By Sara Jewell
Shivana Sookdeo is a comic artist and designer at Scholastic. She is known for simple, eye-catching visuals paired with thoughtful, quietly dense narratives. Her range is broad and multidisciplinary. Her work has been featured in the Eisner and Ignatz-winning Elements: Fire, Sweaty Palms vol. 2, and Dirty Diamonds 7. She is currently working on a graphic novel, as well as a backlog of recipes.
Sookdeo’s singular creative voice and inventive visual style make her an exciting creator to watch. Her comics often incorporate visual metaphor and magical realism to great effect. Sookdeo recently followed up an appearance on NYCC’s South Asian Voices: Culture, Craft, Comics panel to sit down with Sara L. Jewell and talk about her groundbreaking work.
*This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity
Jewell: So, why comics? What appealed to you about this medium over others?
Shivana Sookdeo: I wish my mother was here for that question. She’s like “yeah, why!” For me, it’s always been a medium I loved. And it’s always been something I read. I grew up reading stuff like Tintin, stuff like Asterix. There were these very cheaply produced comics out of India that had to do with the mythology and things like Krishna, Shiva and all their adventures which were wild. So I read a lot of those as well. And I think I just love the medium because I’ve always been very visual.
I mean, I like prose. I’m a prodigious reader. But I love that marriage of comics where it’s the pictures embracing the story. And it works together. It’s a very happy marriage. And I always liked the idea that you could have a comic with no words in it. And send it around the world and still have it understood. And I loved that aspect of it, so I just kind of fell into it.
That makes me think of The Arrival.
Sookdeo: I love The Arrival. Shaun Tan is fantastic! Yeah, I definitely discovered his work much later in life when I had already started, but it kind of bolstered my love for the medium. And it confirmed, like “That! Yeah, that’s what I want to do, stuff like that.” Where I can communicate with the pictures because I already kind of think in frames. And it always just made sense to me as a medium. Like it communicated the clearest to me. So I just kind of eventually fell into it. For a long time I thought I was a fine artist but…she was lying to herself!
So what is your process conceiving and executing a new comic – do you start with the story, with an image, or somewhere in between?
Sookdeo: It depends on the length. And it depends on what I’m doing. For stuff like mini comics, things like my personal bio comics which are usually no more than four panels, I will start with the pictures. What I’m thinking is usually the images, so I will be filling the frames in as I go. There will be key images that are more important to me like, I might think “oh this visual is really great!” and then build a story around it.
Sometimes, I will literally be in the shower and think of a really good piece of dialogue, for example. Completely contextless so I can build a story around it and find a home for it. But if it’s a much longer one, I usually start with the general concepts. I will make a Pinterest, you know, a visual representation of what I want it to look like. What elements I want to include in it. Like for my Elements comic I pulled up a lot of botanicals and a lot of Sanskrit. I pulled up a lot of tapestries and things that had visual language I wanted to use. Or at least pay tribute to.
So, the research starts first. I’m still very scientific and my brain is still a science brain. I’ve just repurposed it, and I do the research. I do tons of research and then I will start with the pictures. If it’s shorter, I will be writing the dialogue in as I go. If it’s longer I will leave room, and just be working alongside a script.
In your ShortBox comic Write Write Kill you follow a protagonist who, impatient for literary success, takes to violent plagiarism to garner the attention he feels entitled to. In the acknowledgments, you shout out (among others) “my eighth-grade plagiarist” – what’s the story there?
Sookdeo: Oh my gosh that was…I’m still quite smug about it which probably isn’t the reaction I should have. I used to be in a literary magazine from middle school to high school. And I was doing the art for one of them. And at some point, this particular person traced an image that I had already put in there. So I basically got the copy of that year’s literary magazine and saw the same image twice, but one was definitely traced, and one was definitely mine.
I did confront him about it and he just pretended like he didn’t know what he was doing. And you know, as an eighth grader, that was pretty painful because, you know, you feel everything times eleven to begin with. And then it never had occurred to me in a way that somebody could take something so personal and replicate it. And he basically got more credit than I did for that image. And it was my first taste of like, this white kid tracing my image and getting the credit that I wanted as the original artist.
Sookdeo: It was pretty awful! And to this day like, I don’t speak to him because there is still that little kernel of betrayal and he’s never apologized for it. I’m very bloody-minded so I definitely friended him on Facebook and everything. So I know where he is! I’ve always kind of had that relationship with plagiarism. I’m not usually plagiarized.
