Comics and graphic novels are examining refugee border-crossing experiences

‘An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar’ recounts how the Somali Olympic runner drowned while trying to reach Italy in 2012.
(From Reinhard Kleist’s ‘An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar/SelfMadeHero)

Elizabeth “Biz” Nijdam, University of British Columbia

Comics about refugee experiences are not new. After all, even the superhero created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman, is a refugee who landed on Earth after his flight from Krypton.

However, recently there has been renewed interest in comics representing migrant experience — namely, that of refugees and asylum-seekers. Since 2011, in particular, and the start of the civil war in Syria, comics and graphic novels have become an important forum for examining global forced migration.

These so-called “refugee comics” range from newspaper comic strips to webcomics and graphic novels that combine eyewitness reportage or journalistic collaboration with comic-book storytelling. These stories are written with the aim of incorporating the points of views of refugees, artists, volunteers or journalists working on-the-ground in displaced communities, war zones and along the migrant journey. They sometimes emerge in collaboration with human rights organizations.

In light of their subject matter, these comic artists contend with complex and distressing themes that are otherwise difficult to represent.

They draw on the traditional comics format, including the medium’s sequential nature, the use of panel walls and a combination of text and image to foster empathy and compassion for the migration journey. In so doing, they aim to give voice to asylum-seekers and refugees, part of 80 million individuals and families forcibly displaced worldwide, whose anonymous images often appear in western media.

Complex issues, narrator’s perspective

These comics are typically drawn by western cartoonists, based on direct testimonies by migrants and refugees or those who have worked with them or encountered them. They are typically not by refugees but about refugees. Scholar Candida Rifkind, who studies alternative comics and graphic narratives, explores how comics about migrant experience often emerge when witnesses to migrant stories grapple with feelings of “shame, guilt and responsibility” to make western society at large more aware of and responsive to refugee realities.

These narratives prompt ethical questions about what it means to tell a story and who has the right or responsibility to do so. While questions about the power relations embedded in how these texts are produced remain, comics on global forced migration are still an important avenue for interrogating the representation of migrants and the socio-political circumstances surrounding their journeys.

These comics also challenge what may otherwise be relayed in mainstream media as the story of a global migrant crisis that has no human face, with perilous effects for migrants who face xenophobia and hate. In Rifkind’s words, they are a kind of intervention into “the photographic regime of the migrant as Other that has emerged as the dominant visual record” of contemporary globalization.

In comics about forced migrant experiences, people experiencing life as refugees become centred as the subjects of their own stories. But cartooning can allow storytellers to represent individuals anonymously, making it easier for people “to give testimony fully and candidly,” while affording them the specificity of their humanity.

There can be consequences for refugees who testify about their circumstances and the oppression and violence they encounter. Photographic evidence of unlawful or undocumented residence in migrant encampments or someone’s journey to seek asylum could in fact jeopardize a person’s safety and end goal.

Cartoon panel showing smoke floating outside the panel and a bullet cutting through the edge.
The violence encountered by the refugees depicted in ‘The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees,’ by Don Brown is the only graphic element that breaks through the panel frame.
(HMH Books)

New visual strategies

Notably, comics on forced migration are also inventing new visual strategies to recount refugee experiences. Artists use panel borders to add a layer of storytelling that typically vacillates between the creators’ ability to represent a specific experience, emotion or event and the very inability to portray some forms of trauma and lived experience.

In The Unwanted: Stories of the Syrian Refugees (2018), American author and illustrator Don Brown depicts moments of hardships and hope in the lives of the refugees that Brown met in three Greek refugee camps in Ritsona, in Thessaloniki and on Leros.

The violence encountered by the refugees of Brown’s graphic novel is the only graphic element that breaks through panels. Bullets fracture the panel edges, bombs explode out of the picture planes and toxic smoke rises through the frames.

Brown draws on the convention of exceeding and playing with borders in comics to demonstrate a relationship between violence and transgressing borders. Not only did violence in Syria force many of its citizens to journey in search of safety and freedom; fleeing Syrians also also faced violence and hostility beyond the borders of their homeland on their journeys and where they landed.

Cartoon panels that are bordered with white lace
Detail of a page shows how lace is used as a panel border in ‘Threads,’ by Kate Evans.

The panel borders in Threads: From the Refugee Crisis (2016) by British cartoonist, non-fiction author and graphic novelist Kate Evans are comprised of clippings of delicate lace. Threads is a socio-political and cultural critique rooted in the author’s experience volunteering in the largest though unofficial refugee encampment in Calais, France, which operated from January 2015 to October 2016.

