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Nilanjana S Roy: Sacco's wars

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The @IDFSpokesperson account on has over 179,091 followers, and is credited with having brought war to social media. Over last week, thousands watched the war unfold in Gaza, tweet by tweet.

Many were horrified at the cold-blooded way in which the (IDF) laid out their defence: “Thanks to our followers worldwide for sharing our infographics. Let’s see how many RTs you can get for this one...pic.twitter.com/s50rb1fI.” One tweet, “Our goal is one: improving the reality of life for Israeli civilians#IsraelUnderFire”, came out the day after photographs were published of a Palestinian family, three children and their mother, killed by Israeli fire.

Both fiction and will attempt, at some point, to make sense of what is playing out in today, just as novelists and journalists have attempted to make sense of Bosnia, or the Chechen Wars, or a score of other contemporary conflicts. But if there is one contemporary author who has the most useful perspective, the sharpest pen, it would be Joe Sacco.

I was reading his new collection, Journalism, just before Israel began its offensive. Mr Sacco’s early graphic novel, Palestine, was the first in a series of unconventional journalism, where the Maltese-American cartoonist used his pen to capture the stories of those he met, travelling from Gaza to Sarajevo, from Bosnia to Iraq. In the 1990s and most of the 2000s, Mr Sacco’s voice grew stronger as he explored the landscape of conflict, always asking the big, human questions, lingering where a conventional reporter would have got his or her story and left. His graphic novels rank among the greatest literary achievements of the last two decades.

Interviewed by in 2011, said: “When you draw, you can always capture … that exact, precise moment when someone’s got the club raised, when someone’s going down. I realise now there’s a lot of power in that… You have to put yourself in everyone’s shoes that you draw, whether it’s a soldier or a civilian.”

As @IDFSpokesperson updates its Twitter feed with today’s “game score”, I’m reading Mr Sacco’s Gaza portfolio; bulldozers taking down houses in the Palestinian refugee camp of Rafah, the IDF justifying its home-demolition campaign. His drawings provide the background that is so often missing from the quick news clip, the news journalist’s objective story, and indeed, Mr Sacco questions “objectivity”, in the Manifesto that opens Journalism. “I’ve picked the stories I wanted to tell, and by those selections, my sympathies should be clear,” he writes. “I chiefly concern myself with those who don’t get a hearing, and I don’t feel it is incumbent on me to balance their voices with the well-crafted apologetics of the powerful.”

In story after story, what Mr Sacco brings back to the frame is the humanity of the people he meets. Women in Chechnya, pawns in a game of Hide-the-Refugee, living in disused cowsheds, in still-operating cement plants; the confusion among Iraqis who have signed on to be guardsmen with the Americans, but who can’t understand them; the steady dehumanisation of migrants in his native Malta.

When he writes about the Dalits who live in Kushinagar, the Musahars who are “hanging on to the planet by their fingernails”, his outsider’s eyes see everything that Indian insiders have been trained to skip over, the empty chairs that the Dalits won’t sit on in the presence of upper-caste visitors or a white man.

Kushinagar ends, like so much of Mr Sacco’s compassionate, self-aware and never self-indulgent journalism, with no resolution. By the end of his time in Kushinagar, he knows as much about the apathy or corruption of the officials of the state and the deeply entrenched divisions of caste in smooth operation, as any journalist or insider to the area could tell you.

In every panel that he draws, Mr Sacco pays particular attention to the faces of the people he speaks to, the people who trust him with their stories, from the displaced refugees simmering in the rage and hopelessness of those for whom there is no place in Malta or in Chechnya.

The Dalits of Kushinagar emerge in his drawings as individuals, not as faceless representations of poverty, and though he never completes his interviews – they are interrupted, he is asked to leave – he attempts to have a conversation that is not an interrogation. In all of his stories, he is there, not intrusive, but not edited out either. “I mean to signal to the reader that journalism is a process with seams and imperfections practised by a human being — it is not a cold science carried out behind Plexiglas by a robot,” Mr Sacco writes.

In a slightly different context, Janet Malcolm writes of one of the experiences that came her way through her journalism: “It took me out of a sheltered place and threw me into bracingly icy water. What more could a writer want?” Mr Sacco’s journalism does that for readers, removing them from shelter, and allowing them to take that plunge through his powerful, humane words and images.


nilanjanasroy@gmail.com  

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