Sunday, December 13, 2009

With great hijab comes great responsibility” * meet Asia Alfasi

Meet Asia Alfasi

Mon, Jun 11, 2007
Asia Alfasi – she may not be a name you know in comics yet, but I think you’re going to be hearing a lot more about her in the very near future. Many of us have found the imbalance between female and male creators in comics more than a little depressing, not to mention some portrayals of female characters – it’s a subject area which comes up regularly on the likes of Journalista, Comics Reporter and other sites which put some thought into where our beloved medium is going, how it is shaped, who creates it, who reads it. So how about a female writer-artist who is also Muslim, incorporates aspects of her Islamic culture and how it interacts with other cultures into her comics, which are influenced by Japanese manga and her own personal family history coming from Libya via Glasgow and Birmingham? That’s quite a mix (hard to get a more international and multi-cultural background) but it seems to be working well for Asia Alfasi, who Kenny spotted in a large article in Emel magazine – a periodical for the Muslim community in the UK – this month.
Asia Alfasi artwork from Emel article 1.jpg
(a taste of some of Asia’s artwork in the Emel magazine article)
22 year old Asia has already impressed as the first female finalist on the Stripsearch competition, which she heard about only weeks into her Visual Communication course at the Birmingham Institute of Art and Design. Her father had wanted her to study medicine or another profession (a common desire in Asian families as she notes and a pretty common desire for many other parents too), but her heart was set on illustration – becoming a finalist on a competition where the winners get a chance to be taught by the likes of Andy Watson and Hunt Emerson must have seemed like a validation of her determination to be an artist. The International Manga and Anime Festival of 2004 proved to be another highlight for Asia:
The standard for the competition was really high and I didn’t think I had a hope in a million years. So I kept putting off applying. Three days before the deadline I printed out their guidelines, carefully reading over what the judges were looking for and highlighted the term ‘originality’. If I were to have any hope, it would have to be by targeting that,” Asia told Emel magazine. “I hadn’t seen genuinely Arab or Islamic characters before, so I came up with ‘Monir’ and ‘Monira’. It unravelled into an epic tale in my mind. During that time it occurred to me just how much of a drought we have in creative works emanating from the Muslim community. Here were the Japanese communicating their customs, morals and history through this very diplomatic medium and generating respect and understanding towards their culture, while we, who were in dire need of communicating, were not producing. At that moment I decided that my work would be geared exclusively towards doing that and nothing else.”
Just before her 20th birthday, wondering where she would get the money to buy her next lot of arts supplies for her course from, Asia received word from the festival organisers to say she had won her category, along with a $5, 000 prize – very useful to a struggling student and obviously a huge morale booster. Modestly Asia ascribed much of this success to istikhaara, a form of guidance prayer, which she uses to ask herself why she is doing something, is it for the right reasons, does it have the right elements? Obviously this modest approach has worked very well for Asia – two prestigious competitions under her belt by her early 20s, some of her work published in Ilya’s first Mammoth Book of Best New Manga published last year (where I first saw some of her comics work after Ilya converted me to giving manga more of a chance) and a 22 page public work for the Piccadilly Circus underground station in London, which was commissioned as part of the Platform for Art project, itself a part of the Thin Cities festival which celebrate 100 years of the Piccadilly Line. The story, “The Non-Savvy, Non Commuter”, shown on the walls of the station obviously had to be handled sensitively given the Muslim characters and the terror attacks on the London Underground.
Asia Alfasi Savvy commuter Piccadilly Circus comic.jpg
(panel from Asia Alfasi’s “The Non-Savvy, Non Commuter”, on display in the Piccadilly Circus London Underground station; the Sands of Time blog has more from this series and other pictures by Asia which you can browse)
This meant Asia had to go back and forth changing and editing this work for public display, which she said was a little frustrating, but ultimately it paid off because she developed a keener insight into storytelling because of the editing. It also allowed her to address the difference between a lunatic extremist who commits a horrific act and other members of that community – a distinction too easily obscured and lost by hate-mongers and lazy tabloid hacks, which makes her work all the more important in my opinion. We’ve probably all seen that ignorance at work in people who made loud comments (or worse) at Muslims (and sometimes Sikhs, since the Ignorant often can’t tell the difference) on public transport following the New York and London bombings – quite why a woman in a headscarf with her child should be equated with such acts is never really explained by the Ignorant of course, probably because explanation entails learning and thinking which tend to be deadly enemies of Ignorance. All the more reason then to cheer on Asia’s determination to use comics as a cultural bridge, especially since there are bound to be readers who pick up on her work who might never look over the politics pages of a broadsheet paper.
Despite making her initial reputation with manga style comics Asia is now altering her style – she wants to avoid the preconceptions many have when they see manga style artwork and for them to approach her work more objectively, hence the new style, partly inspired by reading works like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Joe Sacco’s Palestine, which made her realise the “power that graphic novels or comics can have in bringing to light issues that would otherwise be too sensitive to speak about to the general public.” I certainly wouldn’t argue that point – we’ve said repeatedly here that the comics medium can and does explore some events and subjects, from dealing with cancer to the Holocaust or 9-11, in a way that seems both more accessible and more affecting and powerful to many readers. Bloomsbury, publishers of a certain boy wizard’s adventures, obviously agree and have signed Asia up to a two-book deal, the two volumes (which will be released in English and Arabic) reflecting twin aspects of her British and Libyan heritage. I’d imagine that Bloomsbury would have Marjane Satrapi’s international success with Persepolis in mind when they made that deal, but from what I’ve been learning Asia, although probably very happy to be mentioned in the company of Satrapi, is carving out her very own, very individual piece of Comicdom.
Asia Alfasi Jinn Narration Mammoth Best New Manga.jpg
(page from Asia’s Jinn Narration in Ilya’s Mammoth Book of Best New Manga, published winter 2006 by Constable Robinson)
I’m looking forward to seeing those new books. And I’m looking forward to the fact that when a publisher like Bloomsbury embraces this kind of work you can practically guarantee that it won’t just be we comics folks talking about it, the mainstream booktrade, reviewers and media will be discussing it too. In fact, they already are – the heavyweight intellectual politics and arts channel BBC Radio 4 talked to Asia a few months ago on Women’s Hour (which is still archived here). Even before those new books come out she’s got people discussing the work and the interaction between cultures – in effect she’s already achieved a part of what she wants the comics to do before they are even published. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty impressive. And we’ve still got the actual books to look forward to! Expect to be reading more about Asia in the coming months.
(* - I confess I pinched that title quote from the wonderfully monikered Maniac Muslim’s blog where he was enthusing about Asia’s work and frankly it was smarter than any header I thought of, so tip of the hat to Hamzah Moin for coining it)


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