Down on the Farm: Galit and Gilad Seliktar Discuss Farm 54
The brother-and-sister team of Galit (the writer) and Gilad (the illustrator) Seliktar discuss their moving, challenging new book Farm 54, which weaves Galit's real-life stories of growing up in Israel with some subtle fictional nuances to create a mesmerizing experience. Here's how the two describe the book.
How did it first come about that Gilad would illustrate stories Galit had already written and turn them into a graphic work?
Galit: When Gilad had approached me for the first time, I wasn't exactly sure how this is going to work out. “The Substitute Lifeguard” was the first text of mine that I have ever shown him because it was based on a true story. For years I felt embarrassed to show him my texts because he's seven years younger and many of my writings, especially my poems, were very personal and sometimes I thought that he was too young to read them, especially those that had erotic themes. But at some point, we both got older and the years’ gap between us didn't matter anymore. “Substitute Lifeguard” was the first of my stories he read—the story is based on a true event in which he was deeply involved—and this was the moment we started collaborating artistically.
Gilad: When I finished reading “Substitute Lifeguard,” I had tears in my eyes. The story touched me profoundly and it was about my own world, the house, the family. As I was reading, the visual images were already passing in my head and it was clear to me that I'd like to adapt this story to comics as soon as I can.
During about the same time, I was invited to contribute a piece to the magazine Masmerim, which published a short graphic story in every issue. They were very open-minded and were willing to give the story the required space. Throughout the adaptation, I was brainstorming with Galit, who gave me a free hand with her text.
Gilad’s art style is very beautifully sparse and elegant. Did you two work together on how he visually interpreted the work, or did he come up with the look of the book entirely on his own?
Gilad: Clearly, in our division of labor, Galit is responsible for the text and I'm responsible for the visual dimension and for how the book looks. But I did not draw a single detail that did not originally appear in Galit's text. The visual language of Farm 54 comes out of works I created before this book, works in which I stressed the line. I started developing the shadows and stains that characterize the book gradually, as I was working on it.
Were any of these stories difficult to retell, even in this form?
Galit: For me, the hardest story to revisit was “The Substitute Lifeguard.” When I first wrote it, I wasn't a mother yet, so writing about a child's death wasn't a big deal, it didn't feel worse than writing about some other significant person's loss. When Gilad started doing the first adaptation, for the Israeli literary magazine, he used photos of my then baby daughter as a reference to the dead child. When I first saw the result, I was shocked and didn't know how to accept it, and I also couldn't understand how I could write what I did.
Gilad: Retelling all stories was a real challenge, and especially "Houses," which is the most complex text in the book in terms of narrative as well as its political meaning. Galit and I do not see eye to eye politically, and the conflict was mostly apparent in and around this text. Galit is more radical than me and as I was adapting the story, I was trying to tone down the rebellion of the story's protagonist, which is actually Galit. I removed entire parts that did not work visually. Galit's original story managed to come to a balance I couldn't maintain graphically. I believe this original text takes the reader to a different place than the comic does. Maybe at some point in the future we will revisit this story and try to understand the transformations it underwent.
That last story does seems to be the most personal one in many ways. In it, Galit relates how she was tasked in the military with ensuring that Israeli soldiers did not touch any of the Palestinian women while clearing their houses. Looking back, what do you most remember about that time in your life? Gilad, being younger, what was your impression of what Galit was doing at that time?
Galit: I remember how desperate I was to get out of the occupied territories and how my father and one of his friends reprimanded me for expressing such views. But I wanted to leave and serve closer to home. I remember not seeing my boyfriend for many long weeks; I remember traveling home from Bethlehem to Jerusalem in an armored bus, the long lines for the buses at the central bus station in Jerusalem, and how short were weekends at home.
Gilad: As a child I knew Galit was a soldier but thought she was a sort of Girl Scout. I remember that she volunteered me to draw signs for a ceremony in her base. This was my first time at a military base. I was wearing my civilian cloths and everybody treated me nicely because I was her little brother. Maybe as a result, until my own enlistment, I had an extremely naïve impression of army life. I was sure everybody was having fun.
You describe the Palestinians moving the belongings out of their own houses as “stage hands to their own disaster.” And of course what the Israeli army is doing there is incredibly controversial. When you look back upon that time now, what do you see or what insights do you have that you didn’t at the time, when you were only 19?
Galit: Growing up in Israel, serving in the army seemed the most natural thing in the world. But now, in retrospect, I see more clearly and critically the mechanisms that disguise from young people the oddity and anomaly of this situation. Especially for young women, the army is very often a problematic place. As a young soldier, demolishing a family's home as a form of collective punishment felt wrong, but I could not articulate exactly why this was so and certainly did not second-guess the fact that those giving such orders knew what they were doing. The fact that today I can say why this is immoral, illegal, and impractical is due not so much to my current maturity or insights, but more to the fact that today there is more public debate, in the court system, the press, and in various artistic arenas, about these things. There is a long way to go, however.
