“You’re trying to get to an essential truth. A literal truth is impossible if you’re drawing something.” Contributing Editor Sarah Mirk interviews the legendary comics journalist on his new book.
Transcript: Joe Sacco Talks About His New Book, Paying the Land
Legendary comics journalist Joe Sacco has spent his life as a witness to the world. His books document stories from regular people who experienced extraordinary violence in places like Bosnia and Gaza. For his newest book, Paying the Land, he spent time with several Dené First Nations communities that have lived for generations on the land that’s now Canada’s Northwest Territories. After being invited to come visit the Northwest Territories by a local named Shauna, who serves as a guiding voice throughout the book, Sacco spent four years researching, writing, and drawing the 272-book, which delves into difficult topics such as the terrible history of residential schools, legacies of colonialism, and current debates over who benefits from mining and fracking.
Your books always deal with super thorny complex topics that have both a really deep convoluted history and a really controversial present. Can you talk a little bit about what was the impetus for the book? And why are you attracted to such complex issues?
Oh, boy. Those are a lot of questions. Complex issues, I don’t know. I mean, to me, it’s got to be something that appeals to me as a subject, that I know that years later when I’m still working on that subject, that it will still interest me. So whatever I choose has to be something that is going to hit me in the gut a bit. As far as this topic, I wanted to get away from violence somehow, especially war, drawing war situations. And quite naively, I thought I was going to do that by going to the Northwest Territories where extensively, what I was doing was a magazine piece about climate change. Though not directly looking at climate change, looking at resource extraction and those people who are affected by it, which are indigenous people, generally.
And Canada, because someone had contacted me from Canada just a few years before and mentioned if you ever wanted to come up here. And I thought, “Okay. I want to do something about indigenous people. It seems like a relatively easy trip to make. People will speak English. Blah, blah, blah.” But like I said, it turned out to be much more complex than just a story about resource extraction. It ends up being more a book about colonialism.
So this book is based on two trips that you took to the Northwest territories in 2015 and 2016, which feels like a thousand years ago now. You mentioned a couple of the expectations and assumptions that you brought with you, but I was just curious about what sort of assumptions you brought with you. How was writing this book challenging to your own perspective and your own mindset?
Okay, well basically, I guess I thought that going up there, speaking to people about resource extraction, that the indigenous people would be mostly against it, because most of the things I was reading were from those sorts of perspectives before I went there. And then of course, what I found out was it’s much, much different than that, that it’s not a monolithic. The people there are not a monolith, there are many different ways of thinking about it and they have a lot of different perspectives. So, I found problems within the communities about resource extraction, various opinions about whether they should continue with it or be opposed to it or whatever. And then, so within communities and also between communities that might’ve been sitting on the same resources.
So it was more complex than I thought. Also, I began to see quite quickly that I couldn’t really limit it to resource extraction. Because people were often talking about other things, like just the problems within the communities, like alcoholism and all that. And so if you’re talking about alcoholism, domestic violence, things like that, you have to go into the residential schools, which is where really this sort of thing has its origin. What happened to indigenous people, not just in Canada, but in many places where they were not allowed to express their culture, not allowed to speak their language. This was all done through the schooling system.
So I was learning a lot while I was there. I had some inkling before I went, but basically I didn’t expect the story to go in these directions. And then you begin to understand how it’s all linked. That getting resources is basically about dispossessing people of their land. And that’s connected to dispossessing them of their culture because especially for the Dena people in the Northwest territories, culture and land are sort of the same thing. They’re just so intimately mixed together that you can’t separate one from the other. So if you can take away people’s language, their ability to live on the land, you can, it’s one way of dispossessing them other than using a cavalry charge, which is how it was done here in the United States.
You mentioned wanting to get away from war in reporting this book, but it’s a different kind of war that you’re documenting in this book.
There’s both struggles over who owns the land, who can live on the land as well as a cultural and social war of the Canadian government and the Catholic church really trying to strip away the indigenous culture from these different communities through the use of residential schools.
You put that very well. I mean, that’s exactly it.
So these are super difficult topics. I’m curious about what big questions you had in mind that drove this project.
