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Interview with Sayra Begum

Sayra Begum is the author/illustrator of Mongrel, a highly personal debut graphic novel: telling the story of a young Muslim woman growing up in the UK, illustrated with striking black and white images. We are delighted to welcome Sayra to Medway River Lit next month!

Photo of Sayra Begum
Sayra Begum

Sayra Begum is based in Nottingham and teaches at Falmouth and De Montfort University. She released her debut graphic novel, Mongrel in 2020 (supported by ACE, published by Knockabout). Begum has contributed to the 10 Years to Save the World comic anthology and taken part in the Comics Cultural Exchange Residency in Prague. In her upcoming residency with New Art Exchange, Begum will be exploring secular and religious Pilgrimages in the form of gallery comics. She is interested in theology, our relationship to the environment, to each other and the reality that exists beyond our perception.

"Deceptively innocent, at once both simple and astounding, Mongrel is an endearing story of struggle told with an intensely honest and vulnerable voice." (Super Serious Comics)

"A magical story and a stunning debut, Mongrel is book you must read and share." (Win Wiacek, Now Read This)

What made you get interested in graphic novels?

It started with autobiography in prose. I was drawn into the universal truths within them and then I discovered autobiographical comics in my university library at Plymouth and that changed everything. It was Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis and Craig Thompson's Blankets that hugely influenced my work and I think you can see the influence in Mongrel.

It was the hybrid nature of the medium which drew me in. As a dyslexic, words don't always come easily to me. But I gained confidence in using words in this medium. Perhaps because I could break down verbal communication in a way that makes more sense to me.

Photo of 'Mongrel' by Sayra Begum
'Mongrel' by Sayra Begum

Mongrel is very personal. Did you have any worries about how family and friends might react to it?

I kept it very close to my chest. I first told my two brothers (who appear in the book) about Mongrel after I had finished writing it and had finished drawing 4 chapters. They read it for the first time two years after I started the project. At this point I felt it was OK to start sharing the project because I had finished writing it and was cemented to the script, so there was no influence anyone could have to how I shared my memories. It had been my truth until now, so I wanted to stay true to that. I didn't want to open the gates and try to capture everyone's version of events. They luckily were really supportive. We had many interesting conversations after comparing our memories, what they read triggered things they had forgotten about, they reminded me of things I had forgotten about or we remembered things differently.

There of course was some worry at the start. I started this project on the Illustration MA at Falmouth. You speak about your work a lot on the MA, and this helps build a resilience, and you learn to defend your ideas and work. Connection has always been key to me and is what drives me. My need to connect squashed any worries.

Is there a graphic novel you've enjoyed that you think everyone should read?

I love Lucy Sullivan's Barking and Zara Slattery's Coma, Tillie Walden's On a Sun Beam and Priya Huq's Piece by Piece.

Do you have a favourite place to write and draw?

Yes, I like to create in my little sanctuary, my little studio room (the spare bedroom), filled with plants, books, art and equipment. I love my cosy set up for drawing. For writing, I find it useful to go for a walk and leave my environment to let the ideas flow.

I find there are draw backs from working from home though, it's difficult to balance different jobs (I teach too) and I get distracted easily. I'm looking forward to having a space dedicated to my next main project. I will be an artist in residence in New Art Exchange for 8 weeks this summer to launch into my Pilgrimage project.

Photo of a page from 'Mongrel'
A page from 'Mongrel'

What comes first - the words or the pictures?

Once I have my idea, I turn to word and write a comic script. I find this is useful to help me outline the overall structure of the story and then I focus on a more granular level with every edit, deciding what should be communicated with words, what with images, what should be happening in the image, who can we see, who is missing from the panel... Then I pick up the pencil and start to create thumbnails, planning the composition of the page and visualising the content I have planned.

You can find out more about Sayra and her process at Medway River Lit's Graphic Novel and Comics day on Friday 9 June.


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