Cartoonist Guy Delisle on His Year in Israel and Creating Jerusalem: Chronicles From the Holy City
Guy Delisle is a French-Canadian expatriate cartoonist who specializes in travelogues. He’s made books about Shenzen, China, and Pyongyang, North Korea, both of which he visited as a supervising animator. He spent a year in Burma after starting a family with an employee of the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders. After leaving the country, he produced Burma Chronicles, a book of vignettes about his experiences there. His latest book, Jerusalem: Chronicles From the Holy City (Drawn & Quarterly, $25), is his most ambitious so far. In 320 pages, Delisle covers the year he spent in the Israeli capital. Delisle gets lost in the streets of the city, both on foot and in a secondhand car; meets members of the region's three major religions; and experiences “the glamorous life of a housewife.” On his travels he meets and shows his readers a variety of people including Israeli Jews in the military, Bedouins, ultra-extreme Jewish settlers, Palestinian student cartoonists, and a Christian minister (who provides him with studio space). Unlike his earlier books, here Delisle stretches into cartoon journalism, when he’s asked to do a story on Doctors Without Borders and “what they’re doing in Hebron, a West Bank city where the settlers are known to be especially militant,” he explains. For fans of his earlier works, Jerusalem still focuses plenty on Delisle's visits to historic and religious sites.
Delisle appears tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. at Politics & Prose. I recently interviewed him, and I've tried to keep the feel of his excellent French-inflected English in this transcription.
Washington City Paper: Where is home for you now?
Guy Delisle: I’m in the south of France, in a small place called Montpelier. I’ve spent half my life here now.
WCP: So you’ve been out of Canada for a long time?
GD: Yeah, I left when I was 20-something and I traveled for a year and a half, and then I settled in France.
WCP: So did you meet your wife in France then?
GD: Yes, that’s right. I met her in Montpellier.
WCP: I know she’s your partner and you’re not formally married… How does your family feel about the books and their depictions in the book?
GD: My kids haven’t read it. They know what’s the idea behind the book, but my son’s too young to read it. Basically he thinks since he was on the cover of the Burma book, he thinks that I make books for him, just like I would write him a long letter or something like that. And I did two other books, but they’re for children—Louis au Ski and Louis a la Plage—so that’s why he probably thinks every time I do a book it’s about him.
WCP: It seems to me that this time the book was more about journalism and less about autobiography—would you agree with that?
GD: Well, I have to agree, but that was not of my choice. It’s because of the place. It was easier in Burma to say a few things about the place and my friends and most people would learn something. For me that was good enough. I didn’t want to go into detail, because then it gets very abstract. But for Israel it’s different because most of the basic details are known, so I had to go further than that and explain more than anyone could know by reading the paper or just going there for a week. So I had to explain more, and more completely. I wanted to explain enough to give a good basis, but not so much that it would be just too tedious and too boring to my readers. It was quite a challenge, because when I came back home from Jerusalem, I thought, “Wow, there’s no way I can do a book about that because it’s too complicated.” I spent my year talking with journalists who live there all the time, especially in East Jerusalem and UN people and humanitarians so I had a lot of stuff in my head about the conflict, but I couldn’t fit them all in one book, because it would be too big. I thought, “It’s too complicated for me.” And then I started the book with the first page with the first thing that happened to me when I was there and it went OK. I put everything I wanted to put in, knowing that I didn’t want to do a thesis. I just wanted to do a pleasant comic book.
WCP: Obviously you’re familiar with Joe Sacco’s work Palestine—I believe you name-check him in the book…
GD: [Laughs] Yeah. You know people confuse me with Joe Sacco somehow.
WCP: Have you read Sarah Glidden’s book about traveling to Israel?
GD: Yeah, I did and I know Sarah now because I keep seeing her in festivals—we had a conversation in Germany with our books. I like her book and I like her a lot. We were in contact when I was in Jerusalem doing my blog. I think it’s an interesting book.
WCP: The question sort of becomes…did you feel there was still space for your book—which is not a question anyone would ask in any other field except for comics?
GD: Yeah, because if you look at what you have just in novels on Israel or Jerusalem, you have plenty. Here, on Israel, you have Joe Sacco and that’s it, and now you have Sarah. The books' aspects are so different between my and Sara’s book or Joe’s book…they are very different in approach and in narration and just in the way of thinking. I think mine is as different as the other ones. I think there’s still space. I was reading in France a few others…there’s one that I’ve put on my blog as one of the few books I’ve read about it. It’s very nice—more fictiona—but the drawings are superb and I think he did a good job. Another one is by a girl who was sending letters to her sister telling her what she was doing there and she just illustrated these postcards and it’s successful. It’s just on the West Bank so it’s interesting as well. All these books are interesting—they’re all in the form of comics, but they’re all so very different. It’s the same subject, but then in the end they’re so different that it’s good to have them all.
