All of Humanity: A Conversation with Jérôme Ruillier

By

The Strange (L’etrange) by Jérôme Ruillier follows an undocumented immigrant fleeing his homeland for another country. The story is told from many perspectives—his employers, other workers, other immigrants, his landlord, his neighbors. People who see him as less than, people seeking to exploit him, people seeking to help him. All the while the words of Nicholas Sarkozy and others are threaded throughout. The book itself and the world it depicts feels strange. There is some untranslated dialogue that is just symbols. The characters are not human beings but animals, drawn in colored pencils with a limited color palette. Reading the book can be disorienting and unsettling, there is no easy answer or happy ending, but it is deeply moving and affecting in a way that has stayed with me long after I stopped reading.

The Strange (L’etrange) is Jérôme Ruillier’s first book translated into English, but he’s had a long career in France, first drawing children’s books before he began making comics. His first graphic novel Le Coeur-enclume was about the birth of a child born with disabilities, which was inspired by the birth of his eldest daughter, who has Down syndrome. His second graphic novel, Les Mohamed, was an adaptation of Memoires d’immigres by Yamina Benguigui, about North African immigrants to France.

We conversed by email about creating a story of people in the midst of a political issue, what making children’s books taught him about storytelling, and giving the last word in the book to Amnesty International.

***

The Rumpus: Where did the idea for The Strange begin?

Jérôme Ruillier: We were in the midst of a presidential election and and certain elements took advantage of that to zero in on refugees and migrants, to turn the “problem of immigration” into a problem for the migrants themselves and the Roma. I’ve noticed that it’s important to political parties to be able to find a scapegoat, something that will sustain the fantasy of a common enemy. It’s a way that they can rally their followers. I felt the need to do something and so my response was that I went into the street and I began to collect stories from people—the stories that became this book, The Strange.

Rumpus: At what point did you decide to have the story told from many perspectives?

Ruillier: It seemed important to me not to seem to take a side too soon on such a complicated issue. That’s why I tried to use the multiple perspectives as a way to get an intimate take that examined many different sides of the issue, even contradictory ones. It’s also why I wanted to include the police officers’ voices. I wanted to share the kinds of things we hear all around us when this issue is debated.

At first I was thinking of the movies Short Cuts by Robert Altman, The Edge of Heaven by Fatih Akin or even Elephant by Gus Van Sant—stories which shift from one perspective to another. But it was actually when I was reading the novel Anima by Wajdi Mouawad that I finally found the angle I wanted to use! I wanted very short testimonials or anecdotes that revealed the journey of a “hero” but one whose language we don’t speak, who we don’t know much about at all—not even the country he came from or the “host” country he’s arrived in. I wanted to follow his story over several years, getting to see the way numerous protagonists felt about him, rejected him, and supported him.

The reader finds himself in the role of observer, getting to go behind the scenes from numerous perspectives. I was hoping to find a neutral voice, brief, affectless, that offered no complicity with the reader. Flat writing as defined by Annie Ernaux, where whatever can be stripped away has been, where you can’t use style or humor or pathos to distract the reader. Keeping a narrative distance from the main character helped me avoid making his story melodramatic or populist (or so I hope!). To avoid overly fictionalizing a situation that involves real journeys real people undertake, I chose to reconstitute the realities of these lives by using testimonies, recorded interviews that were sometimes contradictory and sometimes complementary.

Rumpus: Why did you want the characters to be animals instead of people?

Ruillier: To denounce the failings of the system, we often use animals as a shorthand that simplifies a conversation. I’ve been a children’s author for about twenty years, and in children’s books, animals are frequently used to tackle real life issues. I also find it very helpful to work with shapes, symbols, or even just colors rather than human figures.

“I believe in abstraction because it allows me to get closer to reality,” wrote the photographer Mario Giacomelli.

From my side, I believe that dramatizing reality offers space—that the way I draw people as animals evokes the human experience without specificity, creating a distance that leaves their story open to interpretation while also preventing us from choosing one particular interpretation. As Dubuffet says, I aim to “draw the impression the object left me rather than the object itself, because if you draw the archetype of the empty path,” it can represent all empty paths.

The animals I’ve drawn here don’t represent any one person, so they can represent all of humanity without specificity.

Rumpus: The protagonist resembles a dog but is also very large, especially compared to most of the other characters. How did you decide on that design?

Ruillier: The character wants to go unseen. I wanted for him to have “weight”—for it to be impossible for the reader not to see him. The protagonist’s expressions are pretty neutral. That is all a part of the “flat writing” I mentioned before—that it tries to sidestep any misplaced emphasis on the sordid details. I cling to the facts shared with me and things I’ve heard said and try to leave the rest out of the story.

Rumpus: Why did you decide to include a number of direct quotations from Nicolas Sarkozy in the book?

Ruillier: In using those quotes from political figures, I wanted to plunge the reader in the “sound colour” of this historical moment. To me it’s very exciting to associate sound and image. The quote I use to open The Strange is one from Nicolas Sarkozy because at the time when I started working on this book, he was a candidate for president. That quote, when he says, “You can’t treat people any way you want, because a human being is more than just a commodity”—that was the reason I wanted to do this book!

