Simone Lia passed me on to Nicola Streeten. Streeten knew Lia’s work and they had a kind of mutual acquaintance. Lia came to speak at Streeten’s speakers forum Laydeez Do Comics and their relationship has prospered over time. Streeten says that she finds Lia clever and funny and when I ask if they are friends she replies: “Definitely – she’s in my top ten.” Nicola_Streeten_RESIZED_245x0__false_nocrop_true

Streeten is an illustrator but it’s as a comic book artist that she’s best known. This is because of ‘Billy, Me and You’, the book she wrote about her son dying – Billy was two when he died. His death followed surgery to correct congenital heart deformities which had been diagnosed ten days before.

The subtitle of the book is ‘a memoir of grief and recovery’ and if you’re anything like me, you might approach the book with a degree of trepidation. But that’s kind of the point. Nothing prepares you for the death of anyone that you love. We don’t talk about death until it happens because it’s considered to be such a morbid subject and who wants to intentionally make themselves miserable, right?

The best sort of writing is often honest though, and it is this quality that will keep you gripped to ‘Billy, Me and You’. Although we’re afraid of what we might find, there is also an irresistible curiosity about the book because there are so many questions. How will it affect Streeten? How will she cope? Perhaps most importantly of all, will she get over it, will she be alright? We want to know if she makes it through because we want to know if we’ll be ok when it happens to us, which, unless we go first, it probably will. It was 13 years after Billy’s death that she rediscovered her journal and other items she had kept from the time; it started her off on the journey of writing and drawing the book.

Streeten says that her aim was “to make it something that people ask questions about”. She did a degree in social anthropology and she tells me it was this side of the experience she was interested in. In it we see her (and John) go through desperate grief, anger (both at the unfairness of the situation and the reactions from people around them), some healing and some joy.

One particular part of the book that stands out is when Streeten scores the responses of other people out of ten. The scene manages to be comic and awful simultaneously. People saying sorry or asking her what happened scored highly; those who said nothing or told her they could imagine what she was going through didn’t go down so well. She had friends who weren’t sure if they should come to the funeral and what becomes clear is that there is a lot of confusion when somebody dies, because very few people know how to handle it. IMG_2753

In particular, she objected to people using the inappropriate euphemism when they said that she and John had ‘lost’ Billy. ‘Billy wasn’t lost, he was dead’, she writes, ‘It was John and I…as the people we’d been just one day before…who were now lost forever (but not dead)’. Although she complains about her memory during our conversation, she certainly remembers the transformative effect the death had on her and indeed, even sounds somewhat grateful for, if not the event, then maybe the legacy.

The day it happened, John and I – it completely transformed our vision of the world. We couldn’t look at parents that didn’t want their children to have sugar, all those little neurotic things about schools… that doesn’t matter. You just think ‘fuck you’ about people who’ve had nothing wrong. People who’ve had no trauma are a bit boring. Sometimes I think the death of my child was the worst thing but the best thing that’s happened to me because of that switch in how we viewed the world. It sounds shocking and wrong to say it but in terms of developing as a human, when someone dies, you learn a lot.”

The first quality I encounter of hers is not misery or bitterness but generosity; not only does she pick me up from the train station for the half hour drive back to her wonderful converted chapel in the village of Wellingore but there is homemade soup ready for our lunch. As we are strangers we swap condensed life stories on the way. I’m a city dweller who wonders about a more rural tranquil alternative and I want to know how she took to the quiet and the isolation (the answer is it’s good for artists). She probes me about grown up stuff like fostering and pensions, as well as the possibility of moving to Brighton. The empty winter fields appear to be slumbering on either side of us, waiting for spring to bring them back to life, as we approach her home.

We agree that the most famous of clichés about death is also the most truthful. “When I’m talking about it now, I’m not talking about my deep feelings, it’s not opening up a deep wound. It’s almost like it’s not even true. Also my memory is shot to bits, I’m 50, I can’t remember anything anyway. So that cliché of ‘time heals’ which you hate at the time, is true. I came to write the book 13 years after Billy died so what shocked me was that in my diary I’d written stuff I could not remember. I couldn’t believe I’d cried every day.”

This misery is tangible as you read, perhaps the most awful page being where she remembers how much touch there is involved with raising a child, followed by a page where she has drawn herself looking exhausted and unwell, arms outstretched. ‘My arms were empty’ she writes, looking bereft. She notices other parents playing with their kids and yearns to have Billy back so that she can do the same. IMG_2752

Streeten had been adamant with her publisher, Myriad editions, that she didn’t want ‘Billy, Me and You’ to be a self help book but can’t remember why she was so vehement now and is welcoming of the letters and emails she receives telling her that the book has helped them through their own bereavement. What’s it like when she meets people – do they feel like they can approach her and talk about it?

“Yeah and I love that. It’s great for collecting gossip about people!”, she says, jokingly. “People always do ‘my story is this’. That’s what conversation is, it’s sharing stories, it’s fascinating and relevant.” I wondered if she minded being so much associated with death and in response she tells me the story of a man who had got in touch after his wife died. “He wrote to say he’d like to make a graphic novel about his wife’s death. I asked him if he’d read my book and he said he hadn’t but he’d spoken to someone else and they’d said that I might be able to advise him and I thought, ‘really… you should have done your research!”

Again, she’s laughing when she says it. For all her light heartedness about the subject, she also takes care of the people that come to her; in the case of this gentleman by spending some considerable time talking with him on the phone. Perhaps surprisingly, given the subject matter, there is humour too in the book, most notably when they go to a bereaved parents group where the parents end up laughing at their own crazy actions, including keeping headstones in their bedrooms and then having friends making confused faces when they visit. How can somebody laugh during grief? “It’s the relief theory of humour. In that group I have never ever laughed so much. I’ve talked to other bereaved parents who have had that experience and they have said the same. I think the humour is from the absurdity. It is healing to laugh in the way that crying is healing.”

41PawPGBtIL._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_

It seems a good time to ask the question I’m most hesitant about. Eventually Streeten fell pregnant again and had a daughter, Sally. Would she have been as ok as I find her if she hadn’t had another child? Streeten says that was important but more important was the sense of perspective she got after Billy died: “I needed to have another child and I would have adopted if we hadn’t been able to – I had to have a child in my life. I really did think that I wouldn’t survive without another child.”

“My trajectory was to be a school teacher because I loved being a mum and I wanted something that fitted in with having children. What I was doing was putting my child’s needs first at that time but after Billy died, I put my needs first. I was so lost; I wasn’t a mum and that was my identity. So I had to be fulfilled in my work or what I do. I might have become a primary school teacher but I don’t think I would have been fulfilled in the way I am, doing what I do.

“A lot of women have children and throw their lives into the project that are their children and then their children leave at 18 and then they wonder what they are going to do with another 30 years.”

It turns out that quite a lot of perspective can be gained when someone you love dies. My time is up and a train back to London needs catching. Before I leave I ask Streeten what she thinks experiencing death can teach us? “It really sounds a cliché but you just have to do stuff while you can. You have to live your dreams now. Because you could die tomorrow, even if you’re fit and healthy. You should be doing what you need to do all the time. You shouldn’t compromise. I know we have to sometimes but you should be aiming to do the stuff you want to do.”

If you’d like to see more of Streeten’s work, you can find it in the show that runs at the House of Illustration until 15th May. It’s called Comix Creatrix: 100 Women Making Comics

 

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