Speaking at BAM, Alison Bechdel recalls anniversary of mother’s death
Alison Bechdel, creator of the critically-acclaimed comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” was featured as part of the latest installment of the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Eat, Drink & Be Literary series, co-presented by the National Book Awards, that took place at the BAMCafe on Wednesday night.
“Alison has one of the, I think, most unique bodies of work,” said moderator Ben Greenman, who is a contributing writer at The New Yorker. “She is primarily a graphic memoirist and cartoonist whose work is heavily invested in psychology. Her two books are works of art as much as anything that I’ve ever come across.”
Her lucky fans at the sold-out show got a chance to hear a reading from her graphic memoir “Are You My Mother?” Afterward she discussed her writing and her family with Greenman, conducted a brief Q&A with the audience and signed books.
BAM initially asked Bechdel take part in the Eat, Drink & Be Literary series a year ago, but she could not commit due to the declining health and eventual death of her mother. Coincidentally, when she finally appeared in front of the Brooklyn audience it was on the one-year anniversary of her mother’s death.
“I’m feeling a little crazy as this date has gotten closer and closer,” Bechdel said. “Normally anniversaries are very emotionally laden, but experiencing it is another matter. I hope I don’t freak out or have a breakdown here tonight. Don’t worry, I’m very repressed.”
As her work is highly autobiographical, it was appropriate that she began by discussing the death of her mother and how she’s recently been re-living it through the Memoir app on her phone, which has been periodically emailing her photos from a year ago. Bechdel shared some of the photos with the audience.
“I’m sorry to show you these terrible, intimate and personal things, but I sort of can’t stop myself,” she joked.
Bechdel eventually moved on to the reading that, because she is a graphic memoirist, was part reading and part slideshow. Afterward, Greenman picked her mind about her method, the meaning behind her writing and her family.
“I use photography extensively,” she said. “I set all my scenes up and pose for them. It becomes a kind of weird emotional tool to identify with the characters…It’s a weird ritual and part of my work — I spend a lot of time taking selfies.”
On starting to draw herself, she said, “I had this bizarre thing as an artist that I could not really draw women for a very long time. As a kid, I only drew men or boys and that didn’t strike me as strange because I grew up in the 60s and I didn’t want to be Dennis the Menace’s Mother. When I came out as a lesbian in college, I suddenly thought it was weird.
“So when I first started drawing women they all came out very masculine looking, but I kept on doing it and kept getting better at it. I wasn’t drawing myself, but I was drawing pictures of lesbians and started drawing my comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” and eventually I drew myself as one of them.”
She also discussed how her memoirs helped her to become more compassionate and interested in her family.
The Eat, Drink & Be Literary series, which is celebrated its 10th season, is always sold out. Before the guest of honor arrives, audience members are treated to dinner and dessert, which on Wednesday included salad, pasta, pan seared salmon or spice-crusted pork tenderloin, with wine provided by Pine Ridge Vineyards. Saxophonist Matt Parker and guitarist Ryan Scott set the mood.
Bechdel was the seventh author to take part in this year’s Eat, Drink & Be Literary series. There will be one more author this season — Meg Wolitzer, who comes to BAM on May 28. She is the author of nine novels, including “The Wife,” “The Position,” “The Ten-Year Nap” and “The Interestings.”
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