Interview with Rutu Modan - Aviva - Berlin Online Magazin und Informationsportal für Frauen Interviews im April 2024 - Beitrag vom 06.08.2013

Interview with Rutu Modan
Madeleine Jeschke

The Israeli graphic novelist and illustrator just published the German edition of her recent book "The Property", about the joint trip of a grandmother and granddaughter to Poland. The initial…

... purpose for their visit changes with the upcoming of long suppressed secrets from the past. In an interview with AVIVA-Berlin Rutu Modan talks about her art and the development and of the book, which partly has a biographical background.

AVIVA-Berlin: You are drawing since you were five years old, but you didn´t have an artistic background, both of your parents are scientists, your father is a cancer researcher, mother an epidemiologist. How did you first become interested in comics and what fascinates you about this form of expression?
Rutu Modan: I was always drawing and writing stories from a very early age, but I didn´t call it comics, because there weren´t so many comics in Israel at the time, there was no "Tintin" or "Superman" published in Hebrew. There were some comic strips in children magazines, but not regularly. I didn´t know it was a separate art form. As a child, it was very natural for me to tell stories by drawing. When I grew up, I liked reading and picture books, but I wasn´t so much interested in comics, as a girl, I wasn´t interested in Superman and heroes. It was only in my twenties, when I went to art school. One of my teachers was from Belgium, so he grew up with "Tintin" and knew a lot about comics. He brought a lot of different kinds of comics to class, American comics, mainstream and also alternative and underground comics. I then found out that it was possible to tell any story that I like in a comic. It was almost like falling in love for the first time. It took an hour and I knew this is exactly what I want to do.

AVIVA-Berlin:The styles of your illustrations have a very realistic look. For many journalists they are reminiscent of Hergé´s "Tintin". Does this comparison bother you? How would you describe your personal style?
Rutu Modan: My style developed little by little - there were many influences, not necessary only Hergé. In the beginning, I was more influenced by alternative und underground American comics like Art Spiegelman´s. My style was much more grotesque, my stories were also not so realistic, but parodies. I became better in drawing, because I drew so much. I also became more interested in writing realistic stories. I´m influenced by Hergé, but as direct as it may seems – it is more by his storytelling more then by his drawing.

AVIVA-Berlin:Like your first graphic novel "Exit Wounds", "The Property" has a cinematic appearance. This time you invited actors and actresses to your home to stage scenes from the story. How did this idea come about and which effect were you hoping to achieve?
Rutu Modan: I stared using models in previous projects, especially in "Exit Wounds", for body postures, but just my husband and friends. In comics everything is told through the character and I wanted each character to have his/her own way of moving in the world. Then I did a small project of comics for the New York Times and I again asked a friend of mine to model for me. She was a professional actress, I knew exactly what I wanted, still she managed to make it much more interesting and funny. There, I discovered what it is like to work with actors. They have this ability to become the person, there is much more imagination, they know how to invent a person with his/her gestures and mimic. Then in "The Property" I had the idea to only work with actors, I didn´t exactly knew what would come out of it. I had a storyboard for the whole book and each actor had his/her own part. It was very interesting to have ideas in my head and then to see, how someone else is understanding and expressing them.

AVIVA-Berlin: I read you used your own family history as an inspiration for "The Property". Like the main character Regina Segal, your own grandmother emigrated from Poland to Palestine. Could you tell us how you developed her character and how much of your own grandmother´s personality is in Regina?
Rutu Modan: The story is fiction, but the character of Regina is based heavily on my grandmother. She was also born in Poland, came to Israel before the war, and she was a little bit older and already married. Actually both of my grandmothers emigrated from Poland, one of them had already kids - my father was born in Poland. The way they talk, the way they dress and did their hair, and their dignity is shown in Regina´s character, but also irritating things they had, like stubbornness. But a lot of things I had to invent and I tried to think about my grandmothers - for the first time, maybe - not as grandmothers, but as women, as someone I can identify with. I think I was trying to know them. Unfortunately they were both dead when I wrote the book.

AVIVA-Berlin: You worked for almost three years on your new graphic novel and also did extensive research on Poland and you also went to Warsaw. Could you please tell us about your impressions and experiences during your research in Poland?
Rutu Modan: The strange thing was that, when I started writing the book, I understood that I have no idea about Warsaw or Poland. All I knew was the war. My grandmothers never spoke about Poland, they never wanted to go back. My grandmother used to say "Poland is just one big cemetery." I was also not interested in going there. I was born in Israel and I didn´t think about my roots. I knew about Poland less then I know about any other country. Therefore, I decided to go there for a visit. I didn´t even have an image in my head how this country looks like. I thought it is a very rare opportunity, in our time, to go to a place and don´t anything about what it is going to be like. The only thing I did in advance was to ask people, where I should go. I tried to make some appointments with Polish people, because I wanted to know about Poland during the war, not just through the memory of the Jews. I wanted to know what it was like from a different perspective.

