Photographs and Memory in Malaka Gharib’s “I Was Their American Dream”

Matthew Teutsch
6 min readSep 9, 2021

Recently, I reread Malaka Gharib’s I Was Their American Dream. Gharib’s graphic memoir details coming of age as a first generation American immigrant, the daughter of a Filipino mother and Egyptian father. She explores the ways that she struggled with her identity, and the ways that she felt pulled, a lot of the time, in at least three directions in this regard: her mother’s culture, her father’s culture, and white American culture. All of these aspects are important to discuss, and they are topics that I will talk about with students when I teach Gharib’s text next fall. However, today I want to focus on chapter one where Gharib narrates her parents’ lives before the immigrated to America, their meeting in America, and their divorce.

What intrigued me about chapter one, apart from the narrative, was the stylistic choices that Gharib deploys when conveying her family’s past. She frames her parents’ histories around photographs, something not unique to her text, but what caught my attention was the way that she brings us, as readers, into the photographs alongside her. Gharib begins by presenting three horizontal panels on a page. In the panels, she opens her parents’ dresser drawer and pulls out photographs.

The first panel shows the younger Gharib looking around to see if anyone is watching her as her hands reach for the top drawer. A portrait of her parents sits atop the dresser. She narrates, “This is a story about that journey. And it starts before I was born.” In the next two panels, Gharib looks at photographs in the drawer, and she pulls one of her mother out and looks at it before the images shift to her mother’s life in Manila.

Thinking back to most of the graphic memoirs I have read over the past few years, photographs play a prominent role in almost every book. They are not, for the most part, actual reproductions of photographs. Rather, the creator renders the photograph into the artistic style of the book. Sometimes the style stands in contrast to the rest of the artwork, but that is not the case with Gharib’s depictions. These moments lead us back to, as Jennifer Klug

Matthew Teutsch

Here, you will find reflections on African American, American, and Southern Literature, American popular culture and politics, and pedagogy.