When Melbourne-based best friends and flatmates Alice Chipkin and Jessica Tavassoli (Tava) don’t know how to handle something intense, they go diving for answers in art and literature.
Taking a time out in a Canadian cabin, the writing and drawing that began as an outlet to discuss Tava’s overwhelming depression and suicidal thoughts - and the emotional cost of Chipkin’s unerring support - would eventually coalesce into graphic memoir Eyes Too Dry.
Recalling the emotional intimacy and honesty of Alison Bechdel’s celebrated Fun Home, it similarly thrums with hope, focused as it is on queer friendship and the therapeutic results of creating comics.
“It started primarily as a processing tool for the two of us,” Chipkin says. “As the weeks went by we realised that we were making a lot of work and depending on which day we were looking at it we were thinking either, ‘wow, this is quite good,’ or, ‘no one’s gonna want to read this. It’s pretty dark’.”
It turns out there was an eager audience for the beautifully bound, 100 per cent recycled paper, crowd-funded tome. The campaign exceeded target by more than $2,000. Indeed, the almost sold-out run has been so well received that Echo Publishing has picked up and will reprint Eyes Too Dry.
Chipkin and Tava will speak about their creative process and tackling “heavy feelings” head on in conversation with The Lifted Brow founder Ronnie Scott as part of this year’s Emerging Writers’ Festival line up.
Self-publishing gave them the freedom to go wherever their personal explorations took them, but it also meant donning an editor’s cap. “We had to have lots of conversations about the deep emotional stuff underneath it but then it was about moving these memories out of us and into a shape together,” Chipkin notes. “We were trying to interweave the two narratives and visual voices and to do that we had to take a real step back and say, ‘ok, there’s a gap in the story here or this is too repetitious or this is kind of clashing against itself,’ and then re-do it and re-do it and it became an exercise in problem solving.”
Problem solving is an apt description of Eyes Too Dry, taking traumatic personal experience and making it public for the greater good. “A big part of what we are interested in discussing with this work was removing the responsibility of depression and mental illness from the individual and placing it into the community, understanding that the way we are able to exist in the world is hugely impacted by our social and cultural and political context,” Chipkin says.
That includes the sad reality that there are higher instances of mental ill health and suicide in the LGBTIQ population. “It’s by no means a biological outcome that queer people are more prone to mental health challenges,” Chipkin says. “It’s a result of living in a culture that is pushing back against your identity. Visibility brings with it its own host of challenges, with a backlash against the Safe Schools Coalition and marriage equality as examples of that. It’s kind of easier to be a queer person more than ever in our culture but it’s also still fraught ground.”
The bedrock of Eyes Too Dry is the beautiful platonic bond between Chipkin and Tava, with many readers responding that the friendship story doesn’t get anywhere near enough airtime in queer narratives despite its fundamental importance. “When you are existing in this world as a queer person you are looking at the way in which your relationships are structured and how that fits and it gives you quite an amazing opportunity to restructure the way you organise your life,” Chipkin adds. “For us that means giving friendship a shotgun front seat role.”
Chipkin, who runs creative writing and drawing workshops for teenagers, produces schools programs for Express Media and finds time to be a bookseller too, is a huge fan of Bechdel, even penning her university thesis on queer comics and autobiography. She says the medium offers an easily accessible platform for marginalised groups to tell their own stories without excessive financial burden.
“You really just need pencils and paper,” she says. “There’s something I think that the medium allows for, the silences and the intimacy and the way that it can jump around in time.”
Eyes Too Dry is endlessly inventive in the way it tackles the subject matter, with depression at times depicted as a shadow literally pulled behind Tava, weighing her down, and at others an explosion of inner-thought in text form, crowding out the white space of the page. The narrative also allows the reader a rare glimpse at the editing process, with a notable debate early on seeing Tava question Chipkin’s opening line.
A deeply engaging emotional voyage that will appeal to anyone who has ever experienced mental ill health, either personally or in their extended circle of family and friends, while Chipkin and Tava relished the freedom of self-publishing Eyes Too Dry, the welcome news from Echo allows them to share their story further.
“We do feel, in our deeply idealistic hearts, that this is a story that could help people and to do that we need a wide release,” Chipkin insists. “Hopefully it’s for somebody that just really needs a moment of connection out of the isolation and it’s also about finding new ways to speak to the people around you about this stuff.”