WCP: When you were going to Israel, did you have any preconceptions about …this is too simplistic, but who’s right? Did you feel like you’d be taking sides, or did you go in with a pretty open mind?
GD: I have to confess I think I went there with a pretty open mind. I think being Canadian and being far from the conflict—I don’t have any relatives who have been involved in the conflict like you might have had in Europe. I didn’t know much about the conflict when I arrived there, I have to admit. I wasn’t very keen on going to the Middle East. I’d never been there. I’m more of an Asian or South American—Asian probably—type of guy.
We learned just a month before leaving that we were going to Jerusalem, so I did not have time to check stuff out, and anyhow I knew that I would find people there who would know so much about the place. So I guess I went there with the same mentality that I went to North Korea, where of course there’s a dictator and all that, but then you think, “Well maybe there’s something wrong and the people are really proud to fight and all that…” but I didn’t find that at all in North Korea. They were just living, that’s all. I felt very sorry for them. So I guess in Jerusalem I was thinking maybe it was going to be very different from what I thought, but actually I hadn’t thought about it much, so I said to myself I’ll check and see. To be honest, that was my basic course—trying to understand from one year of being there.
WCP: In the end, would you say that you tend to fall more on the Palestinian side? That’s what I thought I took away from the book…
GD: Yeah, kind of. Well, at first the general idea is that all the Palestinians are suffering unfairly from what the Israelis are doing to them. I guess that’s the feeling I came out with. Being with the Israelis, you know why they’re so paranoid and security is so high, but then again they feed the paranoia to themselves with the media and all that—a bit too much to me. I don’t talk about that in the book. I came back—I’m a left-wing guy, so of course to see what’s going on there and what happens to the Palestinians—you feel sorry for them. I don’t know anyone coming back from the humanitarian work in this region who says, “Everything’s fine.” That’s not possible. They all come back and say, “That’s so unfair.”
WCP: Do you find yourself suffering from compassion fatigue as you go to these places? You’ve been to three very difficult places.
GD: Oh, compassion fatigue? That’s interesting. What is that? When you’ve been in so many places with people suffering that you actually don’t feel for them so much?
GD: I guess doctors feel like that because they see so much illness and suffering. I was talking to a doctor who works with Doctors Without Borders—they’re in so many extreme situations—I think doctors have to feel like that, otherwise they’ll just go nuts. And I think the same for someone who wants to do a book or reporting—I think it’s better to be kind of cold about the situation and then you don’t get too involved. You can feel for the people, but if there’s not much you can do—well, it’s just the way it is. You can talk about it…you’re going to help them…and that’s it. You’re not going to live their lives, they’re not going to live yours, and that’s how I felt when I was in North Korea. I would feel sorry for these people, but once you go, you can’t even be in contact with them. I think it would be dangerous for them, and that’s it. You just say bye-bye and you know you’re never going to see them. I feel terrible, but I think I have that distance that I can really look at the people. Even though the Palestinians are suffering, some of them were not very nice people and it’s not because they’re suffering that they have all the riots or they should be able to do whatever they want. And both peoples are in different situations—the Israelis, the Jews, they feel like they are the victims, of course, of the history of Europe. And then the Palestinians are the victims as well of something else, so you’re between two victims. Sometimes you just don’t feel sorry for any of them because it’s too much. They’re just showing so much victimization…it’s not because you’re a victim that you’re right somehow. It’s a feeling you get when you’re with the Palestinians for a long time, even though they are in an unfair situation of course.
WCP: Let me go back to the family question briefly. Obviously, when you did your first books, you were not together with anyone. You could go to North Korea on your own. Do you worry now that you’re taking your family? It looks like there is some of that in Jerusalem, where you have to worry about your children—do you think this will affect where you’ll go in the future, or your wife’s career, or is it something you’ll just work past?
GD: It’s not going to happen for a simple reason. My wife has stopped doing humanitarian work after Jerusalem. We decided it’s a good time for us to stop, mostly because the kids are eight and five now and it’s a bit complicated with the real school, because before it was just kindergarten. So we’ve stopped. But MSF [Medicine Sans Frontiers, aka Doctors Without Borders] sends families into countries that are not dangerous. Burma was very quiet, and Jerusalem is very quiet now, so there is no danger while you’re there. I didn’t feel at ease with soldiers with guns around, but I think that’s my imagination. It’s the same in France—in the airport we always have one or two guys in the army walking around with guns—I don’t feel comfortable with that at all. In Jerusalem they’re all over the place, so I just don’t like that. I think when you’re with kids and you walk around and you have soldiers with guns…I didn’t like it at all. I never really got used to that, and I think you can feel it throughout the book. At the end I was relieved to go away from the tension with the soldiers and the conflict.
