Samar Ziadat | November 22 2016
In her twenties, Nicole J. Georges visits a psychic who tells her that her father, who she believes to be dead, is actually alive. When she mentions the psychic’s findings to her sister, it is revealed that Nicole’s family have spent the past two decades lying to her about her father’s whereabouts.
Nicole is a queer Syrian-American writer and illustrator based in Portland, Oregon. Her search for her father and her coming-of-age is captured in her award-winning graphic memoir, Calling Dr. Laura. Previous to publishing this novel, Nicole spent two decades creating her own zines and comics, which have also been published as a set of two anthologies. Nicole currently teaches at California College for the Arts’ MFA in Comics Program, and her latest novel, Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home, will be released next year. When she’s not teaching or illustrating, Nicole writes an advice column and volunteers with Senior Citizens. Today, she chats with us about feminism, her artistic practice, the US election results, and, Ponyo, her pet Chihuahua.
I found your memoir Calling Dr. Laura in a London bookshop and couldn’t believe I was holding a graphic novel by a queer Arab – I hadn’t seen anything like it before and I was so excited. I read it on my train-ride home and I immediately loved it. Your story broke my heart, but left me feeling hopeful for the personal and political futures of queer Arabs. Many readers feel grateful to you for sharing your stories so openly. Did you ever hesitate about writing such an autobiographically heavy piece of literature? Were you nervous about how your work would be received?
First of all, let me say that I am so so glad my story resonated with you, and that you felt hopeful! I’m really happy to hear that.
I have been drawing & writing autobiographical work for 20 years, so sharing sections of my life is something I am used to. I know that vulnerability can build a bridge between you and a reader, and to me the benefit of that connection outweighed the cost of embarrassing or exposing myself. I wanted to be as vulnerable as I could in this book.
With that said, I was nervous about how my family would respond to this book. I knew I had to write it regardless (I go by “write with the door closed, edit with the door open”), but it made me edgy. I also wish I’d started using a fake name a long time ago, to protect the people around me. But I didn’t, so here I am. Unsolicited advice to young memoirists: Use one fake name and stick with it! Save yourselves!
Being a queer Arab woman makes you a vulnerable target, both in the Middle East and in the West. Were you ever hesitant about publishing a memoir that represented the fullness of your identity? Did you worry for your safety, and the safety of your family?
When I published this book, my main concern/anxiety was for exposing my family as dysfunctional. I have/had insulated myself in a queer feminist bubble, so I didn’t feel unsafe saying out loud that I was a queer, feminist Syrian woman. I would rather say it, free myself and absorb the consequences than stay bound up in my head, soaking up weird undeserved privilege and living in lies.
My Syrian relatives lived in a community of Syrian & Lebanese people in their town, and made it seem like any struggle was behind them. Racism, xenophobia – it never seemed like an issue – or making myself vulnerable – it was just a fact of life.
I am feminine and I look white, so I am incredibly privileged in America. I don’t have to worry about being assaulted like my friends who are visibly POC or non-gender conforming just for going to the store or walking down the street. I take that privilege very seriously and would like to use it as a platform to be a voice, speak out, and act out for anyone I can.
Do you have any advice for queer Arabs who haven’t come out, or who can’t come out, because of concerns for their safety?
I feel unqualified, but keep yourself safe. Take care of yourself first. If you need to stay on the down-low to preserve your mental or physical health in your community, do what you need to do. If you are able to move to or visit a place that is more accepting, I highly recommend the feeling of being free in this particular way, even briefly.
I would argue that Calling Dr. Laura is an intrinsically feminist novel. Is educating your readers on feminist issues an integral part of your practice?
One of my mission statements in life is to promote empowerment through self-expression. I believe everyone deserves to see themselves reflected back at themselves in the media they consume, and if I can help, I will. I think questioning media & promoting representation is a feminist act. It is an intersectional feminist way of being, and it drives my own community outreach work with seniors and girls and children.
Punk rock feminism is my higher power.
Do you remember when you first began to identify as a feminist? Was there a particular turning point in time when it became very important to you?
