People and Places

Immigrant women’s abuse – their stories – illustrated in graphic novel

The launch for Telling Our Stories: Immigrant Women’s Resilience—a graphic novel funded by the Ontario Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration—starts with an hour or so of the kind of banter reserved for old friends.

And it comes with dinner. Pen at the ready, and poised for a good old-fashioned book launch, I’m not ready for this. I’m welcome to eat, but I’m not hungry, preoccupied with being the only male in attendance (save for the photographer and a security guard). I am filled with nagging guilt about my Y chromosome, and I feel the need to apologize, which is probably justifiable. I’m a relative outsider: A Caucasian man reporting about the launch of a comic book, the work of a tight-knit female community of Canadian newcomers.

Telling Our Stories is a colourful, 43-page comic in loose, basic cartoon style. Distributed for free by the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI), the book aims to challenge perceptions of victim-blaming, enhance knowledge about consent culture, and highlight the importance of supporting survivors of sexual abuse. It’s based on the experiences of four immigrant women, and was conceived by these women in collaboration with Toronto-artist Coco Guzman.

The book’s illustrations depict a role reversal of feminine objectification through endearing, varied drawings of women. There’s astute attention to the nuance of facial expression, and it lends the characters life. On the other hand, abusers are left faceless. A man appears as a mere porkpie hat; another story portrays its antagonist as an affectless blue caricature.

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When I speak to one woman — known only as Pierrette — she pits the rawness of re-living the trauma against the catharsis of re-telling it in a creative environment. I ask if this self-growth was the project’s silver lining: if it justifies opening old wounds. I get a funny look for this. I’ve referred to “her tale” rather than the shared experience of the survivors. She says the latter is what’s in it for her — that there is a therapeutic benefit of working with the other women. This gets reiterated throughout the evening, and I start to see what the buzz is about.

In discussing those benefits, Eta Woldeab of OCASI reiterates the idea of empowerment. When survivors put their story out there, they are reclaiming their past as their own. Though these sessions are a new idea for OCASI, their success suggests the idea will persist.

Over dinner, I eventually bring up the push for Ottawa to dig deeper into sexual assault cases deemed unfounded, how one in five cases across the country are seemingly pushed aside in this way by police officers. Is the current discussion — increased police training, getting Stats Canada involved to collect data — a step in the right direction?

My dining companions are not unreceptive to what I’m saying, but I soon realize I’ve made a mistake — one of appropriation — much the same way some individuals saw fit to relegate Black Lives Matter to All Lives Matter. These individuals miss the point by eschewing the problem at hand. All Lives Matter is a position of privilege, and more often than not, one with regrettable similarities to my own: distinctly white, male, and uncalled for.

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As far as violence against immigrant women is concerned, it isn’t that the role of law enforcers or Ottawa’s relationship to the issue is irrelevant. Rather, there is an acute persistence of immigrant abuse. They’re rarely the ones having their claims dismissed — more often than not, they don’t file such complaints, nor are they aware of the resources are available to support them in such an endeavour.

My attention wanders across the room, where people are quite literally breaking bread, spinning their own story in an unmistakable display of community. This collective resolve is what the launch, the supporting organizations, and the book is touching on. The evening winds up with a shared chant of “it’s all about love.” Everyone chimes in. It’s blatantly obvious, and utterly necessary.

Telling Our Stories: Immigrant Women’s Resilience is bring distributed free of charge in newcomer communities through settlement organizations, reception houses, organizations working with newly arrived refugees, as well as universities, places of worship, and other venues in Ontario.