WCP: What do you see your next book being now if you’re not going to necessarily be doing a travelogue?
GD: I’m not saying no to autobiography, but it’s not going to be a long trip like that where I go for a year and then I come back and I do the work. I might try a few things, mostly the relation with father and kids that you have to deal with when you’re a father. That’s just fun. That’s very relaxing for me [he laughs]. It’s just storytelling, fun storytelling which I really enjoy. And there’s another project I kept postponing since I did Shenzhen (in 2000), so it’s a long time ago. It’s the story of someone else. I always wanted to try that for once. It’s this guy I met in Doctors Without Borders, as well. He was an administrator and he was kidnapped for three months in Chechnya on his first mission. After three months he managed to escape, so at four in the morning he was at a Chechnyan village thinking, “OK, now how do I get to the embassy?” He succeeded and I thought it was a great story because of that inside stuff where you try to cope with whatever you can in your mind because you’re just sitting there for days, hours, weeks, months and how do you cope with that? How do you not go crazy? So that’s really the part that I want to focus on. And of course he escapes at the end, so that’s a fun part as well. I’ve already started to work on that. I worked on it when I was in Jerusalem and I think in September when things are going to be a bit more quiet for me, I’m going to go back to that.
WCP: Getting back to Jerusalem briefly, I noticed that this book has color in it, although it’s accent color, not complete color. Can you talk about your decision to start using color, and if you’re going to use more in the future?
GD: I don’t know. It depends on the book. This one was the first time that I was with a publisher, and this the second book I’m doing with him, so from the beginning I had the choice to do it in color or not, which was not the case with the other one. The Burma book was supposed to be done with another publisher, and they don’t do color. This company is a bigger publisher and for them color is not a big deal. The book wouldn’t be much more expensive, so I said, “Oh, sure, I’ll try it.” Jerusalem is quite specific in color. They only used one stone (in building) and that goes back to the English Mandate that tried to unify the whole thing with architecture—they would use the same stone and it’s always beige, like a sand color, and it’s all over the new and the old town. Not only the old town, so everything is the same color. That’s why, in my mind, I was seeing Jerusalem in a very unified color all the way. It’s colder in winter so it’s blue in the winter and more sand in the summer, and that’s all I wanted to use.
WCP: Drawn and Quarterly—did you approach them or did they approach you?
GD: D&Q approached [my French publisher] L’Association after I published Pyongyang, and the book was doing fine for them. I guess they thought they’d try it. I was very happy because I like what they’re doing and they’re Canadian so I thought it was perfect.
WCP: So is Jerusalem your breakthrough book? Is this the most successful book you’ve done?
GD: Yeah, it’s been piling up. Burmese Chronicles was successful—well for me was very successful, but this one even more. Maybe because it’s Jerusalem, but I think people are seeing this as the fourth chapter of myself going around and traveling and I think people are following me. I think I could go to Tibet or Siberia and they would just like to travel with me. In France I sold 60,000 of the Burma one and I really don’t think there are actually 60,000 people really interested in Burma who would buy a book just on Burma. I don’t think so. I think it’s because it’s fun. They get to learn things and they walk around with me in some remote place. Same thing happened with Jerusalem, but on top of that Jerusalem is famous so I even have more people. I’m selling a lot of books. It’s very successful.
WCP: That’s true for me. I just enjoyed reading your travelogues, and if you went to Tibet, I’d just buy that one as well. [We both laugh]. I like slice-of-life comics and buy [French cartoonist] Lewis Trondheim’s collections when they come out in English as well.
GD: Yeah, it’s a relaxed way even to do them. I just read back my notes when I come back from a year and then I decide if I’m going to do a book or not. I didn’t go to Jerusalem and say, “All right, this is going to be my next book,” because I never know. After Shenzhen, I went to Vietnam and worked there for two months. I had my little motor bike and all that. But everything just went fine and the people were great, the studio was working perfectly and the food was good so it was just like a big happy picnic. I didn’t have much to say so I didn’t feel like drawing that. I was having fun and it was great, so I didn’t do a book. The same happened in Ethiopia, but for a different reason. The first trip I did with my partner was Ethiopia. I drew all of Pyongyang in Ethiopia because she was working a lot, and I thought “Well, this is good. I’m just going to work on my stuff.” So I kind of missed out, in the sense that I didn’t see enough of the city and all that because I was working a lot. Which shouldn’t be a problem, but after I left Ethiopia I didn’t have much to say—I met people and it’s a great place—but I didn’t have enough personal experience. So I didn’t do a book about that. Now whenever I go someplace, as in Burma, I think let’s see what happens and either I do a book or not.
Guy Delisle appears on at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Delisle's appearance is co-sponsored by the Small Press Expo; if you buy Delisle's book you'll also get a pass to the fall con. The reading is free.