Do you see this book as having an opportunity to open up a dialogue and start a discussion?
Gilad: For me the most significant dialogue is the one I have with myself, with Galit, and with our past. The way the book affects other people is beyond my control.
Galit: I believe one's first civic duty is to correct wrongs in one's own society. Therefore, I see Farm 54 as addressed primarily to other Israelis, and I hope that stories like "Houses" may help them see their (our) own responsibility in a situation that is undoubtedly complex and in a reality where blame can be assigned to all sides.
Are there other Farm 54 stories that you envision telling someday?
Galit: There are many other Farm 54 stories, but I am looking for a new and different way to tell them. I feel that as long as Gilad and I will work together, there will be more stories to tell. Also, like all families, ours changes are constantly producing more and more stories that we want to tell. I hope that in our next two graphic novels, we'll be able to develop this world beyond Farm 54. Finally, the older I get, the more honest I dare to be in my writing, and thus even if we try to go back to these themes, it will be as different artists and with different perspectives.
Farm 54 has already been published in several spots around the globe. What has reaction to the book been, and has that reaction surprised you?
Gilad: Reactions have been excellent, far beyond my expectations. It was even a bit surprising to get so much external feedback on something so personal. In France, where the book was first published, Farm 54 was especially successful. We were nominated for the Angouleme Award there and had a chance to participate in the festival, where I had a chance to meet Galit after a long time in the U.S.
How often do you go back to visit Farm 54?
Galit: I currently live in Princeton, New Jersey, where my husband is a professor at the university, and I therefore visit Farm 54 once a year, during the summer, when we are all off from work and my almost five-year-old daughter has no school.
The last time I've visited the farm was last November (2010), for our brother Oren's wedding. At the same time I celebrated my birthday with my friends and started with the editing of my first poetry book, which will be published in Israel at the end of 2011. I love being in the farm because this is the place that most inspires me, especially at night, which is when I write. This is also a place where Gilad and I work a lot together when I come to Israel, because it's very easy to work there at night as nobody really sleeps—my mother has strange hours, my father goes out dancing in clubs and comes back early in the morning, and there's always the noises of farm animals from not far away.
Gilad: I try to visit as much as I can. I was there only last week for my mother and brother's birthday (they were born on the same day). Life goes on at Farm 54.
What other graphic novels are you both working on?
Galit: We are already working on two new graphic novels. The plot of one of them takes place in Princeton, New Jersey, and includes some of Farm 54's characters, and the other one is very Israeli, revolving around Gilad's wedding, which took place in the summer of 2010.
Gilad: We're already writing a book together and Galit is writing a script to another book I'll illustrate. At the moment, I'm writing and illustrating a book titled Who Are You Anyway, a surrealistic autobiographical story about my military service. I have another forthcoming book in the Mongol series (the first was published in France), a dark comedy on Mongol, a guy who lives with his uncle and grandmother.
Are you a fan of graphic novels in general?
Gilad: I read and collect conics my entire life and my collection threatens to take over my studio. While it's very hard to mention only a few of my favorite books, here are some I find myself constantly revisiting:
No. 5 by Taiyo Matsumoto—Matsumoto is one of my favorite artists and this is his first book that I picked up and couldn't put down. The book surprises me every time with how far it goes with the narrative. I hope that in the current wave of English translations, all these books will be collected into one.
Notes for a War Story by Gipi—The line, the stains, and the narration all come together organically to make one of the best comics works I've read.
The Speed Abatar by Christophe Blain—Another book that took me by surprise and made me sympathize with the soldier characters. The large format has a powerful impact.
Galit: I have to admit that I am new to this genre and most of my readings so far were based on Gilad's recommendations. I'm used to reading mostly poetry and prose, so I feel that I'm still adjusting to this format on one hand, but on the other hand, I sometimes feel comfortable within this kind of reading because of my past as a video editor. I learned a lot from working with Gilad. I also cooperated with Anja Sieber, a German painter who painted after my poems, so I feel quite comfortable working with visual images.
I liked many of the graphic novels that I read, so I'll mention only a few of them—there are so many other good ones. While I was working as a librarian and program coordinator at the Westchester Jewish Center in New York, I developed a library section of Jewish graphic novels, so most of my experience is with reading Jewish or Jewish-related graphic novels. While I worked there, I liked The Rabbi's Cat for its humor and the flow of theological questions expressed by a cat; I was deeply impressed by The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert; I am reading now Gipi's Notes for a War Story, which I got from Gilad and his wife, Adi, for my last birthday; I loved Shaun Taun's The Arrival for both its universality and also because of my family history, which has many similar immigration stories; I just got Joe Sacco's Footnotes in Gaza, which I've decided to read in the summer in Israel—here in Princeton, it's very easy to get detached; the author to whose works I go back the most is Tatsumi. When I first read him, I was shocked by the surprising narratives, but also by the world of Japan's working class that they explore. I am very interested in working-class themes myself. My father considers himself a member of the working class even though for many years he was self employed.-- John Hogan