Well, the first question was about resource extraction and that’s where I started. And actually I was advised to be very careful how I approach certain subjects, not to bring up residential schools for example, but what sort of happens is people bring them up, bring up these sorts of topics themselves. They are talking about them. So it’s not as if you have to push against the door to get it open. It was things like the violence that was done in the schooling system was always sort of the elephant in the room. It had such an effect, not just on the generations that went through the system, which ended in the 1990s, but also these sorts of things, the trauma was passed down. So even people who never went to those residential schools were traumatized by their parents’ experiences. So in the end, I began to sort of realize that this is really a book about that. And the main topic is really the land, what the land means to the Dené, what it means to us as Westerners and how those things overlap. And like you mentioned, I wanted to get away from violence, but I realized I sort of can’t get away from violence. I mean, there was violence was done to the people there.
You mentioned that you don’t bring up traumatic incidents, you try not to put people on the spot to delve into really traumatic situations in their lives and traumatic histories. That’s one thing I was really thinking about as I was reading this book, is that all of your work, whether you’re working in Palestine or you’re working in Bosnia, is you as an outsider dropping into these communities, taking a look around and trying to document what you see and trying to document your perspective. As a journalist how do you try to make sure that you’re being really thoughtful and careful in your approach?
Well, first of all, you have to feel that the people are talking about these sorts of things willingly. That’s sort of the main thing. People will open up. I mean, I think if you are careful about how you’re approaching things and you’re listening and that’s something I had to learn is to really let people talk. One thing I was advised is when, especially when older people are talking, elders, you let them speak and you don’t interrupt. And it’s funny that worked quite well. It might be a roundabout way of getting to the point, but they always got to the point. And when I look at some of my old interviews, my transcripts of old interviews, from Gaza or Bosnia, I’m always surprised at how much I would interrupt people and sometimes keep them from getting to their point. I frustrated myself in those situations.
So I sort of learned to ask questions and just really listen. But the thing to me, the main thing too, that I try to do is to provide context, because it’s not just a matter of hearing someone’s story about alcoholism and the depths that they might’ve reached when they were not sober, the things they did when they weren’t sober. It’s like, “Why?” So providing the context is, to me, a way of sort of showing that the shame really isn’t on individuals, it’s more a societal shame. It’s sort of Canada’s shame.
You’re showing more here’s the system, here’s the pattern.
It’s a system. A lot of problems that people have, they’re systematic. I mean, North Americans, especially people from United States, tend to blame themselves for what are really systematic problems and the same might be true in a place like Canada. But if you look at indigenous people, the whole the Canadian government very purposefully tried to atomize those communities, took children away from their parents, flew them in different directions, sometimes splitting up siblings. The parents in many cases wouldn’t even know where the child was and then refused to let them speak their language, beat them when they spoke their languages. And those places were rife with sexual abuse and other kinds of abuse. And when those people wouldn’t return to their communities, they were traumatized. Often couldn’t even speak to the elders. So you’re cutting people off from the land by educating them in a Western way.
You mention that for this book you went in thinking it was going to be about fracking but instead of wound up becoming a book about colonialism. And you mentioned elsewhere that making this book, throughout the process of making this book, you sort of decolonized your own thinking about the land. And I was hoping you could speak to that. How did making this book change your perspective on land and on property? And in what ways do you feel the process of making this book was a decolonizing experience for yourself?
Well, I hope it was because you go to a place like this and in some ways it’s sort of anthropological. You’re among people that you’re not really familiar with and you’re talking about their lives, some of their culture, their habits, these sorts of things. But in the end, a book like this has to be at least partially self-reflective. And when I spoke to people who really had kept their culture and really had based their way of thinking in their traditions, I was quite impressed by how they thought of land. I mean, the traditional Dena way of thinking is that they don’t own land. The land owns them. So when they signed these treaties, yielding, giving up all the rights to their land, that’s sort of was meaningless to them. Because they felt like they didn’t own the land in the first place.
They have a very reciprocal relationship with land and with the things on the land. When they say land, they mean the animals, the rocks, the trees, just the whole environment. And the title of the book is Paying The Land because they have it’s not just, I think a Dena thing, but when they come to the land, they will give it something, a gift, teabag, some tobacco, a bullet, perhaps. They just give the land something before they start doing something, which to me really, really symbolizes this reciprocal relationship. And that really struck me because the way we think of land is sort of that John Lockian way of thinking of land. Which is land is something to be parceled up, sold its property in the sense of the word that you own it. And John Locke’s definition of ownership of land was that you worked the land, which was very convenient in dispossessing, indigenous peoples because they weren’t farming.
