A Dawson City-based graphic novelist is using their Jenni House Artist Residency to dive into tropes about disability and illness in literature in order to avoid or subvert them in their own upcoming work.
Kim Edgar began their residency, remotely from their home in Dawson, on July 1.
The Jenni House residency typically sees an artist work out of the namesake building in downtown Whitehorse, but due to COVID-19, artists have been staying in their respective communities and running public outreach events online.
Edgar said staying at home for a residency was a new experience; all their previous artist residencies involved travelling somewhere else to work.
“The benefit of that is that you’re sort of in a separate space, so that you are focused on doing the thing that you’re meant to be doing, you know?” they said in an interview July 7.
“And there is something about that spatial separation and the fact that I’m usually, like, alone, that really does change my relationship to the work that I’m doing and so at home, I don’t have that, it’s true, but I have instead implemented, like, a strict sort of schedule I’m trying to follow.”
Edgar has picked out six books they’re hoping to finish reading by the end of the month, including Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors by Susan Sontag, who was undergoing treatment for cancer when she wrote the book; Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; and Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc.
They’ve been trying to dedicate four-hour chunks each day to reading and researching, using “little egg timers and stuff” to help keep them on track although they said they stop once they feel like they “can’t absorb more information.”
Edgar said tropes surrounding disability and illness are nothing new for them; they have their own “host of illnesses” that they’ve been “negotiating,” some of which have only appeared in the past five years.
“I’ve been doing comics quite a lot and so my more recent comics have been about … me having an undiagnosed illness or an illness that’s not yet diagnosed or unexplained symptoms,” they said, explaining that creating comics and writing stories has served as a way to understand and process being chronically ill and disabled.
It wasn’t until February, though, that Egar said they started to take an interest in academic representations and analyses of disability and illness when their partner, who studied English, suggested they read The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye.
“I never went to university so … the academic ideas behind things, especially behind things like literature and storytelling that maybe most people (that) have a generalized university background have, I’ve never really encountered until I started reading about it myself,” they explained.
“And what I really liked about The Educated Imagination was, it talks about, like, literature as a whole, as something constantly compounding upon each other and the idea that previous tropes and stories always will influence the stories we’re telling now.
“And so I thought if I’m writing about illness, I’d like to know a little bit more about how much illness was presented in literature in history so that I can hopefully take that in and avoid problematic tropes that have been done before that are cliché, but also maybe like, have a better idea of kind of how illness occupies our consciousness as a culture, and then maybe have a better idea of how to like subvert that or change that.”
Edgar said they’re hoping to use the research to produce a story outline and a loose script for a graphic novel they’re working on featuring two characters with disabilities. The story is still “very much in development,” they said, but wanted the structure to be like a “river journey,” another trope found in a lot of stories.
“I’m thinking of like, Heart of Darkness, or the movie I really love called Embrace of the Serpent, but they all tend to have (this structure of) you’re traveling up or down river and make all of these stops on the way, and there’s this idea that the further along the river you go, the more you’re like, descending into something,” Edgar said.
“I think about that a lot with the Yukon River, so I do want to include something with the Yukon River and being on the river I think in the story.”
As for the characters, Edgar said they’re still working on how they’ll be presented, noting that there’s a broad number of disabilities including ones that aren’t visible.
“I want to have two protagonists … with two different disabilities that are not like, working with each other, but not working against each other, just sort of foiling each other perhaps,” they said.
“…I have a lot of snippets and notes and things I’d like to include, but also the structure is changing based on the books that I’m reading so I think I’ll have a better idea of the story structure by the end of (the residency).”
Edgar is posting updates about their residency on Instagram at @deadbirdparty
Contact Jackie Hong at email@example.com