My particular style is very mutable. It changes depending on what I’m doing, or what I want to experiment with. I don’t really have a house style, so I don’t usually get ripped off, which is pretty cool. But I have friends who do! And the whole idea of having something so personal stolen was very much a violation. And it stuck with me for a very long time and I think that particular idea for Write Write Kill always existed in a way in my consciousness. It always was at the back of my mind, like what would it be like to get ripped off again? As somebody who has a career now, would it feel different, and: “Why would you do that?” And questions about stuff like reposting which as far as theft is concerned, it is very low level. But emotionally, it’s very high level.
So right Write Write Kill was basically dealing with all the feelings I had percolating up to that moment about theft, really, theft of something so personal. To me was like a murder in a way. You’re basically excising it from another person and passing it off as your own. And I don’t actually think it’s tantamount to murder. But it’s in a very symbolic way, it is a murder.
I really felt that the visuals gave this very powerful sense of the violence inherent in taking something from someone like that and then turning around and capitalizing off of it.
Sookdeo: I mean they’re golden ribbons because in my head it was like the sentence of a lifetime. The golden ribbon was supposed to represent something so beautiful said by somebody that they may not ever say again, so it was a treasure. And it was wrapped around their rib cage for a reason. And it was hard to extract for a reason. The whole idea of it ramping up into actual violence was basically also an escalation of my anger about it. So as it unfolds, I’m also getting more and more angry about plagiarism as I was writing it. It’s very symbolic in a way. But yeah I’m bitter! [laughs]
Understandable! So where do you think the line is between plagiarism and homage, if there is one?
Sookdeo: It is a very fuzzy, fuzzy line. And I think a lot of it, maybe like 70 percent is intent. I think homage can turn into plagiarism but it doesn’t start from the same place. To me with homage, usually the intent is out of love, and it is not to appropriate and take credit for. Or gain any clout through it. It’s mostly because you love this thing and you emulate it because humans like to mimic things they love, and mimic things that are familiar to them in some way. So I don’t think the line is very clear, but the feeling is very clear, whereas plagiarism is strictly to take credit and whether it’s to take credit for personal gain or to take credit because you recognize a limit in yourself and you want to surpass it but you don’t want to do the work to surpass it.
It comes from a place of appropriation as opposed to appreciation. I think that’s really where the line lies. I think sometimes one can cross over into the other. But usually you see it in one direction: it’s not really bi-directional. Plagiarism doesn’t often become homage. It might start that way like I can take credit for this. But maybe you grow as a person and decide, I should back off, I should not do it. That’s such a rare thing because it’s a difficult journey. A difficult path of self-enlightenment to get that way. So, I don’t really think there’s a line so much as there is a slightly low fence, and some people are willing to climb over it.
You’ve done a fair bit of work challenging prescriptive norms around the depiction of the body in your comics like This is the Litany and Flyover Country. Do you feel like being an individual creator has given you the autonomy to do that? What do you hope readers take away from these comics?
Sookdeo: I mean I usually do those comics on my own because I don’t want to answer to anybody. They’re very deeply personal. And they’re exposing a vulnerability [where] I’m having a discourse with myself. It happens to be visual. It happens to be in a format that I can share with others. And I am inviting other people to take a journey with me. I’m not inviting them to tell the story. So for me, those kinds of stories I do on my own because I don’t want input. I’ve already thought what I thought about it. This is the finale of that stream of thought. So it’s already complete. It doesn’t need anybody’s creative judgement.
What I hope people take away from it is empathy. More understanding, perhaps. I tend to write those comics for myself, but they’re also for people in the same situation. Who are feeling either rotten about their own bodies or dysmorphic in some way. So my audience is very specific. And it’s those people. When I write for those things the audience is wide because the platform is wide, not because I made it so. And I’m okay with that. I think everybody should get a chance to see this kind of stuff. I don’t see it very often. A lot of what you see in mainstream media is like, pin-up art – you see a lot of a very specific kind of image and a specific kind of person. And, I mean, I’m human, it gets to me. So usually when it gets to me I have to think about it and usually when I think about something, I do it through a comic because that’s just how I digest information a lot of the time.
