Leela Corman 's Unterzakhn is a gorgeous, enthralling graphic novel about two immigrant sisters living in New York's Lower East Side in the early 1900s. Twins Esther and Fanya take very different paths: Fanya, the "clever" sister, goes to work for an doctor who performs abortions, while Esther takes a job in a burlesque theater and brothel. The beautifully drawn story follows the sisters' compelling journey from childhood to adulthood. Unterzakhn is packed with historical detail and vivid characters who come to life on the page thanks both to Corman's skill as a storyteller and her fantastic drawings. But it's more than just a realistic portrayal of life at the turn of the twentieth century; Esther and Fanya's struggles are utterly modern and relatable, and the world in which they live is not so different from our own in terms of the choices available to women. A little bit Luc Sante, a little bit Phoebe Gloeckner, and wholly original, Unterzakhn was one of my favorite books of this year. Leela was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book.
Can you talk a little about your research process for Unterzakhn? How did you research the book? And did you find that the story changed as you gathered information, or did you know the story you wanted to tell all along?
Everything I do is very research-driven. I did know the rough outlines of the story I wanted to tell from the start, but certain things changed as I worked. A lot of that had more to do with what got emphasized, or with clarity, rather than big changes of direction. As for research, every idea generates the need for it. So in this case, I knew where and when this family lived. Now I had to find out how they dressed, what they ate, what their living quarters looked and felt like. And then with each turn of the story, there were new things to learn. The easiest and most fun part is clothing, especially the dresses Esther gets to wear in the final chapter, when she has money. I stole outright from some famous women of the time. In the party scene she's wearing Josephine Baker's dress. In the funeral scene she's wearing Garbo's fur.
The shift in emphasis came as I grew a bit more interested in Esther than in Fanya, probably because dancing is more fun than midwifery, what can I say? But they were both important to me.
It's a bit depressing how much the limitations to women's reproductive freedom in the story resonate today. Is that something you intended? Why did you decide to have Fanya work for an abortionist?
One of the very first motivations for creating this book was to talk about the ramifications of not having any choices. They are grotesque. Fanya working for the abortionist was idea #1. Corsets and vaudeville came later. Yes, it's miserable how relevant this is. In fact, when I first had the idea for this book, it was 2003. The discourse around women's health, rape, and violence towards women in this last election cycle was shocking and so depressing. Though it got a lot of people out to the polls, I'm sure.
In the context of America, it's surprising to me that these things are still an issue. Other countries have their own issues. Look what just happened in Ireland, where a woman having a second-trimester miscarriage was denied an abortion and died in agony of sepsis. What kind of treatment is that? Those doctors should be stripped of their licenses. So that's why I chose to tell a story of what happens to women in places where they aren't allowed to make their own reproductive decisions. It's inevitable that women will die or be maimed. We just watched Mike Leigh's Vera Drake again the other night; it's the same story. It made me so angry.
I was struck by how much you subverted the reader's expectations for your characters--I thought that was very nicely done. Did you know how the story would end when you started to tell it?
Well, what were the reader's expectations? That Esther would come to a bad end and that Fanya with her education would somehow "make it"? Bad girls don't always go to hell--sometimes they end up in a penthouse, breakfasting in silk pajamas. Though I never thought of Esther as a bad girl.
I didn't know how the story would end. In fact, I had no confidence that the ending worked, until I'd finished it and sent the manuscript to my readers for review. When Jason Little, whose judgment I trust immensely, told me it was a great ending, I knew I'd done a good job. Endings are torment!
What are you working on now?
Right now, I'm hoping to get started on some adaptations of Isaac Bashevis Singer short stories, and I'm in the early stages of research on my next long graphic novel, a three-part book about entertainers in different times in history. Right now I'm researching the Black Death and music of the fourteenth century. I'm doing a one-pager for Women's Review of Books, and hoping to get some more straight illustration work soon, after years of only working on this book!
What are some books you've read lately and loved?
I can't say enough about the last couple of Love & Rockets books. What Jaime Hernandez did there is just unmatched. Arcadia by Lauren Groff remains my favorite recent novel. I also really loved Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis [As did I. --ed.] Carol Tyler's You'll Never Know, and Jack Weatherford's Ghengis Khan And The Making of the Modern World. I just started reading A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman [This book is SO BALLER. --ed.], and I've got Dave Lasky & Frank Young's Don't Forget This Song, a graphic biography of the Carter Family, waiting for me whenever I decide to pull myself away from plague pits and flagellants.