After Maria is a touching and relatable look at one family’s life in the days, weeks and months following Hurricane Maria’s destructive visit to Puerto Rico in September 2017. Researched and written by Dr. Gemma Sou and illustrated by John Cei Douglas, whose ever delightful bearded face you will be able to see at ELCAF, and whose ever engaging style brings this story to life. This graphic novella about a fictional family in the neighbourhood of Ingenio provides empathetic food for thought in a world likely to see more and more such stories.
Felix and Natalia, Susanna and Joe, Michael and Rosa (and their dog Nena) all live in a two storey house where they’ve built a life of relative comfort from Natalia’s baking business and Felix’s job at a factory; when the hurricane comes they are lucky to be able to trust their new roof to keep them alive on the top floor.
It’s a truism that we can’t really process disasters in far flung locations through the facts and figures, that personal stories are what we relate to. You have to zoom out to get the scale of things, but zoom back in to get the truth of them. After Maria is a good balance of both, with enough overview and information to keep a sense of how this whole community was effected, but a cast of recognisable characters to make it feel real. It may not be a truism, but it also true that even if we are fully engaged with a distant disaster happening in real time – when it’s on the news and in our feeds – we often aren’t still thinking about it a few weeks or months later. The news cycle moves on and, these days, gets dominated by politics and celebrities. But for the people living in the wake of those disasters, things don’t spring back to normal as quickly.
This is an engaging story, but it’s also the physical manifestation of Dr. Sou’s year long ethnographic research project, where she made several visits to the island and interviewed 16 low-income Puerto Rican families about their experiences in the aftermath of Maria. This story is not about any particular one of these families, but an amalgamation of their experiences to crystallise the core issues at play. Even within this boiled down version, there are different experiences shown and incidental characters and voices show the breadth of experience here.
In one particularly important page, Sou references the more individual needs that some survivors have that are unlikely to be fulfilled by aid agencies, not matter how well funded and organised. Just think about all the little things that make our lives different and our needs diverse, many people die when they lose access to the medical care or infrastructure that was keeping them alive. Having your house still standing may seem like a stroke of luck initially after a hurricane, but trying to live in it full of damp and damage will soon lose its appeal.
Poverty is also a local experience, and it’s hard for a lot of people to picture what life is like for the massive global majority that live on the edge of it. Not in a mud hut or a gutter, not without mobile phones or basic amenities. Not starving, and not cut off from society, but not so far from those things either. The billions of people that have something to lose, and very little infrastructure in place to protect them from losing it, not just in developing nations but anywhere where life feels a little precarious. That will look a little different wherever you go, but not so very different.
In After Maria, the 20 pages of comic are accompanied by some more in depth information, discussion points and ideas for further reading. There’s also a section on reasons to graphically illustrate your research, and I hope this is a trend that continues. As we know at Broken Frontier, comics really is the best medium for wide reaching and accessible content.
Dr. Maria Sou (W), John Cei Douglas (A)
Review by Jenny Robins
The graphic novella can be downloaded in full in English and Spanish here https://www.hcri.manchester.ac.uk/research/projects/after-maria/ John Cei Douglas will also have print copies at this weekend’s ELCAF. For more on John Cei Douglas’s work visit his site here and follow him on Instagram.