For two decades, Alison Bechdel’s slice-of-gay-life comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For made her an icon in the queer community, and in 2006, her graphic memoir, Fun Home—detailing her complex relationship with her closeted father—brought her mainstream acclaim. Her latest, Are You My Mother: A Comic Drama, tackles the first woman in her life.
The first question I typically ask here is “How did you come to write the book?” But in this case, the book is really about you writing the book.
In a way, this story began in my early 20s, when I first started trying to write little memoir sketches about my relationship with my mom and then abandoned them until I revisited them with this book. My quest is to answer why my mother and I have this serious disconnect, and how can I try and reach it—bridge it! Ha. I get those words confused, interestingly.
How is it a different process to write something vaguely autobiographical—like Dykes—as opposed to writing memoirs?
I feel like all the years of Dykes was just kind of basic training for the skills I would need to do something more intensely personal. I really like using the archival material of my own life—I did that to a certain extent in Dykes, pulling from an archival selection of this subcultural life. But what really interests me are my own archives—childhood diaries, newspaper clippings, old photographs—this data I can find about my family.
The challenge of making a story out of that random collection of stuff is endlessly compelling to me.
How is it like interacting with your audience when so much of the subject matter is you?
It’s a strange experience, because I’m basically a pretty shy, reserved person. I’m not as compelled to express intimate details of my personal life in public, and I don’t quite know why I do that except … I’m just trying to connect with people and this is the only way I can really do it.
Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
Well, my mother comes from this generation where you weren’t supposed to talk about your private stuff, and I come from a generation where the personal is political. And I took that very much to heart, perhaps a little too much. I have proceeded to turn my personal life inside out in the hopes of finding larger significance, through my particular experience.
One line of yours from the book is “No one needs lesbian cartoons, we can see them on T.V.” How is your work different now that there are “lesbians on T.V.?”
I think it freed me up in some ways. I ended my comic strip three years ago, and it was a hard decision to make. I loved doing that comic strip, you know it was my passion for many years, but it felt like a sort of duty to do it. There was something sort of obligatory about it …
Nobody else was doing it.
Yeah. I didn’t consider myself an activist in the traditional sense, but this was something I could do—to further the cause of visibility and liberation and blah blah blah. But it’s nice to not have to do that.
I think stuff is really, really changing. Yes, there’s a long way to go, but it’s so much better than when I was young.
So, what’s after this?
I just sat down and had a conversation with my brother about this, but I want to write about the family as a whole, as a whole system, instead of just about my mother or just about my father. I’m still really interested in how a family works and what a family means. I’d love to keep writing about it.