Publishers Weekly | Chris Barsanti | May 2, 2006
MIRIAM KATIN interviewed for Publishers Weekly
Miriam Katin was just two years old in 1944 when her mother faked their deaths and they fled their home in Budapest ahead of the Nazi invasion. Her harrowing new graphic memoir, We Are On Our Own from Drawn & Quarterly, is a dark and carefully reconstructed tale of the lengths to which Katin's mother (her father was off fighting in the Hungarian army) went to keep them alive amidst overlapping dangers from the Nazis, suspicious Hungarians and rampaging Soviets. Over the course of the book, their Jewish faith is shaken by the horrific events unfolding around them—in her afterword, Katin talks about the atheism she later absorbed from her father and how it affected her own parenting. "My only regret is that I could not give this kind of comfort, a comfort of faith in the 'existence of God,' to my children. I was unable to lie."
After the 1956 Hungarian uprising, Katin and her family emigrated to Israel, where she apprenticed in a Tel Aviv graphic arts studio and then served as a graphic artist in the Israeli army from 1960 to 1963. After living in New York for some years with her husband and two sons, Katin and her family returned to Israel, to a kibbutz, in 1981. In the early 1980s, Katin joined an Israeli film animation company, and eventually returned to New York, where she worked on background designs for Nickelodeon, MTV and Disney. She has also illustrated several children's books.
Today, Katin and her family still live in New York, as does her mother, who was apprehensive about the writing of We Are On Our Own, telling her daughter, "You never know. Someone might see it, take offense and come after us." Katin talked with PW Comics Week about her new book.
PWCW: Do you remember much of anything before 1944 or does your memory mostly begin when the Nazis invaded Budapest?
Miriam Katin: I remember a number of things from that year, mainly connected to food, a white dog and the bombings.
PWCW: How aware were you of what was happening around you during the war?
M.K.: I was too young to grasp what was happening. From my mother's letters I learned that I knew my father was away but I did not know him [at the
time]. He had seen me only once after I was born. I knew only a few things until age 30, when my mother told me much of what we went through. I was grateful for her waiting that long. It was not shock but just sadness and sorrow. Naturally though, throughout childhood I wondered about the missing family. I had to make do with hazy, scant explanations.
PWCW: Given how little you were told, do you find yourself doing the same thing with your children?
M.K.: Even if I tried, I could not have shielded them, because in our Hebrew schools they inundated the kids with many horrific facts and images at an early age. I was angered and I protested. At one point it turned out that the teacher did not even bother to screen the documentary she showed to seven-year-olds. I raised hell. In the 1970s this [the U.S.] country went into a Holocaust craze.
PWCW: Was it difficult to go from working on children's books and films to creating such a resolutely adult piece of work—even one that seems to take a child's point of view?
M.K.: The things I created comics from, the short ones as well as the book, have been in my mind all the time as a running narrative, nonstop, wanting to be written out. When I found my way of telling them I had no difficulty. At least not physically. Emotionally, yes.
PWCW: Visually, the book looks like it was drawn in part from children's literature. Was it hard to find the right style?
M.K.: No, in 2000, when I decided to complete the first four-page story [for 2003's Monkeysuit Anthology], which I had sketched up 10 years before that, it just happened. When I draw these things, I think of a gray, dirty place, the darkness of some of those wartime photographs. Those years exist for me only in black and white.
PWCW: We Are On Our Own seems in large part to be about the inability to believe in God after living through experiences like this. Quite a jump from working for MTV and Disney.
M.K.: Well, see what came first, yes? My mother did make some efforts to introduce me to prayer and religion. It is not that I lost belief after living through experiences like those. It was accepting one or another idea naturally. It was up to me. My Christian friends went to church, and in spite of Communist indoctrination they still believed. My father was a decisive influence. The struggle is then not with myself but with the world around me.
PWCW: How long had you been planning this project and what finally brought you to it? How did Drawn & Quarterly get involved?
M.K.: After D&Q published my 12-page story in Drawn and Quarterly, Vol.4 in 2001, they asked me if I had anything else. I did a short work using some of the events from 1944-45 but [D&Q publisher] Chris Oliveros thought it should be a book. Of course, I still had the fear of doing this story and started working on it in secret.
PWCW: Has your mother seen the completed book? Is she still apprehensive about it?
M.K.: I finally showed my mother the approved rough. I kept telling her, please regard this as "based on" our story. She was very touched and
approved it, but all along bid me to keep our real names out of it. Thus, I included the letters and postcards but arranged them so no name or address is visible.
PWCW: Do you feel any sense of peace now that the book has been completed?
M.K.: Peace? Definitely not. But gratefully, something did happen, because before completing the book, when talking about a number of events, I would not be able to finish certain sentences without choking up. Now I can.
PWCW: What has the feedback been like so far?
M.K.: The feedback is unbelievable. I did not think there would be still such interest in this sort of a story. I did it for myself and for a hopefully young comics reader audience. One critic, after my Eisner
nomination [for short story form in 2001], mentioned that all the movies and documentaries connected to the Holocaust are always automatically nominated for awards, no matter how inept. This worried me somewhat, but I still had to do it.
PWCW: Do you have any upcoming projects you'd like to tell us about? Have you considered another memoir in this form?
M.K.: I am working on the next project but I try not to have it like the next thing about me. But who knows—maybe everything we do is about ourselves?