And as far as the westerner was concerned, farming is how you owned land. You put your sweat into the land and thus you have ownership. So it’s a good way of sort of dismissing people who hunt on land, trap on land, live on it, but aren’t working in that way. So this really struck me. I live in Portland. And there’s a lot of development here, as you know, and the house next door was knocked down and four houses were put in its place. And it’s the way the land was cut down, sort of shaved down to the street level. And the trees between our properties were taken out. They were excavated. There’s nothing now between the properties except a fence. And there’s two ways of thinking about that.
I mean, one is, “Oh, I’ve lost my privacy.” But the other way of thinking about it is, “What about the birds that were living in those trees?” Because there were birds living in those trees and that’s something that I might not have considered in the same way. But when you see how there’s an indigenous perspective, it’s a useful filter. I think, as a westerner, I can never really get to that point to a certain point, but it’s always good to remind myself that there are other ways of thinking about something like property than just, “Well, it’s mine. I have the right to do this. I have the right to do that.” But there are other things going on. And that’s the indigenous perspective is much more holistic somehow.
I feel like each book you publish offers a different perspective or a different way of seeing the world. I’m always impressed by how you use these very human, personal intimate narratives to really create a book that altogether feels like a systemic critique. How do you get from the personal to the big picture?
Well, I mean, in this particular case, it was really just listening to people and listening to their critiques. Because a lot of people have a very solid critique. It might not be like an academic’s critique of what’s happened to them, but it’s a deep felt critique that goes exactly to the heart in a way an academic’s critique doesn’t really go to the heart. So it’s really, it was just a question of listening and sort of learning what their perspectives were. Because they were sort of teaching me in a way. I mean, they weren’t sitting me down and saying, “This is how it is, blah, blah, blah.” Just through in the process of talking, interviewing them. I began to see what their worldview was and what their critique of the West is. Because they have a very sharp critique of the West and what’s happened to them.
The ones that… There are people who have really put things together in a way that they’re sort of handing it to me. And then it’s, for me, it’s just a matter of organizing it. And I mean, obviously, you come back from a trip like this and you think, “Well, what are the major elements?” Well, there is the resource extraction. There is what happened in the residential schools. There’s the effects of the residential schools, the trauma, the alcoholism, that sort of thing. There were land claims because there’s a whole section about land claims and you can’t avoid it. So there are all these aspects and elements and then you think, “Well, how do they sort of fit together?” And they simply do fit together because ultimately all of those subjects are about Land somehow. So, it’s just a matter of putting things in the right order.
And the book starts with a guy named Paul Andrew, who talks about his life in the Bush. And it occurred to me as I was trying to write this thing up that that would be the perfect place to start because it starts at a place where someone is talking about what it was like to grow up in the Bush and someone who is my age up there probably had a pretty good chance of growing up in the Bush if they were indigenous. At least spending their childhood there. And he was able to tell me what Dena’s communities were like, how people were very individualistic. They really knew how to, as individuals, knew how to handle themselves, but they were also really community driven. The individuality and the community were really linked and people really felt like they had a place for themselves in their communities.
And there was great strength in that. And so to put that down first, I was then able to show how much of that had changed because of colonialism, because of the need of the Canadian government to extract resources and then to sort out where the indigenous people belonged in their scheme of things. So that’s sort of, I mean, gives you sort of an idea of how I was trying to structure and organize it.
You started this book, in part, because you were invited to visit the Northwest territories by a woman who lives up there who’s kind of your guide throughout the narrative. And then she took you up to these really remote towns and villages much, much farther North in Canada. And I was curious: how did you decide who to interview once you got there?
Every process is different. Every book has a different process. When I was doing the Gaza book, I was very much focused on speaking to older people who remembered some incidents that took place in 1956. In this particular case, Shauna, the woman you’re referring to, she knew people in those communities and we were going to do a book or a magazine piece about resource extraction. So the people she was going to introduce me to were often people who had some opinions about that. When we got there, we sort of search those people out. But from talking to those people, you began to see there were other things going on. And one thing sort of leads to another. I mean, often people will say, “Well, if you want to know about that, then go speak to this person. If you want to know about residential schools, Yeah, I’ll tell you something.” We’ll just in the course of a conversation.
