A cartoon in a recent New Yorker magazine showed Romeo at Juliet’s window. She’s looking out from above; he’s on his cellphone saying, “I’m here.” It was perfect New Yorker humor, an ironic reflection of contemporary life, and it was drawn by Liana Finck, who’ll be in Little Rock for the Arkansas Literary Festival.
Finck’s erstwhile editor at the New Yorker was none other than Bob Mankoff (His “How about never? Is never good enough for you?” is among such celestial New Yorker captions as “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.”). Working with Mankoff (now retired) and rubbing elbows with such famous, wry wits as Roz Chast is a “dream job,” Finck said in an interview.
But it is Finck’s memoir, “Passing for Human,” that is putting her in the superlunary realm of graphic novelists.
Finck said she finds it difficult to talk about “Passing for Human.” “I think I didn’t resolve it.” But then, neither is Finck, who is only 33, resolved.
It is a story with many beginnings, and though a memoir it includes what came before and during the narrator’s life: the creation of the world by a fairy queen, her mother’s story, her father’s story, stories of failed love affairs. Each chapter in the nonlinear narrative
Finck (who identifies herself as Leola in the book) draws in simple, yet expressive, lines: Her abused mother devolves into a tangle of lines on the floor; her anxiety about the book — told within the book — takes the form of rodent-like blobs gnawing at her shoulders.
Crucial to the story is the author’s shadow, a thing lost and found, like memories that are forgotten or purposely shaken off. Thinking about the shadow’s role — Can you cast a shadow if you’re not whole? If your shadow talks, is it passing for human? — is one of the most challenging (and satisfying) elements of the book. Finck’s only explanation is that the shadow’s job is to “push you to be yourself.”
The native New Yorker says she’s “channeling my mom in this book. She turns everything into a story.” Telling a story in words only “gets in the way of seeing things as they really are,” she said. Like the way one writes in a diary? A reporter asked. Yes.
But drawings, unlike words, have their own truth. “To me, a drawing is its own thing. I find inanimate things are very much alive. … A drawing has its own personality that is more vivid than even that of a person, because it has its own essence.”
That Finck finds life in the inanimate is a good thing for an artist using line (and hand lettering) to tell her story.
Finck has been drawing since infancy, practically, “always from a place of wanting to tell stories,” she said. Her first book, “A Bintel Brief,” tells the stories of Jewish immigrants in turn-of-the-century New York trying to adjust to life in America. Finck’s debut was inspired by The Forward, a newspaper that began publication in 1897 and was originally in Yiddish. Its advice column (“A Bintel Brief,” which translates to a bundle of letters) was familiar to “everyone in my parents’ generation and my grandparents’ generation,” Finck said.
As with “Passing for Human,” there’s a mystical bent to “A Bintel Brief”: The narrator (a young woman) learns of the letters from the long-gone editor himself, a man with a heart-shaped head. The device allows Finck to retell, in shortened form (and in English) some of the letters she found (and some of her own creation, also): A woman who suspects her neighbor of taking a valuable watch wants to know if she should confront the neighbor; the socialist Forward remarks on the terrible lot of the underpaid worker who might need to steal to feed his family. A man is guilt-ridden because he escaped a pogrom; his answer is made privately. A cantor who’s lost his faith in God is not chastised, but told to seek work singing elsewhere.
The subtitle of “A Bintel Brief” is “Love and Longing in Old New York,” and the book turns out to be love and longing in New New York, as well.
Finck hasn’t yet decided what she’ll talk about during the festival; she says she’s a last-minute kind of person. She’ll join comic book artist Charles Forsman, whose “The End of the F***ing World” has been adapted into a Netflix original series, and Adam Smith, author of the graphic novel “Long Walk to Valhalla” for a panel discussion at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, April 27, in the Darragh Center of the Main Library.