The autobio comic artist shares her experiences of working with brain injury survivors for her new book, Like an Orange.
In 2016, Wallis Eates spent six weeks with the East London branch of Headway, a charity that helps brain injury survivors to rehabilitate. Now she’s crowdfunding a collaborative graphic novel that will use their words and pictures. We talked to her about her process and why it’s important for these stories to be told.
Ink: Tell us about the six weeks you spent at Headway. What were the highs and lows of the placement?
Wallis Eates: For three days a week over the period, I visited Headway’s East London branch – Submit to Love Studios, where survivors of brain injury develop an art practice with materials and support provided by the charity. During this time, I got to know the members simply by drawing alongside them and chatting. They were fully briefed that I was collecting anecdotes and stories about, but not exclusive to, life with brain injury for a comic book I wanted to make, incorporating their artwork into their stories.
Most of the time was a high as opposed to low as the studio is such a happy, vibrant place with a great atmosphere. If I were to choose the highest of highs, I would say it would be when I was sitting with Nick. He was the only member there where we pre-arranged a time that I would come to his table, and he would always find me a comfy chair and shake my hand. We would then spend an hour or so where he would tell me a story about being in the Paratroops. Because he had suffered a stroke his speech was impaired, so it took a while to get the story across. It was inspiring to witness his own patience with this, and together we doodled, took notes, repeated and repeated back until I was able to tell him exactly what his story was. When we got there, we would high five and it felt great!
It didn’t feel right to feel sad about what I could see there. Everyone had gone through darker times than I could imagine, and yet there they were full of life and joy. However, particular chords were struck with me when I met someone who had sustained their injury through assault. I myself was kicked in the head when I was 21, and this came about saving my boyfriend whose head was stamped on by a random bloke who got out of a car. We were lucky, I just got a black eye, and my boyfriend nothing at all. However, the trauma of this stayed with me for some time, eventually leading me to seek work in prisons by way of addressing and understanding violence beyond the fear factor. By the time I got to Headway, I was quite used to working with people who had committed violent crimes – often victims in their own right too – so to then meet victims of violent crime brought me to a full and heavy circle.
Ink: Who else had a story that struck you? How will you capture them in Like an Orange?
WE: So many stories struck me, it is hard to pick one, but for the sake of the question, I’ll say Tirzeh. After her injury, she woke up to have the last several years of her life missing from her memory. Though she was now in her mid-thirties, her last recollection was that of being a teenager and living at home. The boy who was making a play for her at their local youth club was now her husband, and they had two children together. She also learned her father had died during these years that she could no longer remember. What was striking about her story was that while she had no narrative memory of these events taking place, she nevertheless had an emotional memory – she knew she loved her husband and children, and that she had mourned for her father. I think some of her artwork captures this so well – one drawing is of a giant brain made up of people, and another is a skeleton also made up of people. To me, these pieces of work relate to Tirzeh’s story – they say to me that so much of who we are is who we have loved, whether we remember them or not – we carry others around with us. Tirzeh told me many funny anecdotes and stories, so I will tell these in comic form, populated by the characters in her drawings.
Ink: What were the circumstances that brought you to Headway in the first place?
WE: The short answer is that I answered an advert on Artsjobs and pitched my idea. However, going further back, I had been looking for an opportunity like this for some time. A few years ago I did some comics for my friends of their childhood memories. It really stirred something in me – I found that my approach to the drawings, to telling the story, was far more rigorous than if I was just telling my own. There was a level of responsibility that engaged empathy and, in want of sounding really cheesy, made me feel a lot of love. My friends in turn felt really touched to see their stories told through somebody else’s understanding – life-affirming all round! I felt then that there is a lot to explore in this kind of collaboration – getting voices heard, connecting, promoting empathy. This project is a development of this line of enquiry, and I would like to take it further in the future – loads more ideas yet!
Ink: You’ve said before that the title comes from the comparison of the brain with an orange. Can you give us more details of this metaphor?
