Review by Joe Gordon
The Book: Towards the end of 2017 Sayra Begum sent Knockabout a sample of her autobiographical graphic novel, Mongrel. This work was the best unsolicited manuscript they have seen for a very long time. It is rare for a new talent to produce such an ambitious long work.
Sayra is both an accomplished and clever storyteller and an original artist in her layouts and drawing style. The story itself covers matters that are at the heart of our society’s current concerns; immigration, racism, mixed heritage relationships and inter-generational strife. The front door of Shuna’s family home acted as a gateway to Bangladesh.
Nothing haram passed through this door, this was a devout house. When Shuna walked through this door, she switched her rebellious face to her pious face, which eagerly absorbed the teaching of the Prophet, striving to be a good Muslim girl. The switching between these two faces became increasingly difficult as they grew further and further apart. ‘Yes, yes, yes I’ll marry you]’ I said to David. Although, after the celestial shock wore off and dull reality set in, I realised there was a slight problem. I would have to tell my very traditional parents that I was going to marry a non-Muslim and confess my secret life.
It’s my wedding day. My parents are absent. I’m not surprised. Why would my parents want to celebrate their daughter’s eternal damnation in hell fire?
The Review: There’s an old saying that you will never understand another person, unless you walk some miles in their shoes. I’ve often thought that books, especially autobiographical works, are one of the best ways we have to learn at least some understanding of another person’s life, their culture, their perspectives, and Mongrel reinforces that belief. We may never truly be able to walk in another’s shoes, not completely – how could we, every life is a unique set of very personal circumstances, even the life experiences of twins will differ – but we can obtain a look into those other lives, other interests, worries, cultural drives and norms, and by doing so we expand our own world a little more (and hopefully make ourselves a bit more aware, a bit more open to the differing lives of others).
Drawn in a rather beautiful pencil work, Mongrel offers some beautiful visuals, lovely to look at but carefully done so they never overwhelm the subject matter. The style is quite distinctive too, especially the faces of Sayra and her family and friends, the large eyes and often profile perspective putting me in mind of the way humans are depicted in ancient Assyrian or Egyptian art. It’s an unusual style, at least in Western comics, but it works beautifully, as well as adding another layer of difference, reminding us that we’re looking into what, for many of us, will be a different culture, a different set of societal and familial norms.
There are some lovely little visual techniques too – Shuna lost in thought of how her life has lead to this moment, her memories shown literally fragmented, like jigsaw pieces of her life, a thought bubble floating above her which she then reaches up and pops.
“Walking through the door of my family home was like walking through a gateway to Bangladesh.”
Shuna’s story will, no doubt, be familiar to more than a few readers, those who have had to make that difficult journey that spans different, often competing, or even opposing cultural drives. Her religious upbringing and the societal expectations her parents – especially her mother – have are formed from Bangladeshi society, but Shuna and her siblings are being brought up in the UK. Try as they might to limit their children’s external activities – which friends they can see, when they can go out and when they cannot – they are, of course, exposed to other experiences and possibilities, and some of those seem alluring, exciting even, compared to home.
But home, as they say, is where the heart is, and for all the urge to rebel there is also an urge to conform, to please the parents and others in your community, to be an accepted, welcome part of it. While the experiences may differ, in many ways this is no different really from what most of us go through growing up, especially in our teens. We long to belong, for the warmth, love and safety and acceptance of family, but we’re also driven by the often contradictory impulse to stand out, to explore our own path. We want to belong and to be individual at the same time, one of the great contradictions of human nature, yes, but it is also part of what drives us to grow. It’s often a rocky road for most of us, but for those with strictly interpreted cultural beliefs and standards, it can be so much the harder, the possible penalties for transgression far higher.
It is to her great credit that Sayra explores all sides of this generational, cultural and societal problem. It would be all too easy to take a simplistic approach – make the parents out to be villains, inflexible, unwilling to bend to accommodate the fact they are raising their children in a different land with different standards and opportunities. Yet Sayra never falls into this trap. Which is not to say there isn’t conflict here, there is in fact a lot of that, and a lot of butting of heads, of inflexible approaches and failure to compromise, to try and adapt to each other’s competing drives and needs. But Sayra makes it clear that her mother’s strict stance, no matter how harsh it may seem to us, is driven from love for her children – her religious beliefs make her fear that their failure to comply with how she thinks they are to behave imperils them, that it could take them from the path of righteousness and into temptation. In short that her children could damn themselves and on their day of judgement they would not ascend to Paradise and so she would lose them for eternity.
Although Sayra is drawing on her own mixed heritage, being British Bangladeshi, there is much here that any of us will recognise from the awkward moments of our own youth, of striking out on our own, sometimes against what was expected of us, against a parent’s wishes or expectations. Family and people are family and people, no matter where we come from or travel to, after all. For those who have had an even harder journey trying to claim their own individual experience in the face of family, community and societal norms – cross-cultural children, gay or trans youth for instance – it will most certainly seem all the more familiar. The cultural imperatives and strifes may be different but the song remains the same. A beautiful and emotionally honest work.
• Mongrel by Sayra Begum will be released on 25th August 2020 – Pre-Order Here (AmazonUK Affiliate Link). Also available from all good bookshops ISBN 0861662695
Joe has been a bookseller since the early 1990s, with a special love for comics, graphic novels and science fiction. He has written for The Alien Online, created & edited the Forbidden Planet Blog and chaired numerous events for the Edinburgh International Book Festival. He’s more or less house-trained.