Going ‘Inside the Giant Fish’ with Rawand Issa and Amy Chiniara

Maamoul Press recently released an English edition of Rawand Issa’s graphic novel في بطن الحوت (now Inside the Giant Fish) in Amy Chiniara’s translation. This powerful, short graphic novel pairs and parallels the story of privatizing public beaches in El Jiyeh, Lebanon with the effect of living in distant Canada, multiplying the effect of alienation and frustration. In the end, the only wide-open, multi-colored space that remains accessible to the narrator is her imagination, which still cannot be fenced off and privatized, thank God.

Rawand Issa has published several graphic novels (The Insubordinate is available in a bilingual edition from Maamoul) in work that often blends the political and personal. Amy Chiniara is an illustrator and graphic designer and has worked as a comic artist for The Public Source.

This three-way conversation (between Rawand Issa, Amy Chiniara, and ArabLit’s M Lynx Qualey) was built through a shared document.

When you decided to tell this story, why did you decide you wanted to interweave it with scenes from Canada, and particularly that really depressing scene at the lake?

Rawand Issa: The book is inspired by my sister’s story, who actually immigrated to Canada. I said inspired and not is my sister’s story; because the events, memories, and feelings mentioned in the book are not only hers. I interviewed several family members and neighbors from El Jiyeh and integrated their stories into one character. While I was working on the book, I was in constant contact with my sister, and she was always sending me photos of her and her kids from (cold) parks there. Although she had plenty of public space and the nature around her was beautiful, she always felt that something was missing, as if she was an alien in nature as well, not only in the society she recently moved into. I wanted to show how hard it is for people to feel like home again after having to leave their own homes. And some might never have that (home) feeling ever again.

What drew you to this book, Amy, and made you want to spend the time translating it to English?

Amy Chiniara: When I first met Rawand, she was in the interview/writing phase of the book. We spoke several times about the themes and her approach, and I was really enthusiastic about it. When she asked me to help screen a potential translator for the English edition, I asked her if she wanted me to try. The fact that it wasn’t a huge word count and my familiarity with her style of writing in Arabic made the idea a bit less intimidating, since I’m not a professional and the overall approach was that we’re friends working on this thing together as best as we can.  

Back in 2017, Rawand, you told Maamoul that you originally got into comics art after being introduced to Joe Sacco and comics journalism. How does comics journalism – and documentary comics – influence your work? What is the relationship between comics journalism and comics memoir? Certainly, this book also has a documentary / historical aspect.

RI: When I was younger, I felt that whatever I would produce had to have this great message and meaning behind it, and I chose to start my career as a journalist because it would allow me to convey this message. Right now, I am becoming less harsh on myself when it comes to meanings, and giving more space in my life and work to simpler (meanings). But yeah, I am still very interested in documentary comics, and most of my work is either narrating a real life story or inspired by one.

I think that there isn’t much difference between journalism and memoirs, only structure and perspective. I also don’t believe that journalism can ever be objective. Even though the first thing you learn in journalism is to be objective. I don’t think it’s even possible. No matter how you try to separate yourself from your work, there’s always personal influence. Whether this influence is political, social.. Our perspective of seeing things will always be part of how we tell stories. 

Amy, can we talk about the title? Why Inside the Giant Fish instead of In the Belly of the Whale?

AC: That was actually Rawand’s idea. Although In the Belly of the Whale is the exact translation, she felt that Inside the Giant Fish had something more poetic to it. I really like it, it’s simpler, lighter and feels a bit less biblical. 

Rawand, you’ve talked about building on the work of women’s memoirs, such as Nawal El Saadawi’s striking ​​Memoirs from the Women’s Prison. How does the making of a zine or graphic novel build on the kind of work Nawal El Saadawi did? For me, one of the revolutionary feminist things about Inside the Giant Fish is really basic – that our child narrator has hair on her legs. Also, in your work, the faces seem to be progressively more angular, with an increasing intensity of expression.

RI: I laughed while reading this question, thank you for noticing these details! I owe Nawal because she encouraged me to own my story. I mean, as women (especially in the Arab world) we just recently started writing our own stories, in our own “languages”. I don’t agree with all Nawal’s ideas and beliefs; she has a lot of opinions that I strongly disagree with, but she was a fighter and opened doors for women to tell their stories and I think we owe her that. Not to miss mentioning all feminists that came before us.

Even though Nawal didn’t produce zines or comics, she taught us the importance of telling one’s story.

Recently (like many others) I’m influenced by Iman Mersal. I think she’s also breaking walls when it comes to narrating your own story and normalizing questioning “sacred” subjects, like motherhood and our relationships with our loved ones. Her book “How to mend” was therapeutic (not in a smooth way, more like slap-in-the-face healing!).

Amy, you’re not (usually) a translator, but rather that your background is in illustration, graphic design, and comics. How did this background influence your approach to the book, and how important is it to have someone translating a graphic novel who gets graphic novels? What’s different about translating a graphic novel, vs. a novel, short story, or a poetry collection?

