Bishakh Som's artwork has been featured in solo shows at ArtLexis Gallery and at the Jaya Yoga Center, and in group shows at The Society of Illustrators in New York, the Bannister Gallery at Rhode Island College, Issyra Gallery, the Grady Alexis Gallery, and, most recently, at De Cacaofabriek in the Netherlands. Bishakh received the prestigious Xeric grant in 2003 for her comics collection, Angel, and since then her comics and paintings have appeared in The New Yorker, We're Still Here: An All-Trans Comics Anthology (and the first all-trans comics anthology), Beyond II: The Queer Post-Apocalypse & Urban Fantasy Comic Anthology, The Other Side: An Anthology of Queer Paranormal Romance, The Boston Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Buzzfeed, Ink Brick, The Huffington Post, The Graphic Canon vol.3, Black Warrior Review, Specs, Vice, The Strumpet, Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream and Single-Handedly: Contemporary Architects Draw by Hand. Her comics have also been included twice in the 'Notables' list of Best American Comics. This interview presents a conversation about her new works of visual literature, Spellbound: A Graphic Memoir and Apsara Engine.
Jeffery Klaehn: Thanks so much for the interview Bishakh!! Please tell me about your new graphic novel, Spellbound: A Graphic Memoir, which just released from Street Noise Books.
Bishakh Som: It was 2012 or so when I had quit my full-time job in architecture with the aim of taking a year or so off to work on a graphic novel, which I had never done before. (I had been doing comics for many years, but these were either self-published or for anthologies). When I'd finished that first book (which turned out to be my collection Apsara Engine, which came out from The Feminist Press in April of this year,) I found myself at a bit of an impasse, not knowing what to do with the creative energy that had kept me going with that project. So I started writing diary-style comics about the process of writing Apsara Engine, about what it was like for me to take this new direction in my life, to opt out of what I had trained to do (architecture) in favor of what I really wanted to do (art, comics).
The catch was that I was loath to draw myself in these diary comics so I created Anjali, a cisgender Bengali-American woman, who acted as a substitute for me. She didn't physically resemble me closely, but she would have lived my life and would be telling my story, writing my diary, as it were. As I kept writing the Anjali comics, I would occasionally veer off of the strict path of quotidian observations of my comics-creating life into reminiscences of my (& Anjali's) past, our family history, our education.
At some point, I had enough material that the Anjali project started to seem book-shaped. I still hadn't heard from any publishers about Apsara Engine, and was consequently reluctant to try and sell this project too. So I just kept it to myself mostly, occasionally posting a page or two on social media or my website. I was starting to resign myself to this when Liz Frances from Street Noise Books approached me about my comics and when I showed her the Anjali comics, she was very interested and offered to publish me, which was a great thrill. I went back to work on the Anjali project, writing longer chapters that filled in her (and my) back story and fleshed out the process of our becoming-an-artist. And seven or so years after Anjali initially manifested herself in my head, our stories have come together in Spellbound.
JK: Please take us behind the scenes on the interplay between your narrative and art, and about Anjali, too.
Bishakh Som: Anjali, as I've mentioned, started as a sort of ambassador for me, an actress playing the role of me. I had been writing women characters in most of my comics for a long time, but this was the first time that my own voice was coming directly from one of these women. It wasn't long after the Anjali stories came into being that I started to come-into-being too, with my own gender self-reckoning, with the dawning realization that I was a trans woman. So writing Anjali became a process of writing, or re-writing myself as well – she became, for me, a sort of portal into transness, into becoming femme.
The art is notably different from Apsara Engine – the first book is rendered in watercolors, which gives it a soft, dreamy quality, whereas in Spellbound, I opted for a cleaner, more graphic look.
JK: How does Spellbound connect with your own real-life background?
