Vermont Arts Council

Graphic Medicine: An Interview with Artist Dana Walrath

A piece of music, a story, or an image can be medicine. It doesn’t take a PhD to know this, but artist Dana Walrath’s long career as a medical anthropologist gives her a powerful language to describe how art can heal. She is quick to connect individual lives and actions to larger global systems, to histories that reach back not only generations, but millions of years to the roots of who we are as a species.

In the introduction to her award-winning graphic memoir, Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass (Penn State University Press, 2016), Walrath writes, “Healing involves creating shared social meaning…This social process depends on sharing stories with others, on letting our collective memories meet.” Aliceheimer’s tells the story of Walrath’s caregiving for her mother Alice, who had dementia. Using collage, illustration, and personal narrative, Walrath brings to the story of her mother’s illness what modern medical systems often fail to provide. She creates a new shared meaning for this experience, one through which she and readers can process grief in its full complexity, remain connected to loved ones, and redeem the idea of illness.

Cover art for Dana Walrath’s Aliceheimer’s: Alzheimer’s Through the Looking Glass

Since Aliceheimer’s’ publication in 2013, Walrath has traveled North America and Europe presenting on the role of comics in healing. She spent 2019 living in Dublin as an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health at the Global Brain Health Institute, working on a sequel to Aliceheimer’s titled Between Alice and the Eagle. Now back in the U.S. and working from her home studio in South Burlington, she has earned an FY21 Creation Grant to support another expansion of the Aliceheimer’s story, an opera created in collaboration with Vermont composer Erik Nielsen. The libretto will being workshopped live (Covid-19 conditions permitting) by the Opera Company of Middlebury on November 6 and 7, 2021. Vermont soprano Mary Bonhag of Scragg Mountain Music will play the role of Alice accompanied by piano and followed by a panel discussion.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Desmond Peeples: How did you first come to Vermont?

Dana Walrath: I’m originally a New Yorker and then lived in Philly, until moving up here the summer of 2000 for work at UVM as an anthropologist. I think I was already harboring a dream of full-time creative work. I was based in Underhill with various international interludes the last of which was a year in Ireland, in Dublin, returning to Vermont in late 2019. But now I’m based in South Burlington, right by Red Rocks, and by the lake. It’s a good life. A hidden treasure of the pandemic was to get to be home.  I was supposed to be back in Ireland several times. Instead, I’ve really been able to dig in. I was lucky enough that partway through the pandemic, as soon as the Governor eased up restrictions, I got studio space added onto my house. So that’s where I am now.

To think of this time last year, all of the death and dying in New York City, and now thinking about India, we have had such privilege to be here during a pandemic.  I wish that the pandemic would open everybody’s hearts to be generous and giving about the bounty that we have, because it’s deeply rooted in privilege and what was taken from others.

Vermont can do some powerful things in terms of divesting and reparations, leading us, and modeling for other places. In Brattleboro there’s the SUSU commUNITY Farm, which is BIPOC-led land stewardship and healing center.  I love them. When I learned about their work, I thought this is exactly what needs to happen everywhere. Meanwhile I’ve been supporting them through a project that I started during the pandemic, returning to that notion of opening our hearts.

I live right near Red Rocks, and throughout lockdown I would go out to the woods and build heart shapes out of some thing or another, whether it was stones or leaves or pine cones for whoever wandered past. I have this huge series of hearts, and I always took pictures of them and I was sending them to people, just to keep us all going. I’m bad at social media. If I were good at it, I would have posted them all on Instagram. Instead I made them into note cards, and a paper quilt that was in “Unmasked” a show down at the Southern Vermont Art Center of work made in response to the pandemic. The note cards were there too as a fundraiser, and whatever money came from that went straight to SUSU. I also mailed them a whole bunch of cards that they’re putting in their CSA to support their mission.

I think there are groups of folks all up and down the state who are ready for a project like that.

Totally. The arts are so connected to changing our systems of exchange. Did you ever read Lewis Henry Hyde’s book, The Gift? I read it while I was at the beginning of making the transition to being a full-time artist instead of an academic. It made such complete sense, because arts are meant to function in a gift economy where the whole point is to give it away and then more comes. It’s like love, or a well, it’s abundant and it just keeps on generating. And yet, to participate in most of society, certainly in American society, you do so through late-stage capitalism where everything is monetized, but to the point where it’s only money that counts. That’s exactly what’s broken.

