Hero of a story

This su­perb graphic novel ad­dresses misog­yny and op­pres­sion through the power of sto­ry­telling.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads - Re­view by SHARMILLA GANESAN star2@thestar.com.my

STO­RIES have power: to trans­mit truths, am­plify voices and em­power peo­ple. Which is why one of the hall­marks of op­pres­sive so­ci­eties is to deny the op­pressed their sto­ries, the power to con­trol their own nar­ra­tives.

Is­abel Green­berg’s graphic novel The One Hun­dred Nights Of Hero sketches a gor­geous tale out of this premise, weav­ing to­gether sto­ries both fa­mil­iar and new into a larger whole. The book is set in the same fan­tas­ti­cal world as her de­but, The En­cy­clopae­dia Of Early Earth, but like its pre­de­ces­sor, reaches be­yond its pages to res­onate deeply with the world we live in.

The story be­gins in the city of Mig­dal Bavel, where two men are hav­ing a rather in­fu­ri­at­ing con­ver­sa­tion about women: Man­fred is of the opin­ion that all women are un­faith­ful, while Jerome in­sists that his wife is the most chaste woman he knows. This re­sults in them mak­ing a twisted wa­ger. While Jerome is away for 100 nights, Man­fred bets that he will be able to bed Jerome’s wife, Cherry.

When Cherry hears of this, she re­alises it is a no-win sit­u­a­tion for her. This is a world where women are al­lowed very few per­sonal lib­er­ties, from not be­ing al­lowed to read to not choos­ing their own part­ners. Even if Cherry were to re­sist Man­fred, he would force him­self on her and tell Jerome he was suc­ces­ful.

Cherry’s beloved maid Hero, how­ever, comes up with a so­lu­tion. Ev­ery night when Man­fred comes by, Hero tells him mar­vel­lous sto­ries that wend and weave into each other, leav­ing him so en­thralled that he for­gets his mis­sion.

And what sto­ries they are!

For Hero is a mem­ber of the League of Se­cret Story Tell­ers, a move­ment of women who se­cretly share sto­ries: real sto­ries, imag­i­nary sto­ries, and sto­ries that are some­where in be­tween. And at the heart of each one are women.

It is, of course, no ac­ci­dent that the book bor­rows its frame from One Thou­sand And One Nights, which fea­tures one of lit­er­a­ture’s best-known sto­ry­tellers, Scheherazade. It is also not co­in­ci­den­tal that in both cases, sto­ries are the women’s sal­va­tion and sanc­tu­ary.

Hero’s sto­ries are del­i­cate yet pro­found: some speak of love and loss, others of hopes and dreams. Most also ru­mi­nate on free­dom and equal­ity, and the of­ten painful path to achiev­ing them.

But Green­berg never lec­tures, she’s much too sub­tle a sto­ry­teller for that. The point here is sto­ries – be­ing able to tell them, re-tell them, share them, and savour them.

And so fit­tingly, one can never quite make out where Green­berg’s tales are com­ing from, or where one ends and the next be­gins.

There are retellings and reimag­in­ings of folk tales, such as The Twelve Danc­ing Princesses and The Twa Sis­ters. There are also sto­ries that play on our fa­mil­iar­ity, like those of an elu­sive moon maiden or a group of wise old crones. And then there are others that are com­pletely the author’s own.

Green­berg’s dis­tinc­tive line draw­ings give the nar­ra­tives an oth­er­worldly qual­ity, which suit the fairy­tale/folk­loric themes. The fram­ing and em­pha­sis on ex­pres­sion, mean­while, make the char­ac­ters im­mensely re­lat­able.

Un­like the largely muted hues of The En­cy­clopae­dia Of Early Earth, Green­berg ex­pands her pal­ette here to in­fuse the il­lus­tra­tions with sud­den bursts of life – her use of se­lec­tive colour­ing may seem spare at first glance, but they ex­pertly re­flect emo­tion, cre­ate a sense of place, or high­light plot points.

The way it all comes to­gether is where The One Hun­dred Nights Of Hero ex­cels. As the book pro­gresses, Hero and Cherry grad­u­ally shift from pro­vid­ing the nar­ra­tive frame to be­com­ing a part of the long line of sto­ries them­selves.

More than that, as Hero and Cherry draw strength from th­ese sto­ries and their love for each other to stand up to the misog­y­nis­tic cir­cum­stances they are trapped in, Green­berg brings to­gether all the dif­fer­ent strands of the book into one tri­umphant, hope­ful whole.

Sto­ries won’t pro­vide easy an­swers to life’s in­jus­tices, but The One Hun­dred Nights Of Hero as­serts that there is power to be found in telling our own sto­ries – and per­haps hope too.

A world with­out sassi­ness and sto­ries would be a dull world in­deed.

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