AC: I’m absolutely not a translator by any means, and this is the first time I see my name written after “translated by:”. So I can’t really make those comparisons, as I don’t have a variety of experience to draw on. I don’t think it’s so much about “getting” graphic novels as it is about matching the author’s tone or “voice” (which I guess is the point in any literary translation), especially with stories like these, which are rooted in personal experience and written in the first person. Of course, there’s always the issue of how much space the text takes up in one language versus another and since Rawand’s drawings and layout were already done, I wanted to be sure that the English text wouldn’t mess up the spacing, or require additional panels and speech bubbles. 

RI: I also want to add that this collaboration with Amy was very intimate and she was extremely supportive throughout the production process. So for me she didn’t just play the role of a  translator, but much more than that.

Rawand, on the cover, our narrator is splayed out on the sand in a way that at first feels ambiguous, although after reading the book looks joyful and almost as though she’s clinging to the beach. There’s an echo of it on page 54, when she seems to be lying on the ground somewhere in Canada. In it, her limbs no longer flop out comfortably, but twist at odd and painful-looking angles.  

RI: Yes, true. I was trying to show the contrast between laying on the beach in her hometown, while trying to lay down as a “foreigner” in the new environment.

Amy, did you two work together during the translation process? Did you consult Rawand on the choices you made? Or did you work largely independently?

AC: Yes, the whole thing was very much in the spirit of collaboration, so whenever I had a question or felt like something needed clarification, I would just ask. It was during COVID and lockdowns, so a lot of it was back and forth over WhatsApp voice notes and comments on Google Docs. For example, a recurring term throughout the book that we got stuck on for a while was “ahl el day’aa” أهل الضيعة. The closest literal word in English might be ‘villagers’ or ‘people from the village’, but it doesn’t come close to how much warmer it sounds in Arabic. We mostly ended up using the term ‘locals’, because we also felt like ‘villagers’ sounds heavier in English. Although the dictionary definition is literally ‘a person who lives in a village’, it feels like the word often has a negative connotation (or maybe that’s our experience of hearing it used, I’m second-guessing everything now) There really are many words and phrases that lose their “narrative efficacy” between languages and there’s no way around that, so a lot of the back and forth was finding the words we felt were as adequate as could be.

Rawand, working with other comics artists in collectives seems to be more popular in Arab countries (Zeez, Samandal, TokTok, Lab619, Skefkef, etc.) than elsewhere. I could be wrong, but US and European comics artists seem more solitary. What does it bring to you, as an artist and storyteller, to belong to collectives? 

RI: Oh, Amy and I talk a lot about that. Ahahaha. Um, okay. To be honest, I think that there’s a lot of collectives in the Arab countries because we (most, if not all the time) rely on funds to produce. Unfortunately, our cultural and art opportunities are very limited and obviously there’s no support from our governments, and collectives seem to be very sexy for funders somehow. If you look into art funds given to artists in our area, you’ll always find a lot of money given to collectives and “group” collaborations and projects. I think it’s because giving money to a group is less expensive than giving to one artist? Like you’d give a budget and support a magazine that will be published only one time and call it a project 😀.

I myself had a very negative experience with belonging to different collectives (I tried several times), and the reasons were either because the opportunities were limited which caused a lot of stress and competition. Or because of political clashes between the group members; I am a socialist and do not separate my political beliefs from my work. Also sometimes the reason would be very personal, because some people simply have terrible personalities and can’t seem to collaborate without humiliating others. Part of what led me to a mental breakdown after one very awful experience in collaborative publication was the total disappointment in how the values don’t align with the practice.

These problems can happen anywhere, but I think that because it’s such a small scene, all these issues end up isolating and alienating you from groups that are supposed to be a support system in the face of the harsh political and economic realities in our area.

AC: I think it’s also partially due to the fact that there’s so much more production and demand in the US and Europe. People in this region often have to work in between other projects and might have to self-publish because there aren’t many publishing houses that work with comics. You also don’t get the same advances (in payments) as you do in other places, so it’s very difficult to be fully dedicated to a big project as an individual and be financially stable.

Amy, what did you enjoy (or not!) about the translation process? Would you do it again? Under what circumstances? 

AC: I would absolutely love to work on something like this again. Because I work as a graphic designer and illustrator, it felt good to work on something different and dust off parts of my brain that I don’t think I use enough. It’s not like I can translate legal texts or Andalusian poetry, but I would love to work on things like short stories or comics and graphic novels. Comics readership in this part of the world is limited (as is the production of comics, since there’s limited funding and readership, so the cycle goes on and on), so it’s nice to feel like you’re contributing to making it more accessible to a wider audience, while branching out into something that’s not necessarily related to the design field. The collaborative aspect of it was also great, because there wasn’t a barrier of formality and emails, so it was easier to ask questions and discuss the nuance of this word or that word. It was also a learning experience and I keep telling Rawand that if there is to be a second English edition, I want to edit and maybe rephrase certain parts. I guess it’s the same as my usual work, where I’m never completely 100% satisfied with what I’ve done at the end of it.     


Rawand Issa & Amy Chiniara on 7 Favorite Lebanese Comics

Excerpts from ‘Inside the Giant Fish’