I did this as a way to say, “No, I’m just going to give these away and give them to organizations that will then use them so they can continue in the gift economy.” I really hope the pandemic is going to lead us ultimately to restructuring late-stage capitalism. It’s going to be a hard road. But we can model some of that in Vermont because of our small rural scale. Old Vermonters, know the value of the country store, and they’ll pay more to shop there, because they value its presence and its place in the local community.  Here we can unify and return to every exchange being more than a single good for money, but an exchange laden with all sorts of other kinds of meaning.

Where an exchange is a real, human relationship?

A relationship, totally! Instead we’ve been socialized to spend the least amount of money on each transaction so as to acquire more things down the line. I was raised by descendants of genocide and the depression, and was taught to be ridiculously frugal. I learned how to save pennies, but it’s so much better to give them all away, you know? And if everyone can start thinking about the damage done by discount shopping to the whole world, including the damage to those who have no other choice and then say, “No, let’s support the people around us” and extend this ultimately to people everywhere, because we’re all connected.

It sounds like your support of SUSU is a great example of how artists can channel their energy toward creating the future they wish to see.

Absolutely. We’re creating new systems by doing it, and arts fit in so beautifully because they belong in a relationship. Nobody makes art in a vacuum, you make art to touch other humans and to hear back from them. That’s why it all has to be kept in motion together.

You said you’ve transitioned out of academia to be a full-time artist, but much of your art is driven by your perspective as an anthropologist. When did you build that bridge between being an artist and being a scientist, an anthropologist?

The visual art preceded the academic career. I majored in fine arts and biology. There’s doing, working with my hands in both these areas. And I was avoiding words at that time, even though I read like crazy. After I wrote a dissertation, I thought, oh, I’ve written a book. So I started playing with creative writing at that point. Vermonter Week at the Vermont Studio Center in 2006 set the transition into motion. I had done printmaking as an undergraduate. As a New Yorker I was in and out of museums all the time. When I saw the Picasso retrospective, as a teenager, I fell in love with printmaking and I was waiting until I could finally learn how to do that. I learned intaglio printmaking in college. When I did that residency, I was printing morning, noon, and night.

Up until then, I was doing art in stolen hours. At that residency, the light bulb went off and I knew, “this is the life I need to be leading.” My father was in the thick of lung cancer right then. He died in August of that year. The residency was in May, and my mother was already well into dementia, and I began looking for my way out of academia. My mother and dementia moved in—hers is a typical aspiring to assimilate story—she had wanted me to succeed in dominant white terms, and even though I loved art, she’d always say, “Oh, you’ll never get a job doing that. Dana, you should go to medical school.” But during dementia, when she had to move in with me, she looked around the house and she said, “You should quit your job and make art full-time.”

And that’s when I finally gave myself permission to do it. I took a leave of absence, enrolled in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts and never looked back. I was a carer for my mother then, but I had never in my entire life devoted most of my waking hours to creative work. I still had one son at home, a senior in high school when she first moved in, but it was that moment that I really made that transition. It took the creation of Aliceheimer’s for me to realize that I had brought anthropology with me.  I was contacted by one of my heroes in anthropology about publishing the original Aliceheimer’s blog in Anthropology Now. And I thought, wow, this is anthropology? And then I looked at it and realized it’s a fusion, but it’s a fusion that leans very heavily towards talking to the public instead of the secret language of academia.

It sounds like the fusion of your art and science worlds happened almost without you noticing.

That’s right. It was funny, like during that printmaking residency, I made social change art. I made monoprints about black and white health disparities. It was the height of one of the Iraq wars, and I made a piece called The Trouble with Flags, which was about how we talk about the few thousand Americans who died and ignore the fact that 30,000 civilians died in Iraq. But the light bulb didn’t go off. I didn’t think, “Oh yeah, this is what I teach in the anthropology classroom.” It’s a funny business that, isn’t it? How our minds don’t see things until we’re ready to see them.

Now that you’re creating Aliceheimer’s in libretto form, are you discovering unexpected ways that the mediums of music and opera relate to your anthropological expertise?

