Sophia Luu on Keep it in the Family

The graphic designer’s first comic uses clear techniques to tell a complex, empathetic story

Sophia Luu‘s debut comic Keep it in the Family chronicles how she told her family about the abuse she suffered as a child, the court case that followed over a decade later, and the conversation she finally had about it with her relatives three years after that. This last conversation took place just a few months before the Laydeez Weekend Festival where her comic was shortlisted for the Laydeez Do Comics Prize.

A graphic designer by trade, Luu uses bright colours and a uniform grid structure to make her Keep it in the Family as impactful as possible. She wants her message to be clear and empathetic: her story is one of many, and if it encourages others to speak out, then she has succeeded in telling it.

Josh Franks: Tell me about your introduction to comics as a creator. At what point did you decide you wanted to tell your story as a comic?

Sophia Luu: I started off doing graphic design at Kingston and that was my first was introduction to zines. In my final year, I started reading a lot of graphic novels and I found that it really helped me. I used to think that graphic novels and comics were just superheroes and not for me, but I was reading these incredible stories by incredible people.

JF: Any particular examples?

SL: I really like Blankets (Craig Thompson) and Uncomfortably Happily (Yeon-Sik Hong). Oh, and How to Survive in the North (Luke Healy). It was beautiful.

I run my own design company that does a lot of public health-awareness events, that kind of thing. Last year, I went to a talk by Ian Williams (Graphic Medicine). I spoke to him afterwards and I told him that I’m really interested in this kind of thing. He said I should enter Laydeez. And I looked into them and I was like, “this is so empowering, so beautiful to have a platform for us to tell our stories and it’s something I’d never felt before”.

JF: Entering the competition was definitely the right choice. Let’s talk about Keep it in the Family.

SL: So the novel is all about child sex abuse, and I’ve been struggling a lot with it at various points in my life. I came out about it three years ago, and it’s taken my family another three years to actually sit down and talk about it, which, sadly, is quite common.

I was trying to figure out how to convey this in a really strong way. I was looking at telling it straight from the beginning of when the abuse started, all the way through to how it’s affecting me now and it just didn’t feel quite right. And then this December, we had the family chat. I worked on this novel for two weeks, then I changed the whole novel and started again, two weeks before the deadline. I realised I had to tell it this way, you know?

The conversation with my family was almost like three years plus 10 years of abuse all bubbling to the surface. And I decided to just let it all out for this book, while also considering the opinions of about 12 different people. How were they going to process it? How had they been processing it? How were they going to react to my side of the story? All while realising the very real thing that you can feel consistently failed by institutions. You always think your family’s going to protect you—my abuser was in my family—and the law, but no one ever quite explained to me how it was going to work. The whole thing’s so fractured.

When I was at university, trying to juggle all my 2000-word deadlines, I also found out that my abuser had been let out of jail and everyone forgot to tell me. My family are Vietnamese refugees and are very stoic people. I mean, their story of how they got to the UK is a whole other graphic novel itself; they all left separately over two years and ended up in the UK, without the aid of the technology we have now.

Because of that they are incredibly religious and are very quick to forgive. Sometimes this means that facts can be brushed under the carpet. So trying to break that mentality of, “Why can’t you just forgive your abuser?” And very much being on his side for three years until I sent them stories, because that was what I wanted to convey: not necessarily just telling my story in terms of what abuse happened, but looking at the fundamental question of why people don’t come out about it, why people don’t talk about it and how people’s small, everyday reactions are an extra barrier to that.

Images courtesy of Sophia Luu

JF: I think that you’re telling a really important story. This is going to resonate with, unfortunately, thousands of other people.

SL: It’s been amazing to speak to people today, who were not necessarily abused as a child, but totally understand that framework of being so smushed together by any institution or organisation or by other people. I felt like even though speaking out was the right thing to do, it’s about planting that first seed. I didn’t come out with it just happy-go-lucky three years ago; it was because my abuser had abused someone else, and she spoke out. And that’s what got me to speak out. So it’s all about those planting seeds.

JF: Tell me about your influences as a designer. I’m interested in how that shapes your work in comics.

SL: I’m quite an eclectic designer. I studied History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge, where there’s no art scene whatsoever, so a lot of the work I did was self-made, very much in small groups with other like-minded artists. And for me, it was all about finding joy. So a lot of my work is like fairly colorful, using block colors, that kind of thing. I want to spark joy within people, no matter what it’s about.

I’m primarily based in graphic design and events, and I’m always working on how to get people interested in healthcare when they don’t give a shit about healthcare. Or how art can be helpful in opening it up. So for my graphic novel, it was about how to get people to think about sexual abuse if it’s something they don’t know anything about and don’t think is ever going to affect them. Because fundamentally that is the thing: people always think it happens to other people, other children and not necessarily them or their own. I wanted to do it in a sensitive but also approachable style, so not like, “Oh my God, my life is terrible,” because I’ve tried to move on from it. And that’s why it’s got slightly childish illustrations, because this isn’t usually my style, but when my mum read it, she said, “This reminds me that it happened to a child by looking at the bold colors.” Naive isn’t the right word, but there’s a freshness to it. And similarly because I’m fresh to the scene—and I don’t really know how to make a comic at all—I just went into it. It’s very, very trial-and-error.

Read our interviews with the other shortlisted creators of the Laydeez Do Comics prize 2019:

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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