This month, I’m reading Maus by Art Spiegelman (for the third time) and Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeline Thien (for the first time). Both are quite different – I mean, one’s a comic book about the Holocaust and one’s Canadian literary fiction about the effects of the Cultural Revolution in China. But there are surprising similarities.
Both are incredibly personal family stories. In Maus, Art interviews his father Vladek about his experience as a Polish Jew during WWII. Art frames the narrative by including scenes of his current rocky relationship with his father, and the effect of his mother’s suicide. Thien also writes about a family affected by suicide, focusing on stories of Marie’s father especially, both in Canada and in China.
In a post-modern vein, both stories include other texts to offer background and depth to each respective narrative. In Do Not Say We Have Nothing, Ai-Ming tells a fable-like story about the Cultural Revolution and its effects. In Maus, Art includes a short comic illustrated in a completely different style that explores his guilt around his mother’s suicide.
Both books are award-winning and critically acclaimed. Thien won the Giller Prize and made the shortlist for the Man Booker, and Spiegelman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his work. The storytelling in both is creative, nuanced, and authentic, with plenty for the seasoned reader to think about.
Finally, both stories use just the right amount of humor. This may seem like an out of place element in stories concerned with such heavy subjects, but humor offers relief, clarity, and contrast. When Vladek throws out Art’s coat, for instance, we are given a needed chance to smile a little.
Both books are from different times and unique perspectives of course, but it’s interesting to consider the connections and themes that emerge in our lives and in the art that we interact with. I’m a bit of a tough reader these days (maybe a bit jaded?) but I’m enjoying both books immensely.