Be the Difference in Hockey Playoffs
- 8 Survey: 88% of Eagles Fans Too Drunk To Spell Nnamdi Asomugha Last Season
- 9 Local Mom Won’t Stop Being First Person to Like Every Goddamn Thing Son Posts to Facebook
- 10 Shaq Confident He Will Eventually Make Funny Quip on TNT