That’s a great question. They relate to my soul. The anthropological expertise gave me a language to talk about what my body knew. Music is such a core part of me and my life. My oldest son once asked me, “Mom, is music our religion?” We always had music going in the house. It was a deep connection to my Armenian heritage, but also a really connection to all sorts of different parts of life. So whether it was classical or Lead Belly, music was a way to really connect across human made boundaries.

I played the cello very seriously at one point in my life. And when I first started writing words, poetry and fiction and so forth, I realized that anything that I had in terms of an ability to say things rhythmically came from the fact that I had played music, I had danced and listened all my life. So I was always like, “thank you, music.” It had primed a part of my brain to help me write.

The experience of writing a libretto is so cool. It’s mind expanding, and to get to collaborate through it is fantastic. Just before I clicked on to our Zoom call, I listened to the first two scenes of act two, which I had never heard before. Erik just sent them to me. The way that we work is that words come first surrounded by a lot of talking back and forth about them. Often I’ll write something very fragmentary, because in the libretto I’m trying to express Alice’s internal monologue, as well as what she says out loud and what she hears from other people. The opera is conceived as a single singer opera with Alice as the only character vocalizing on stage. Doug Anderson of the Opera Company of Middlebury suggested a silent character accompanying Alice on stage. This has grown to three dancers, one of whom will portray a family carer, me, I suppose. One of whom will represent the amazing, heroic people who took care of her in various care homes. There will be an Alice dancer too. Only Alice sings, but the movers will represent other vital aspect of the care relationship and the structure of the care industry.

In dementia, so much communication happens a-verbally, through facial expression, body language, through movement, and through music. My mother and I sang all the time when she lived with me. I would play all sorts of music, things that she might know as well as new stuff. I remember playing kirtan chants one time we were driving. To the one that goes, “Govinda hare,” my mother heard, “Obama hare,” and she said “How’d they know to put him in there?”

So there was gratefulness and fun through music, but then also incredible depth. Her final days were surrounded by beautiful music. And even when she couldn’t sing, she could always hear.  I left out one of the most important things. She adored opera. Picture her as a poor kid in New York City. She worked on Saturdays, cleaning rich people’s houses or apartments, and she would listen to the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday afternoon broadcast.

For her, opera was how to be, how to arrive, how to be white, how to really make it in the dominant culture. Throughout my childhood, we always listened to the Saturday afternoon broadcast. My parents had a subscription and whenever my father couldn’t go, I went with my mother. So to translate her story to opera honors so many pieces of her identity and our identity and history. Anthropology gives me a language to talk about it, but the connection to music is really heart and soul.

Would you share a memory from your time as a cellist?

The most crazy thing that happened was after my first year of college, I took a semester or a year off. And because my father was a water engineer and was working in Egypt at the time, and I was still under age, I had a free round-trip ticket to Egypt. I brought my cello with me, and then the Cairo Symphony Orchestra was desperate for cellists. So I ended up playing with them for a season. It was such an interesting experience. We would do concerts in Cairo and Alexandria. It was a combination of Arabic music and classical music. I think it was part of me becoming an anthropologist, because right away, I could see so much of what was going on in terms of cultures and exchanges and power and so forth.

That’s probably the most striking memory from the cello years. But just yesterday I was thinking about the cello, because all this week, I’ve been participating in sessions from Creative Armenia, bringing together Armenians from across the diaspora and in country who are doing creative work. Together we watched (again), the clip of Belgian cellist, Sevak Avanesyan, playing inside the Ghazanchetsots Cathedral right after it was bombed by Azerbaijan last October. Hardly the same level but it brought me back to playing the Fauré Elegy with a wonderful pianist on Genocide Remembrance Day when I was in college. I was thinking “Get out the cello Dana, why don’t you just get it out?” Now you’ve reminded me again, so I’m going to try and play today. Thank you.

Talking of music as a connection to other times and people reminds me of how in Aliceheimer’s, you wrote about Alice having the special power of time-travel. In-text, you would start scenes by noting what year it was in Alice’s reality, then what year it was in yours. Why did you characterize time that way?

It’s because that was exactly how she was living time, and the way to make dementia peaceful is to just say, “Oh, she’s in one time, I’m in another.” I wish every physician, when they’re diagnosing dementia would say, “Here’s a handy tip, just know you’ll be in different times.” Use it as an opportunity to learn about those different times and places.

