Comparing Palestine & Pyongyang

Typical memoirs often have the same narrative structure; they strictly follow the author’s personal timeline and break certain events by chapters. Their frames rarely shift and almost always guide the reader in a linear fashion through their accounts. However, Palestine& Pyongyang are not typical memoirs. They are more like recorded collections of random encounters strung together by vignettes in order to construct themes. Sacco achieves this by carefully selecting and detailing the experiences of Palestinians he met while on his trip, whereas Delisle relies on his personal experiences during his stay in North Korea to relay his themes. Aside from their structure, there is another reason why these memoirs are more effective than most, they actually provide a picture. The physical representation of emotions is significantly better at achieving empathy as opposed to just writing on a wall.

By means of his illustration and framing of vignettes, Sacco portrays one of the most evocative representations of the Palestinian experience ever created. Each chapter of Palestinewas published independently as its own comic,and each deals with its own unique theme. Perhaps the most coherent of these is chapter 4; it deals with the Palestinian experience of imprisonment and torture. The first vignette of the chapter is a retelling of three individuals’ experience in the prison camp Ansar III. With every illustration Sacco captures a different event and emotion from their imprisonment. For example, while looking at part of a vignette on page 84 one can’t help but feel sympathy for individuals enduring their hardship. The first thing noticed are the first three panels of the page. All three are shaded grey in order to visually indicate they take place in the same room. The first depicts the frustrating boredom of waiting in a cramped room, the second depicts their attempts at mitigating heat exhaustion, and the third depicts a prisoner’s sense of claustrophobia and lack of fresh air. The remaining portions of the page show the prisoners’ transportation to the facility and a small box with one of the correspondent’s current facial expression on recounting the experience. In doing so, Sacco simultaneously conveys the past and present. Another striking vignette of the chapter titled Moderate Pressure Part 2 depicts a Palestinian named Ghassan and his experience being tortured by Israel’s Shin Bet. In order to portray his imprisonment that lasted over a nine-teen day period, Sacco uses many small panels to relay the volume of experiences that occurred over that time span. Specifically on page 111, Sacco uses 20 small panels to help facilitate the lapse of time felt by Ghassan. He goes from being physically abused, to a court hearing, and then back to his imprisonment. All the while he suffers and in certain moments hallucinates from trauma. Since Sacco can visually depict this, he makes it all the more impactful.

While Delisle’s memoir Pyongyang doesn’t have explicit chapters, sections are broken up by large full-page illustrations that set the tone for the ensuing vignettes. One of the most metaphoric of these illustrations is that of a large turtle contained within a fish tank. Typically turtles are associated with persistence and endurance because of their long lives; however, the tank adds an element of confinement that alters the collective symbolism. A captive animal requires care and nourishment by a keeper in order to ensure it lives. So while the turtle has the capability of living a long life, only outside forces can ensure it does so. If correlated to the North Korean regime, one could think of the turtle as the country itself and the caretakers as foreign resources. Part of a short vignette on page 84 within this section captures this sentiment very well. Delisle and his friend Dave are eating a meal when they begin talking about the water bottles given to them. He points out that even the water they drink is not from North Korea, but from the state’s enemy South Korea. In addition, the North Koreans resell the surplus water to other foreigners as another crutch to receive cash. Therefore the turtle, no matter how reluctant, doesn’t care who gives it sustenance so long as it is provided. As another example, on page 87, Delisle explains why they are suddenly being served fruit. He simply states that North Korea turns on the lights and brings in fruit to impress foreign delegations when they visit. Thus the turtle must still put on a show in order for the caretaker to feed it.

When I think of Sacco’s and Delisle’s use of vignettes, I imagine the effect given by staring at windows along a wall; each window provides its own unique image of the world outside, but the collective image is still incomplete because of the mortar between the panes. Even though both authors are excellent in their respective abilities to convey “true” experience, it will never suffice. Ultimately the reader will never have “true” understanding unless he personally experiences the peoples’ hardships.


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