Photographs and Memory in Malaka Gharib’s “I Was Their American Dream”
A few weeks ago, I read 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 discusses, the ways that the depictions of photographs exist as a recreation that the creator supplies; thus, the recreation is the creator’s interpretation of the photograph and the memories associated with it. As well, the recreated photograph points to the constructed nature of the graphic memoir itself and to the mediated nature of the images.
Photographs connect us with the past. They are, as Lillian Smith put it in The Journey, “The memory has so little talent for photography. It likes to paint pictures. Experience is not laid away in it like a snapshot to be withdrawn at will but is returned to us as a portrait painted in our own psychic colors, its form and pattern structured on that of our life.” While I agree that photographs provide a more accurate depiction of the past while our memories become painted pictures, I’d argue that our memoires even cloud the photographs we hold within our hands. This occurs in Laura Jones’ My Life in Movies when her mother comes out of her room for the “happy” family Christmas photograph.
After the three-page panel where Gharib looks at the pictures in the drawer, the next ten pages depict her mother and her father in the past, not through the use of photographs but through her illustrations and narration of the events that led to their immigrations to the United States and their meeting. Following this section, Gharib inserts a full page image of a scrapbook with two pictures. The top shows her parents’ wedding, them holding hands and cutting the cake while family stand behind them. The narration reads, “They got married six months later. . . “ The bottom photograph shows Gharib’s birth in the hopsital and her dad talking about naming her. The narration reads, “And had me a year after that.”
Gharib shows these images in a scrapbook, taped down on a page. We see the rest of the scrapbook’s pages, flowing out from behind the one we stare at. We see the difference in texture between the photographs and the scrapbook page. We see the tape holding the pictures down on the page. We know this is a scrapbook, one constructed to document her family’s life. Gharib presents us not with the “truth,” whatever that may be, but her memoires of her parents, before she was born. So, the photographs, all throughout this section, become mediated through Gharib and ultimately through her illustrations. She “paints pictures” of the memories, memories that she did not experience but that others told her about. They are other people’s memories, and we view them right alongside her as she looks through them.
Gharib ends chapter one detailing her parents’ pursuit of the American Dream and their divorce, which came when Gharib was still a young child. The final page, again, contains three panels. This time, there are two small panels at the top and a larger panel at the bottom. In the first panel, we return to Gharib in front of the dresser. She holds a photograph in her hands, looking at it sadly. We do not see the photograph. She narrates, “My parents had so many hopes for themselves.” The next panel visually shows the rupture between her parents. Her mom on the left ironing clothes, a squiggly line down the middle separating her from her husband on the right who looks in the mirror as he ties his necktie. Gharib narrates, “The reality was they were so far from what they wanted.”
The final panel shows another photograph. The pictures shows Gharib and her parents standing outside of an apartment, their first step towards the American Dream. Each of them smiles into the camera. We see Gharib’s fingers on each side of the photograph, holding it tight as she looks at it. Stars fills the background. Gharib narrates, “Twenty-five years later, my parents would tell me that being married to each other was the closest they ever got to the American Dream.” Gharib recreates the image of that smiling family, her parents’ closeness to the American Dream. Like the previous pictures, Gharib paints it with her memories and those of her parents. The photograph, through her recreation, highlights more than just the image of the “real” photograph. It highlights her thoughts and feelings about it. It shows her interiority in relation to the photograph itself.
This is what graphic texts do so well. They “paint pictures” and point out that no matter how hard we strive for “truth” through photographs or anything, we always add our own colors to them. The kernel of truth and reality exists. It existed in the moment, but with the passage of time, that kernel becomes entangled in years, and decades. It morphs as we recreate it, painting it with new colors, new ideas, new perspectives. For me, Gharib’s graphic memoir, and others, highlight this through their use of photographs within the work.