My research has examined how this lace integrated into the comic is more than simply an analogy for the intertwining factors and complex relationships that emerged in Calais. The lacework is a fundamental structuring principle in Evans’ text that engages with the region’s history of lacemaking, Calais’ most essential industry and refugee experience simultaneously.

Frames within stories

The aesthetics of the smartphone have also begun to play a role in the representation of refugee experiences in comics. Smartphone screens and social media platforms function as frames within some stories.

German graphic designer and cartoonist Reinhard Kleist embeds social media into the comics grid in An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar (2016). The story recounts how Omar, the Somali Olympic runner, died by drowning en route to Italy in 2012.

Some of the story is narrated through Facebook posts based on interviews conducted on that platform with Omar’s sister and a journalist who had interviewed and known Omar.

Illustrated borderless panel, in which Omar is packing for journey to Italy. A t-shirt, towel, scarf, pair of pants, toothbrush and a cell phone are spread across the floor. A Facebook post in the top left corner reads: I'm packing for my trip. Miriam told me what to bring. Only God knows how long it will take.
Panel from ‘An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar,’ by Richard Kleist.

Somalian athletes lifted up Omar’s story to draw attention to the Olympics as a venue to promote awareness about global conflict and peace. In Kleist’s introduction, he writes that too often, “abstract numbers represent human lives.”

This comic and others joins several examples of new media, such as viral videos, mobile games and documentary film that are highlighting the role mobile devices can play during the migration journey.

Through their personal stories, comics on forced migration humanize refugee experience. This category of graphic narrative also offers opportunities for articulating the complexity of refugee experience through the narrative techniques and visual strategies of comic art.The Conversation

Elizabeth “Biz” Nijdam, Assistant Professor (without review) of German, University of British Columbia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Article: Pressure Reading

The link below is to an article that considers pressure reading – that is reading while feeling pressure from reading social networks such as Goodreads. I can’t say that I feel any pressure like this – what about you? Share your experiences in the comments.

For more visit:

Book Review: Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques Bonnet

‘Phantoms on the Bookshelves,’ by Jacques Bonnet was translated from the French original by Sian Reynolds and has an introduction by James Salter. The copy I have is a Kindle edition. It was first published in Great Britain in 2010 by MacLehose Press. It is a relatively short book at 123 pages in length, so it won’t take too much to get through it.

Phantoms on the Bookshelves, by Jacques BonnetThe introduction to the book by James Salter is a good, brief read concerning the author of the book and his book collecting ways. It could easily describe me, though I have nowhere near as many books as Bonnet, even though I have thousands myself in traditional form and/or digital format. I see similarities between the description given of Bonnet by Salter and myself, with my far fewer volumes. I too struggle now to find room for them all, with my virtual bookshelves requiring expansion in the near future to accomodate my book collecting ways into the current century and digital age. Traditional books have long run out of room in this house, as I suspect they have in Bonnet’s apartment.

Bonnet is a man who loves books and his thoughts on what is normal in a home, the presence of many books, is something I can relate to. I also find myself in wonder when I see homes with no books, particularly in some of the circles in which I move or have moved. How can they get by without books? Mind you it is probably not as easy a situation to read (no pun intended – truly not) these days, with books now being able to be stored by the thousands on a home computer and/or on an external hard drive or two. Still, I have wondered this for many years and I think Bonnet would probably agree with me. Relating to others is made easier when discussing books for Bonnet and I find this an agreeable thing also. It is the way of Bibliophiles, whether we use that term or not (perhaps for some Bibliomaniac is a better term).

I did not find Bonnet’s chapter on cataloguing and organisation helpful at all, though I expect it would help some. This is probably because I have developed my own system which closely resembles that of the Dewey to almost certainly be called a Dewey system. The Bonnet decsription horrified me and I thought it would become far too confusing and disorienting for me. He is certainly right about the Internet making a major impact on libraries and the need to have as many books as he has in his collection. It is not only the storing of works on the World Wide Web, in the cloud and on other digital storage systems like computers, external drives, etc, where libraries are changing and/or have changed, but also in the cataloguing and organisation of books. I have a large number of books stored on digital devices and by digital means, but I also have access to far more over the Internet from vast libraries that I can access online. But I also have both offline and online digital methods for assisting me in cataloguing and organising my books, which I use as best I can and with great relief for being able to do so. Yet it boils down to individual choice and comfortableness, being able to manage these resources in a way that allows the individual to harness them to the greatest effect, which is indeed something of an indiviual matter and process.

The Bonnet method of reading will not be everyones cup of tea, but that’s OK too, because that is also a very individualistic thing. Bonnet likes lying down to read, I prefer sitting at a desk. Bonnet likes to underline and write in his books as he reads, I prefer to highlight and collate quotes via other media. There is no one rule for all, but many different rules for many different people. The thing is to retain what one reads in some way, that I think is the key to reading. It is certainly not a requirement to read each and every book from cover to cover, but to take a dip in each one to some extent and to achieve some purpose when doing so is required if you wish to say that you read your books and they aren’t just display items.

