Multimodal Anthropologies

By Sherine Hamdy (University of California, Irvine) and Coleman Nye (Simon Fraser University)

Lissa is the debut book in the ethnoGRAPHIC series at the University of Toronto Press.

During the revolution in Cairo, a friendship that cuts across class, religious, and cultural divides is put to the test as each friend struggles to understand the other’s medical decision.

The title “lissa” comes from the Egyptian colloquial word meaning “not yet” or “there’s still time.”

Lissa tells a fictional story of two young women, Anna and Layla, based on the ethnographic research of Sherine Hamdy and Coleman Nye. Fiction allowed us to bring our two fieldsites together.

Anna grows up in Cairo, the daughter of American expats, in the shadow of her mother’s cancer.

Her best friend Layla is her source of strength.

Her mother’s illness and demise are formative in who she becomes.

After her mother’s death, Anna returns to the US to continue her education.

Layla stays in Egypt and becomes a medical student.

Layla soon encounters an epidemic of kidney and liver failure both in her studies and at home.

Layla learns that her father, Abu Hassan, has kidney failure and needs dialysis.

While in college in the US, Anna is struggling with a decision about her genetic cancer risk that Layla does not understand.

Meanwhile, Layla struggles with a decision about organ transplantation that Anna cannot fathom.

Layla’s mother refuses the idea of her children becoming donors.

As Layla and Anna struggle with these medical crises, revolution breaks out in the streets of Cairo.

We sought intertextual citation and reference to what Egyptians intellectually produced during and after the revolution—through meeting with Egyptian comic artists and studying the work of Egyptian graffiti artists of the revolution. If we were, in the making of Lissa, also making the implicit argument that visual artistic creation is a form of knowledge-making, we wanted this to be built upon the everyday visual representations that Layla and Anna would encounter. Whereas the severely militaristic and counterrevolutionary political climate during the trip depressed us, meeting with young Egyptian comic artists was the perfect antidote.

This slide-essay has been excerpted from Coleman Nye and Sherine Hamdy’s presentation at the 2017 American Anthropology Association Annual Meeting Executive Session “Drawing Culture, or Ethnography as a Graphic Art: The making of Lissa.” The session had two parts: the first was to explore how complex anthropological concepts are conveyed through comics; the second was to examine the collaborative process that went into the crafting of Lissa, for which ethnographic filmmaker Francesco Dragone spoke and screened his documentary film about the Lissa team’s research trip to Egypt, and for which Faye Ginsburg (New York University) served as the discussant. Below are the discussant remarks on the first half of the session from Julie Livingston (New York University).

There is so much that is exciting about this book— including but not only the move from “writing culture” to “drawing culture.” It’s transnational and comparative. There is text and image. And I want to say quite importantly, not photography. There is a long history of the photo essay, the ethnographic image, and, of course, the ethnographic film. And yet this is something quite different: a form of ethnographic realism whose imaginative seams are open and proudly exposed. And it involved taking artists to Egypt, and they did fieldwork.

Thematically and analytically, its accomplishments are equally bold. Lissa explodes the usually far-too-narrow domain of bioethics to encompass large-scale political, economic, and environmental questions. It shows the unevenness and illogic of the biomedical market —whether it be ten thousand dollars for a prophylactic mastectomy and breast reconstruction in the US or the too-dear price of dialysis and medication in Egypt—juxtaposing this with the patent regime. And yet it does not abandon the more classic bioethical conundrums surrounding intergenerational organ transfer or genetic testing. It opens the immanent frame to juxtapose Islam and secularism as embedded cosmologies, rather than opposing them as “fatalism and progress” or “modernity and tradition,” or pick your unpleasant and misleading binary.

It is feminist! I am so happy about that, that I will say it again: It is feminist! Yes—and there is art that allows for a frankness in its engagement with the female body that would otherwise be difficult visually.

And it is postcolonial without denying the potential for even the privileged to suffer. It’s well paced—a page-turner—and yet manages to dig deep into the complexities, the limitations, and the experiential quandaries of illness and embodiment, all while underscoring a feminist and postcolonial ethos.

There is a revolution at hand—a rendering of agency and political spirituality and violence and masculinity and youth. And there is a close friendship between girls, and then women, who text and share intimacies and need one another, but who also withhold and inhabit tenuously overlapping worlds. It is an ethnography of fictional characters in a real world.

