Book Review: "Still Alive"
Earlier this year I wrote a review for INKSPOT, the journal of the Australian Cartoonists Association. The issue it appears in has just been published, so thought I would share the review in full here now. (The journal is not available except through membership of the ACA.)
Still Alive: Notes from Australia’s Immigration Detention System
by Safdar Ahmed
Twelve Panels Press
234 pages, soft cover; 17 cm x 23.5 cm
$30 (plus $10 for posting within Australia) from the publisher or from most good bookstores
Here's a link to the publisher: Click here!
The Comics Arts Award of Australia (formerly known as the Ledger Awards) was recently held in Perth, with two books chosen as Gold Award recipients: Stone Fruit by Lee Lai (published by American boutique publisher Fantagraphic Books) and Still Alive by Safdar Ahmed (the second graphic novel produced by local publishing group, Twelve Panel Press). I’ve chosen to review the latter book for this issue of Inkspot.
Still Alive has received many accolades already. From winning both the Multicultural NSW Award and the Book of the Year at the 2022 NSW Premier’s Literary Award, more recently it has also won the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Eve Pownall Award. The first time a graphic novel for older readers has won such acclaim.
Which begs the question: Is this a book for children? With the Children’s Book Council of Australia sticker placed on the book, the inference comes across that this is a book for children. It’s also a graphic novel. The writer/artist of the book, Safdar Ahmed, compounds the problem that the comic book medium has within Australia – that comics are for kids – when being interviewed by stating that “the younger generation genuinely care about human rights issues” and that he wants to see his book in all high schools.
This is unfortunate. Very early in the story, in the third chapter, there’s a masturbatory scene that conservative parents might object to, clearly indicating that this is a story that is really for an open-mined readership, one that needs to be read by a much wider audience. Because there are older Australian who care about human rights too.
Still Alive is a factual account of Safdar’s first visit to Sydney’s Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in 2011, where he came armed with pencils and sketchbooks, and set up a small art workshop for the detainees. The book follows subsequent visits, and documents both his growing friendships with those detained and his learning of the personal circumstances that some of them endured to arrive there. The book makes for grim reading, with few light moments within the tale, clearly reflecting the dire circumstances the people who become his friends must endure while living there.
Interspersed with Safdar’s tale, he allows some of the refugees to tell their stories, most particularly Haider*. (*Not his real name.) Both narratives intermingled with each other, and both used first person pronouns, with the same lettering font and illustrating style, making the first-time reading of these different chapters initially confusing.
Safdar’s illustrations are pleasing to the eye, although he seems to lack a certain sequential storytelling that would allow the work to flow more consistently throughout the book. Part of that is no doubt due to the mountain of factual information that he seeks to impart to the reader about the detention system and its clear failings to those detained. Periodically, he allows some of those who have joined his art workshops a space on the pages to demonstrate their experiences through their drawings. I would have liked to have seen some of those highlighted a little more: perhaps a page to each of their works would have been better, rather than squeezing two illustrations to a page.
Still Alive touches only briefly on the women detainees and their lived experiences, and I imagine that their access to Safdar’s art classes may have been limited by the authorities that ran the Centre. Similarly, no effort has been made to humanise any of the Serco workers or the administrators of the Detention Centre. While I can see that the intent of the book is to tell the tales of the people detained, there must have been some latitude given to Safdar to allow him to enter the Centre in the first place or, as detailed half-way through the book, when an attempt was made to deny him access to the refugees.
Nonetheless, there were certainly some powerful and moving parts in the book. The fate of one detainee, Ahmad, hits the reader with a sledgehammer. Not surprisingly, Safdar Ahmed has dedicated his book to him.
This book is hardly entertaining. There are many readers who will not be interested in reading it. It’s grim. It’s bleak. There seems no respite or anything that is remotely uplifting in Still Alive. Does it deserve its accolades? Should it have be awarded the Gold at this year’s Comics Arts Awards of Australia? Yes. On both counts.
This graphic novel will in the future prove to be a unique sequential narrative reflecting just some of the darker political stories of this country’s history. That there are many Australians who have welcomed the return of the Murugappan family to Biloela, gives hope that perhaps Australians are beginning to see the human side of the people behind the walls of places like the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. It’s no small measure that Still Alive will be one of the means of moving us forward to that better place. We can only hope.
Comicoz is Nat Karmichael's publishing imprint. Nat is committed to preserving a permanent collection of Australian comic and comic strips. He feels that there is a need to recognise comics' contribution to and depiction of Australian culture.
Since 2011, Nat has self-published over twelve comic-related books and was Publisher-Editor of
Oi Oi Oi! -- the last series of nationally-distributed comic books of original stories to appear on Australian newsstands. He is a member of the Australian Cartoonists Association and edited the Association's journal Inkspot for 14 issues from late 2015. For numerous years he was the Lead Judge in the Ledger of Honour Awards for the Comic Arts Awards of Australia (formerly the Ledgers). These days Nat dreams of retiring from his occupation as a Clinical Nurse in the Psychiatric Emergency Centre in Queensland's largest public hospital, so that he can spend more time with his long-suffering wife and their six children and fourteen grandchildren. And perhaps publish some more comic-related books.
Comicoz acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and their connections to land, sea and community. We pay respects to elders, past, present, and emerging, and extend that respect to all First Nations peoples.
Australian Publications since 1976:
1 x Poster
19 x comics (one a co-production with Cyclone Comics in 1988/9, one a co-production with Cowtown Comics in 2022)
2 x Paperback books
10 x Hardcover books