Posts Tagged ‘Simone Lia’

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.”

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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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Sam Bain passed me on to Simone Lia. Bain had picked up one of the early editions of ‘Fluffy’ and got in touch with her by email. They’ve stayed in touch and Lia describes him as “a really friendly and supportive guy, very down to earth and he just helps people a lot with their work.”simone-800x500

The first thing that you need to know about the comic book artist Simone Lia is that she’s a very patient interviewee. On the week I was due to meet her, I got invited to the opening of a new restaurant so I emailed her and  asked her if she fancied it. ‘That sounds like brilliant fun, what time?’ she replied. When we turned up, it wasn’t brilliant fun. On a warm summer Tuesday, loads of assorted other freeloaders had turned up to fill their boots with champers and shellfish. We couldn’t get anywhere near the grub and could barely hear each other, sort of hovering in a spot where we thought it was least likely we’d get knocked against in the melee. Weird sort of thing to do with someone you’ve just met. We lasted about ten minutes before we left for somewhere civilised where we could sit down and actually hear each other.

I don’t read comic books; not because I don’t like them, I just don’t know where to start. Two of her characters, the incredibly sweet Chip & Bean, had entered my consciousness somehow though. You might know her because of a small, challenging rabbit called Fluffy or for the courageous, soul-baring ‘Please God Find Me a Husband!’. She also draws a regular strip for The Observer. Fluffy is owned by Michael (although it’s unclear how this happened) and apart from the fact he doesn’t think he’s a rabbit, he’s essentially a surrogate child, innocently misbehaving by painting on the walls of Michael’s kitchen, blurting out inappropriate truths that cause Michael to blush and constantly wanting to go to McDonalds. There’s a decent history of rabbits and men having relationships in culture, what with James Stewart’s best mate Harvey and Donnie Darko telling Jake Gyllenhaal the world is going to end. Why a rabbit? To anyone who has read ‘Fluffy’, it’s perhaps no surprise that he started off as a child.

“I was interested in a father child relationship. And then when I drew it, it wasn’t sweet enough so I started drawing a rabbit instead as it had the qualities I was looking for, which was being very vulnerable and sweet and tiny. A character that you wanted to pick up and hug. And in a comic you can do that, you can have these characters that are completely unreal and you believe it. I drew a rabbit and it just resonated. It was a picture of a man and a rabbit sitting on a bench and the rabbit says ‘You smell like my Daddy’. And thats when I started investigating the characters a bit more.”

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Comic books, or graphic novels, started being taken seriously around the time of Alan Moore’s ‘Watchmen’ back in 1987. Instead of being just for kids, comics became things with violence and characters that had anxieties, rather than the superheroes of yore. I think you know a comic book is good when you forget you’re reading drawings and you’re invested in the characters. ‘Fluffy’ will certainly make you smile, but there are also parts of it that might have you anxiously biting your lip, hoping that the uncomfortable emotional situation you’re witnessing will turn out alright. Be warned – you might also find yourself forming your own relationship with Fluffy. His Instagram account is a thing of wonder.

Having first appeared in 2007, Lia is now working on another instalment. Michael and Fluffy will both be ten years older and Lia says that “It’s really interesting to get into the mind of a man in his 40s. How has he changed? How has he developed? His relationships, what’s going on in his life? How is he relating to Fluffy? It’s a different dynamic.” She’s got the story arc worked out and about 40 pages drawn – the deadline is next summer. Seems it takes quite a lot of time to get a comic book together and a lot of that time consists of thinking. “The more I play out scenes in my head, I imagine who they are. For me they’re really real. Sometimes I think ‘I’ll go round to Mike’s house’ or ‘Fluffy would like that’. Before I started writing the storyline, I had to think for weeks. It’s like watching films in my head. And then me drawing the characters because that helps with the thinking process.”

It’s the opposite of my own working life – I wish I had more time to think before I have to ‘do’. Given that she spends so much time thinking and then creating, is it difficult for Lia to relate to people who have regular nine to five jobs? “I don’t find it hard to relate to people. Sometimes I get jealous of people in normal jobs because they’re working with other people! I used to teach at the University of Westminster. I had to go to a meeting and I remember the thrill of thinking ‘I’M IN A MEETING’, it was really exciting. And then I thought, I hope they don’t ask me what I think because I don’t know what they are talking about.’ I was just really excited about pretending to be at work.”