My favorite aspect of this rich work is its depiction of the embodiment of kinship. We see this with both families at the center of the book—through both genetic testing and disease as well as organ transfer and bodily care. And we see kinship’s profound limits in the deaths and loneliness of patients. Something like 7 percent of all breast cancers are thought to be genetic, and of those about a quarter are accounted for by BRCA 1 and 2, but for three decades now they have dominated the popular and medical imagination. I like how Lissa takes up BRCA and shows the ways that living in prognosis (to use Lochlann Jain’s phrase) gains its profound weight through lived kinship, the experience of a mother’s illness and death, while at the same time not allowing this narrow slice of cancer to stand in for the totality of cancer, amid invocations of environmental toxicity. And perhaps equally important, it does not reduce the question of mastectomy to concerns over sexuality.

I want to draw attention to a moment within the book—a pair of two-page spreads—where we see a cascade of toxic medicines, DNA, big-pharma money, a very sick human being, toxic yet quotidian chemical waste, and then a single young woman (a daughter of an oil executive) trying to make sense of how and where to act within this mess of toxicity and therapeutics. This is followed a few pages later by a two-page spread featuring a patient on dialysis with similar toxicities of industry and agriculture, money and medicines, machines and power lines, and a very sick human being. In NOT separating out cancer from a whole welter of deadly illness—in highlighting and at the same time crossing between Egypt and the US, between masculine and feminine, money and kinship—those four pages essentially depict, without any words, what I take a semester to unpack in my course on the Cancer Industrial Complex.

I could go on and on, but in the interests of time, I will just pose two questions for you both to take up or leave aside as you see fit. I am fascinated by how well this story blends, even as it merges two very different pieces of anthropological research. Coleman has commented on the artistic styles and their separation and blending, but I wonder if you two could comment for us on the extent to which the graphic novel form, with its very need for spartan text, and its very need for ongoing conversation between writers and artists (with the exception of writers who are also illustrators), produces that singular yet layered analytic voice that many collaborations cannot? In other words, if you two had tried to tell this story NOT in graphic form, how different do you think the blending would have been?

And second: As an Africanist, comics have a long, important history—from Tin Tin au Congo and its critiques to Papa Mfume and other West African comic artists, to the genre paintings. I see comics all the time in AIDS education, in maternal child health, in sanitation, etc. I have lots of them in my office—I have one on the wall of my living room. I wonder if you all can comment on how the creation of the ethnoGRAPHIC series helps to carve out a critical particular subfield within a genre—one that plays with and at times subverts a public health form and a colonial adventure form to raise deep anthropological questions of it. In other words, we’ve heard how comics remake ethnography, but how does ethnography remake comics?”

Thank you so much, Julie, for these generous comments. To your first question, we did, in fact, try to tell this story NOT in graphic form; we first thought of this as a collaborative project and drafted it in the form of an academic journal article. But we were bored and unsatisfied by it. We put it away in a drawer, never submitting it to an academic journal, and we did not pick it up again until Anne Brackenbury (at University of Toronto Press) approached us with the idea of a graphic novel.

In terms of how ethnography can remake comics: well, some of it is through points you have already mentioned—like, by centering the characters, who were based on our research interviews, we were keen on subverting assumptions about female bodies. We wanted to foreground the female body without objectifying it sexually, and this required breaking from many conventions in comic format. But, like you mentioned, this is more from a feminist standpoint than a specifically ethnographic one. I think that bringing all the nuances and ethnographic detail of fieldwork onto the page was really important to the whole team, both authors and illustrators. But from the outset, we saw ourselves as benefiting from comics to shed light on ethnography and didn’t really reflect on what we might contribute in the other direction. But in a MAQ forum on Lissa, the comic artist Parismita Singh picks up on how Lissa could serve as a resource on ethics and methods—that is, on how to collaborate with interlocutors such that their own artistic visions and voices show up on the page, without simply appropriating their intellectual work. I think ultimately this is a question for comic artists themselves to answer—and we are beyond thrilled that both anthropologists and comic artists are reading and thinking about it.

Hamdy, Sherine, and Coleman Nye. 2018. “Drawing Culture, or Ethnography as a Graphic Art: The Making of Lissa.” American Anthropologist website, June 7.

Share this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *