Toxic: Q&A with UTP Authors Amelia Fiske and Jonas Fischer

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Drawing on extensive research and fieldwork, Toxic takes the reader on a visual toxic tour through the Amazon. Read the full Q&A about the book with the authors Amelia Fiske and Jonas Fischer.

Tell us about when the idea for writing this book first came to fruition. Is there a story behind it? How did this topic get fleshed out? 

Amelia: I had been reading graphic novels and had this idea that I wanted to create one based on some of the stories from my research in Ecuador. During a research stay at the Rachel Carson Center at the Ludwigs Maximilian University in Munich, a conversation with Amy Moran Thomas gave me the spark I needed for this project. She recommended some books that had just come out of the ethnoGRAPHIC series, and from there I reached out to Anne Brackenbury (former editor of the series) to talk about the project. I had seen Jonas’ work documenting the field research of the archaeology department of the Christian Albrechts University while they were on a trip in Moldova, and sent him an email. Jonas was open to the idea, so we decided to begin with a pilot project to try it out. We settled on a shorter story (Toxic Inheritance), and this process of writing and drawing and editing helped us to work out our style and figure out what was feasible for the graphic novel. From there we took a trip to Ecuador in early 2020 with funding from an Applied Anthropology grant from the Wenner Gren Association. This trip was really essential for the project, as it allowed Jonas to meet Donald Moncayo– the protagonist of the book – and go on a toxic tour, as well as to share our Toxic Inheritance with people in the region as part of a graphic arts workshop, and to spend time in the area. After that we came back to Germany and began writing a script and drafting the art for the book.  

Tell us about the research and fieldwork process for this book. Was there something in your research that surprised you?

Amelia: The book is inspired by 27 months of ethnographic fieldwork that I conducted between 2011-2013 in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Throughout this time, I lived in Lago Agrio, the city that marks the site of the first wells drilled by the Texaco Company in Ecuador in the 1960s. I was struck by the ways that oil production and its effects were everywhere, and on the other hand, this kind of toxicity had become such a naturalized part of the landscape and everyday life. As a focus of my ethnographic fieldwork, I went on dozens of toxic tours with Donald, a local environmental activist who grew up near the oil fields of Lago Agrio. I was fascinated by the ways that the tours combined his own personal experiences witnessing the oil industry, together the activism and community organizing of local groups, and legal and technical facts in relation to the Aguinda v. Texaco lawsuit, to create this personal encounter for tour participants from all different backgrounds with contamination in the Amazon. 

How did you come up with and flesh out the participants/characters? How are they important to the story?

Amelia: The main character in the book is based on Donald, who kindly allowed me to tag along on dozens of his toxic tours. When I was conducting my fieldwork for this project, Donald’s two-year-old daughter Leonela also loved to accompany him on the trips. When I returned in 2020, I learned that she is now an activist in her own right: Leonela has led her friends and classmates in initiating a lawsuit against the state for the ongoing burning of gas from the flares in the region. With his permission, she is included in the story as a slightly older child. Her character is thus a fictional creation inspired by her accompaniment of her father’s tours and her own activism as she grew older. I have created the other characters based on people I met while conducting fieldwork; some of these characters are composites, some draw more heavily from the biographies of individuals and their recorded remarks during my fieldwork. All are ultimately fictional representations informed by ethnographic research. Taken together, I hope they offer the reader a range of perspectives on the problem of toxicity, and possibly give readers different ways of engaging with the text from their own relationships to the Amazon and life with oil.   

Toxic by Amelia Fiske and Jonas Fischer

Jonas: In our early conversations about Toxic we talked about different perspectives and about how Amelia’s work could be turned into a graphic novel story. At one point we discussed the idea of putting us as characters into the book, as we were trying to figure out how to tell this story in an engaging way. That would have probably pushed the narration towards more of an info-comic, which we wanted to avoid. We tried out different ideas, eventually landing in favour of a more fictionalized story based on her ethnographic research. We started crafting the different tour participants, looking at how they would react to certain events and information, how they would interact with each other, and also what perspectives they would bring to these issues through their different backgrounds that would allow us to talk about different aspects of oil extraction. The idea of the story is that the reader is one of the participants on the tour, taking on the position of the curious that learns about what life is like around Lago Agrio. This is also the mode of narration we felt was most appropriate for this piece, so that we’re not telling somebody’s story in their place. 

Many pages of the novel are spent on Donald talking to the participants or the participants talking to each other, often in the car. Sometimes, during these monologues or dialogues the drawings stay with the characters, sometimes they trail off and follow a stream that becomes a river, or they lift off and rise above the canopies of the rainforest, opening up to a panorama of endless forest with the occasional column of smoke from the gas flares. But often enough the images stay with the characters, showing them observing and listening to the story Donald is telling. To create interest amid these extended dialogs, we designed the characters to look very different in silhouette and gave them differently colored clothing so that there could be a lot of variation to the more static dialogue scenes. 

What was the most challenging aspect of this project?

Jonas: There were many challenges but one of the most fun ones was developing the visual style of the graphic novel. This was one of the challenges we gave ourselves the most time for. When we started, we incorporated some of the feedback we had received on the shorter piece, Toxic Inheritance, in which the palate was a bit too dark and didn’t do justice to the vibrant vegetation in the equatorial sunlight. Hence, some luscious bright colours found their way into our palate, contrasted with generous brush strokes of black ink.  

We definitely use colour to tell the story. There are moments where the colours are very impressionist and blend into the surreal: rendering foliage in purple, skies in bright yellows and water surface in pink and rose – eventually, for one of the heaviest parts of the book, the water turns into menacing oranges and blacks. These choices with the colour palette allowed for a lot more range in style and dynamic that the narration can profit from.  

I worked on Toxic during my Master’s Degree at Art School, so throughout most of the book I had regular meetings with Professor Markus Huber that shaped a lot of the decisions Amelia and I made. He was gentle in guiding us, and also helped us steering clear of many shoals. He was helpful in reminding us of certain visual leitmotifs that had found their way into the drawings, like the ever-present columns of smoke, so that we could be deliberate about when and how often they were used. 

What do you most hope readers will take away from your book? 

Amelia: I hope that readers of the book will find their own ways of connecting to this story, and to the problem of toxicity and socio-environmental injustice – whether in Ecuador or through a place close to them. I also hope that they will enjoy the story of strength and resistance that is captured in Jonas’s drawings of this wonderful place. 

Read an excerpt of Toxic: A Tour of the Ecuadorian Amazon by Amelia Fiske and Jonas Fischer, here.


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