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Interview: Kate Evans on her New Graphic Novel, Threads From The Refugee Crisis

Leeron Hoory By Leeron Hoory Published on August 8, 2017
This article was updated on November 1, 2017
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In 2015, activist and artist Kate Evans travelled to Calais, France, a port city known for its lace industry, to report on a community that had emerged within it. Thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa had resettled temporarily in an area known as the Jungle, hoping to eventually make their way to the U.K. 

Evans’ new graphic novel, Threads From The Refugee Crisis, told over the course of her multiple trips to the Jungle, sheds light on this story.

The drawings, simultaneously playful and bold, depict a range and depth of experience, spotlighting the individual interactions and encounters. As Evans begins to draw portraits of the refugees she meets, her art work plays another role in the narrative, raising questions about meaning, beauty and temporality in the backdrop of a community that will eventually be destroyed (within a city that was razed during Word War II). The pages shift from bright and colorful, to dark and harrowing, and back again.

Evans also weaves the political climate into the story, including rhetoric from politicians and populist anti-refugee sentiment. In doing so, she examines the refugee crisis from multiple angles: moral, political, and economic. The Jungle was eventually evacuated, and the British government built a 2.7 million euro wall around the port of Calais. Yet the story serves as a time capsule for this particular moment, as well as providing a case study of the global refugee crisis at large. Bookwitty spoke with Evans about her graphic novel.


What was it like to tell this story in graphic novel format?

Oh, it’s excruciating! Because the graphic novel medium is so incredibly labor intensive, and because the publishing industry process takes time, it’s a bit like doing The Bayeux Tapestry and then expecting it to be up to date. It’s become more of a historical document rather than say, a current document, especially in so far as the Jungle in Calais was evacuated while I was in the process of writing the book. But I’m quite pleased with the fact that it’s a slice of a particular moment in a much, much bigger picture.


Can you tell me about your process creating these comics for the graphic novel?

It’s a little different from the different books I wrote. Threads was very easy to write. The third time I went to the Calais Jungle, a whole load of events happened almost as if it was a novel. I saw people who I met on previous visits —there was some weird synchronicity happening. I had a very rough diary I had recreated of what had happened, and then it literally wrote itself.

I start with the words. I then roughly work out what will go on each page. It takes about six hours to do a page, and I do two pages a day. At the end of the day I’m exhausted, and have got a picture that fundamentally looks quite bad. And I do that through the whole book, which took about three and a half months in this case for Threads. Then I go back and do the whole thing again, taking that rough and putting it on a light box and tracing it through and then doing the final art work from that and then coloring over each one. And again that takes about six hours for a page.

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How did you get into the medium of graphic novels?

Well, I started doing birthday cards, caricatures, doodles. I didn’t do an art degree, which I think is quite helpful, because it never took the love out of doing drawings. It was never a job. I got involved in activism in the 1990s, and I started doing comic reportage based on the environmental activism I was involved with. Generally, they’ve been quite issue-based, one about climate change, one about breast-feeding and one about pregnancy and birth, and a mixture of formats. So it wasn’t until Red Rosa: A Graphic Biography of Rosa Luxemburg, that I did a straight graphic novel from beginning to end.


Can you say more about your role in the story, as both an observer and a participant?

It’s interesting, being the central character in an autobiographical graphic novel. I haven’t done that in any of my previous work. I think there’s something quite antihero about putting yourself in. I am not the hero in any sense of the word. I am much more a witness or a scribe, rather than an active agent.

It seems quite common when you look at graphic novelists, that they often do an unflattering self-portrait of themselves in their work. You’ll see it in Rachael Ball’s An Inflatable Woman, and also in Joe Sacco’s work. I was quite keen to not portray myself as any kind of actionable hero. It’s not my story to tell, it’s just a very, very tiny thread of a much, much bigger picture. 

 It’s not my story to tell, it’s just a very, very tiny thread of a much, much bigger picture.

Who are illustrators or authors who have inspired you?

With the coloring, especially since I was going towards pencils, definitely the Raymond Briggs that I read as a child must have rubbed off on me. I really like the work of Alison Bechdel. I like the way she uses visual metaphor in her work. I really like the work of Lynda Barry, and some of the collage parts of Threads probably owe something to One! Hundred! Demons!


You incorporate the actual statements of politicians, and anti-refugee sentiment into the story. Why did you choose to include them, and how did you tie this all together?

The first two comments you see quoted in the book were made in direct response to reading my blog. The first chapter of Threads was from my initial blog post, which I then made into a comic and handed out. There were overwhelmingly positive comments on the blog, but there were a couple of really negative ones.

I thought it was really important to address them, because there is an internal consistency to somebody else’s views. No matter how much you disagree with them, it makes sense to them. I really wanted to tease out this idea that all immigrants are benefits scoundrels and simultaneously after your jobs. And I wanted to show them up for the lie that they are, so I started actively looking for hostile comments. I think there is no point just preaching to the converted and that pulling these arguments apart, and showing them up is the best way to deal with them. The issue as well is that people will be going, “oh, it’s all very well being nice and humanitarian and caring about this sorts of stuff, but when it comes right down to it, it’s just not practical giving everyone refuge.” That’s the fundamental argument you need to give the lie to. We are faced with a very stark humanitarian crisis, and we either stand with people or we’re complicit in their mass murder. I know which way I want society to go.

We are faced with a very stark humanitarian crisis, and we either stand with people or we’re complicit in their mass murder. I know which way I want society to go.

What are you working on next?

Right now I’m doing a comic on Trump’s childhood, combined with observations about authoritarian parenting, the origins of fascism and attachment theory. 

Leeron Hoory is a writer based in New York City with a focus in arts and culture.

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