by Amy Flora

On Thursday, March 3rd, the Goethe Institute in London hosted a talk with Barbara Yelin and Reinhard Kleist about their respective graphic novels that have just been published in English. The moderated talk gave both authors the opportunity to discuss their books and writing process, and provided an inside look into the development of their artistic style.

Irmina — Barbara Yelin

Yelin’s novel is nearly biographical, as she moulded and changed her grandmother Irmina for the story. Having discovered a trove of letters and diaries in her grandmother’s home, Yelin decided to use these documents as a starting point for her first full-length graphic novel. Irmina tells the story of a young German woman in the lead-up to the second world war. The novel follows her to England where she forms a relationship with Howard Green, one of the first black students at Oxford. While joyous, their relationship remains strained by social expectations and, more important, by Irmina’s unwillingness to see the dangers of the rise of fascism in her own home country. Despite concerns for her safety, Irmina does head home to Nazi Germany and then must face the dangerous changes around her.

The art in Irmina is multifaceted and truly beautiful. Each page is a combination of hand drawings and breathtaking watercolours. A particular two-page rendering of a crowd watching the burning of a synagogue is a masterpiece.

An Olympic Dream: The Story of Samia Yusuf Omar — Reinhard Kleist

Kleist’s novel tells the story of Samia Yusuf Omar, the Somali runner who captured the world’s imagination at the Beijing Olympics. Clad in an oversized t-shirt and leggings, Samia finished last in her race but became determined to run at the 2012 London Olympics. The graphic novel traces her escape from Mogadishu and her arduous journey to Europe in the hope of fulfilling her dream of finding a coach and representing Somalia at the Olympics. Samia’s journey across Africa puts a very human face on the migrant crisis in Europe and personalizes the unbelievable risks undertaken by hundreds of thousands of people.

Using clear black lines, the illustrations allow readers to feel Samia’s pain and bleakness as she is bullied by Somali militants, held hostage by Libyans and eventually boards a raft to Europe. An opening image of a Mogadishu market perfectly represents the simplicity and beauty of Reinhard’s style.

While these two graphic novels are very different in style, they have clear similarities in their content. Both tell the stories of women confronted by dangerous and fractured governments. Each story shows women being restricted and coerced into conforming. Most important, these graphic novels tell stories that otherwise might be untold; they allow readers to enter a different world.

Finally, each story is told with kindness and dignity. Barbara Yelin asked for permission from her extended family to tell Irmina’s story. Reinhard Kleist interviewed Samia’s sister and got her approval prior to publishing. These stories truly read as love letters to strong and complicated women, making them well worth the read.

Both graphic novels are published in English by SelfMadeHero.