Alice made it very easy. She led the way on it. I remember once I was taking her to Shelburne Farms to go apple picking, and they were having a throwback apple picking where the prices were 1960s prices. Ironically while we’re driving there she told me—this was middle dementia—”it’s like a curtain dropped”. She said she couldn’t remember anything after that first year after she and my father got married. She would go in and out of different memories, but she’d also be fully present in the moment. Knowing that she was inhabiting different times, I knew I couldn’t exist to her in those times in the same way that I was existing in the now. It made it easy not to take the lack of recognition personally.  So many people are broken-hearted because their loved one doesn’t remember them. But no, they actually remember them in the most profound way.

They know you’re good and trustworthy, and they feel close and safe with you. If you’re not carrying around your grief or your anger at the sickness, then you can really meet them there. Going with Alice’s sense of time made her life easy and my life fascinating. Because I want to learn about things from the past. This isn’t in the first Aliceheimer’s book but it’s in the opera and in the sequel, Between Alice and the Eagle, which I’m also working on right now.  Alice used dementia to make peace with her mother and father and younger brother who lived with Down syndrome. When Alice moved in, they moved in too, and she would wake up from a nap at sunset and say, “Mama, Papa, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”

I finally realized she needed to go and visit their grave, and when we finally did that, which is another whole story, she stopped having that need, she made peace with them right then and there. And likewise, she spent probably two or three full months talking about her brother, nearly every day, because she felt so bad that she had been a mean older sister, embarrassed of him because this was the 1930s, and the average American would point and say, “Oh, look at the idiot, the idiot!”—that was the term that was used for someone living with an extra chromosome 21—and she needed to process all of that.

All of this material made its way into the opera. In the first act, time is all over the place to capture what life was like. But as we get closer and closer to the end of her life, and she becomes more peaceful, she doesn’t get dragged back to those places of conflict, because she’s been allowed to make peace with them. Again, wouldn’t it be gorgeous if, when anybody got a terminal diagnosis, instead of being stuck in this mode of, “we’ve got to fight it,” instead it was, “Hey, here are four things to do before you die.” And they’re in that one Aliceheimer’s essay—love others, be loved, forgive others, and forgive yourself. We used dementia to work on that forgiving of others and of self, and that I’m sure is what let her die in peace. It wasn’t that we had the lucky form of dementia, because we had hairy moments. I just didn’t put the hairiest moments in Aliceheimer’s. They started increasing in difficulty, but the hairier moments happened after she left my home. She ended up with a psychiatric admission, because the first care home couldn’t be flexible about when she could eat—if you’ve read Aliceheimer’s, you know she was obsessed with food. They ended up putting her in the hospital and telling us that there was no way she could ever live in a group setting, ever. Then we found a group setting where there were bowls of fruit everywhere. Both the sequel, Between Alice and the Eagle, and the opera are showing some of these rougher pieces, because I am a believer that when you expose painful things, they lose their power over you.

The stigma that surrounds dementia is because of fear and basic bigotry. We’re terrible as a society about any kinds of mind problems. I mean, look what we do to people who are living with mental illness, and with people who have any kind of cognitive difference. I want the opera and the second book to be vehicles to talk about that and about all sorts of other social justice issues.

Within Aliceheimer’s and the growing body of artwork it has become is a call to understand medical systems as cultural systems, and to return healing to its social context. As a medical anthropologist-turned-artist, can you talk about how your critique of the current medical system has developed?

That’s such an important question, especially at this moment. Here we are in the midst of a pandemic, and we have so many people in this country refusing vaccination. A neighbor just had to fly out to California to visit her parents who she hadn’t seen in forever, and she showed me people in the airport actively flaunting, taking selfies while holding their mask, “Look, I’m not wearing my mask!” Being very aware of the ugly, ugly history of medical experimentation on Black and brown people in this country, that kind of vaccine hesitancy I get—but this other vaccine hesitancy is troubling, especially when we’re looking at countries like India now, where the deaths are out of control because of lack of vaccine access. We’ve got plenty of access issues from systemic anti-black and brown racism here in the US too.

