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  • Writer's pictureKay Sohini

I am writing/drawing a book!

My first book is now under contract with Graphic Mundi, a comics-centered imprint of Penn State University Press! Tentatively titled Unbelonging, this book is based on the research I pursued during my PhD at Stony Brook University, which culminated in the doctoral dissertation "Drawing Unbelonging: Comics as Thinking, as Method, as Resistance." I researched, wrote, and drew about all the things I cared deeply about, from trauma and illness, to the climate crisis, to systemic misogyny in South Asia, to infrastructural inequity, to pandemic precarities, along with the role of art-based research in humanistic inquiries. I wanted to approach the sociopolitical through the lens of the personal, and I wanted to show why the comics medium is deeply conducive to the representational challenges pertaining to the intersection of climate change and disability justice. As a dissertation, “Drawing Unbelonging,” thankfully, was quite well-received. In early 2021, I received a very generous grant from the Mellon Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies to fund my last year of dissertation writing at Stony Brook University. During this time, parts of my work was published in The Nib and Covid Chronicles, among others, and I was asked to speak at several events pertaining to innovative dissertations, as well as in comics classrooms. I feel very lucky to have a small but engaged group of people (online and offline) who have shown interest in seeing “Drawing Unbelonging” as a book since I started posting relentlessly about it, mostly on Twitter.

However, the book version of this project will be considerably different. Why? The first and the most obvious answer is that, as a dissertation, “Drawing Unbelonging” did not need to have the kind of cohesive narrative arc expected from a Graphic Narrative. I also want to smooth out the rough edges. I deeply believe in the concept of comics as a way to think (McCloud, Sousanis). “Drawing Unbelonging” was my way to think through the pressing issues of our time, and how humanities scholarship, art-based approaches, and indeed, comics, can ethically intervene in public discourse, raise awareness, and resist disinformation. I also wanted to experiment with the image-textuality and (forgive the jargon), the spatiotemporality of the medium to discover what it means to draw comics about issues that are deeply personal but are strongly mediated by larger social inequities. I learned (and am still learning) data visualization, to integrate datasets seamlessly with the visual narrativity of comics, to create an appeal that’s both statistical and emotional. I leapt from one subject to another— from comics as thinking in my first chapter, to grief time in my second, to climate change in the third, to disability and illness in the fourth, and then to pandemic precarities in the final chapter—not because I did not have direction, but because I was interested in multiple issues and their intersections, and, thanks to the ACLS grant, I had time to work through trial and error. As a dissertation, this approach made sense. It was an exceptionally rewarding learning experience, and I would not have done it any other way.

As a book that will be out in the world (possibly without the above contextual background), Unbelonging needs to flow more seamlessly from one chapter to the next. While I do not desire chronological order, I do aspire for a narrative order that’s cohesive in (and hopefully because of) its nonlinearity. I wish for the various (ostensibly) diverging strands of Unbelonging—trauma, illness, climate change, comics—to unite around one cohesive argument. In the three weeks since I successfully defended my doctoral dissertation, I have thought about this last point a lot. What is Unbelonging about? My answer (for now) is that it’s a comic about how comics can address personal and sociopolitical complexity—except instead of talking about how the medium lends itself to nonfiction/research, Unbelonging strives to actually do the thing, in a manner where the metacommentary is implicit enough to not detract from the primary narrative, but visible enough to direct readers to the enormous potential of the medium in making visible the critical intersection of disability justice and climate change.

Comics as a medium, serves our individual truths in tandem with the scalar (messy) truths of the universe. Unbelonging, the book version, tries to balance that act.

PS: My only concern is that doing this would result in losing some of the “thinking through comics” effect from the narrative. But hey, that’s what inter-chapters (or perhaps an afterword) are for…

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