For those [comics] I just hope people don’t feel alone, and they don’t feel like monsters. This is Litany is basically a prayer about the divinity of the body. And how it doesn’t have to be a form. It can be anybody’s body, it just happened in that one to be bodies that I don’t see very often. I wasn’t trying to leave anybody out. So much as laud people who don’t get the opportunity to be lauded. I mean I just I really hope that people picked it up and read it and felt seen.
So how did you first get involved in working on Elements: Fire?
Sookdeo: I was invited by Taneka Stotts, and Sfé R. Monster, who are the editors. We’d been internet friends for a little bit and I think that was sort of the point where I had just started seriously considering cartooning. I’d been only doing small minis until that point. I didn’t really have confidence in my work. And myself at that point – I had confidence in myself as a fine artist, but it was the first time I was making headway into a medium in a very serious sense. And I think Taneka and and Sfé knew that. And they felt that Elements was the opportunity that I needed to find myself and kind of get my footing and put out that comic. Which was hard to do! I mean it was a terrible time. And I had moved back in with my parents to get all these anthology comics done. I had signed up for so many. And I had just quit my job, and I was feeling very downtrodden.
That sounds overwhelming.
Sookdeo: It was incredibly overwhelming and I was very physically sick too. So they pretty much fought against me, they fought me to get that into the comic. The original opportunity became kind of a fight for myself. It was a crucible where I figured out “yeah I do actually want to do this.” So I am forever grateful to them for that opportunity. And I’m super happy it’s gone as far as it has and that it’s gotten the acknowledgement that it has, because the whole work was very important. But to me it was basically an overall acknowledgement that hey, this risk you took, it paid off. You actually belong here, congrats! It’s been a wild ride since then.
So that actually segues very well into my next question. In Taneka’s Eisner speech, she talked about the vital importance of being able to tell stories where “we [poc] are the main characters” declaring war on “the antiquated mentality that tells us our voices and stories aren’t ‘profitable’ enough” How do you see the landscape of comics changing with anthologies like Elements getting some well-deserved recognition?
Sookdeo: I think the diversification of the medium is happening because of the hard work of the people spearheading it. But also, to me it always felt inevitable. Because to have a narrow creative view and to have dedication to only one kind of view and one kind of person and one kind of message was always incredibly creatively stunted. And my feeling was always the medium would not abide.
It’s too communicative, too good at storytelling. Comics is such a universal medium and it has such a potential for communication. It was never going to always be a boys club. Which is not to discredit the hard work of people getting more people into the industry. I know myself that now that I’m a designer I try to actively hire people of color, and I try and actively hire diaspora people for diaspora stories and I try to be that person I wanted when I was kind of down on my luck and nobody was giving me a chance. I wanted to be that person for other people. So to me I think it’s an inevitable change. And I think a lot of the kick back against it are kind of the dying last gasps of a very hegemonic worldview. And I think we’re better for it. It may not feel like that to a lot of people, who might think they’re losing their own identity in comics, but their identity was always a fake construct anyways.
I’m very scientific in that my view of reality is a reality. I don’t think it makes any sense if you want to be in a medium that’s dedicated to finding out the truth in the world if you want to be that kind of writer, and that kind of creator who actually taps into something very deeply human. You can’t ignore the reality of the world. And to only be drawing white guys, to only be drawing white guys as superheroes with maybe a girlfriend. It’s very prescriptionist, and I think it had a very short shelf life and nobody really knew it until now. So I think while we are pushing at the wall to topple it over and I’m happy to be one of the people pushing at the wall – in a way larger sense than I was before! I have so much more authority. And I’m kind of reveling in it. I get to hire! This is fantastic! – I think that wall was kind of derelict to begin with. And we’re all now finding it out. And I think people appreciate it a lot more than they did like maybe even 10 years ago.
In your Elements comic entitled “Breath, Plucked from Heaven,” you explore the idea of cultural identity vs. individual identity – preserving the past while still remaining true to yourself, and still being able to change and grow. Your protagonist worries “I’ll live on, but what happens if I change?” and laments that “nothing is meant to last forever.” What are your thoughts on navigating cultural identity when it feels like an enormous responsibility?
Sookdeo: It was one of those cases where I started with the theme, which was fire. And I had a talk with my mother. She’s somebody I can talk to about creative ideas and she thinks so differently from me that I like having that sounding board and getting something from it. And I did go into it wanting to celebrate the visuals and the artistic heritage of Indian people. So she brought up a lot of Vedic symbolism with fire which is rebirth, destruction and the cycle of life. So for me, that comic was not only about what I initially had it about which was “What would I feel if my mother told me to pull the plug?”