I’m trying to walk a line of believing what’s good in medicine and science. I don’t want to undercut all of that. At the same time—this goes back to what we were talking about earlier with the gift economy—what’s wrong with medicine is twofold. Part of it is that we have a biomedical industrial complex in which people make money from procedures, drug companies make money from drugs, and it’s not a complete healing system that is connected to other levels of society. It has to do with how in the so-called West we have our medical system—and here I should give a couple of good anthropological terms. Medical systems are patterns, sets of beliefs, and practices dealing with sickness, and every society has them. And we’re in a pluralistic medical system where we’ve got lots of different things going on at once. We’ve got a dominant medical system, biomedicine, and it’s dominant because it can do some incredible things. But it also profits excessively from them.  I’m working on a series of poems about vaccines right now, and I’m remembering why I believe in vaccines, and it has to do with being old enough and fortunate enough to have lived in Yemen when I was 16 years old. I saw people’s faces completely covered with pockmarks from surviving smallpox, and then just a few years after that, smallpox was eradicated across the globe.

I really believe that science can tease out mechanisms, and that we can sometimes channel science to do good things. Insulin, I can see that. And some vaccines I can really see it, and polio, smallpox, MMRs. I started to wonder about chicken pox, because I remember so vividly watching my kids get ugly and then totally recover—what a great lesson that is, that we can heal. But because biomedicine is from a mindset that is so aligned with cultural dominance and extraction and control of nature, I think that medicine has gotten a little bit out of whack. Sure, we’ve made it so we can cure a lot of different things, but I’m always thinking that we are curing them only for wealthy, mostly white people. And we have the whole global south where we’ve got kids who don’t even have enough food and don’t have schools. I would love to see us step back from every single intervention to protect the elite and the wealthy, and I’d love to see more generosity in terms of sharing what medicine and science can do.

The whole biomedical system is set up so the way you earn a living is by competing for funds, and you find out one very tiny thing, and that builds something that gets used only within societies who can afford this innovation. Looking at dementia globally, if we do what we do in the United States or Europe it’s neither sustainable nor just.  Consider the Netherlands, where they’ve got dementia ghettos that are so orchestrated, they’ve built complete villages that resemble people’s childhoods, thinking that’s the solution—I’m thinking no, we have to at some point back down from all of this and just accept that this might be a way that some of us are meant to die.

I don’t want to sound like I’m prescribing for others, but I know after living through my mother’s dementia, I was very grateful that she could be in Vermont at the end of her life where you don’t have to do an ethics consult to refuse the antibiotics. I know I have those details in my advanced directive, I say things like, “if I’m in diapers and there is no turning that back, I want no antibiotics, no matter what. Just let me die.”

I really want us all to be able to see that death is natural, and it’s part of the beauty and the continuation of life. We’ve got to make room for the young people coming up, and we’ve got to make room for the people throughout the globe who don’t have the same privileges. It’s really about extending the low hanging fruit, like a vaccine, like good nutrition, making sure that’s available everywhere and understanding we’ve got to let go of some of these other things in order to make that happen. It actually might be good for all of our collective health to let that happen. 

In the introduction to Aliceheimer’s you talk about our collective memory as the essence of storytelling and healing. Can you explain those connections?

With storytelling, we’re always trying to touch something really universal, and that’s what collective memory is. I think it’s not just a cognitive thing, it’s somatic, it’s in our DNA. We have these things that are essential to being human, that go really, really deep in time. And that’s where being an anthropologist comes in handy too, because I’m used to thinking in millions of years. When you think about millions of years of history, of us walking on two legs—and that’s five to seven million years we’ve been doing that—and we’ve been living in community for tens of millions of years, if you go there, then you can look at the wrong turn we made, say with civilization, as recent. Civilization is incidentally when we invented money and hierarchy and a small group of people dominating others and hoarding. Civilization is only five, maybe eight thousand years old compared to millions, and that’s nothing.

I think about collective memory in terms of deep time. We know, all of us, in our hearts, how to be good to each other. Every now and again, so exceedingly rarely, is someone born without that capacity to connect to another, and it may even be that childhood trauma, that made them unable to do that. I think that more of us have been led away from that collective memory of connection by what society puts in front of us, and we think that we have to do these things because we’ve been socialized, we’ve been acculturated, we’ve absorbed these ideas that our value is our productivity or our wealth instead of our kindness.

In a social species, kindness and compassion are probably the things we should be valuing, above everything, and yet late-stage capitalism doesn’t have a place for kindness and compassion. That’s what a lot of innovative projects are building back in, because that’s what’s going to heal us. I think that’s the deepest level of collective memory.

