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Cartoonist Ali Fitzgerald Explores Immigration in New Novel

Rachel Elizabeth Jones Nov 8, 2017 10:00 AM

When cartoonist Ali Fitzgerald moved to Berlin, Germany, nearly a decade ago, she had no plans to write a graphic memoir. At the age of 25, wary of stagnating in a university teaching post, she decided to satisfy her curiosity about the European city. Now, Fitzgerald is wrapping up her first graphic memoir, a work tightly tied to Berlin's immigrant history, past and present. And she's doing it a stone's throw from Vermont, at the Cornish CCS Residency.

Fitzgerald is the second cartoonist-in-residence at the little house in the woods, located just 16 miles from the Center for Cartoon Studies campus in White River Junction. Vermont resident, illustrator and cartoonist for the New Yorker Harry Bliss purchased the property in the summer of 2016 and announced the monthlong residency program shortly thereafter. Nick Drnaso was the program's first resident, from February to March of this year.

An MFA graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, Fitzgerald has regularly contributed comics to McSweeney's Internet Tendency since 2013 in the form of the dark-humor column "Hungover Bear and Friends." Since 2015, she has drawn the contemplative and bitterly funny "ArtZombies" series for the German Art: Das Kunstmagazin, reflecting on her own experiences in the city's art scene.

Fitzgerald's book, Fraktur: Drawn Escapes in Berlin, is slated for release from Fantagraphics Books next spring. Reached in Cornish by phone, the artist said her work "explores Berlin's historic and contemporary relationship to refugees and bohemia." Fraktur is the name of the dramatic gothic font once used for most German printing and later adopted by the Nazi Party. One chapter in particular, Fitzgerald said, is about the aesthetics of propaganda.

Fraktur draws heavily on both historical research and Fitzgerald's own experiences working with refugees. In 2015, she began offering comics workshops at a refugee shelter in Berlin where a friend worked. She led people recently arrived from countries such as Afghanistan, Albania and Syria in using drawing to share memories and tell their stories.

"I didn't know in the beginning, when I was doing these workshops, that I was going to write a book," Fitzgerald said.

In constructing her narrative, Fitzgerald found great inspiration in the work of Austrian journalist Joseph Roth, who interviewed Jewish refugees in Berlin in the aftermath of World War I and the Russian Revolution. "His views were so progressive and interesting," she said. "He was the only journalist documenting these forgotten communities [in refugee and homeless shelters]."

Today, perhaps, more attention is paid to telling the stories of displaced communities. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald described as "eerie" some of the similarities between her own experiences and those cataloged by Roth. "It's amazing and fulfilling to see [and] take part in this kind of social art-making community," Fitzgerald wrote in an email, "but it also exposes the inadequacy [and] casual cruelty of certain asylum laws."

She continued, "It's also hard to see people who have been traumatized try to navigate a foreign (and sometimes hostile) cultural environment."

Fitzgerald describes Fraktur as more "surreal nonfiction" than "comic journalism," with a distinct slant toward memoir. "There are moments where I delve into my own psyche," she said, "and those moments are quite surreal."

Fitzgerald's willingness to weave between the internal and external bodes well for the Cornish residency. "We look for candidates whose work comes from a place of intimacy," Bliss explained in an email. "Perhaps that intimacy is still evolving, but that's where the residency comes in. The rural setting here in Cornish, I feel, allows the creative self to breathe."

Bliss joined CCS directors Michelle Ollie and James Sturm in selecting Fitzgerald as this year's resident. She was chosen "based on a combination of her artistic skill and [her] smart nonfiction storytelling," Bliss wrote. He added, "She's the real deal."