Writer and cartoonist Alison Bechdel visits Yale
Bechdel, the author of acclaimed graphic novel “Fun Home,” addressed craft and queerness in her talk to the Yale community.
Miranda Jeyaretnam, Contributing Photographer
Students packed the 53 Wall St. auditorium on Thursday afternoon to hear a talk from Alison Bechdel, the graphic artist and namesake of the Bechdel test.
Bechdel delivered a talk that focused on generational differences through her work using 20th-century poet Adrienne Rich as a touchstone. While on campus, she also participated in a seminar where she spoke about the evolution of her art, the complexities of writing a coming out story and the transmission of cultural history through literature.
“There’s sort of a retrospective understanding that my story has become a node of transmission of a certain branch of queer history, which is kind of cool,” Bechdel told the News. “But you know, that makes me a little nervous. Like, did I get it right? What’s my responsibility here? But I guess anyone writing anything has to grapple with that.”
Professors Ellen Handler Spitz and R. Howard Bloch, who co-teach the Humanities seminar “Love, Marriage, Family: A Psychological Study Through the Arts” — the seminar Bechdel visited — invited Bechdel to campus. The Yale Humanities Program; English department; women’s, gender and sexuality studies program; the History of Art department and the Whitney Humanities Center co-sponsored the event.
Bechdel rose to prominence with the publication of her 2006 graphic-memoir, “Fun Home.” The book centers around Bechdel’s relationship with her father, the events leading up to his death and Bechdel reconciling her own queerness with her father’s closeted sexuality. “Fun Home” was later adapted into a Tony-winning musical.
Maia Decker ’24 — who, like Bechdel, is a queer writer — attended the event with friends from her creative writing class. She was most excited to hear about Bechdel’s writing process and relationship to her work.
“I was inspired by the manner in which Bechdel transverses the academic and popular world — a task especially difficult for writers,” Decker wrote to the News. “I’m so grateful that we were all able to learn from such a talented writer and a queer elder, the latter of which is not to be taken for granted.”
Bechdel was introduced by Kathryn Lofton, who will serve as acting dean of the Faculty of Arts & Sciences beginning in January. Lofton spoke about the current censorship of queer literature and Bechdel’s profound influence on queer writers — and also joked about Bechdel’s rejection from Yale.
Lofton detailed a recent personal encounter with the cultural weight of Bechdel’s work. After speaking at Colorado College, she traveled with members of the college’s LGBTQ+ alliance to Club Q, the LGBTQ+ nightclub where a shooter killed 5 people and injured 17 others in November.
On the drive back from the club, one of the students revealed that she was in the process of storyboarding a graphic novel. When Lofton asked whether the student liked Bechdel, the student responded, “Yes, she is everything.” Everyone in the car, including their previously-silent driver, nodded reverently in agreement.
“For us, the work is never to forget how powerful a thing it is to speak truth at the highest level of its expression,” Lofton said. “How truly dangerous it is to speak that truth. When it is done, it can break open the world.”
Bechdel’s talk spanned across her 40-year career, using her ongoing connection to 20th-century poet and feminist theorist Adrienne Rich as a touchstone throughout. She described Rich, whose “radical lesbian poetry” shaped Bechdel’s political perspective and aesthetic mission, as one of her greatest influences.
The audience collectively gasped when Bechdel described a personalized rejection letter she got from Rich after submitting a short memoir piece to a lesbian, feminist journal early in her career. Though discouraged, Bechdel continued to write, calling Rich’s letter a “gift.”
Projecting photos of her cartoons onto the auditorium screen, Bechdel recounted her first forays into professional cartooning. She first described her dissatisfaction with the 1980s representation of queer women, which she strived to correct with her comic strip, “Dykes to Watch Out For.” The strip ran for 25 years.
Bechdel then spoke about her graphic memoirs “Fun Home” and “Are You My Mother?,” which focus on her father and mother, respectively. She said she continued to take inspiration from Rich as she used writing to process her life story and understand her parents in a historical context.
“Sometimes the only way to really untie this complicated, traumatic knot would be to not just feel it but to to think it through,” Bechdel said. “When I was younger, I pretty much wrote my parents off as being hopelessly damaged from the repressive era they had grown up in, but as I wrote about them, I began to gain an appreciation for the extent to which they managed to keep themselves intact in spite of those forces.”
When Bechdel began writing her latest book, “The Secret to Superhuman Strength,” she drew inspiration from a quote, “To study Buddhism is to study the self, to study the self is to forget the self, to forget the self is to be with others.”
Bechdel claimed that her connection to Adrienne Rich had lapsed by this time. However, during a period of writer’s block, she suddenly thought of the phrase “Transcendental Etude” — the title of a poem by rich. The poem’s title was eventually included in the final chapter of “The Secret to Superhuman Strength.”
“The poem brought me back to the days of my youth, of my political and sexual awakening and the clarity of that vision of the world, which did not get muddied by experience,” Bechdel said.
At the event’s conclusion, students were given the opportunity to ask questions and get their books signed.
Bechdel was hesitant to give advice to future generations of writers, but she eventually turned to Rich once more.
“I just think I hate giving advice to people because I don’t like getting advice,” she told the News. “But it makes me think of my rejection letter from Adrienne Rich. It said, ‘Writing is a very long, demanding training. More hard work than luck.’ I think that’s really awesome advice.”
“The Secret to Superhuman Strength” was published in 2021.