Joanna Whitehead discusses artistic technique, male violence and slut shaming with Una, author of the new graphic novel Becoming, Unbecoming
Content note: sexual abuse and exploitation
As a big fan of graphic novels, I was excited to learn of a new release by a Yorkshire woman with the pen name Una. Being of northern origin, I’m always interested in hearing the voices of woman – and men – from the north of the country, particularly as their voices often go unheard or overlooked in comparison to those from the south and, more specifically, the south-east. I’m delighted to report that the novel Becoming, Unbecoming is an absolute sensation: one of my favourites books of the year and, possibly, the best graphic novel I’ve ever read.
Becoming, Unbecoming describes Una’s experiences of sexual abuse and violence against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper’s campaign of terror, beginning in 1977, when Una was just 12-years-old. Throughout the book, Una relays her brave testimony and fight to endure in a culture that systematically blames and shames those affected by sexual abuse. Una also describes in uncompromising detail the disproportionate levels of violence that women continue to suffer at the hands of men and the misguided ideas that continue to persist regarding sexuality and abuse. Through images and text, Una questions what it means to grow up in a society where male violence goes unpunished and unquestioned.
I was fortunate enough to speak with Una by telephone about Becoming, Unbecoming earlier this month.
Firstly, I want to congratulate and thank you for such an insightful and remarkable book…I’m sure you’re hearing that a lot at the moment!
Thank you! That’s so nice of you. I’m trying not to let it go to my head [laughs]. It was actually really hard for me to tell how it was going to be when I made it – whether it was any good or not – so it’s bizarre, ’cause people really like it, so I think, “oh well – I can relax now!”
My 72-year-old mum even read it in a single sitting…
That’s really nice. Actually, quite a few people have bought it for their mums or aunts or grandmothers – I’ve been hearing that a lot and I think that’s amazing because I really wanted it to be for a broad audience. And it does seem like people who would never really pick up a graphic novel will give it a go.
Throughout the book, there’s a powerful recurring image of you carrying a large sack/speech bubble on your back…
The burden, the thing she’s carrying…
I think that image came quite early in the process. I think that’s one of the first doodles that I made. Before I started drawing it as a narrative, I was trying to just see what happened if I responded with drawings. That sounds a bit odd, but drawing without overthinking it, to see what images I would make if I just sat down, started drawing and thought about what had happened. Not trying to narrate it exactly, but to explore the shapes and forms within the feeling of what you might call the traumatic space that’s left when violence of any kind happens. I was pleased with this as an icon, as it’s literally an empty speech bubble that she’s carrying with her, so it signifies silence. Also, as you say, it’s like a sack or a burden on her back, so I liked it in that sense as well. I think it reminded me quite strongly of a book that I read when I was really young, which was a children’s version of the Pilgrim’s Progress and they had these weird burdens that kind of hung on to their backs all the way through the journey they undertook. The illustrations from that really struck me and stayed with me and I wondered if I was actually extracting something accidentally from this, because that’s what often happens when you make images – you tap into things that you’ve seen in your history.
Can you tell me a bit more about your creative and artistic process? I understand it took you a number of years to complete the book.
That’s related, really – I think of drawing as a way of thinking – and it’s a process that’s not different from thinking. Does that make sense? I don’t think about drawing and I don’t draw and then think – the drawing is the thinking; it’s all integrated. So, while my hand’s moving and making images or shapes, or sometimes it’s through materials, like ink or paper or a particular pen, or some kind of experiment that I’m doing – splashing things around or whatever; that’s when images come and, as I’m drawing, the words appear and sometimes, as I’m writing, the images appear. So, while I might be doing two separate actions, they’re very well integrated, although sometimes I might have to stop doing one of them to make the drawing or write the sentence before I forget it!