You know, I was probably always a feminist, but it took me a minute. When I was in high school, I was surrounded by punk boys, and I wanted them to think I was cool and worthy of listening to, so when they banded against girls, I did too. There’s this awful punk patch that says something like “the dog serves the master but still only gets the scraps”. That’s how I felt. I was going along with the dominant narrative of “boys smart/girls dumb” and “girl vs. girl”, but it didn’t mean I got male privilege, it just meant I was a girl who wasn’t looking after her own best interest, or the best interest of the girls around her.
It took the boys around me banding together to defend a sexual abuser, and unfriending me in the process (after I stood up for his victim), for me to realize our difference. I realized I could have a more complete life by uniting with girls than by competing with them.
Also, reading riot grrrl zines in the 1990s changed my life. They were so honest and raw. They talked about mental health, abuse, racism, classism, and sizeism. They offered a lifeline to me of intelligent, sensitive people, and I took it.
There is one particularly devastating part in the story-line of your novel, where your girlfriend at the time kicks you out of your own two person band. Are the people in your life, including your family, supportive of your creative ambitions?
The people in my life are very supportive of my creative ambitions. My friends are (mostly) all artists and writers and musicians, so they understand the importance of supporting and lifting each other up. I love my artistic community.
My family also supports my creative life. I was raised in a sort of feral way, without a lot of guidance, so I had to make this path for myself. I didn’t have an end game, I was just doing what came naturally. They’re just happy to see it worked out.
I will say that after that experience (as described in the book), I have not been excited to fully collaborate with a romantic partner on a creative project again. My creative life is so intrinsic to my sense of self and sense of self-esteem that I can’t really have someone else get in there and rattle around with it. I’d prefer to keep those two vulnerable parts of myself (romantic person, creative person) separate.
You’ve been a vegan since 1997 – would you say becoming vegan was a political decision? Is there one recipe that you always come back to?
I became vegan for animals. Also for the environment. I was a very politically-minded teenager, so yes, I would say so. I didn’t want to contribute to another cycle of harm. I still don’t. Lately, I’ve been sticking with a very classic and simple tahini sauce. Just tahini and garlic, tamari and lime. It’s great on kale or almost anything.
You’re very vocal about your love for animals, and you’ve included them in your comics before, creating a yearly calendar of your animal doodles, sharing pictures of your pets on social media, and even featuring one of your pet chickens on the cover of your book Calling Dr. Laura. Would you tell us a little about Ponyo the dog and your chickens?
Ponyo is a half-blind Chihuahua mix I adopted as grief-relief after my dog of 16 years, Beija, passed away. Ponyo is a kind soul and has kept me company and been my steadfast companion through many miles and multiple cities over the past 3 years. She is blind in one eye (I got her retinal reattachment in the other), loves to volunteer with senior citizens, and is much more popular than I am in every place we go. She’s the friendliest member of our family.
I had chickens for a while. I started adopting them after living at Farm Sanctuary in my early 20s. I realized how easy it was to take care of a chicken (you basically only have to feed them, keep them safe, and the clean-up is minimal). There are also so many birds who need homes. So I started adopting “spent” hens who couldn’t lay eggs anymore. As a vegan, I don’t need them to be productive in that way.
My last batch of chickens (a pair of ornamentals) got taken by raccoons a couple of years ago, so I have been chickenless! Getting my feather-pets in only when I visit them at a friend’s farm.
What is the funniest or cutest thing they’ve ever done?
I had a chicken named Mabel in my early 20s. I adopted her from my tattoo artist, Dan, actually, and she would come indoors. She sat on my shoulder while I played the air organ and “sang” along with me to songs like “Close To You” by the Carpenters. The last time I had chickens, my partner at the time made a “no chickens in the house rule”, so the singalongs were cut short. But I tried!
What is your favourite thing to draw?
A dog on a skateboard, or a sloth. Definitely not a human being. Well, maybe a butch person with a bowl cut and giant glasses. That’s one of my favorite things to draw. With freckles? I’m dead.
