5 years of Lissa and the ethnoGRAPHIC series

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“The book’s title ‘lissa’ – meaning ‘it is still the case’ but also ‘not yet’ – was a small gesture toward the idea of holding on to the hope and memories that animated the sea of revolutionary optimism that burst into Tahrir Square over a decade ago.” UTP author Sherine Hamdy wrote this blog post in honour of the 5 year anniversary of a book she co-authored called Lissa: A Story about Medical Promise, Friendship, and Revolution.

Five years ago, Lissa: A Story about Medical Promise, Friendship, and Revolution was published by the University of Toronto Press as the first book in the ethnoGRAPHIC series. Lissa was the first book-length graphic novel borne out of anthropological research and published by an academic press. It was the culmination of an experimental collaboration between anthropologists and illustrators to illuminate analytical points the authors wanted to make by juxtaposing two different ethnographic field sites. 

In creating Lissa, the authors, artists, and ethnographic filmmakers of the behind-the-scenes documentary (“The Making of Lissa”) traveled to Egypt in December 2015 to meet with medical students, feminist activists, first responders, comic artists, and others who took part in and witnessed the uprisings.

The team had excitedly been recounting plans for the story with colleagues at Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design and were consistently met with interest and enthusiasm. In contrast, when the Lissa team traveled to Egypt, people responded to their storyline with pained recognition. In a meeting with Cairo University medical students, for example, every one of them had known someone who suffered or died from kidney failure, and everyone had known someone either seriously injured or killed during the uprisings. It was perhaps too soon to be reminded of this pain that was experienced firsthand. At the same time, people in Egypt told the Lissa creators that these were important stories to tell, particularly for those outside of Egypt.

Now, young readers from Egypt are responding differently, demonstrating how the works we create and put out into the world resonate differently across different temporalities. Young readers now respond with curiosity and interest about a not-long-ago past that the regime has worked hard to actively erase from public consciousness. The team is currently working with the Sawaf Arab Comics Initiative at American University of Beirut to see the work translated into Arabic. 

The book’s title “lissa” – meaning “it is still the case” but also “not yet” – was a small gesture toward the idea of holding on to the hope and memories that animated the sea of revolutionary optimism that burst into Tahrir Square over a decade ago. The last page of Lissa, composed by the exiled graffiti artist Ganzeer, featured an image of Sanaa Seif, wearing a jacket bearing the words: “lissa-ha thawrat-yanayer” – meaning, “It is still the January Revolution,” calling its memory into being. 

Today Sanaa is still carrying forth that message. At the time of this post’s writing, the Egyptian government is hosting the United Nations Climate Change Conference known as COP27. The conference is being held in Sharm el-Sheikh, a tourist resort on the Red Sea, and is cut off from Egypt’s cities with heavily militarized security to prevent popular demonstrations against the lamentable human rights conditions.

Sanaa’s brother, Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, is still isolated in an Egyptian prison cell, despite international pressure calling for his release. He may have hours or days to live, having decided to go on a no-calorie no-water hunger strike. The more grim and probable reality is that in violation of human rights and dignity, the Egyptian prison officials are forcibly keeping him alive for as long as the international spotlight is on Egypt. His mother Leila Soueif and his sisters Mona and Sanaa are unwavering in their support and work toward his release. Meanwhile, Egyptian authorities are shielding themselves from high-level pressures for his release by citing trumped up “security” concerns. Indeed, as Lissa characters Anna and Layla express in the book, the battle is not yet over.

Since Lissa, a number of titles have come out in the ethnoGRAPHIC series, ranging from thoughtful meditations on how we find meaning in the world to detailed accounts of contemporary lives in Brazil, Thailand, and Ukraine. Books in the series represent different artistic styles, anthropological approaches, and methods of collaboration. But what they have in common is the powerful combination of social science research and graphic storytelling.

What started out as an experiment has now become an institution in the field. We have other exciting works in the pipeline, and we welcome new pitches and proposals! Proposal guidelines for the ethnoGRAPHIC series can be found here and queries can be directed to series editors Sherine Hamdy, Marc Parenteau, and Carli Hansen.


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