So doors begin to open that you hadn’t really thought of before. And it’s really a question of not being so centered on what your original purpose was and sort of allowing a story to develop in front of you. It’s just a matter of giving yourself a little time to see where the story is going. And then to begin to follow it. For example, we went to Trout Lake. Shauna knew the chief there, Dolphus Jumbo. We met him, met his brother, met some other people. But then he was talking a lot about a conflict with another community, Fort Liard. And then you think, “Well, I should get the perspective of the chief in Fort Liard on this conflict. And so, we’ll go there.” I mean, so the one thing sort of leads to another and you just sort of let it play out.
And then seven years later, you have a book.
Well in this case four years later, I’m glad to say. The Gaza book took seven years.
Your books are super rich in detail. A lot of the visual details are very clearly trying to be accurate to life: the clothing, the dog sleds, the different tools people are using. I know you take a million photos while you’re talking to people, and then you use those as reference points, but what’s the process for doing visual fact checking for you? How do you especially fact check stuff that there are no photos for, like scenes from the past, imagined scenes, stuff from people’s memories?
Well, as far as life in the bush, that’s something that doesn’t really exist in that same way that it did. The stuff on depicting doesn’t really exist in that same way. So fortunately in Yellowknife, which is the capital of the Northwest territories, this there really good archive, a photo archive in a museum, it’s all accessible online. And there were a lot of photographs of fish camps, the tents that they were using in the twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, up to about the mid eighties. So there were a lot of images that gave me a good idea. I had books also that had images for things like how to make a moose skin boat.
If you search on YouTube, I mean, there’s a lot available. Eventually I found people making something like that, putting up tents in the way, the traditional way of putting up a tent, all that sort of stuff. Some of that stuff you see on YouTube, skinning certain animals, even that sort of stuff I researched on YouTube. I’m not an outdoorsy guy. So I had to sort of learn this stuff. But the ultimate test really in this particular case was that first chapter. I was most worried about it because I hadn’t seen any of this stuff at all. I sent it to a couple of indigenous people, including Paul Andrew, and he gave an affirmative on it. He said that it seemed to satisfy him.
Every now and then something was… like the magazine piece that I mentioned. I’d sort of mostly completed that. And on my second trip, I brought it and someone said to me, “Well, the dogs weren’t in the dogsleds, they’re not in tandem, they’re single file.” And then I was really glad I learned that sort of thing because that’s the way they do it in the Northwest territory. The dogs are single file. So every now and then you are corrected and you’re thankful for that. You don’t want to make that kind of a mistake.
So you had the chance to actually bring drafts and show them to people who are in the communities and say, “What do you think?” And they would correct some details about it?
In those cases. In other cases, I made PDFs and fortunately it’s a modern enough world and people have the internet. You can send things, someone can print them out and then show them around.
I love thinking of that process, someone printing out your work and showing it around the town being like, “What do you think of this? What do you think of this?” And then I know that a lot of your comics, you take photo references for, and you try to have these super accurate, but comics is not a photorealistic medium where you’re creating here’s exactly what happened and everything in here is from a photo. So I was hoping you could speak a little bit to how you use your own creative capacity there. Some stuff like people’s memories and scenes from the past, you’re going to have to fill in some details there as an artist.
Well, I mean, I’m trying to do journalism and it’s an odd kind of journalism in a way because the quotes are accurate. I record my conversations, I transcribe them myself. So all that stuff’s accurate. The facts, as much as I can, I do my research and that’s all accurate. But you’re right, when you’re drawing, just the very nature of picking up a pen and drawing something, it’s going to be subjective. It’s an interpretation then. So there’s always this tension in the journalism I’m trying to do between the accuracy of the information and the drawings themselves. The drawings are based, as you mentioned, on photos, on people’s recollections on whatever research I can do, I try to make those sorts of things accurate. Like what a tent looks like. But did someone use five poles or six poles to put up this tent at that time? That’s not something I’m going to concern myself with.
I try to make something look as accurate as possible within sort of… But not to belabor it in a way. It’s like if the person sees it and recognizes basically that this is true to an experience and that’s good enough for me. Of course, you have to use your imagination. And of course you’re emphasizing certain things, your even artistic effect, but I don’t make a sort of apologies for that in a way, because I am, it is an artistic form also as well as a journalistic form. Those two things, I can’t really square them exactly. But that’s fine with me. I mean, to me, the tension between those two things is what makes it a living sort of vibrant form.
