In this feature interview, GSC President, Zachary J.A. Rondinelli, talks with GSC Secretary-Treasurer, Maite Urcaregui, about her 2020 Hillary Chute Award for Best Graduate Student Paper, “Political Geographies of Race in James Baldwin and Yoran Cazac’s Little Man, Little Man.”
ZR: Where did you first encounter Little Man, Little Man: The Story of Childhood and what drew you to it?
MU: My advisor, Professor Stephanie Batiste at the University of California, Santa Barbara, had recommended it to me. While James Baldwin is a canonical author, Little Man, Little Man has been largely overlooked by scholars, which I think speaks to the positioning of children’s literature more broadly and picture books specifically within literary studies. After its original publication and somewhat lukewarm reception in 1976, it was out of print for nearly four decades until it was republished by Duke University Press under the editorialship of Nicholas Boggs and Jennifer DeVere Brody. It struck me that this book was being picked up by an academic press and I was interested in what that signaled for the field of children’s literature. The text’s publication history is part of what drew me to it and opened up all sorts of exciting ways to think about how we understand children’s literature and what the picture book might have to offer comics studies. I was also just struck by the beauty and complexity of its pages. Little Man, Little Man is a rather experimental picture book that blends stream-of-conscious narrative, semi-abstract sketches and watercolors to examine complex social issues and to portray the dynamism of 1970s Harlem.
ZR: So, even though Little Man, Little Man is a picture book, or “a child’s story for adults,” your article places it purposefully within the space of graphic narratives and, therefore, comics studies. Throughout your paper, you present such a brilliant argument about how the creators leverage the visual form in really interesting ways. So, I’m curious about what you think comics studies can learn from studying other types of graphic narratives?
MU: That’s a great question, Zach, and one that I’m continuously exploring through this project! I’m really invested in maintaining that Little Man, Little Man is a picture book, and I think that it’s important to hold onto its place within a genealogy of African American picture books, which were really experiencing an emergence in the 1970s. However, I do understand picture books as part of a capacious definition of graphic narrative that comics studies might explore and embrace. Like comics, the verbal and visual narratives of picture books are fundamentally interdependent. However that interdependence often relies less on panel structure and sequentiality, which have tended to be prioritized in comics studies, so I think exploring picture books and other types of graphic narratives can open up alternative avenues for thinking through the relationship between the visual and the verbal. In terms of what Little Man, Little Man specifically can offer, it is very grounded in the architectural space of Harlem, so I see it creatively participating in some of the critical conversations around architecture and comics happening in comics studies right now.
ZR: Can you talk a bit about your creative journey with this paper? How did it begin and where do you see it going?
MU: This paper has taken on a few different forms. The idea came to me when I was teaching Little Man, Little Man in a comics course that I taught in early 2019. Inspired by the rich conversation the text had elicited in the classroom, I created an abstract with a rough sketch of the project and its argument and submitted it for consideration for the 2020 International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF). The paper was accepted, but the conference looked different than originally expected because of Covid-19. I first shared the paper as a blog post as part of ICAF’s virtual conference. We often put so much work into in-person conference presentations that are only ever heard by those few people in the room, so the blog post was a great opportunity to think about how to share my work with a wider audience in a shorter, more accessible format. I also have used that link to share my work on my C.V. and social media! I then expanded the blog post a bit for my virtual ICAF presentation and panel discussion, which also featured our former GSC president Adrienne Resha. The dialogue, questions, and feedback from that panel provided a starting place for expanding the conference paper into an article. The various iterations of the project have provided multiple deadlines to hold me accountable as well as space and feedback to really let the project grow and develop.
ZR: What does being the recipient of the 2020 Hillary Chute Award mean to you? Can you tell us a little bit about your experience winning it?
MU: Receiving the Hillary Chute Award is an incredible honor, and it came at a time when I was really struggling to find the motivation to write while working from home and in relative isolation over a year into the Covid-19 pandemic. There’s not a large community of comics scholars at my home institution, so I really just wanted to share my work with peers and experts in the field. It was really incredible to then have that work recognized with an award that is named after a comics scholar whose work I really admire and has really shaped the field in important ways. The award and my experience winning it helped me feel seen during a challenging time and feel like I was part of a wider intellectual community.
ZR: One of the perks of winning the 2020 Hillary Chute Award was that you got to have a consultation with INKS Managing Editor Qiana Whitted. Can you tell us a little about the highlights of that chat? How valuable was it to you as a graduate student?
MU: Yes, that is a major perk, and I had a great experience talking with Qiana! Associate Editors Susan Kirtley and Andrew Kunka were also a part of that conversation, so I got multiple perspectives on the publishing process. I felt really supported throughout our conversation, and I really felt that Qiana, Susan, and Andrew wanted to help me find the best home for my work, whether that was at INKS or somewhere else. We discussed where I might submit the article in order to reach the widest and most interested audience and to situate myself within particular fields and conversations. They also discussed when might be the best time to publish the article and kind of gave me permission to set it aside for a bit to focus on the job market and the dissertation, which I really needed to hear. Talking with the INKS team helped me feel more comfortable and confident submitting to their journal in the future and demystified the whole process of academic publishing a bit for me as a grad student and early career scholar.
ZR: Finally, do you have any advice or words of wisdom that you’d like to share with graduate students who are interested in having their work considered?
MU: My biggest piece of advice would be to submit it! Regardless of whether you win (and you might!), it’s an opportunity to share your work, get it read, and increase its visibility. I also really felt that, by submitting my work for consideration, I was participating in and contributing to a wider community of comics scholars.