AVIVA-Berlin:There is an absence of traumatic flashbacks and a lack of Polish anti-Semitism in the graphic novel. The Holocaust is mostly addressed through forms of memorialization, by Poles and Israelis, which are often presented in a humorous, sometimes satirical way. What did you want to achieve by not showing?
Rutu Modan: I didn´t experience any anti-Semitism when I went to Warsaw, but I do know it exists. When the book was published in Poland there were anti-Semitic reactions, but I didn´t see it when I was there. However, it´s not only about them, it is also about the Israeli site and the way they refer and talk about the Polish. Even before I started writing I knew it´s not going to be a story about the Holocaust. I also didn´t want to make Regina a survivor of the Holocaust, because I didn´t want to make her a victim. I don´t think this is good for the main character, because then you cannot touch it. I was always interested in the generation of my grandparents. They were people whose lives were turned upside down by history, who didn´t live the life they were supposed to. My grandmothers lost their families, their homelands and properties.
I didn´t use the Holocaust, because I didn´t want it to be banal. What I wanted to explore more was the subject of memory. The Holocaust is in the background and a tool to express these ideas, about what we are doing with memories, how we remember past, the dead, or terrible things. Everyone, except for the young protagonists in the book, is dealing with the past, trying to go back in time, or to correct the past.
AVIVA-Berlin: In the "Property", Mica falls in love with Tomasz, a young Pole who himself is a graphic novelist and also a tour guide through the Warsaw Ghetto. He can be seen as a key figure in the text. In another Interview you said "he is me". Do you see yourself as a tour guide through history?
Rutu Modan: I wanted a young man in the story and Mica to have a short love affair in Poland to make the story more interesting and to make her life more interesting. When you invent a character you have to give him a profession, so I said: he is going to be a comic artist. In the beginning I didn´t know the whole story, but I developed it in a way that in the end he represents my point of view - the way I was. Many times in the research I went to talk to people, to old people. I interviewed them and asked them about Poland and their lives and childhood and I asked my family about my grandmother. And in the back of your mind you feel in a way like you´re using people. You are interested in what they have to tell you, but in the end you are taking their stories, thinking: "Is this funny, is this interesting?" Even if they know that you are using it in the story you feel like you are not completely honest, but you feel a bit like a vampire.

AVIVA-Berlin: In how far did you try to come to terms with your own family´s history through the story of "The Property"?
Rutu Modan: I didn´t have so much trouble with my family story, but still I think yes. I love them more now. I am more tolerant to their irritating behavior and why they are so angry. Now I feel more close to them.

AVIVA-Berlin: The cover of the "The Property" shows a cemetery in Warsaw at Zaduszki (the Polish All Souls Day), which is also where the last scene of the book takes place. What were your reasons for letting the final scene play at a Catholic and not a Jewish cemetery?
Rutu Modan: I like cemeteries very much and I go to cemeteries all the time. I am always very emotional and I like to read what is written in the stones. I think it´s the theme of death and memory, which is very present in my work. Maybe it is because both of my parents died quite early. Even before that I was interested in the subject. This is nothing very original many people are interested in it.

AVIVA-Berlin: "The Property" like in "Exit Wounds" you interweave topics which are difficult to access within a smaller frame of personal experience. Do you also believe that by choosing a certain perspective it might be easier to reveal the more complex of life in all its facets?
Rutu Modan: It is very difficult to identify with a million people, it is easier to identify with one personal story and it is also very difficult to know what is true. I am very interested in the truth and in the true experience. When you are looking through a very small pin whole just at that one person, just that one family or one event and through this you are able to see a bigger picture, maybe not the whole picture, but you see one part of the picture very clearly. This is what I am able to do.

AVIVA-Berlin: Could you tell us something about your next project? Is it also going to be inspired by your family´s history?
Rutu Modan: There is a children´s book going to be published in Germany. It is already published in Israel. "The Property" is a very big project, from all aspects and tiring for my family as well, because I was very occupied for a long time. Now I am taking a break. I am doing a short project, a small comic book for very young children. A friend of mine, Yimri Pinkus (Actus Tragicus), found an Israeli comic strip from the 1930s published in a children´s magazine from the time before Israel was Israel. It was written by a very famous poet, Lea Goldberg. We are drawing these comics in our own style again and going to publish them in a very small book for kids, next winter.

AVIVA-Berlin: Thank you very much!

Please also read the AVIVA-Berlin review on "The Property"

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Beitrag vom 06.08.2013