The manner in which Bonnet has collected his books is almost baffling to someone who has not done so in the same manner. He seems almost obsessed with completing lists and collections of books, of following every author/book line that comes up in what he reads or experiences. It seems any book mentioned must be obtained for his library. This is the way of a Bibliomaniac, that is for sure. His obsession with collecting ‘picture’ books is another seemingly crazed hobby which almost seems to be a driving force for him. I too collect books, but this insight into how another book lover and lover of reading goes about collecting his books is one that is beyond my experience. It is a fascinating world of book hunting and gathering if ever there was one. Something about one book leads to another which leads to another, or some conversation leads to a book which leads to another, etc.

Bonnet’s reflections upon his books shows someone who truly absorbs what he reads and imbibes the being of those written about. He seems to feel them, to know them, far better than any creator of them. Authors of books, whether fictional pieces or biographical/autobiographical works fade with the passing of time, if indeed a true reflection of them is left in the pages of the books they write or in the annals of history. However, those created and placed within the realms of literature remain the same and can be known almost completely. There are places to visit, whether real or ethereal, people to meet and to greet. Books bring a whole world to one’s home and experience, and even beyond that one travels into the realm of fictional lands and peoples. A plethora of experience that is only exaggerated when the library is swollen by multimedia resources. What an amazing world the library can become – is.

Buy this book at Amazon:

Site Libraries and At the BookShelf

I have been working on the two book libraries (of sorts) that I have on two of my websites. These libraries are being redeveloped and there is quite a bit of work to be done on both of these sites. Let’s look at the two libraries in a little more detail.


Tracing our History – History

The first library is hosted at Tracing our History and this library is part of the History section of the site. This library is the smallest of the two libraries, though it will continue to grow in size over time.

History is the main page of the History section of the Tracing our History site and doubles as the main directory to the History library. At the moment the library is a library of links to works on Australian history in particular and other areas of history that I am interested in. Works that were previously hosted at Tracing our History are currently unavailable until they have been reviewed and made available in pdf format. There are however a number of books available via links that are of a high quality and in my opinion, very important and/or valuable works.

Visit the History page at:


The Book Room

The second library is hosted at and is called simply ‘The Book Room,’ where old books are not forgotten. It is also known as The Particular Baptist Library, with an emphasis on Particular Baptist and good, solid, Reformed works. The Book Room features a directory to the various sections of the library in the right column of each page. This makes navigation of the site a relatively simply exercise.

As with the previous library at Tracing our History, there are a large number of books available via links to other sites. Most of these links should now be in working order, having recently been checked. As with the previous library, works hosted at are being reviewed and being replaced by PDF versions. This will take time to complete and currently those works are still available in HTML format.

Future plans for The Book Room include having dedicated pages for each work hosted at, including sections on each book page for book reviews, a Scribd widget for reading and downloading PDF versions of the book, additional resources on the book, links to other versions of the book and purchasing options for the book via online bookshops like Amazon. An example of this approach is ‘The Sermons of Hugh Latimer,’ which can be found at:

The Book Room can be found at:


At the BookShelf

This Blog, ‘At the BookShelf,’ will be linked to both of these libraries, being the vehicle whereby news of added content, book reviews, and so on, will be broadcast. Of course At the BookShelf will remain a place for reviewing books and sharing my experience of them, but I do plan for At the BookShelf being a way of sharing what I read in a more valuable way also – by actually making available what I read to those who are entering into my reading experience, be that by way of an ebook hosted on one of my sites, an ebook hosted elsewhere or by links to places where the book may be purchased.

At the BookShelf and the two libraries already mentioned will also interact with my other book reading and sharing activities on the World Wide Web at such places as Goodreads, Shelfari and Book Crossing, as well as at other sites that I may become involved in over time. There will also be interaction with Quotista (a site for sharing quotes) and possibly another Blog I maintain for the purposes of quotes from books (which currently I use for private purposes).

With all of my involvement in book sharing social networks, web applications, web sites and the like, At the BookShelf will be a rich meeting place for all things to do with books and should be the better for it. I hope it will be a place of interest and usefulness for others. It will also be a place for sharing my personal experiences with books, which may or may not be of interest to visitors of this Blog. I guess time will tell.


Visitor Interaction

I welcome visitor interaction on all of my sites, including this Blog. On all of my sites I try to make available the means for interacting with visitors for sharing information, making comments, etc. Please make use of the means for doing so, though I do reserve the right for removing content that I don’t approve of (such as Spam, offensive comments, etc).