Drawing the Dust Bowl: An Interview with SPX Program Speaker Aimee de Jongh

Days of Sand, Aimée de Jongh. SelfMadeHero, London, 2022.

The following is an interview conducted by Sara W. Duke, Curator, Popular & Applied Graphic Art, in the Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress with award-winning, Dutch author and artist Aimée de Jongh. Ms. de Jongh will be the speaker for the Library’s 8th Annual Small Press Expo (SPX) Author Series, September 16, 2022, LJ 119 or on Zoom, 12 p.m. EST, discussing the creation of Days of Sand, her latest graphic novel about the American Dust Bowl. The Small Press Expo collections can be found in the Library’s Newspaper and Current Periodical Reading Room.

Sara W. Duke (SWD): Having grown up with the Migrant Mother image and learning about the Dust Bowl in school, and listening to the songs of Woody Guthrie, especially Do Re Mi, I’m wondering how familiar the topic is to European audiences? (Which reminds me that I should ask my own son, now 21, how familiar he is.)

Headshot of a smiling woman with dark hair looking at the camera.

Portrait, Aimée de Jongh, provided by SelfMadeHero, 2022.

Aimée de Jongh (AdJ): It might not surprise you that the European audiences are not familiar at all with the history of the Dust Bowl. In my own school days we learned about Europe in the 1930s, the rise of the Nazi-party and the impending Second World War. And this is a good thing. We need to know how that fascist regime came about, and in many ways it’s more important than ever. But unfortunately, it doesn’t leave much room in the curriculum to educate kids about other continents. The Great Depression was only briefly mentioned. One of the things European journalists keep mentioning about Days of Sand is: “It’s a history I knew nothing about.” I’m glad the book is informative and educational in that way.

SWD: What attracted you to write a graphic novel based on the American Dust Bowl?

AdJ: I have to admit I stumbled across the subject by accident. While browsing the web for historical photographs in 2015, I found some of those stunning FSA [Farm Security Administration] photos of the Dust Bowl region, with big black clouds in the air and tiny farmhouses being destroyed by wind. I really knew nothing about it, and it intrigued me. When I came across an exhibition of Walker Evans in the Centre Pompidou in Paris two years later, it all came together. This visit inspired me to make a graphic novel about photography, placed in the Dust Bowl. I was surprised there wasn’t any graphic novel about the subject yet. With every new article, film and book I read about the subject (including The Grapes of Wrath and the amazing Ken Burns documentary on the subject), I got more convinced that this was a story worth telling.

Illustration of a sandy landscape with the small figure of a man standing next to a large camera, taking a picture of a dead horse.

Image from Days of Sand, Aimée de Jongh, provided by publisher.

SWD: There is a growing literature here in the United States about FSA photographers meant for children and teenagers. Were you aware of the literature when you chose to make a fictional photographer your central character?

AdJ: No, I wasn’t aware of the literature! But I’m glad to hear that children and teenagers are learning about the history and work of these incredible artists. For my research, I mostly used the Library of Congress immense online archive to find FSA photographs. I wanted to use a photograph with the start of every new chapter in the book. That way, the book becomes more of a mix between photography, history and graphic novel. One of the books that really helped me choose the right pictures was a Taschen collection of New Deal Photography, with a large selection of FSA photographs. I started putting sticky notes on the photographs that I wanted to use, but they were all so wonderful, that in the end I had put a note on nearly every other page. When I read Days of Sand now, I still wonder if I made the right selection. There are just so many stunning works that I couldn’t include.

A black and white photograph of farm buildings in the distance with a cloud of dust several times taller than the buildings coming in behind them.

Dust storm. Baca County, Colorado. D. L. Kernodle, U.S. Farm Security Administration, 1936. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

SWD: Were the families featured in your novel based on those photographed by the FSA photographers or did you do other research to create your setting? I could see from your endnotes that you visited an impressive number of places, including the Prints & Photographs Division of the Library of Congress. My colleague, Barbara Natanson, who assisted you, has since retired from the Library.