It took me seven years in total to complete the book from start to finish. But you have to remember that the first year, it wasn’t really a project yet – it was just something I kept doing when I was working on other projects. An idea would come to me and I’d think, “ooh, I’ll just draw that.” The first year’s work wasn’t wasted, but it didn’t end up in the text. The second year was spent mostly doing all of it wrong – I’d never done a graphic novel before and I didn’t know how to lay things out on the pages. I didn’t even know what kind of paper to use, how to get a decent scan, didn’t know whether to letter the drawings as I drew them or afterwards or on a separate layer… There were all these things that I had to go running round asking people. I had to go visit comics conventions and march up to people and say, “how do you do that? Where did you get that from? ” [Laughs.] And, they were incredibly helpful and gave me lots of tips and even some basic equipment. The comics community were incredibly helpful for the second year of the project. During the third, fourth, fifth and sixth years, that was when the work got done. It was more like four years, really, in earnest, but obviously I was fitting it around a job and a family. If I’d have been able to get a massive advance and just sit in a corner and do it, I think it would have taken considerably less time. I still think it would have taken a long time, as I was new to that kind of process. A lot of it got done several times. The whole thing got lettered at least four times, for example. Just getting the font right took about a year [laughs]! Next time, it’ll be a lot quicker because I really feel like I’ve learned how to do this now; I designed the book and did all the processes.
Graphic novels take a long time, so it’s still going to take a few years [Una’s next novel]. I have got the idea and image in my head of what it’s going to look like. I’m not telling you that, though [laughs]! Not that I’ve settled on anything – a particular style or a way or working – but all that’s happened is that I’ve become even more experimental in terms of visual approach. I’ve discovered the infinite variety that you can have within comics. I’m dismayed sometimes at how formulaic some comics really are. There’s nothing wrong with sticking to a formula if it works. Chris Ware, for example – I love his work. It’s incredibly repetitive and incredibly tightly framed and drawn and lettered, but that’s just his way and his language and what works for him. But I do wish that people would experiment a little bit more. There are so many interesting layers on a book’s page. You can do so much with framing or not framing, different voices coming from different directions and just playing with the layout…
What other kind of graphic novels do you like? Who’s inspired you?
I realised that I have actually always liked cartooning especially and I did try to do that when I was a young art student. I always thought it was something that other people did and kind of gave up. It took me such a long time to give it a go myself! When I was younger, I read all the usual suspects like Bunty and Twinkle and The Dandy, Whizzer and Chips and when I got older, I really got into Mad magazine, when it was good – because I am quite old! – but I wasn’t actually allowed to read it, so I had to buy it and read it in secret, because I think my parents thought it was inappropriate. Later on, I got really into Viz, which was also really inappropriate!
When I was an art student, I got really into Glen Baxter, a surrealist artist. Look him up; he’s really funny. And, also a friend of mine, Jacky Fleming, a cartoonist. When I was younger, I used to look at her cartoons and think, “I want to do that – I want to draw political feminist cartoons, but I don’t know how to do it!” And, now we’re cartooning buddies and she still lives in Leeds, so she’s been an inspiration. I really liked Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and that’s kind of what I had in mind when I started, something really monochrome. I really like Alison Bechdel‘s work, but that’s more to do with the content, but I do like the way Fun Home’s really muted and the relaxed drawing style.
The last 13 pages of the book were incredibly powerful. I find it unsettling and unusual that we seem to remember the names of the abusers and murders, but rarely the victims. Do you think there there’s a tendency to mythologise such men?
Oh, absolutely. I find it quite disturbing, actually. During the course of my research, I’ve looked at lots of other books and I find it really bizarre that so many authors – and they all seem to be male, with only one notable female exception – do seem to be a little bit obsessed. Even when they’re writing it from the perspective of horror at the awfulness of male violence, it’s still mostly that it’s a bit exciting. Not quite real, like a hypothetical thing, like a horror film, you know – being a bit scared at a safe distance. And, for millions and millions of women around the world, it’s not a hypothetical thing. It’s a real thing.
There are so many books dedicated to Peter Sutcliffe – websites, whole conspiracy theories. It’s all about him. But, if you try and find out anything about any of those women (the victims), it’s extremely difficult. They exist, basically, as 13 mugshots. If you Google it, you get a grid, with 13 mugshots of 13 women and, sometimes, they’re not even the right women on the grid.
The ending of the book came quite early in the process – I realised how I was going to have to end it. [Editor: I can’t say any more without spoiling the ending. You’ll have to buy it and find out for yourself.]
The main issue for me, I think, is that it [abuse] has to be ordinary-fied, if that’s a word. As long as it seems like a hypothetical thing – a mystical, exciting, horror film thing, no one will ever get to grips with what causes the misogyny that leads to male violence that’s caused by a kind of dehumanisation of women as people. It has to be seen as the ordinary, everyday thing that it is and it has to be seen as something that doesn’t just affect a few people that you read about in the paper, but millions and millions of women: the woman that’s sat next to you on the bus, your sister, your mother – all those people. There are millions of us all walking round, keeping it to ourselves.