Bishakh Som: At first, Anjali's stories aligned with mine pretty faithfully but as I continued to work on the book, and especially after I came out as trans, she started having her own life, in a way – some of the episodes in Spellbound don't conform closely to my experience at all – but this was also a way for me to project desire, to act out a double life. My back story (my growing up in Ethiopia and New York, going to an international school, studying architecture, giving up on architecture, starting to write a graphic novel) corresponds directly to Anjali's for sure – but while the narrative in the book coincides with my life for most of its duration, it occasionally diverges off onto other paths, into other flights of fancy.
JK: What five words would best describe your art, in your view?
Bishakh Som: If you'll permit, I'll just cherry-pick some adjectives that I have heard other people use to describe my work, words that I am happy to hear as descriptors: sensual, expressive, ethereal, mysterious, feminine. (I sound like a perfume!)
JK: What does your art mean for you? And what made you want to do comics?
Bishakh Som: I wasn't able to make art, as such, when I first launched myself into higher education – I (and my parents) didn't think it was possible to build a stable career on the nebulous prospects of becoming an artist. Studying architecture was a way for me to take a side door into art instead, as it was considered to be, as the cliché goes, a meeting ground between art and science. But as you find out in Spellbound, this practice soon lost its dwindling appeal too – which is why, so many years later, now that I can finally legitimately call myself an author and an artist, that it means so, so much to me. Drawing has always been a joy for me, and of the few things I knew I was good at – so to gain validation for making art, for putting into practice something to which I had always aspired, is monumental in my life-trajectory. Further, to be able to make comics and to be taken seriously for it, is even more of a thrill – that kind of fulfillment had been elusive for me for so many years and I'm so stoked that it is coming together.
I've always been drawn to comics – which I think, for some generations of kids, is a natural tendency – and I guess I had always been drawn to drawing as an activity so the fit seemed natural. I had been drawing very silly comics in the third grade with some other kids. But while they outgrew that practice at some point (maybe the sixth grade), I kept at it, even when I didn't think it was going to 'go anywhere', because I loved drawing so much. My parents read Tintin comics to me before I could read, so I pretty much blame them for making me a comics artist.
JK: Your Apsara Engine collection released in April, at the height of the COVID pandemic, to rave reviews. Please tell us about this work and about the worlds and stories within it. Whatever you might like to share —
Bishakh Som: Apsara Engine is a collection of eight short stories in comics form. The stories oscillate between fairly straightforward modes (page layouts are more or less conventional, two characters are having a dialogue) to more experimental modes (images and text are juxtaposed, sometimes syncing up in terms of content, sometimes diverging wildly,) to combinations of the two modes, in which conventional, 'filmic' pages of conversation give way to more phantasmagoric imagery and page structure. There are, graphically and thematically, also moments when I drew on my background in architecture to collapse the space of architectural representation into the comics page. The characters and stories describe, collectively, a sort of queer, femme, South Asian constellation – there are explorations of divinity, sisterhood, desire, longing. The book addresses what it means to me to be a member of the South Asian diaspora and what it means to be a trans person and to be aligned strongly with femmeness. It's been described as eerie and uncanny, as speculative fiction and even SF, but it is a deeply personal book to me, as personal as Spellbound is, but perhaps in a more elliptical way.
JK: Thanks so much Bishakh!!
Bishakh Som: Thank you so much, Jeffery. It's been really lovely to have this conversation with you.
Author's Note: Bishakh Som may be visted online at https://www.bishakh.com/
Apsara Engine cover, by Bishakh Som. Copyright © Bishakh Som 2020. Use is courtesy of Bishakh Som. Reprinted with permission from The Feminist Press.
Spellbound: A Graphic Memoir cover and images, by Bishakh Som. Copyright © Bishakh Som 2020. Use is courtesy of Bishakh Som. Reprinted with permission from Street Noise Books.
Author Biographical Summary
Jeffery Klaehn resides in Canada and holds PhDs in Communication and Sociology. His interviews with comic creators have been published with the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Studies in Comics, ImageTexT: Interdisciplinary Comics Studies, and the International Journal of Comic Art. His research interests include social theory, media, power, public communication, comics, art, pop culture, the creative industries, writing, storytelling, and digital games.