That was what it is at its heart: my feelings about my mother’s inevitable death. But it became something bigger after that and I think that’s where it ties into the cultural responsibility aspect. So much of my identity and my relationship with my mother is cultural, because she is West Indian and more deeply so than I am. So it became a thing where I didn’t want to present these visuals and present this story without the emotions I had as diaspora. It dragged me in from a very strange angle that I didn’t expect. It really was going to be just symbolism about my mom. Like, my mom has told me “If my body starts to fail, pull the plug.” And I got so deeply upset about that. But you can’t think about that kind of deep connection with a family member without thinking about the cultural inheritance that you both share. What will happen when she leaves and I’m the only one holding not only her heritage, but my own? So there was this push and pull in the comic for sure about what things do I let go, and what things can I keep? What things will be left with me? What things do I take with me? An active relationship to culture that I probably didn’t really have until I started to think about it.
I mean, I grew up Tri-state, I did not grow up very Indian. And my mother didn’t force me to, but she didn’t discourage it either. So I think that comic had a mix of people, and culture, and topic that was very me. And I didn’t start off making it about me. But it kind of ended up that way. It was almost like a DNA test of myself. When I was done, there I was on the page as much as she was. I felt like I had the responsibility to portray her culture and my culture and our shared culture in a very loving if bittersweet way. I’m glad – it made her cry when she first read it and I was like, Yeah I did good.
So in closing, what are you working on right now, if you can talk about it?
Sookdeo: I mean I could talk in vagaries which is my favorite thing in the world because I feel like I’m hiding a huge secret. So I am working on a middle grade novel and I’m the artist on that. I feel so sorry for my editor.
It’s been pushed back a little bit because … after the Elements comic things kind of cascaded and I had a little more notoriety, a little more headline clout. So that means more job opportunities that I wanted to take. And so it was an opportunity to come back to New York where I basically came up. So I had to put a lot of things on the shelf. It’s been nice to start finally getting back to this graphic novel that has a lot of motifs that I like.
It’s also been a challenge because it is a fantasy fairy tale. And my understanding of fairy tales has been fairly mainstream. Except for know the little forays into Hindu mythology that I’ve made just because that’s my culture. But I’m also very much a contrarian. I don’t want anything I do to look like anything else. I really hate it if I see something in my work that I’ve seen somewhere else, like very obviously. I will start over. Because it bothers me a lot. My whole drive is to be very original. I mean I respect people who do tributes or have a very distinct style that’s related to another style. But for me it drives me bananas. I don’t want my art to look like anything but MY art. Even if the style changes, I want somebody to pick it up and be like oh yeah that that’s Shivana’s work. I don’t know where this came from. Where do you come up with the ideas? I almost want to be mysterious in a way. That’s what I want out of my work. I want it to look like something that’s never been seen before.
So this has been an interesting challenge. Making a lot of these very well-worn tropes and well-worn characters look completely different and look very alien and refreshing. So that’s been exciting and I’m also working on a 30-page comic just for funsies. It’s about tardigrades as a metaphor for survivor’s guilt. The whole idea of being the strong individual especially as a marginalized creator. This idea that “oh you’re such a survivor, you are so strong” and being iconic for reasons that you can’t control. And it’s relating that to tardigrades being incredibly tough and notorious to kill. And surviving five extinctions. Like, what does the tardigrade feel about that. It’s just trying to survive. And for me somebody just trying to survive…that’s what I’m doing.
I’m not trying to change the world or be representational. That happens because it is who I am. I was very fascinated by the idea of what would the tardigrade think about being called a survivor, if it had feelings? Would it be resentful of this moniker? It’s just trying to survive a mass extinction. Is it feeling heroic? Would you feel heroic if you were like the last survivor of a massacre? Maybe not. And that’s where the survivor’s guilt ties in, and a lot of these other different ideas that I’ve been sitting on for a while. Just like I said, I think through comics. And it just so happens to be visual and people get to see what I think.
Thank you so much for sitting down with The Beat for this interview!
Sookdeo: Of course!
Shivana will be at NYCC across this weekend. To find more of her work, follow her on Twitter here.