A number of years ago, I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of young artists at the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art. It was spectacular evening, and I’ve made a point of keeping in touch with several of the talented young people I met there. A few years later, at the annual MoCCA event, I ran into one of those young artists, Marguerite Dabaie. She handed me a self-published comic about transvestites during the Weimar Republic. I was instantly hooked by her personal style of story-telling that communicated emotion, without beating you with it.
A few years later, when I ran into Margot again, she had just published the first volume of her book Hookah Girl and Other True Stories. I read the first volume and have since been giving it away to people as an example of a voice that needs to be heard and a talent that needs to be enjoyed by as many readers as possible. I am quite literally in the habit of buying her book to give it away. One of those gifts gained Margot a short write-up by Brigid Alverson on Robot 6. Brigid writes:
[Hookah Girl] a memoir of growing up as a Palestinian Christian, within the immigrant community in the U.S., as well as a meditation on all the contradictions and labels that come with that identity. Dabaie starts the first volume with a set of paper dolls that embody each of those stereotypes‹Muslim girl in full hijab, suicide bomber with vest full of explosives, I-Dream-of-Jeannie seductress, starving artist. The stories touch on things that are familiar to immigrants in general — scary relatives, peculiar customs, native foods — but there is also an interesting comic about Leila Khaled that presents her as an interestingly complex individual. This book left me wanting to see more, and I hope there is a full-length graphic novel in the works. If there isn’t, there should be.
Today it’s my pleasure to introduce you all to Margot and her work.
Erica: Let’s start with the obligatory introduction.
Margot: I grew up out in San Francisco, dabbled in drawing for a long time, and decided to move to NYC in order to strike a match under my butt.
For the past couple of years, I’ve been working at a museum while attending graduate school (for illustration). I also freelance and teach art- and comic-related workshops. It’s a busy time for me right now, very productive, and I like it that way!
E: What was your motivation for The Hookah Girl and Other True Stories?
Two different threads led to the creation of The Hookah Girl: One is that I got a lot of “you should make a comic about this” comments from people who heard some of the stories that I ended up putting in the books. Tom Hart and Leela Corman were especially assertive about this, which I appreciate now.
The second thread stems more with my aggravation towards how Arabs are generally portrayed in the media and the public perception of them. I was very good at not paying much attention to the bad rap, and managed to just completely tune it out for a really long time. But then, 9/11 happened and it became impossible for me to ignore it. I had friends telling me to not let on that I was Palestinian so that I wouldn’t be discriminated against, and I think that really hit home. Of course, my friends meant well, but it was difficult to swallow that I now lived in a place—In the US, no less!—where some people gave a crap that my father was born in Ramallah. I had my own little “Arab Spring” throughout the years and one of the results is my comic.
I’ve nicknamed The Hookah Girl “Arab 101” because I ended up writing with a non-Arab audience in mind. I wanted to highlight that, while my family and some of their practices are not “western” and may be distinct, they are not any more or less distinct than any other family. The positives and negatives are not all that different from any variety of cultures, and they just are. I get the greatest thrill when someone comes up to me and tells me that my grandmother reminds them of their French grandmother, or Nigerian uncle, or Korean mother. This is exactly the kind of reaction I wanted—that we all have a Teta in our lives.
E: How has the reaction to Hookah Girl been? As a person of Jewish descent, it’s been hard for me to watch the vilification of everything Arab in some of the media. Like, haven’t we learned anything in 2000 years, seriously? I can’t imagine that you haven’t gotten at least some negative feedback.
M: The comic has been received fairly well. I have had some unfortunate instances where people did not agree with the political implications behind calling oneself a Palestinian (because just using the “P” word can be a political act) and dismissed it for that alone. I’ve also had people admonish the work because I mention some negative aspects—namely, my father’s sexist tendencies and my exploration of Leila Khaled, a 1960s terrorist. The positives outweigh the negatives, though, and I absolutely feel like making the comic has been worth it. The connection I have achieved with people is the whole point, really!
E: Well, for what its worth, it totally connected with me. You’re very outspoken about what you think, which I just love. What is the one panel you’ve done that best expresses yourself?
E: Hahah, I can totally see you like that. Who are your artistic influences, comic or otherwise?
M: Firstly, I’m really influenced by “folk” art. I especially love work that is flat and very graphic—patterns on textiles, tapestries, manuscripts on vellum, murals, and the like.
Some of the artists who I actively look at are Rembrandt, Pierre-Paul Prud’hon, Lorraine Fox (I can thank Murray Tinkelman for introducing me to her work!), Trina Schart-Hyman, J. C. Leyendecker, and Yoshitaka Amano.
In regards to comic influences, I’ve felt strong connections to Naji al-Ali and lots of older manga—especially anything made by CLAMP in the 1990s (RG Veda takes the cake), Masamune Shirow, and Rumiko Takahashi.
E: The manga influences really show in your story-telling style. You write a webcomic “He Also Has Drills For Hands,” where did you get that name? Tell us about the comic.
M: I originally started writing HAHDFH as a self-imposed exercise. I felt like my work was getting too precious and I wanted to publicly make a large body of work. So, I chose to leave the strip’s subject matter totally open (a lot of them deal with funny little everyday occurrences, but I still have my occasional Really Random Strip) and I draw them in a small sketchbook that’s really portable, so I can draw them while I’m out running around and doing my thing. They’re a lot of fun to make and when I started out, I was drawing one a day. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to keep that schedule up—grad school does that to you—so they’ve been knocked down to three strips a week.
The title alludes to one of my really early strips in which I talk about my childhood crushes. One of them is a robot named Crash Man who is a character from the video game Mega Man 2. The title was a line in the strip, because Crash Man does, indeed, have drills for hands! My kid self managed to look past the drills.
E: We’ve reached the obligatory “What are you working on right now?” question. So, what are you working on?
M: I’m currently in the research/very, very preliminary sketching phase for a historical-fictional graphic novel. It’ll take place in 7th-century Sogdiana, which was in modern-day Uzbekistan.
E: We talked about this a bit at New York Comic Con. It sounds pretty fantastic.
M: It will be chock-full of Silk-Road goodness. I’m going to put up a website about this project soon!
E: I know I’m looking forward to reading it. Margot, thanks so much for your time today!
M: Thank you!
I hope you’ll all check Margot’s work out at Margoyle.net – and let me know what you think here.