Unterzakhn by Leela Corman

Written and Illustrated by Leela Corman
Published by Pantheon Books

I recently read Leela Corman’s much-discussed and very moving short comic on the death of her young daughter -- PTSD: The Wound That Never Heals in Nautilus magazine and kept saying to myself, “Huh, this feels familiar, but I can’t quite place it.” I was riveted, regardless of its authorship, and got to the end before I Googled. It’s great, and moving, and leaves you wanting more -- so check it out. BUT, that is not the point. The point is that I realized upon Googling that she had written a book I read and which I remain haunted by, which shares a certain darkness with this work, but for very different reasons.

Leela Corman wrote Unterzakhn just a few years ago, but it is of another time. This is, of course, in part due to its being historical fiction but also because of its dark tone and style, which are effectively reminiscent of the period in which it takes place. The 1910s were a dark time on New York’s Lower East Side, but as a consumer of Jewish nostalgia pieces (think All of A Kind Family or even the fairly sober A Bintel Brief or A Contract With God),  I have a starry-eyed view of tenement life -- of course times were hard, but people persevered and family mattered and cultural Jewishness was a virtue. Right? Perhaps it’s not that simple, and Unterzakhn arrived to shake some sense into me. And I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Our story begins in 1909, when sisters Fanya and Esther are six but already beginning to see the ways of the world. In the first few pages of the book, Fanya witnesses the gruesome after-effects of a self-administered abortion, while Esther delivers a package of clothing from her mother’s shop to a lady of the evening. And unwittingly, if not inevitably, their futures begin to take shape. Living in the tenements, with a close-minded and cruel mother, Fanya and Esther quickly realize that there are few opportunities for women to express themselves or participate in society beyond being a wife and mother. Corman is emphatic about this -- there’s not a ray of hope or a moment of lightness to be found. And she suggests, probably not entirely incorrectly, that the immigrant Jewish outlook of the time, with highly codified roles for men and women, had a great hand in that oppression

But both Fanya and Esther are smart -- they are searching for something more. As they rebel against the old ways, though, they seem to define their paths by that rebellion -- specifically, both of them become involved in worlds where sex, and their femaleness, is central. Fanya apprentices herself to the lady doctor (who performs illegal -- but safer than self-administered -- abortions). The doctor herself is stern and bitter, as she’s seen the darker side of sex in the domestic sphere -- abusive husbands by the score, unwanted and unsupported children, and of course, botched abortions. She has an entirely negative view of sex, and Fanya hopes that this can be improved upon. She takes it upon herself to educate women on birth control methods, whether they’re married or not. The Lady Doctor and her argue over this point, but Fanya is a crusader of sorts. It’s a powerful, brave position to take, and she suffers for it both in society at large and in her personal life.

Esther takes a very different path, becoming a brothel maid, and then a prostitute, a showgirl, and ultimately a very successful and comfortable kept woman -- rather than becoming a powerless wife and mother, she sells her sexual self to the highest bidder, and through wits and luck and talent, reaps the rewards. Though her story is not without suffering or hardship, it is surprising -- what society viewed as ultimate debasement becomes, in a sense, empowering for Esther. Fanya, who’s seen what sex can do to women, disapproves of Esther’s trajectory, but ultimately both are seeking the same sense of self-definition, and Corman does an excellent job of juxtaposing their equally complicated and oftentimes painful roads.

Finally, the two sisters reconcile when Fanya comes to Esther in her hour of need, and it’s a powerful realization that their shared difficult childhood is a great source of strength for them, and that they are connected by the disenfranchisement they are fighting against. More than a Jewish story, or an immigrant story, this is an explicitly and unblinkingly feminist story -- a corrective to more idyllic visions of the time. Even if there are more hopeful tenement tales, more loving mothers, or more individual freedom for some -- this experience happened too. Not every story of the olden days is pleasant, and Corman is smart and sober about the darker side of things. In some ways, Unterzakhn also has an attitude of “look how far we’ve come, but how far we still have left to go” -- sex work can be degrading or empowering depending on what wave of feminism you’re from, and reproductive politics continue to top the headlines. Unterzakhn isnot a fun read, and you may think Corman paints with a bit of a broad brush, but it’s a compelling argument that deserves to be heard.

Her illustration style is a bit broad as well -- her use of black fill is apparent, more pages are filled with darkness than not. Her characters are surprisingly wobbly, though -- nervous bodies in a shaky world. Perhaps this is a hint of the unsettling and unsettled nature of their existence. It’s imperfect, but it sets a tone of uncertainty which works for the story. There were times I had problems telling secondary characters apart due to their lack of distinguishing characteristics, but I rolled with it and the story’s impact was not affected. Corman’s style shined particularly in her representations of a Esther as a 1920s vamp -- dramatic, dark, kohl-outlined eyebrows and all. The last panels of the book are an especially satisfying culmination of the visual and narrative pathos that has been building up throughout the story.

Unterzakhn is a hard read, but that’s the point, and I think it’s ultimately worth it. It’s a hard story to hear, but Corman makes an excellent argument that is one that needs to be heard, and remembered, and applied to our lives today -- when women are disenfranchised, the roads left to them to gain power are be hard ones. Corman has  got a unique voice and an unapologetic style in both this book and her short form work, and I look forward to seeing what other stories she tells, with great conviction, in her comics yet to come.