In recent years Kevin C. Pyle has managed to write and draw a series of graphic novels about teenagers, powerful stories about coming to terms with life and learning about what’s really important in life. In last year’s “Katman” and “Blindspot,” the latter of which was excerpted in 2008’s “The Best American Comics,” Pyle has shown himself to be a brilliant depicter of teenage life, the equal of almost any young adult writer. The illustrator recently worked on “Prison Town” with co-writer Craig Gilmore, part of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, and which is available for free at realcostofprisons.org.
His new book “Take What You Can Carry”, on sale now from Henry Holt and Company, tells two stories — one set in contemporary suburbia and the other set in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II. Like in Pyle’s earlier books, it refuses to be cynical and is a striking work about finding a way to be yourself and endure life with grace and dignity. CBR News spoke with Pyle about his new graphic novel and its dual narrative.
CBR News: Kevin, where did this story begin for you?
Kevin C. Pyle: The more contemporary of the two stories is based on my own experience working for an Asian-American storeowner I had shoplifted from as an adolescent. I’ve often thought of fictionalizing this experience. Years ago I illustrated an article for a law journal about the success of “restorative justice” with juveniles. It’s an approach where offenders meet and listen to their victims and acknowledge the harm they’ve done. Part of the idea is that it meets the needs of the victims and they take a role in the process. It struck me at the time how similar this was to my experience, which had the desired effect of me never stealing again. I have always wondered why the storeowner had chosen this arrangement instead of pressing charges and when I started thinking about translating this experience into fiction, the internment story just sort of came to me. I’ve always been interested in that history since reading “Farewell to Manzanar,” a memoir of an interned Japanese American girl. So once I hit on the idea of the storeowner having a deep need to relay his experience and how that experience would influence his own approach to a similar situation, I knew this was a story I wanted to explore. I was attracted to the idea of doing a story based in a specific history and seeing how the research would influence the plot.
For something like this, which has two thematically related dovetailing stories, do you start with one story and then try to craft a second story that will work or does the relationship between the two come to you immediately?
It was a bit of a leap of faith in that I had the idea for the ending and how the two stories would relate so I had to have faith that I would arrive there. It was tricky from a structural standpoint because the chapters had to alternate. There are some places where I could manipulate the juxtaposition of scenes in order to have the stories resonate with each other but there are also some areas where one of the stories had to move forward in a particular way regardless of how it played off the other story. I know that by juxtaposing these stories I’m inviting a comparison of the experiences but the dynamic is more about how one moment in time influences another.
I know you’re a Jersey guy, and I’m curious about where you heard of the story about the internments. I ask because it’s one of those chapters of history that I’ve found people on the West Coast are much more aware of in a way that it seems the rest of the country is not.
Though I live in Jersey now and did during most of my early years, I was born in California and lived in suburban Chicago as an adolescent. My mom was born and raised in California so we were out there a lot. But I was somewhat obsessed with World War II as a kid and that probably contributed to how affected I was by the internment history when I first encountered it in high school. I also have a strong interest in what you might call “hidden history” — not generally known but telling moments when the classic narrative we tell ourselves about America shows its cracks a little. Freedom, it turns out, is a very elastic concept based on the particular politics of the moment. What you said about the West Coast/East Coast awareness is true. At one point I was considering putting the name of the camp, “Manzanar,” in the title. I did a mini Facebook survey among my friends to see if the name was recognizable. It turned out that almost all the people who had heard of it were on the West Coast.
In terms of getting the details right, I started by reading several diaries and memoirs. Because the plot of the book revolves around petty theft, one of the first things I needed to find out was if it had occurred in the camps. Had it not, I would have had to restructure the whole story to reflect the historical reality. I found allusions to it but nothing as concrete as I wanted. I ended up contacting a painting teacher I had in college who had been an infant in the camps. He pointed me to some sources that really helped and gave me the confidence to go forward. Our contact had the added benefit of me being able to send him the book and have the satisfaction and relief of knowing I got everything right.
Explain to people what “gaman” is and how you first came across this concept?