It feels like something is shifting in the culture, because people are stopping keeping it to themselves, people are starting to talk about it, something’s happening digitally, something’s happening in the real world. Now’s the time for me; now’s the time. And, I know some older feminists have said to me, “Ah, we’ve been saying that for years! Don’t be so optimistic!” But, I do feel optimistic!
“If you’re female and someone wants to show you how much they hate you, you’re likely to be called a slut or something similar and there’s really only one line of defence: I’m not a slut. It’s a defence that only makes it harder for others to defend themselves.” Your book is full of feminist insights and comments on the patriarchal world we live in. Would you identify as a feminist?
Absolutely, yeah. I think I always have done, even when I was much younger. When I was very young, as a child, I think I could have really used feminism. I didn’t know what it was, nobody ever presented it to me and I wished they had, because I think it could have saved me from quite a lot of shit, actually.
As a young woman in my 20s, I would have said that I was a feminist. I’m not entirely sure I would have understood what it meant. Since then, you start talking to people, reading things, reading all the iconic feminist texts. In the UK, I think we have to go right back to Mary Wollstonecraft. I think there’s no point trying to get a grasp of feminism unless you’re prepared to look at the history of what women have said about women’s situations. Reading really broadly, studying, talking, thinking about the differences between the theory and the grass roots activism, how they work together, as a practice. To me, feminism or feminisms – because I think there are many kinds of feminisms – is a practice; it’s a practical application of a particular set of ideas and I think that feminism is for everyone. I think that the world’s a better place with a multiplicity of voices and that’s what feminism means to me. It’s a kind of everybody talking at once [laughs], but making sure that everyone is listening. I think that men stand to benefit from this just as much as women.
That’s a really nice way to describe it. It can sometimes be quite tricky to define!
Well, actually, there is an essay that talks about that! It’s by Elsa Barkley Brown – you should look it up! It’s about African-American women’s quilting. It talks about everybody talking at once.
In the book, you also state: “There are violent women too, but pretending there’s some sort of balance is absurd! Recent statistics in the UK show that males make up around 98% of perpetrators of sexual offences, while, of homicide suspects, charged in the year 2011 to 2012, and relating to a total of 547 homicides – 210 were male and 25 were female. If we were to aim for some sort of equality, reducing the level of male violence to match the female one would be a major improvement.”
I’ve no idea why people don’t think of it like that!
Yours is the first book I’ve read that explicitly acknowledges this disparity between male and female violence. I feel this is a tremendous issue that is just not currently being discussed in the public domain. I often wonder why this isn’t on the front page of every paper…
Well, it kind of is – it’s just not named as such. It’s on the front page: “Oh, they were a lovely family.” “He seemed really nice”. “He was a great father”.
I think it does need naming as male violence and men don’t need to fear anything from that. I think there are many males who are just [as] appalled at the behaviour of certain men as we are. No one has anything to fear by naming it as male violence – that’s what it is. Instead of all the “what about x, y, z – what about all the violent women?!”; what about reducing the level of male violence to the level of female violence? Look what an improvement that would be. I’ve no idea why people find this so difficult to grasp. There’s another line I liked which is “why is it so hard to grasp that violent men cause misery in times of peace and times of war?” Because they really do. When you’re watching the news, those people running up and down the street with machetes – they’re all male!
It’s really screwed up.
It is really screwed up! It is a gendered thing. It’s a shame for them. I don’t think violence is ever the answer, for anything.
There have been some really decent conversations about it but, typically, because it’s mainly feminists that are doing it, talking, everybody has ignored them! However, these days, especially because of the internet and websites like The F-Word – all these ways of disseminating ideas – they’re suddenly open to everyone. And, that has its problems as well. But, I think it’s a great time for feminists. I get so excited when I meet really young girls who claim to be feminists – I think that’s great. I don’t think I’d have felt very confident about proclaiming that when I was 16 or 17. There’s that girl called June Eric-Udori – I think she’s only 17. She’s so articulate. Oh my goodness! I wish I’d been like that. I am now! It just took me a while to get there!
At 14 years old, you were sent to see a psychiatrist. Your father had told you that you were sick, “… but it didn’t seem like other sicknesses I’d had – this made people really angry. Everyone was in agreement… there was a problem and it was located in me.” I appreciate that it might be hard to reflect on this with anything other than anger or bitterness or sadness, but to what extent do you think the systematic lack of awareness and understanding you seemed to face was a consequence of the era?