That gift economy mentality. The kind of relationships and approach to living that enables and creates the gift economy.

Exactly. In gift economies, food is always shared. Food is never, ever something that you have to pay for. And just think about it, nobody would eat in front of a starving person. I think that’s part of our collective memory, we know that. So instead, what people do is go off to these secret private places and have very indulgent foods or what have you.

You mentioned earlier that there are more social justice issues that you’re hoping to address in the Aliceheimer’s sequel and the opera. Could you talk a bit about those?

When Alice left my home, she made me promise that when it got too hard, I would do something different. So I applied for a Fulbright to go to Armenia, and I looked at aging in Armenia. And what I noticed there is most older people were living alone because—Armenia is a low to middle income country—because high unemployment led their younger relatives to leave the country to find work.

And for people like my mother in care homes back in the United States, who’s doing the really hard, essential work? All people of color and the occasional poor white person, many of whom were refugees or economic migrants from other countries. In Japan I saw the exact same thing, the workers in care homes doing the most essential, hardest tasks are migrants from the Philippines. In Ireland, the essential care home workers were primarily people coming from Brazil and the Philippines.  We’ve got this global situation, of people in the global north getting cared for by workers from the global south. The people who took care of my mom were leaving their older relatives behind. That’s not just. On top of that, so much of why people have to leave their countries is rooted in centuries of European, American and other wealthy nations’ imperialism.

I was so in awe and grateful for the people who were helping my mother.  Because she kept her sense of humor and social graces, they bonded with her—and she was outrageous. One time some not very good dancers came in to perform at the care home and my mother yells, “They stink, they should be thrown into the river!” The whole staff was cracking up and couldn’t wait to share the story with me. I wondered too if, because she was back in her early self, that she remembered bigotry from her youth… I gave a talk last year right after George Floyd’s murder, it was about death and dying and dementia, and how my mother grew up a brown person, a daughter of refugees, a daughter of genocide, but she died white because she made it through the American dream. I think when she was back in her younger self, she felt so close to her caregivers, and they must have sensed that. Workers in care homes have to deal with all sorts of horrible, racist stuff from people who they’re taking care of in the most intimate way. When I got to know more people who worked in care homes, I understood for the first time how stigmatized their work is. I didn’t know that the people doing that work are embarrassed to say what they do because the public at large calls them “ass wipers”.

I did a lot of ass wiping myself. My mom was in diapers for many years and even while she lived with me. I thought diapers was going to be the turning point, but everything else was still working, so it wasn’t. Even after she moved, I took her on a bunch of outings until it just got too hard. I brought her to Armenian church and she had a big poopy accident.  To clean somebody solo  in a public bathroom without privacy and a handheld showerhead, it just… we hit our limits. So I was filled with overwhelming gratitude for the people doing that work, and I really want to champion them and the injustice of the stigma.

Then you add the layer of the pandemic. These people were heroes, unbelievable heroes, doing that work in isolation. I was supposed to be in my mom’s care home all this past year, but they couldn’t allow anybody in because they were so afraid of infection. When we talk about the essential workers, we forget about the most important essential frontline workers who are doing the work that we don’t revere in the same way that we revere the work of medical doctors and nurses. If we’re doing global flows of labor, let’s do global flows of everything and start divesting here in the global north where wealth has accumulated through conquest and extraction.  Reparations means giving back what was taken, not making it so that a family’s only choice is to leave their older relatives so that they can send money home. At the same time, these essential workers also have to face opposition and bigotry here.

You mentioned another project you’ve been working on this past year, The Book of Genocides. Can you explain that?

A spread from The Book of Genocides about the American genocide.