AdJ: Visually, all the characters in the book are based on FSA photographs. For photo aficionados, it might be a fun game to find out which ones. You might recognize the face of the Migrant Mother at some point in the book. And the cleaning lady of the FSA Office is Ella Watson, portrayed in Gordon Parks’ famous photo American Gothic (and truly a cleaning lady in the FSA office). The character’s stories were based on interviews, diaries and letters from Dust Bowl inhabitants, like Caroline Henderson. And for further research, I drove the whole migrant route in 2019. From the heart of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma to Bakersfield, where many Dust Bowl refugees ended up. On the way, I talked to historians, archivists and ecologists about the Dust Bowl history.

I didn’t know Barbara had retired! She was really helpful in my research. She introduced me to an academic paper about black representation in FSA photographs. When people think of Dust Bowl farm families, they imagine them white, even though black families were living there just as well. I wondered if that was because of discrimination within the FSA photographs, which shaped the view of the Great Depression for a large part. This academic paper researched these very claims, and it turned out it wasn’t really the case. Dorothea Lange, especially, photographed many people of color. Perhaps this idea of “white Dust Bowl families” just exists because the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath was white… Either way, through this, I got inspired to include the topic of segregation in the book. It’s an example of how research can shape the final work, and I’m still grateful to Barbara for that.

SWD: It’s hard for me to tell – what is your process – is it hand drawn or do you use a computer to create your images? I assume you use a computer to color.

AdJ: All of the book is drawn on a computer. I work in Photoshop and I draw the lines and colors on a tablet. There are watercolor textures, to make the pages look as if they’re traditionally painted. This is because I despise the clean and soulless digital look that many comic books have these days. And the traditional watercolor-look works well on a book about a historical period, I think.

Two illustrations done in purple tones. The top is of a windmill, the bottom is of a house surrounded by sand.

Panels from Days of Sand, Aimée de Jongh, provided by publisher.

SWD: I know you wrote this book several years ago – the process for creating graphic novels takes a long time. But considering the heat wave and drought Europe is undergoing this summer, I want to ask did you have the current climate change in your mind as a metaphor for your book? You weren’t entirely explicit, except to make it clear that the Dust Bowl was manmade.

AdJ: I didn’t want to make a “climate book”, because I was afraid it would scare people away. In Europe, people read comic books for entertainment mostly, not for getting lectured on the climate crisis! So pretty early on, I decided to not explicitly mention the parallels between the climate change in the thirties and the climate change now. I was convinced that the readers are smart enough to feel and see it. And this turns out to be true: in reviews, it’s one of the things that pops up the most. I’m glad it worked out that way.

Illustration of a man standing in a dust storm, the air is orange and the sun is red in the darkened sky.

Image from Days of Sand, Aimée de Jongh, provided by publisher.

SWD: In the United States, some comic strip artists, including Bill Griffith, creator of Zippy the Pinhead, have started to publish graphic novels as the newspaper industry declines. Did you feel that same pressure in giving up “Snippers,” or did you already prefer long-format storytelling?

AdJ: I was always intrigued by long-format storytelling, but for a long time there weren’t many places to go. Only when I found a publisher who wanted to take a chance with me in 2014, I could start that journey. These days, it’s much easier. In Europe, graphic novels are kind of a hype. I get emails every week from individuals, companies or museums who ask me to create a graphic novel about a certain subject, it’s crazy. And even this week Dupuis, one of the biggest publishers in Belgium, announced they are setting up two new graphic novel labels. Perhaps it’s a safer choice for artists indeed, because it’s true newspaper sales are declining.

I got involved with SPX after being invited to the festival in 2016. In that year, my debut graphic novel was released with Selfmadehero. It was an experience I’ll never forget. For the first time I felt at home at a comic festival. And trust me, I’ve been to many! So every year I get a chance to visit SPX, I come, and it feels exactly the same: like coming home. I missed it immensely during the pandemic, so I’m happy to return this year and celebrate comics again.

Be sure to catch Aimée as she tells us more about her Eisner Award Nominated graphic novel, Days of Sand, at the 8th Annual SPX Author Series on Friday, September 16, 2022, at 12 p.m. EST, in person or through Zoom. You can also see her the next day at the Small Press Expo at the panel discussion “All Writing is Autobiographical: What Writing Graphic Biographies Reveals About the Author.”

Learn more about Aimée de Jongh and the Small Press Expo (SPX) collections at the Library:

Days of Sand, SelfMadeHero.com.

http://aimeedejongh.com/home.html

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