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Book Club Wed Jul 15 2009

August 2009 Selection: La Perdida by Jessica Abel

la perdida.jpgWhat is ethnicity? What is nationality? And where do the two intersect and diverge? These are some of the questions Jessica Abel explores in her graphic novel La Perdida, the story of Carla, a young woman who travels to Mexico to delve into her paternal roots and find someplace where she feels she truly belongs. After crashing in the apartment of her sometime-lover Harry, a fellow expatriate intent on living out the dreams set forth by beat writer William S. Burroughs, Carla is immediately put on the defense when her stereotypical love of Frida Kahlo, her shaky grasp on the Spanish language and her inability to eat a taco without spilling the contents out of the backside of her tortilla relentlessly pegs her as an American.

For Carla, Frida Kahlo serves as a defining mark of what it means to be Mexican. "She was more than my ideal of an artist," Carla expounds. "All I wanted was to be more like her. But I was faced with a lot of obstacles. Not being able to draw, for one. Not being Mexican, for another. Not really. Sure, she was half-Mexican, half-German like me, but she grew up there, and that's what counts." It is this desperation to convince herself and those around her of her natural fit in Mexico that drives Carla's through the story and leads her to naively put her trust in less-than-exemplary "natives." The cast of characters is undoubtedly colorful: from Memo, the Marxist enthusiast who spouts diatribes attacking the American elite, to Oscar, the hanger-on and would-be DJ who is more than content to live off of Carla's meager salary once they embark on a questionable relationship, to Liana, Carla's one-time roommate and co-teacher at school where they both teach English, to El Gordo, the drug lord who takes an unseemly interest in Carla, Abel imbues her story with a wide range of characters who convey the idea of what it means to be Mexican to varying degrees.

Carla's dependence on the suspicious individuals she meets on her own and her rejection of the American friends to whom she's introduced through Harry work to complicate her character and make us question her motivations. At times it is possible to understand this desire to leave one's identity behind and at other times it is impossible not to look upon her naiveté with scorn, sure that we would never put such blind trust in those who are, essentially, strangers, but it is these complications and shifts in beliefs that keep Carla from simply being an ignorant American and make her a believable person struggling with the implications of her father's last name. Who are strangers and who are our countrymen? Which of the two has our best interests at heart and which will pursue the chance to take advantage of our willingness to belong? Those are the questions Carla struggles with in La Perdida, and though the answers may not always be so clear, Carla is fortunate to come out of her excursion a little bit wiser, a little bit more worldly and, perhaps, knowing who she really is just a little bit more.

* * *

Jessica Abel grew up in Chicago and started making comics during her time at the University of Chicago. She lived in the city until leaving it for a two-year stay in Mexico with her now husband. La Perdida is not, however, autobiographical. Abel has won the Harvey and Lulu awards for "Best New Talent" and a "Best New Series" Harvey Award for La Perdida. To learn more about Abel, visit her website and be sure to check out her Mexico diaries for more background information on her graphic novel.

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