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“A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships.” -Jorge Luis Borges
My PhD discussed how technologies had helped define the formal characteristics of the medium of comics. An important contingent within the global field of digital humanities has denounced the need for “more hack, less yack”, as well as for practicing what one preaches. Though I believe that theory is a form of praxis, there are indeed huge differences between studying stuff and making such stuff happen. In my thesis I wrote about how different technologies imposed limits and possibilities for comics creation, publishing, distribution and reading, but actually dealing with such technologies directly to make a comic book is a different matter. Making a comic and editing and publishing a comic book are not the same thing either, but the latter gives you a privileged perspective into the difficulties involved, the obstacles that authors and publishers face before a book reaches the readers.
So when multilingual children’s book publishers Mantra Lingua in London offered me the chance of managing the editorial project of the English edition of a Swedish educational graphic novel for children, it was a dream come true. Based on an inspiring true life story, Sofia Z–4515 is a graphic memoir about survival and hope which centres around the persecution and murder of the Roma people during the Second World War. It had never been published or available in English before and it told a story not often heard before. I soon found myself fiddling with professional image editing and desktop publishing software, applying for international funding, liaising with publishers, authors and translators, re-lettering the comic itself, comissioning two afterwords from two fellow scholars, collaborating with in-house designers and editorial and publishing staff, organising audio narrations, editing audio, annotating digital files for coding, organising PR, etc.
A further connection with my academic work and this project is not only formal but thematic. I wrote my MA dissertation about Art Spiegelman’s Maus, now one of the most respected graphic novels in the world, which tells the testimony of the author’s father as a Jewish Holocaust survivor and his own troublesome relationship with him and the process of making the book itself. There I explored how the comics language enabled and communicated processes of mourning, memory and working-through. I also participated in a permanent research seminar on testimony and trauma at the Poetics Centre of the National Autonomous University of Mexico between 2001 and 2004, and I wrote and published articles about authors like Claude Lanzmann, W.G. Sebald and indeed Art Spiegelman.
Needless to say, the Holocaust and comics is not a new concept. Even though most people will unavoidably relate the Holocaust and comics with Art Spiegelman’s Maus (and perhaps the X-Men!), this book, though not really comparable with the ambition and artistic originality of its main referents, is a special case because it centres around the persecution and murder of the Roma people during the Second World War. Moreover, unlike other comics about the Holocaust or this period of European history, Sofia Z-4515 is addressed to younger readers, from ages 9 and up. There is a real need for educational comics addressed to this audience, especially now that most comics seem to be targeted to either adult readers or readers in their late teens.
Polish Gypsy Sofia Taikon (1931-2005) was 12 when she was taken with her entire family to Auschwitz. Imprisoned in the ‘Gypsy camp’, she was tattooed with her prisoner number: Z-4515. Through a combination of luck and acts of kindness from several people, Sofia survived to live her story. It took her three years to recount her memories to Swedish writer Gunilla Lundgren, who collaborated with illustrator Amanda Eriksson to create a moving graphic memoir. This was an award-winning partnership which saw them receive the Artists Against Nazism Award granted by the United Sweden Foundation. Unfortunately, Sofia didn’t live to see the book published, dying a few months before the first Swedish edition was released.
I am truly honoured to have worked for Mantra Lingua and having played a part of this unique project by editing this graphic memoir in English for the first time. With their popular TalkingPEN, Sofia Z-4515 comes to life in a sound-enabled bilingual edition making it available to a wider, multicultural audience. The original Swedish text was translated by Janna Eliot, who also provides a truthful, moving audio narration in English. The audio narration is also available in Kalderash Romani, in the voice of Ramona Taikon, Sofia’s relative and Romani teacher and cultural activist. The book promotes good literacy skills whilst its retelling of Second World War history and detailed account of persecution tie in with citizenship values. This makes Sofia Z-4515 an educational resource that fits well in the National Curriculum for Key Stage 2-4.
The book also features essays by Romani Studies scholar Dr Adrian Marsh and comics scholar Greice Schneider, helping the reader locate Sofia’s story within the British Roma Second World War experience and contemporary graphic memoir/autobiographical comics contexts.
It’s been a long and truly collaborative process involving the creativity, generosity, patience and hard work of several individuals, and I am very pleased the book will be finally launched on Monday 28 May 2012 from 6pm at the Free Word Centre, London.
I will chair the event with brief introductions by the book’s authors Gunilla Lundgren and Amanda Eriksson, as well as special guests Dr Adrian Marsh, researcher in Romani Studies, University of Greenwich and fellow of the Open Society Foundation. We will also count with the presence of Ramona Taikon, Karin Sohlgren, librarian and cultural promoter, and Janna Eliot, translator and author. The launch and presence of the authors from Sweden was made possible by the support from the Swedish Arts Council programme for Swedish cultural activities abroad.
Refreshments and a live music set by Razlosko will follow. Razlosko play Roma and traditional Balkan tunes – lively and lilting melodies over strong beats and unusual rhythms. The band comprises: Sarah Filippi (vocals), Jeremy Halliwell (guitar), Sam McKeone (violin), Joseph Pogadi (cajon), Ana Reisinger (accordion) and Cathy Taylor (flute). They have had a long relationship with world music, particularly the music of the gypsy diaspora and all have played with the London Gypsy Orchestra.
For further information:
Free Word Centre: http://www.freewordonline.com/events/detail/sofia-z-515-book-launch
To register for this free event please visit: http://sofiaz4515launch.eventbrite.com/
The event page on Facebook is at https://www.facebook.com/events/298616840226811/
If you have read this far, thank you very much indeed!