I didn’t know anything about Keiler Roberts when I picked up, her graphic memoir, Sunburning, with its plain yellow cover, the book’s title a slightly lighter yellow, and a simple sketch of a woman with her midsection erased.
One one level, the book is nothing special. A woman, going through her day, talking to her daughter and her husband. But it’s much more than that. The drawings are simple and expressive. And the stories too. They are a string of moments, often funny, some awkward, some revealing. Keiler is the centre of the stories with her daughter providing many of the funny lines. Keiler has bipolar disorder, and it is tough to handle some of the scenes where she is at her lowest, but on the other hand they are mundane in the right way. She keeps going–doing what needs to be done. Caring for her daughter. It is heroic in the proper sense of keep moving through the day. If you deal with any mental condition, you know that if you get up and do what has to be done, it is not easy, but it passes. Not every episode of mental illness needs to be on the police procedural show of the week.
It’s also about growing up, being a mother, a wife, a daughter. It’s easy and it’s hard. You laugh and you care and you worry. Somehow, Roberts’ wit and narrative ability keeps you wanting to take the next step with her, to see what tomorrow brings.
This is the true art that so many of us and so many artists and writers fail at. So often we have to turn our life in choreographed stories and have to find the headline. But life is more open, less contrived and not so easy to encapsulate, and some art manages to allow us in, control our view just enough to keep us following along, without shaping it beyond truth to fiction. Fiction has a different purpose, but in non-fiction, this is what we need. Don’t expect to understand, share, ponder, and realize you have another experience to add to your own.
RC: Why draw comics about yourself, as opposed to other subjects?
KR: Why draw comics about anything else? I’m really interested in what’s true – real life experiences. I only have full access to myself. It’s not because I think I’m especially interesting. I would do autobio from your point of view if I could.