When lockdown started, I had just finished a free standing Aliceheimer’s comic that was going to make its way into Between Alice and the Eagle, about my mother making peace with her parents and her younger brother. Once the racial health disparities became so intense and vivid, as a medical anthropologist, I had to shift gears to hang on to our common humanity. I went back to a piece I had created in 2016 that unified all genocides across time and space to show its ongoing presence, to heal from it and to end it. Originally an installation for a show at Studio Place Arts called “Them, Us and You”, it focuses on nine of the genocides of the past 500 years—starting with the First Peoples of the Americas then to Black people through enslavement, indigenous Australians, Armenians, the Holocaust, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and the Rohingya. One of my social justice goals has always been to connect across horror so that instead of dominant forces dividing and conquering us, we all unify and we support each other. For Armenians, their path out of genocide in Asia to the US was to get called white—they literally got made white by the courts, because there were prohibitions against people entering the US if they were Asian. So they petitioned for it so they could come in after the genocide and succeeded. And then Armenians have succeeded in white society. Their genocide, because of Cold War politics and then Middle Eastern politics—until Biden recognized it three weeks ago—no president would speak the words out loud. The art installation depicts dehumanization, because that’s the last cognitive step toward genocide happening in the minds of people who are socialized to believe that animals are lesser. We have to call someone something else in order to kill them. So they become a beast, or they’re a predator or vermin or something. And I made exquisite corpse books drawn into the surface of a zoology textbook that had belonged to my mother when she was a graduate student.

A spread from The Book of Genocides about the enslavement and genocide of Africans in the Americas.

Over the past year I returned to that project, both to make it a book manuscript and to add a new layer to it as an art installation. I had already brought life-size versions of the books to Japan when I was there in 2017 as part of an arts residency, but this pandemic year I redacted text, the way governments do, from the remaining zoology pages. Again, to contextualize Alice’s life, going through the cafeteria line at Duke University in 1954, the cafeteria workers were overheard by her and my father, saying “I didn’t think they let them in here” about my mom. When you read this book from the 1950s, it’s so full of racism, objectification, and eugenics, and out of all of these bits of text I created a series of blackout poems by redacting text. It’s haunting how words about centipedes describe the Holocaust book: “Animal, considered the lowest member, hiding by day, running swiftly at night, prey, captured, killed quickly by poison that comes from a duct.”

In the enslavement book, you can see in one of the drawings into a section on hereditary characteristics, and on the facing page they’re talking about chickens, and on the opposite they’re talking about half-color, mulattoes, pale mulattoes—it’s just disgusting. This is a science book from 75 years ago, and this is the kind of stuff that’s in our collective memory that we need to surface so we can strip it of its power. That ties back to your previous question, we’ve got some bad stuff in our collective memories. I’m convinced that so many people know it somewhere, so many white people, and that’s why they’re just shopping like crazy, so they won’t have to face what they know to be true. So my hope with this project is that it’s surfacing all of that so that we can heal collectively.

The opera was in a way my relief from this super, super heavy heartbreaking project over the course of the year. The opera was a joy and this wasn’t, but it felt like, “thank God I can do something to contribute to changing this somehow or another,” because we’ve got to change our world order. I believe the arts have a unique power to do that.

You’ve talked about how art is meant to function in a gift economy, and how in our late-stage capitalist economy everything is monetized or commodified. What do you think of the tension between those two truths?

That’s such a good question, because we have culture with a capital C and absurd amounts of money and exchange and fame and heroes and this and that, and arts aren’t meant to live there. But I think artists deserve to be able to eke out a decent living. Do you remember that Leo Lionni children’s book, Frederick, about the mouse? All the other mice were scurrying around and doing different things, and Frederick was gathering the colors. Then in the winter when they had run out of food, he spoke beautifully about the colors and everybody was comforted. Artists are doing something valuable in society, and it’s not just comfort. We can help lead each other in good directions. I would love to see artists supported the way that scientists are supported, say in France, where once you’ve got your doctorate, you get a position and you don’t have to write grants, you’re just expected to work.

Artists, we love our work. I don’t have any trouble getting up and working every single day. The fact is it’s like I fall apart when I don’t do it. Fortunately, I co-authored a textbook so I have royalties coming in, so I’m eking out and managing, but younger artists don’t have that. I’d love to see a way for it to be set up so the arts were really built in and valued in society as a whole, because we’re doing vital work. And as you were saying, it’s outside of that commodification. The way I’ve sometimes spoken about it, especially when I was first talking about my novel about the Armenian genocide, I realized, “Oh my gosh,”—I guess my kids were younger and playing sports—“I’m doing an end-run!” Instead of trying to break through the defense, I’m going around, right? To another human being, from heart to heart. I think that’s what we do in the arts, so we can bypass the structures and connect outside of them. It’s just media, like film or museum exhibits, where you’ve got to have big money to generate the work. Maybe it’s time to spread out the big money and just make sure that the person with a typewriter or a laptop or paper or their moving body and their imagination has food and housing so they can keep putting work into the world that will nourish us all.