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Monday, 11 July 2016

Not a misery memoir

Today I shall be talking about two books that were the subject of a talk I went to about a month ago. These books are Nicola Streeten's Billy, Me and You; and Una's Becoming/UnBecoming. Both have left a profound impression on me and I want more people to know about them.

Streeten's Billy, Me and You is about her grief that came after her son died at the age of two. I was
initially afraid that the book would be about her son's death but, other than a brief contextual description at the start, it is resolutely not about Billy. It is about her grief, and that's something I have previously found difficult to separate. The book covers the immediate emotions; her relationships and attitudes to other people; her career; her relationship to her next baby; changes to the placement of Billy's things in the house; support groups - most other stuff in her life really (because grief of that intensity affects everything you do).

She wrote it about 13 years after Billy's death, which (I think) has given her the emotional space to write a more complete book. Grief in the first few years is very different to grief eight or ten years down the line, and probably makes for a better narrative as you are not in the immediate grip of sadness and terror.

The drawings are scratchy and wobbly, definitely unpolished. I think Streeten referred to them as rough and ready (although maybe I'm misremembering). For me, they work expertly well at depicting her grief, because that feeling is rough and ready. The art is raw and it leaves you feeling all over the place. Some days you are fine, other days it's like everything is falling apart and the messiness of the art conveys that.

Streeten uses a lot of visual metaphor, which connects the reader to the story far more readily than prose. For readers, it is cathartic. It certainly helped me process my feelings.

Una's book is a very different thing. It is precise and measured. It is careful and thoughtful. It takes a more intellectual approach to the topic of trauma. Becoming/Unbecoming is also autobiographical. It is about growing up female in Yorkshire in the 1970s when the Yorkshire Ripper was active. Una was raped several times in this period (not by the Ripper); and had to endure the slut shaming and institutional misogyny that was pervasive in British culture at the time (and still is, although the internet has given women a platform and a way to be heard en masse, which is covered by the book).
Becoming/Unbecoming discusses her peers' attitudes to women and girls, the silence surrounding sexual assault, the mistakes made in the Ripper case, and the mess that is society's approach to sexual violence and women.

It is not a book about her attacks, and no sexual attacks are drawn. It is likely to be upsetting though, so please be careful when reading.

Una has a fine art background. Her drawings range from simple yet precise depictions of people, to the most elegant drawings of trees and emotions. Una's artwork made me want to start drawing. I'm amazed at how she conveys so much information about a person with just a few pencil lines and some colour. Like Streeten's book, Becoming/Unbecoming is rich with metaphor. It's there in the visual narrative waiting for you to think about and decipher it. Some pages use the standard comics presentation of panels, and other others use one or more (separate) pictures accompanied by prose. This method forces the reader to think more - you cannot just glide along, reading the surface of the story, you need to become engaged in it.

There is an interview with Una here, on the the F Word website. Una's own website is here.

The title of this post is 'Not a misery memoir' because these books are not. If you describe the subject matter - grief and sexual violence - you would expect to be reading about the gritty details, but neither book gives that. They provide a dignified voice to these subjects, and examine, from a certain distance, how these events impact on both the main subjects' lives, but also on those around them and on wider society.

Billy, Me and You:
ISBN: 978-0-956559-94-4
Price: £12.99

ISBN: 1908434694
Price: £14.99
Publisher: Myriad Editions

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