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reflections

Facing Down Tyranny

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One of the joys of my life as the Director of a writers festival is discovering new books by new writers. This year, the sleeper for me has been a graphic novel called Tyranny, by a Toronto artist named Lesley Fairfield.

Tyranny is a book about a young woman who is wrestling with an acute eating disorder. Tyranny is also a character in its own right—a wheedling, judgmental, ever-present companion who undermines her at every turn. In the course of the book, Anna makes friends and loses them, she makes resolutions and breaks them, and she struggles to hold onto shreds of herself even as she watches that self disappear.

It’s a powerful book: spare, probing, tough-minded. The text is lean, and the narrative is enriched and textured by the exquisite drawings. It’s a harrowing story—one of Anna’s friends in rehab dies of heart failure as a result of the disease—but it’s also a hopeful one. Ultimately Anna realizes that while Tyranny might be determined to control her, it’s also an expression of her own character. To be powerful enough to create Tyranny means being powerful enough to face it down and refute it.

How Fairfield handles that sequence of dawning awareness is extraordinary, and it has me thinking about all of us involved in the arts. Anna begins to comprehend the monster of her own making when she finds a way to express it—she writes and draws, while others of us might make music or movies. In the compelling visual shorthand of this book, Tyranny itself begins to lose definition, eventually collapsing into the fluid lines of a pen on paper. The artist assumes her responsibility as a creative force, making the image rather than being made by it.

I think this is one of the bravest books I’ve encountered. It moved me, it moved my 9-year-old daughter, it will move the many people who meet Lesley this September at THIN AIR 2009.

It’s a conundrum that exposing a profound weakness can be an act of courage, and yet surely that is at the center of almost all artistic expression. Vulnerability is one of our most pesky human characteristics—it leaves us feeling insecure and cautious, a long way from the nerve we need if we’re going to commit ourselves on paper, on stage, on film. Yet refusing to make room for our vulnerability costs us our energy, clarity, and determination. It interrupts the full development of our character, which requires the empowerment of dealing with what we can’t control as well as what we can.

Anna is nearly destroyed, but as she finds ways to express her demons, she transforms Tyranny into a resource. She becomes an adult, and reminds us all that gaining maturity is an exercise we have to commit ourselves to over and over and over. The artists are always there ahead of us, provoking, challenging, and attending to us as we learn.

Tyranny is slated for a fall release from Tundra, and Lesley Fairfield will be at THIN AIR this September. Charlene Diehl muses on the arts in every issue.

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