“Gaman” is a Japanese term meaning “enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.” I came across it in a book about the handicrafts and artwork that the internees fashioned from scavenged materials. In order to pass the time and beautify their environment, they made furniture, jewelry, rugs and all sorts of exquisite art objects. The author of the book dubbed these objects “The Art of the Gaman.” I found them to be very compelling and knew I wanted them to have a role in the story. Of all the objects, I was most drawn to the carved birds, which struck me as a hopeful symbol of escape through the transformative power of art. Though they ended up functioning as a way for the young boy to reconcile himself to his situation, just as it did for the real internees, my original motivation for including them had more to do with the demands of the plot. Without revealing too much, I needed a contraband item that the boy would be motivated to steal and when I started building the story around these objects, everything fell into place.
When you first came up with this idea, how did you decide how to visually set those two time periods apart?
In my last two graphic novels, “Blindspot” and “Katman,” I used color as a narrative device so it made sense to me to do that again. As far as style goes, the textural inking style in the internment story is a return to a style that I worked in for many years as an illustrator and extensively in my docu-comic “Lab U.S.A.” It seemed to fit with the historical section of this story because it has a decayed, emotional quality to it. I added the watercolor tones, which was new for me, and chose the sepia color to give it more of a historical feel. The modern-day story is rendered in cleaner lines and is more spare to take that contrast a little further. That style seemed to reflect a bit of the spare, clean feel of a modern suburb and convenience store.
What was the challenge in creating the right setting? The town has this unfinished quality.
The setting for the contemporary story is completely based on the fields (and subsequent housing development that replaced them) across the street from the house I lived in as an adolescent. The convenience store is a little different from the actual one but not much. At one point I had some sketches that drew a stronger visual parallel between the spare suburbs and the camps but I decided not to push that too much since comparing the experiences isn’t so much the point. It’s more about how the experience of the boy in 1944-45 influences what happens in the contemporary story. I also didn’t want anyone to think that I was drawing some sort of moral equivalent between life in the camps and life in the suburbs.
What was the challenge as far as finding reference material for the camps, and was there a model you had in mind for them?
There are quite a few online photo archives so finding reference was not difficult at all. I had originally planned to set the story in a composite camp in order to have it reflect the wider experience of all the internees. I was surprised to find that two great American photographers, Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams had both taken pictures of the camps and the often harsh and imposing landscapes they were built in. In both Lange and Adams’ photos, they feature the large mountain that overlooks the camp in Manzanar, California. Somehow, imagining what it would be like to be looking up at that huge mountain, after having had one’s life uprooted by indifferent and powerful forces of history, seemed to resonate with some of the emotions the internees must have felt. Once I imagined my character experiencing that, which became the opening scene in the book, the story had to be set in Manzanar. Then, working backward, the other geographic locations, like the racetrack that was converted into a temporary relocation center and the family’s home in Berkeley, are all part of one possible path of a family that would have ended up at Manzanar.
You make it clear how the situation of the camps really broke apart the family structure for Japanese-Americans. Are you making the argument that traditional American family life has been undermined or destroyed and that the community has failed?
No, that wasn’t my intention. In fact, in the contemporary story, the father and the store keeper — his community if you will — both contribute to the boy finding his way to a greater awareness of the consequences of his actions. So one could read it as a plea for a more community-centered, less punitive approach to juvenile crime, though that idea was not something I set out to write a story about. Another larger point that connects the stories is that adolescent boys are very influenced by their peers and environment. In the contemporary story the boys start shoplifting after the fields they play in are turned into a housing development. Because the main character gets status and pleasure as a risk taker, shoplifting becomes a way to show his bravery and get that excitement. He’s not really thinking about the people he’s stealing from until he has to. And there’s no reason to assume that the Japanese-American boy would have been a thief had he not found himself in the camps. So that was a theme I tried to bolster a little. But it was something I recognized in the process of trying to tell a compelling story, not an agenda I had before writing the story. In general, I find that the deeper themes of my stories rise up organically from the situations I set in motion. It’s like cooking without a recipe- you have some ingredients you suspect will go good together and then you see what happens.
“Take What You Can Carry” is on sale now.