Sunday, February 19, 2012

Looking at Alabama via the Darkroom

Set predominantly in Marion, Alabama during the Civil Rights era, the graphic novel Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White juxtaposes Argentinian immigrant Lila Quintero's cultural outsider status as the adolescent daughter of the only Latino family in town with those of African Americans during some of the darkest days in Alabama history. Through a series of vignettes, readers follow Lila and her siblings' struggles to marry their new American identities with the cultural traditions and dreams of her South American family. Her "foreign" status in the racially charged black, white South provides her with an outside vantage point but also makes her the object of suspicion. Lila leads her young adult audience on a roller coaster of adolescent experiences ranging from to her naïveté about the caustic racism around her to being the target of racist remarks to debasement by the very people she tries to befriend. In the final chapter, she eludes to her new journey as an adult into the racism prevalent in her homeland of Argentina. While the author-illustrator examines important historical events during her adolescent years, the narrative works best when considered separately rather than collectively. At times, the vignettes are not in chronological order which leads to confusion on part of the reader. Some chapters are stronger than others and, personally, I would've preferred a more dramatic (and less detached) telling. Nonetheless, the artwork is visually stunning, far superseding my expectations for a small university press. The black and white illustrations are emotionally arresting and filled with small details that extend gaps in the storytelling. Weaver's talent is most observable in her ability to portray an arrange of emotions and situations with a vividness that places the reader within the time period. Considering the current political climate towards Latinos in Alabama, I would love to see her take on the new Juan Crow laws and compare those with the Jim Crow ones that she experienced first hand as a young adult. Undoubtedly, her Darkroom will spark important classroom discussions and like all important books will be met with its share of criticisms for her use of graphic, true-to-life language and images present in the 1960s. Recommended for public library collections.