November 30, 2016

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Pounding the Journalistic Pavement with Sarah Glidden in Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq



Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq

Written and Drawn by Sarah Glidden
Published by Drawn & Quarterly

If there’s any one thing we can take away from Sarah Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq, it’s that time keeps on marching on and our stories and histories continue to change. Her newest book chronicles a trip to those three countries in 2010 where she and a small band of journalists wanted to report on Iraqi refugees and their lives. Back then, a large number of displaced Iraqis found refuge in Syria. And now in 2016 Syria is torn apart by war and people are fleeing that country to find refuge elsewhere, including in the United States. The situation in Syria has changed so much that Glidden addresses the march of history and wonders if her story is even relevant after recent events. But just because situations and politics change, the stories of these refugees and, indeed, all refugees becomes even more important. The stories she tells in this book aren’t just a history of 2010 but an important exploration of the ever-growing issues of refugees that are more and more part of our world.

Glidden asks herself and her readers “what is journalism?” in the opening pages of the book. Is it what her friend and travel companion Sarah, a journalist herself, describes it as- verifiable, accountable and independent? She seems to be the expert here. But to some of the Iraqis they find on the way, journalism is just a cover for American spies and having a veteran as one of their other companions seems to cast a lot of potential drama over their group? Or is Glidden’s own chronicling of her travels journalism? Or maybe the book isn’t even about journalism at all, even though that’s what Glidden wants it to be. Maybe it’s about how Americans and Iraqis view each other and Glidden’s own brand of journalism is just a tool to tell her stories.

At the center of Glidden’s journey is Dan, a guy who joined the marines for some complicated reasons. He didn’t believe in the war with Iraq but he also couldn’t let others go over to fight for America if he also wasn’t willing to. Now going to college on the GI Bill, Dan joins these journalists to go back and revisit the country and its people. A childhood friend of one of the other journalists, it’s hoped that Dan would be able to provide a unique and questioning perspective on his and his country's’ roles in the lives of these displaced people but he’s never willing to open up that much. He wants to believe that their presence in Iraq was just and that the people’s lives are better now even as he meets people whose lives have been completely uprooted and irrevocably altered by the actions of the United States.

Dan’s presence on this trip only complicates an already complicated situation. Dan is central to Glidden’s book but he’s not the focus of it. In Glidden’s travels, we meet all sorts of different people who have had to leave their homes and, in many cases, their families. Some of these people are welcoming to this small group of Americans, welcoming them into their homes and freely telling their stories. Other people treat the Americans as the surrogates for the United States and the country which attacked their homes, destroying their lives and families. Rolling Blackouts show that there are two and, often, more sides to every story and Glidden meets many of those stories. 


Glidden’s cartooning breaks down a lot of the barriers between us sitting in our comfortable homes reading this book and the lives of the refugees. In most cases, we would read accounts like this as prose, with an author painting these images with words and phrases. But like Joe Sacco, her spiritual predecessor when it comes to this type of comic storytelling, Glidden has the power of the images. She shows people eagerly answering their questions or pulling back when they learn they are talking to Americans. The observational and conversational nature of her cartooning makes these complex politics and emotions easy to follow. For as complicated as the issues that Glidden covers are, her approach to telling these stories is as clear and concise as possible. It’s this clarity that makes Rolling Blackouts a must read to understand the lives of refugees around the world.

At the end of the book, Glidden circles back to her questions about journalism and she doubts her own ability for it in the stories that she’s just told. There may be elements of independence, accountability, and veracity in her work but because of how much time has passed since 2010 and now, she questions her own work. Syria in 2016 is a lot different than the Syria of 2010 but the stories of these people still need to be told. The lives of the refugees, whether they’re in Syria or Germany or France or the United States (or wherever they may settle) share these experiences and Glidden’s book allows us to create a relationship with them. And with this relationship comes some understanding of the lives that refugees have had to give up to find safety for themselves and their loved ones.