- Drawing the Archive in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home
Placing Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home alongside other graphic narratives, most notably Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1993) and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2003) , that explore intergenerational trauma and the role of the child as witness, seems both obvious and potentially inappropriate, even presumptuous.1 In writing about the Holocaust and the Islamic Revolution in Iran, respectively, Spiegelman and Satrapi take on histories that have been formative for global politics in the past century. In Fun Home, by contrast, there is no mass genocide or the same obvious connection to political debate, and the single death, that of Bechdel’s father, someone who might be categorized (however problematically) as a pedophile, suicide, or closet homosexual, raises the possibility that there are some lives that are not “grievable,” certainly not in a public context (Butler 2004, 20).
But a queer, even perverse, sensibility not unlike Bechdel’s draws me to idiosyncratic or shameful family stories and their incommensurate relation to global politics and historical trauma. I want to risk inappropriate claims for the significance of Bechdel’s story, to read it in the context not just of Maus and Persepolis but also efforts to redefine the connections between memory and history, private experience and public life, and individual loss and collective trauma. Fun Home confirms my commitment (in An Archive of Feelings ) to queer perspectives on trauma that challenge the relation between the catastrophic and the everyday and that make public space for lives whose very ordinariness makes them historically meaningful. And although Fun Home’s critical and popular success obviously provides many entry points for readers (and warrants its sustained attention in this issue of WSQ), Bechdel’s narrative of family life with a father who is attracted to adolescent boys has particular meaning for me because it provides a welcome alternative to public discourses about LGBTQ politics that are increasingly homonormative and dedicated to family values. [End Page 111]
I write more as a specialist in queer studies than as one in graphic narrative, but I hope nonetheless to articulate how Bechdel uses this insurgent genre to provide a queer perspective that is missing from public discourse about both historical trauma and sexual politics. The recent success of graphic narrative, a hybrid or mixed-media genre, and also a relatively new and experimental one, within mainstream literary public spheres suggests that providing witness to intimate life puts pressure on standard genres and modes of public discourse. I seek to juxtapose Fun Home with other prominent graphic memoirs such as Maus and Persepolis to show how its queer sensibility extends their treatment of the relation between individual and historical experience, so central to second-generation witness, especially through a more pronounced focus on sexuality. But I also want to situate Fun Home as part of other insurgent genres of queer culture, such as memoir, solo performance, women’s music, and autoethnographic documentary film and video, including the traditions of lesbian feminist culture within which Bechdel’s long-running Dykes to Watch Out For comic strip circulates. Standing at the intersections of both contemporary LGBTQ culture and public discussions of historical trauma, Fun Home dares to claim historical significance and public space not only for a lesbian coming-out story but also for one that is tied to what some might see as shameful sexual histories.
Dori Laub’s claim, in the context of Holocaust testimony, that trauma is an “event without a witness” (in part because the epistemic crisis of trauma is such that even the survivor is not fully present for the event) takes on a different resonance in Bechdel’s story about her father, who was run over by a truck while crossing the highway outside the house he was restoring (Felman and Laub 1991, 80).2 In a literal sense, his death is an event without a witness (other than the truck driver, who thinks that her father might have jumped back into the road); and Bechdel and her mother’s hunch that it is a suicide, or somehow connected to his complex sexual history, is ultimately only speculation. While the moment of...