Last winter, I went to a book signing for the release of Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechdel’s latest graphic memoir.
Her work has made a powerful positive contribution to my life, but until last winter she existed to me mostly as a printed or spoken name, just a somebody.
I’m interested in the relationship it’s possible to have (or not have) with an author, via her work. And particularly, I’m interested in how my connection to AB changed last winter, when the anonymity was taken away and I was left standing before her, next in line at a book signing, in my hand a cartoon that I had scribbled for her on the floor at the train station a little under an hour before.
I struggle to bring myself to call her just “Bechdel”. The distant, academic tone forces me to admit that I really don’t know her at all. After all, I am so intimately familiar with virtually everything she has ever published – much of it autobiographical – and her work has had such a profound impact on my life, ushering me through some major life transitions, creating a connection that is simultaneously intimately personal and completely anonymous.
About a week after our brief meeting at the comic book store, she e-mailed me with some words of encouragement and thanked me for the comic, suddenly burdening me with the task of writing a response I would not lay awake at night regretting for years to come.
I tried my best to sterilise my response of any trace of the fangirl vibes that emanate from me like the wavy air that hovers over hot asphalt whenever I talk about her work, re-checking every sentence to make sure I hadn’t accidentally written: “I’m sorry, I love you.”
I wondered if she was so kind to me because she empathised with the experience of facing a personal interaction with someone you greatly respect and admire. I remembered how, in AYMM?, she mentions the shame she felt when she received a rejection letter from a feminist journal, written by her own creative idol, Adrienne Rich. I wondered if she was trying to afford me the validation she knew the pain of missing.
The cartoon is posted below. It was an awkward and self-conscious – though heartfelt – joke about my anxieties about meeting her; a “Do’s and Don’t’s” guide to the imminent interaction. She received it warmly, asked to see my other work and was very positive and encouraging. Then, she asked me to sign the comic to her. To my horror, my hand was practically shaking as I signed – in tiny, awkward writing in her red ink fountain pen: “For Alison,” and then, moments later, “So lovely to meet you!”