Helen Blejerman is an author and illustrator from Mexico based in Sheffield. Helen has published two graphic novels: Lulu the Sensational and Tito and The Love Letters. Her short story “Synesthesia” is part of the anthology Sheffield from Dostoyevsky Wannabe Cities.
Tell us about the book Sheffield, what is this book about and what was your story in this book?
Emma Bolland editor of the book, also based in Sheffield, invited me to write a story for this anthology and she said it could be either about Sheffield or about writing and reading. We are, I believe, 15 authors based in Sheffield in this book. And I wrote a short story, “Synesthesia”.
Is it a graphic short story?
I do graphic novels and graphic narratives and short stories but this has no images, it is just text. And this story speaks about Natalia. She is a Mexican woman, an academic and a poet. But Natalia is blind and since she lost her sight as a child she is able to read with her hands without the use of braille because she feels the vibration of the colours, shapes and words with touch. So what happens is that her husband Martin convinces her to have an operation and recover her sight and that operation includes visits to a psychoanalyst to deal with her feelings.
And I think Dostoevsky Wannabe have been publishing different anthologies about cities in the world
Correct. This is a collection by Dostoyevsky Wannabe called Cities. And they have different cities in the world. They have Amsterdam, Paris, Boston, Santiago. It is an independent publisher that publishes fine material.
Let’s talk about your graphic novels: Tito and the Love Letters and Lulu the Sensational. I really enjoyed reading the books and the way the illustrations add to the story
What happens with graphic novels as opposed to illustrated books is that the images and the text together create the meaning, together they generate the story. If you withdraw the text or the images you cannot understand the story. They intertwine together to create the story. And sometimes it can be cinematic.
I really liked the illustration where the woman Helen, your name as well, is on a bus and from the window there is a poster of a documentary about Maya Angelou.
How interesting. Yes, this is in Tito and the Love Letters, I included popular culture and literary references from each time because as you know the story takes you from Mexico City in 2017 to the port of Veracruz after the Mexican Revolution of 1920-1930.
Is your graphic novel Tito and The Love Letters based on real events that happened to you?
I undertook the writing of this book after finding, and this is real, after finding the pack of love letters in a flea market in Mexico City. The letters are from a man writing to a woman during the span of 10 years in their 20s and 30s. I was very interested in reading these letters. And I began to trace the journey of this author Tito, I changed the name now it’s Tito, but also I fictionalised this research I did about Tito.
Did you actually go to Veracruz? because at the end of the book there are these photos of the actual ruins of the hospital?
I didn’t. It’s a good question. Yeah, the ruins of the hospital. At the end of the book the reader sees photos that the writer/researcher — me, allegedly took.
I don’t know how much to say but at the end of the book the reader will see photos of the actual psychiatric hospitals in 2017 and I should say this because in this story, in the graphic novel, we see the author, we see me taking photos, we see drawings of me taking photos of this place. They are not the photos of that place, it is part of the fiction.
And Lulu the Sensational, tell me about this graphic novel…
Lulu the Sensational was published in France by Presque Lune Editions in 2015 and I self-published it in English last year. This is a graphic novel that explores narcissism, that explores the grandiose self and the story speaks about the impact a paranoid mother has on her seven-year-old daughter’s imagination. And actually the images in this book don’t show the physicality of the characters because I wanted to address their solitude, their inner world, their solitude nature so you don’t see the physicality of their bodies.
But even though we don’t see the main character, how she looks like, her appearance is important because she’s bullied in school because of her weight.
You gave me goose pimples. It is true. The body, you never see the body but you hear that she is gaining and gaining and gaining weight, and is heavily bullied in school.
Under both of these graphic novels you have motherhood at its centre, the relationship of the main character with their mother. So is this like a topic you wanted to explore in your writing?
Very much. That is a very good point. Both graphic novels explore motherhood and explore their relationship: first mother and daughter; then, mother and son. And the two mothers are schizophrenic. One lives in a psychiatric hospital, in Tito and the Love Letters, and in Lulu the Sensational the mother moves to the bathroom with all her belongings without explanation. And this is autobiographical, when my mother was in her 30s and 40s started developing schizophrenia, for some moments she felt she would save the world and that she was being persecuted, which is one of the main aspects of paranoia, that she was being persecuted in order to not save the world. She died last year and I thought it was a good moment to self-publish the book in English. And I thought as a writer and as a daughter the material was very, very interesting: a mother that feels would save the world, and the confusion that creates on her seven-year-old daughter. When I was seven years old my mother wasn’t schizophrenic, she was perhaps a bit neurotic, but she was drowning a little bit in this illness. But the character is younger than I was and you can see how the illness of the mother impacts her imagination.
In what language do you write?
I always write in Spanish. A few years ago I tried to write in English but I realized that no. Or I write in my mother tongue or I lose everything. That’s my personal way of writing. I write in Spanish. The story in the book Sheffield was translated by Adrian Nathan West and it was fantastic. Lulu the sensational was translated by a French translator, beautiful translator. I have been very lucky with my translators.
I always write in Spanish. A few years ago I tried to write in English but I realized that no. Or I write in my mother tongue or I lose everything. That’s my personal way of writing.
When did you realize that you wanted to be an illustrator and a writer? I mean you came to the UK to study arts, but did you have in mind already that your path was illustration and writing or was it like a process of discovery?
Very, very good question. You are touching on sore areas. At the moment I teach in the Fine Arts department and for a few years in the Design and Illustration department [at Sheffield Hallam University]. And it is exactly how I feel, my heart belongs to fine arts, design, illustration and literature. So I am divided into these worlds. As a writer I realized that I could tell a story just writing it but I missed drawing. And five years ago, when I started with Lulu the Sensational, graphic novel in the UK was just beginning. So I thought I will try and do that but challenging the medium. I didn’t want to do the classic graphic novel so I thought I won ́t show the characters and let’s see what happens.
Silvia Rothlisberger is a writer and journalist based in London. She hosts a radio show on Resonance 104.4 called Literary South. Silvia curates the literary events of The Festival of Latin American Women is Arts (FLAWA Festival). She is a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s], with a focus on Latin American literature and culture. @silviarothlis