1970s? Yep – I would like to think that much of that has been left behind. I would cautiously say that things have improved. However, then you get stories like Rochdale and Rotherham and Oxford. And, you think – are there pockets of resistance or something? It’s easy if all the people you know and hang around with are fairly free thinking – it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security. I still think it’s a big problem. I think girls are still blamed for the things that men do and I think that men still think that’s what girls are for and that they can get away with it. Increasingly, as the justice system catches up and tries to be more effective, men are starting to get the message that they can’t get away with it. I think that justice is one answer and, also, some sort of cultural shift so that people don’t point at the girl and say “look – that’s where the problem is.” And, that’s about education, writing books, journalism, talking to people in schools and in public.
As your book is set in the backdrop of the Ripper murders and the role the press played in reinforcing these ideas of blaming and shaming women and the “right kind of victim”, I wonder how much of a role you think the press and media have in terms of challenging and changing myths regarding sexual and violent abuse?
I think the print media, the press, should take it much more seriously than they currently do. Obviously, the usual tabloid newspapers that thrive on sensationalism are usually the culprits in perpetuating the myths. Certainly, during the Ripper hunt, the message was very clear: there was a group of women that it was OK to want to kill. It was perfectly reasonable to want to kill this particular group of women. I don’t know if you remember, but during the Ipswich murders, the press began by referring to him [Steve Wright] as a “prostitute killer” and the women as “just prostitutes”, until feminists raised their heads and their hands and said, “Um, hang on a minute. Do you remember all those conversations we had about the Ripper?” And, they very quickly changed the tone of their arguments. But they did need reminding. And I think that’s quite shocking. They did respond, however, and that’s the difference. During the 1970s, they’d have just laughed, whereas they don’t now. People do know, but they do need reminding. And, they have a lot of power. So, I suppose it’s up to people like you to remind them.
If you had one message for government regarding sexual violence and abuse, what would it be?
I think it would be to stop cutting funds and services. It must cost them more in the long run. We need better women’s services and funding, essentially.
Becoming, Unbecoming is available to buy now and published by Myriad Editions.
The five pieces of artwork are images from Una’s book. The first image shows a woman holding her arms above her head, eyes averted. She is white and is surrounded by blackness.
The second image is a white long-sleeved t-shirt and blue jeans with folding tabs that can be attached to a model, plus some black shoes. The text reads, “Jeans (n): hard-wearing casual trousers made of denim or other cotton fabric”. A speech bubble reads, “It was the seventies, so they would have been flared. I used to find the button too stiff.” A text box reads, “It’d be a lot easier next time if you wore a skirt.” A speech bubble follows this which reads, “Yes, that is actually what he said.”
The third image is a birds-eye view of a woman in a rowing boat, holding two oars, with her face concealed, in a sea of numbers. The text at the top of this image reads, “Then there is the ocean of sexual crime that goes unreported.” Text in the boat reads, “In 2012…two most common reasons given for not reporting the most serious sexual assaults were…embarrassment and thinking police can’t do much to help.” The text at the bottom of the image reads, “Of course, if you don’t report it, you don’t count, but it doesn’t seem you count much more if you do.”
The fourth image shows boxes containing police officers, judges, someone sitting at a computer, people pointing video cameras, someone being interviewed and surrounded by cameras, flash bulb images and microphones and, finally, a large scale with the word ‘slut’ in big letters weighing down one side, while a small girl is curled in the other side of the scale. The text accompanying the image reads, “There’s no doubt we need a reliable system of justice, but we can’t blame the justice system for the things it thinks and does, if it just thinks and does the same things as everyone else. Those are people, behind the uniforms and robes, and when they manage to bring a case to court, twelve people, people like you and I, chosen at random, get the last word. And the words and images we use…are all part of the same landscape. Change takes time, I hear you say. We’ve had a few thousand years. How much longer before we are rid of this dead weight?”.
The fifth and final image shows a theatrical representation of a woman swooning (a heroine) and another woman with a superwoman style cape on flexing her biceps (a hero). Below them, is an image of planet earth with lots and lots of empty speech bubbles coming out of it. The text accompanying the image reads, “So much daily bravery in the world and yet…how would we know? It goes unsaid. Imagine the volume, were we to hear the sound of all those voices at once. We have to listen for them…otherwise we are united only by silence.”