WE: Two people told me that their surgeons had likened their head or brain to oranges! One was a man who fell down some stone stairs while checking his phone and smashed his skull in two places. When he relayed this metaphor to me, I really felt it! Much like how a bridge becomes flexible in high winds, I really understood how the normally hard casing of a skull can become softer under such velocity and impact, but nevertheless breaking due to the ferociousness of it. It may seem that the skull didn’t do much good there, but imagine the soft and fleshy (like the inside of an orange) brain without it??! The second instance was a woman whose surgeon told her that her brain grows tumours like “Seville grows oranges”. I couldn’t make up my mind whether this was flippant or beautiful, or some kind of mixture of both that comes with having spent years ensconced in the world of brain injury.
The metaphor resonated with me further, as I felt that Submit to Love studio was rather like an orange too – bursting with life, full of vibrancy, and holding together separate but connecting components. These are the themes I want to explore as I relate the stories of the members there with my own experiences. Connection and individuality are the key themes to Like an Orange.
Ink: How much of the project have you planned out so far? How do you intend to include the work from the artists you met at the studio?
WE: I have many drafts, a million notes, all the stories, and some works in progress involving three of the artists’ stories. The inclusion of work by the artists will differ with each person depending on their work and story. I gave an example above of how I will incorporate Tirzeh’s work as characters in her story, then there was Nick whose paintings of marching elephants will go into a strip about him marching with his troops, while others, like Stephen who paints abstract squares, his work will be the panels upon which I show the chats I had with him in the studio. Other ways… if someone has a very strong colour palette, that will dictate the colours for their story, while for somebody else I might see a connection between their artistic subject matters and their stories, and I would explore that. For example, one man painted bridges while being very focused on his future, and the barriers he faces.
Ink: Your previous comics have been autobiographical, particularly related to memories of your childhood. What is it like telling other people’s stories? What are the challenges of interpreting their memories, especially if they’d been affected by trauma?
WE: I touched earlier on how humbling and focusing it is to interpret somebody else’s story, and that remains an integral element to this process. However, given the collaborative nature of it, it feels more playful. Some of the material I was given is very sensitive, and even though I have written consent to use it, I will be sparing with anything that I feel may have been disclosed in the heat of a conversation – it could well be that they had forgotten why we were having it! There is a two-tier process too, in that each person who has their story represented will be asked to sign a second form of consent before anything goes to print.
I think most stories contain an element of trauma to varying degrees. With a brain injury this is very dramatic and specific, but the telling of it remains the same – to be clear at all times, whether this is my own memory or somebody elses, that this IS interpretation because memory is an interpretation. This is why the art form of comics is so good, as it can incorporate many angles, voices, and viewpoints to a story at once, allowing at least one to be explicit about this very fact without becoming sledgehammer or dull.
Ink: What are the specific skills needed to be an autobiographical comics artist? What makes this genre special, for you and for the industry in general?
WE: Apart from a discerning memory, I’d say the same as any other kind of comics artist – you need to know how to communicate a story. Even then, I wouldn’t say ‘skill’ or ‘know how’ really, I think it’s more about having a drive to get that story across and to enjoy how you do it – autobio or not.
For me autobio comics is a special genre because it enables me to process my experiences and quieten the din in my head! On a larger scale, I think the genre is special because when someone has a story to tell, it will often be because it’s one that hasn’t been told, or at least, told enough – their voices are crying out. Their story can then reach out to others who may relate, or raise awareness about that specific circumstance that the artist wants to communicate. It also offers nuance around big, unwieldy topics as a unique stamp is established.
Ink: How do you approach telling stories through comics? Have you had to adapt your style for this project?
WE: Oh it’s weird! Storytelling is as old as humans, it’s part of our make-up, it’s bedded in our psyche. So to some extent, it’s like some bizarre act of going inward and letting a story come out without thinking too much, but then to transfer that into a comic is a process of pure logic and even maths! Dividing space into numbers to get across a rhythm of boxes that are filled with lines to communicate actions to convey a meaning and ultimately share a feeling??!! It’s bonkers! I love it!
A lot of Like an Orange will be collaborative on the actual page, so indeed the way I work will have a different visual outcome to how it normally would as other artist’s imagery is incorporated into it somehow. This is what I find so exciting by the project and I can’t wait to see what it will look like!
This interview has been edited for clarity.