What’s your favourite environment to work in, and what time do you enjoy working at best? Do you have a studio? Do you listen to music?
I’m in a weird moment, because I just got to Los Angeles and I’ve set up a desk in my bedroom. I will often work this way when I’m traveling, but it is not my norm.
In Portland, I have my own separate studio, overlooking the Willamette River. I like to be alone. I need a lot of mental space (like my friend Gabby Schulz said, “If you leave me alone I’ll take your ass to Red Lobster”). I don’t listen to music when I’m writing, but if I’m inking I can listen to Nina Simone and the Fun Home Soundtrack and the B52s. I always wear a smock and listen to the same playlist when I begin working. At the end of my “shift”, I always clean up my station and set things back exactly as they were before. If possible, I’ll leave one thing on the drawing board I’m excited to return to. I’m a creature of routine.
There’s a rumour on the internet that your next novel will explore your experiences of being a Syrian-American in the current political climate… I’m SO excited for this. Could you tell us anything about it?
Argh! I wish! My next giant book is very much about myself and a dog (Fetch: How A Bad Dog Brought Me Home), HOWEVER, I am working on a couple of other things. I am working on a comic about date rape (I’m sure that sounds delightful), a book about gender for kids with Judith Butler and Ken Corbett.
I do have this 20-page comic about my Syrian-American identity sketched out, but the ending keeps changing. With the tragedy in Paris, the refugee crisis, the “bowl of skittles”, and the election, the ending has changed over and over since I started last year. But the thesis of the comic is based on Harvey Milk’s campaign: Everyone Who Can Come Out Should Come Out.
When I first started working on it, everyone was excited, but said it was not journalistic enough, so I went back to the drawing board.
Now the comic needs a home! If anyone would like to give a personal narrative a good home online, please reach out & give me the boost I need to finish it, so that Samar can read it.
The US presidential election must be particularly poignant for you, being an Arab-American living in the US. Where were you when you found out that Trump is going to be the new President of the United States? How did you feel?
I went to Michelle Tea’s house the night of the election. I was the last person left after the election returns became more dismal and confirmed everyone’s nightmare. People were peeling off, going home, but I thought if I just stared at the TV and kept paying attention, good would prevail – Hillary would pull off the final few states. This was magical thinking. I finally left around 11:30 p.m., and truly, by the time I got home, she had conceded the election. It was unimaginable.
I was listening to pop music really loud in my car to artificially buoy my spirits. Like, scream-singing/crying to Mates of State as everything else turned to dust.
The next day I was listening to a horrible, horrible pop band alone in my apartment, and my cis-male neighbor guy started banging on the wall, screaming at me (in a harsh & violent way) to turn it down. That’s when the feeling of being a woman in a violent, misogynist culture really hit me and I started crying in earnest.
It’s been brutal. I’m still engaging in magical thinking.
Do you have any tips to pass on to Arab women who are pursing creative careers, or hope to?
Girls! Women! Sisters! We need you! We need your voices NOW.
Lynda Barry talks about how people generally loved to draw as children, until the point when things started being evaluated as “good” or “bad”. What would happen if you just created art and writing without putting a value on it? Without worrying where it went, and without comparing it to anyone else’s work? That’s my assignment to you. GET THE FEELINGS OUT. Write your heart out, draw whatever you want to draw, and then share it with the people around you. It’s about a practice. It’s about the feeling you get, where your head gets to go, when you’re in the midst of constructing your own reality on the page. It’s also about taking your place in the long lineage of artists and writers expressing themselves and supporting each-other.
Consider what your definition of artistic “success” is. How has it changed? Mine changes all the time. I’m concerned with artistic freedom, helping people, and connection. Challenge your capitalist assumptions around artistic success. Make up your own model of accomplishment. Life is short! Say what you need to say now!
Samar Ziadat graduated with an MSc from the University of Edinburgh’s College of Art in 2016. When she’s not ranting about race or feminism, she’s googling pictures of little dogs. You can follow her on instagram and twitter, or read her articles here.