Graphic rockstar Una talks about her life after the events of her award-winning memoir Becoming/Unbecoming, and the social climate that has made her work necessary.
Una’s story could have belonged to anyone. Any woman, anyway. Any girl raised alongside her in a 1970s England governed by conventions of overt misogyny. Self-designated in the need for anonymity, her name means “One. One life, one of many.” An artist, writer and survivor of gender violence, her groundbreaking graphic memoir Becoming Unbecoming addresses the real and insidious consequences of continued gender inequality.
Meeting Una at a comics scholarship symposium in Brighton is a moment of visceral awe. Having recently read Becoming/Unbecoming one sleepless 4am, and considering her an anonymous paragon of the graphic memoir, I never dreamed to see her out in the open, giving a lecture on graphic facilitation and recording skills and showing me her new book on her iPad.
“I needed legal anonymity when the book first came out,” she explains. “I don’t need that now, but I still like the idea of being Una, just one. I want to keep a low profile anyway because I don’t want to be a ‘personality’ and I write about such serious stuff I don’t really want to be photographed standing around grinning.”
A sunny, energetic woman whose mind often moves faster than her pen, it’s hard to reconcile the image of Una now with the girl in the red dress depicted in Becoming Unbecoming. Despite the smarts and creativity that shine through in her work and conversation, she didn’t do well at school because her education was disrupted by the events in her life at the time.
Blessed with a compassionate art teacher and a talent for drawing, she was told her options were “art school or the HP sauce factory”. She applied for the former and ended up studying fashion design for a year before dropping out. Returning as a mature student at 21, she was able to work towards fine art.
“All this studying is not what made me an artist though,” she says. “I think it was meeting the artists and tutors at art school that made me see the potential of art. These were the first people I had come across in my life who really seemed to know how to think. They were practical but also philosophical, critical but enthusiastic, they knew how to reason things through but they also knew how to respond through instinct. They made me want to be an artist, but also to teach art and that is what I have done.”
Due to depression and anxiety taking their toll on her ability to work, it took “a decade or more” from leaving school for Una to realise her potential as an artist, but since then she’s never looked back. She has taught Fine Art and Visual Communication and Illustration courses at respected university art schools and “organised a lot of community art provision”, working with people dealing with mental and physical health difficulties.
Happily married with children and enjoying success within a profession she loves, Una’s story is positive reinforcement for the fact that people can build happy lives from the ashes of the darkest trauma. Outside of her many personal achievements, a lot has changed since she felt the “uneasiness of turning into a new creature” that she describes in her book.
“I feel I grew up facing into a howling wall of woman hating,” she says. “In the 70s and 80s, in popular culture outside feminism, women were figures of fun: dolly birds, old bags and hags, battle-axes, slags and sluts, stuck-up and frigid.”
This wasn’t a “class thing” as far as a young Una could observe. Nor was it restricted by age, with schoolboys demonstrating a learned cruelty towards the girls they knew in the light of the Yorkshire Ripper murders that are the backdrop of Becoming/Unbecoming’s personal narrative.
“They liked to frighten us,” she says, remembering the violent words probably long forgotten by the children that wielded them. “They enjoyed the idea that we might be murdered and mutilated and that we might deserve it because we were ‘sluts’. They couldn’t see that it was a real person doing the murdering and mutilating; the Ripper was made to seem like an abstract figure.”
Such abstraction had a lot to do with the failure to capture Peter Sutcliffe until 1981, despite police having interviewed him nine times. He murdered at least 13 women in the five years leading up to his arrest. While not directly part of her own experiences, the failings of society that led to the prolonged freedom of the Yorkshire Ripper are a significant element of Una’s work.
“Becoming/Unbecoming is important,” says Nicola Streeten, author of Billy, Me & You, co-founder of graphic novel forum Laydeez do Comics, and director of the British Consortium of Comics Scholars at the University of Sussex. “It contextualises an important part of recent feminist history in a way that makes it accessible and still has resonance for young girls becoming women today.”
As observed by Nottinghamshire police, who declared last year that they now consider catcalling and unwanted contact to be hate crimes, the social context of sexism and slut-shaming are sadly still relevant. This ongoing treatment of half the population is shaping the childhoods of future Unas all over the country.
“Una has told her own story, but she’s also told the story of a culture in which violence against women is still rife,” says Corinne Pearlman, creative director at Myriad Editions, Becoming/Unbecoming’s UK publisher. “And in doing so she has provided a framework for others to view their own experiences. She uses her art as a language to convey the complexity of those experiences with delicacy, directness and empathy for those who have not been able to tell their own stories, to whom her book is dedicated.”
Set later in her life her second book, On Sanity: One Day in Two Lives, shows a few transformative hours, first from Una’s point of view and then from her mother’s.
“It’s a bit strange working on a project with your mum,” she tells me. “But I’m glad I’ve done it. I think she’s got some important things to say about having a psychosis. Five of the pages are from my first ever attempts at drawing sequential art, from before Becoming/Unbecoming, so it’s been great to finally finish this project and include a happy ending.”
She’s worked hard for this happy ending. But does that mean we won’t be seeing any more personal narratives from Una?
“I want to make art about life,” she says. “What else is there? There’s always an element of ‘autobiofictionalography’ in my work and even an element of fantasy, and that’s fine. Fiction, according to Virginia Woolf, is still ‘attached to life at all four corners’. I think that’s a great way of putting it.”