Avant garde comic book taps into the question of identity

Exploring the meaning of identity in every sense – individual, cultural, moral and national – allows Sami Alwani to delve into the personal reflection of other issues in his life.

“We’re Canadians. What does that mean? I think of Canada as a made-up country that doesn’t really exist. It’s like if I come to somebody’s house and I push them out, and I take their stuff and I say, ‘This is my house now and this is the land of Sami.’ That’s not real,” comments Alwani, a cartoonist-illustrator who won the Doug Wright Award in 2018 for his story The Dead Father.

Alwani’s recently published The Pleasure of the Text (Conundrum Press, 2021) is a dark comedy that touches on topics including but not limited to neo-colonialism, capitalism, esoteric mystical experiences, identity, mental health and the role of an artist in society.

Passion for the alternative comic arts

Since he was 13, Alwani had always enjoyed storytelling in the form of prose fiction. What initially drew him to take on comics was his love for concrete poetry, where the format and content both play an important role in telling stories. Seeing great potential in contemporary alternative comics, a young and avant garde media form, he started learning how to draw at the age of 20. Fond of storytelling, Alwani especially favours comics that have a very clear narrative over experimental ones.

“Alternative comics haven’t existed for longer than a century so it was kind of like the exciting Wild West. And because there’s not so much infrastructure or pressure either, there’s a complete autonomy for creators to do whatever they feel like,” he explains.

Personal experience free of didactic messages

Sami Alwani.| Photo courtesy of Sami Alwani

Alwani’s latest is a collection of stories that compiles seven years of his work, including previously published ones on Vice and Now and 50 pages of new work written exclusively for the book. Satirically motivated at times, the stories are told through a slice of life narrative.

“I don’t think that it tells the whole story to say that this is a book about LGBTQ issues, or colonialism, or about any of the specific topics, because all of those topics are kind of just part of my daily life,” says Alwani. “I experienced them because I moved through the world, as a gay Arabic man.”

The final story was created in response to anger and frustration he felt during the Black Lives Matter protests that happened last year. Rather than commenting on the political issue itself, he focuses on how it is manifesting in his individual life and how he manages these emotions.

“Resentment about white supremacy and colonialism, it kind of lives in your body, and it kind of colours your interactions with other people and it affects you emotionally,” he adds.

A multitude of inspirations

The title and the cover design of The Pleasure of the Text is a direct reference to the book under the same title by Roland Barthes, the French literary theorist who popularized the field of semiotics. Inspired by Barthes’ Mythologies, Alwani tries to deconstruct a lot of popular myths in the same way.

“I kind of see myself in a lineage with a lot of these short story writers. It’s definitely a relationship that I’m trying to forge,” says Alwani.

Besides influences from literary prose and contemporary political issues, readers are able to sense sources that influenced Alwani personally, such as Wilhelm Reich’s Orgone Accumulator and David Hockney’s paintings.

In addition, all new content created just for the book was written during the pandemic and directly inspired by this context.

“I actually personified it into a ghost, your anxieties and fears around COVID became this character who’s called the ghost of COVID-19, a friendly and silly roommate for the characters to live with,” says Alwani.

Find out more about Sami Alwani here: www.samialwani.com