How did I cope when my world turned upside down? I used to find solutions to all my problems at the bookstore. Ever since I started reading, books always saved me. They took me out of my circumstances, gave me answers with advice or by example for whatever ailed me. But after my husband Eddie died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, nothing was the same.
Waddling down the self-help aisle, newly widowed and 7-1/2 months pregnant, I was unable to find anything to ease my pain and offer me guidance. Specifically, I wanted to know what was this grief that now filled me? And what was this life I was now leading, so debilitated by this grief?
But even if I had found what I needed during that awful fall of 2001, I wouldn’t have been able to read it. In those days, I couldn’t focus: my mind was too scattered and busy trying to comprehend my tragic personal circumstances within such an enormous public trauma. It took me a month before I could read more than a couple sentences, and many more before I could get through an entire book.
When I finally wrote about my experiences in American Widow, it was those early post-9/11 days of bewilderment, fear, pain, and loneliness, along with the glimmers of hope of healing in the distance, I most wanted to explore and share. I especially wanted my book to be accessible to someone like me in 2001, illiterate yet searching desperately for answers in a bookstore. That’s how my book ended up being a graphic novel.
By creating American Widow as a graphic novel, I rendered my experience much more accurately with images (and brief text) than I ever could have done with a book in just prose. There are parts of the book where nothing much happens, Sungyoon Choi’s simple and quiet artwork emphasizes exactly how it was: endless days overwhelmed by oppressive stillness and solitude. Those panels and pages stand in sharp contrast with other panels that manifest my interior world, happy and vibrant memories of my life with Eddie along with his stories of life growing up in Colombia, and his adventures arriving here as an undocumented immigrant.
Every now and then a person with a quiet voice will approach me after I speak somewhere about my book. The person always waits until everyone else has gone. It’s only then, an awkward “thank you” will tumble out and then an explanation of how the book helped her/him through. It is then that I feel like I’m a true author and that I’ve found the resilience of a true survivor. We stand together, share more of our personal histories. We feel connected and supported by each other, and then we go our separate ways to do the best we can with our lives.
Recommended Reading – Some of the Books that Helped Me Through:
Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
Imre Kertesz, Fatelessness
Jamaica Kincaid, Autobiography of My Mother
Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter (the entire series)
Alice Sebold, Lucky