Making The Strange took me five years, approximately, so I punctuated the story with quotes I overheard during that long period of time. We had a political shift in that time—from a government that was clearly conservative to one that was ostensibly left-leaning.

On that note, the last quote in the book is from Manuel Valls (Prime Minister to F. Hollande) and despite the regime change, it follows the same basic attitude, the tone hasn’t changed, the politics are similar, and the policies are maybe even worse towards migrants, according to the activists I know. At the absolute end of the book there’s a quote from Marine Le Pen, who opens the next book of mine, Surfman, published by L’Agrume, which deals with the Front National. The circle is complete.

Rumpus: Did readers in France recognize the source of all those statements?

Ruillier: Certain quotes are recognizable out of context, but it wasn’t the goal—and that’s why it’s only at the end of the book that I’ve listed who said what. As I said, the idea was to plunge the reader in the soundbites and attitudes of the time, outside the specifics of the political debates and policy decisions. This way we realize how the discourse stays the same over time and is shared across party lines. Even if the results of elections aren’t exactly representative of the thinking of the greatest number of citizens.

Rumpus: Your earlier book, Les Mohamed, dealt with many of the same issues. It hasn’t been translated into English but I wonder if you could talk a little about that book and what you wanted to do differently in The Strange?

Ruillier: Les Mohamed was a graphic novel adaptation of Memoires d’immigres by Yamina Benguigui. There were three parts to Benguigui’s book—the fathers, mothers, and children each tell, in their own way, at their own time, the story of their arrival in France from North Africa. That’s another project I began during another election with a truly nauseating social climate. The same cliches and misunderstandings of others that feed irrational fears, with the same political parties trying to play off each other and profit from that fear.

“If we don’t know history, we can be fooled by history, so we need to tell these stories,” says Yamina Benguigui.

In order to understand what is happening today, we must draw on the elements of answers in our past in order to deconstruct current fantasies about immigration.

I had already chosen this animal style, simple and stylized, in black and white to facilitate reading and not to betray the text of Yamina Benguigui. I had already made the decision to use anthropomorphism in my previous graphic novel, Le cœur-enclume, which tells the story of the birth of my eldest daughter, who was born with Down syndrome. And as the political discourse moved from anxiety over immigrants from the Maghreb to the undocumented and the Roma, I just expanded my gaze for The Strange. I had begun working on The Strange before I finished Les Mohamed.

Rumpus: How do you think that illustrating children’s books for so many years has informed how you’ve drawn and approached these comics?

Ruillier: I don’t see much difference between my graphic novels and my kids’ books! I deal with the same subjects, just framing them according to which audience I will have. I think the main difference is that graphic novels take longer. My children’s books make me think once more of “flat writing” as defined by Annie Ernaux. I am constantly trying to strip away from my work and move towards the nothingness. (One day a child told me nothing happened in my books. I thought it was a lovely compliment!)

What remains when we have stripped away everything superfluous? When all that’s left is what’s essential and indispensable? A kids book!

When our older daughter Anouk was born with trisomy 21 (Down syndrome), the pediatrician broke the news to us by saying our daughter was born different. Later, when I was making my first graphic novel that dealt with Anouk’s birth (Le coeur enclume), I looked for synonyms of “different”: amongst others, I found “apart” (4 petits coins de rien du tout), “foreign” (Les Mohamed), and “strange” (L’etrange). Whether it’s a graphic novel or a children’s book, in fact it’s all the same story.

4 petits coins de rien du tout is dedicated to Anouk because it’s her story. Anouk having been born different means that she too is a Strange. All of this to say that everything comes from the same lineage, from the same work oriented—or adapted—always simply as possible to the reader small or large, dealing with the same topics. The topic is always really the rejection of the other or of difference at large. You can also see that in Ici, c’est chez moi, which deals with the border, and in ninety percent of my books, whether they’re intended for adults or kids. The progressive stripping away of narrative and text in service of an ever more precise narration for my children’s books brought me to this desire for “white” or “flat” writing that I try to find in my comics, too.

Rumpus: The book closes with a word from Amnesty International. Why did you decide to do that?

Ruillier: When I’m working on a project that deals with a specific societal issue, I look for partners. The work that Amnesty International does around the world and their reputation made them an ideal partner. They responded to our reaching out and wrote this wonderful text that appears at the end of The Strange. I think of it as a path from fiction to field work. I’m very proud to have Amnesty’s words in there.

Rumpus: Why did you decide to title the book, L’etrange?

Ruillier: “Strange” is intentionally less direct of a word choice than “stranger.” As a result it makes this less about the overt subject of the book (migrants), centering instead the feeling of strangeness provoked by the experience of being out of your element in a given place. The main character is “strange” before or because of being understood to be a stranger (foreigner). To me strange is a synonym for different but it’s a simpler word, less divisive. It also implies something a little more mysterious than “different.” Part of the goal here was to put the issue being discussed to the side a little bit, in order to avoid people making assumptions that the title spoke directly about migrants.


Alex Dueben's work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Believer, The Poetry Foundation, The Comics Journal and many other publications. He is working on his first novel. More from this author →