I often describe nonfiction comics as conveying the emotional reality of the situation. A panel might not have a background in it because you want the focus to be on that person’s face or you might draw emotion lines coming off of their head or something else that highlights the emotional reality of the situation.
Even if it’s not the way it actually looked in a photo.
That’s exactly right. I mean, you’re trying to get to an essential truth. A literal truth is impossible if you’re drawing something. I mean, you could get two artists drawing the same truck and it’s going to look different, but a reader will recognize the truck as a truck. And maybe even that model, even though two people drew it in a different way. That’s just the nature of it. But, yeah, the main thing is to get to the essence of a truth and that can be, that’s more compelling and more important than getting every stitch in a garment correct.
I think that’s a nice way to say it. And this book is based on so much research, you obviously interviewed dozens of people and went to historical archives. I’m curious about what you kept in mind as the throughline that you wanted people to take away from this? It’s easy to get lost in all the details of this history. What was sort of like the through line that you’re like, “Okay, here’s the story that I want people to take away when they read this book?”
Well, there’s a lot of things going on. I think I want people to have a sense of the strength of that culture at its best. That’s one thing. The other thing, especially for a westerner, is to sort of understand that colonialism doesn’t end when a truth and reconciliation commission ties up a report and says, “This is a final report we’re issuing on residential schools. It was cultural genocide.” I mean, of course that’s all true, but colonialism keeps on spooling because of the trauma of those policies will echo down the generations and will affect people today, will affect people tomorrow and after that. So I want people to understand that the damage of colonialism, isn’t something you can just say, “Oh, that was in the 1800s, that’s the end of it.” It’s not quite like that. I want people to sort of situate themselves in the reality of what colonialism is and what it will continue to be.
I think often when you say you’re writing a book, people react by saying, “Oh, that’s so exciting. You must be so excited about it.” And I’ve written a couple books and my friends have written books. I know it’s a super anxiety inducing process. I actually don’t feel excited at all. I feel mostly anxious about it. So I’m curious about what are you worried about with this book? What’s making you anxious about it? And is there anything that you’re excited about with it that you’re like, “I can’t wait for this to be in the world?”
Well, I’m always worried about books like this because ultimately the war you have is, did I get it wrong? Am I going too far with this? Am I… Is it too raw? And you can’t always necessarily get that right. But you’re trying to get it right. And, but that is a bit anxiety inducing. Writing about indigenous people as a westerner is something you have to be very careful about. That’s why, I mean, as much as possible, I try to be self reflective when I’m doing a book like this. It’s important to sort of examine the West when you’re looking at indigenous people too.
As far as what’s exciting. I mean, I actually just enjoy the process a lot. I like drawing. It gets a bit tedious when I’m done with the drawings. And then I go through the editing process and the months it takes to sort of just get the book that you think is done sort of again, through these different finish lines. And there’s never an end to the finish lines until the book is actually out. And then to be honest, it’s always a little anticlimactic. Because often you’re seeing the book almost a year after you finished the last panel, you’re onto something else. You know you’re going to have to start talking about the book, even though you’re onto something else and you have to sort of get your head back into it. The main thing for me is to enjoy the process because the actual publication and all that, it’s always a little anticlimactic.
So what’s the book you’re working on now? What’s your next project?
Well, right now I’m sort of taking a break from journalism and working on my Rolling Stones book, which I’ve been working on for years and years and years, but now I’m really putting my back into it. But I have another journalistic book in the cards. I’ve already done the research for it, so I don’t have to do any more traveling. It’s about India, it’s about a riot that took place in India and about what people tell themselves about the riot sometime later, and about democracy and violence, how those two things mix up.
Sounds like another light topic for you.
Yeah. I know.
So is your Rolling Stones book about the history of the Rolling Stones and their music, their lives?
Everything I write about the Rolling Stones is accurate. But I would, if you expect to read a book about the Rolling Stones, you’d be pretty… They’re in there somehow, but it’s really, it’s everything I’ve always wanted to write about that isn’t journalistic. All the ideas that I’ve had, that don’t really fit into a journalism book. Because when you’re researching these things, all these ideas are popping into your head and you say, “Well, I can’t really say that. That’s not journalism.” So it’s sort of everything I’ve learned in a way. All my despair, all my anxieties, all my thrills, everything is in there somehow.