This is told in a great south London accent and ends with a very endearing giggle. Lia has the kind of shiny, raven hair that looks like it would be at home in one of those L’Oreal ads that Cheryl Cole does. Very dark eyes too, that contain plenty of the mischief you’ll find in her work and also something of the mystical – we’ll come to that soon enough. She’s a lot more attractive than the version of herself you’ll find in the opening pages of ‘Please God, find me a husband!’ where she appears as a kind of frumpy, bespectacled librarian who’s miserable, having just been dumped. Mulling this as she walks through Leicester Square, the character decides to ask God what will become of her. “Well, to cut to the chase, God – I’m going to be thirty-four in two weeks time and if you want me to marry someone you’re going to need to get a bit of a move on.” The scene ends with God cheering her up by dancing with her to an INXS song. Which is just how you thought that was going to pan out, right? Pleasegod

What follows is a story familiar to many people in their late twenties or early thirties: the search for a soulmate. This journey involves going on retreat, travelling to Australia and revisiting her past. The twist is that God is along for the ride as Lia is a devout Catholic. Rather than the title of the book being an exasperated common expression, it’s a prayer to her maker to help her out. Obviously I can’t tell you if she finds her man – you’ll have to read the book. But what an incredibly brave thing, to put your life out there like that. It’s fair to say it wasn’t all plain sailing.

“When I was doing it I kept stopping and thinking ‘I don’t want to say all this; it’s really personal and embarrassing’. At the beginning when I had the idea I thought I was going to be this holy lady and then when I was writing it I realised I’m not like that at all. I had to put in the stuff that was quite embarrassing because I thought ‘I’ve got to keep it real, I can’t just stay stuff that’s going to make me look good because then it’s not going to be authentic.’

One notably courageous part of the book is when Lia revisits her childhood self, which seems particularly painful. “When I was praying I saw all that. I do think that I needed some healing and I couldn’t quite handle it – I didn’t want God in there. I’ve got all this brokeness but sometimes you can’t even accept the healing that goes with it, it’s just too painful. I wasn’t ready to receive it even then. I was a bit worried about my parents seeing that as well, I didn’t want to upset them. You’ve got to be a bit delicate.” Later in our conversation she will tell me about violent situations between her parents. “There have been some situations that have not been good.”

As she carries on talking about the kind of soul baring necessary to finish the book, she describes a compulsion to keep going and alludes to a higher power at work, “Every time I stopped I would have some weird intervention, usually by a stranger on a bus talking me back into it and I would think ‘how did that just happen?’” Along the way she realised the book wasn’t really for her and now she has the letters to prove it, from people who’ve read it and written to tell her how it has helped them. As you might have guessed from the opening scene where she dances with God to INXS, it’s not all soul searching. There’s plenty of laughs to be had to, not least when Lia morphs into Penelope Cruz when confronted by a Crocodile Dundee type.

Perhaps because of the lack of a spiritual dimension in my own life, people who have faith fascinate me. Where does it come from? “I think there is a lot of different ways that God can speak to people but in my experience that audible voice has happened and you know that it’s not your voice. It’s outside of you but also inside of you. That was my experience. But I’ve also had experience of just having felt God there and it’s as if someone was actually standing there”. For a long time she says she had some sense of an inner voice or some higher wisdom but just ignored it. That the answer to what that was ended up being in the Catholic church was as much a surprise to her as anyone else.

To her credit she’s aware of the frustrations of language to articulate spirituality. Does she think you can explain what it’s like to have faith to somebody who doesn’t have any? “You can give it a go but I’m also aware that it can sound like a load of mumbo jumbo. I have to remember that before I had my experience that I was in the same boat. I didn’t believe in anything particularly. I can say that I have a relationship with God but I’m aware that can just sound like nothing really. I could just be talking about myself – I’ve got a relationship with myself.”

Before we go our separate ways, she tells me that her favourite artist (currently anyway) is a vlogger called Casey Neistat who she has discovered researching material for the next book ‘because Fluffy likes Youtube.’ As we come up into a warm summer London night she tells me that she’s going to walk to Elephant and Castle and we say our goodbyes. A day later she emails to say she kept walking beyond there, arriving two hours later back in Brockley. I can’t help wondering if it was God or a small, cute rabbit that she had for company in her head along the way.