The Book of Sarah

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Shortlisted   —Communication Arts Illustration Competition2020

Shortlisted   —British Book Design and Production Awards: Graphic Novel2019

'Sarah Lightman is like the poster-child for a new kind of feminist activist— scholar, artist, curator, and cheerleader for comics that reveal and shape new forms of Jewish consciousness.'—Dr Ariel Kahn, Jewish Quarterly

Distilled from thousands of diary drawings begun in her parents’ garden shed back in 1996, Sarah Lightman’s The Book of Sarah is an alternative bible to the one she moved away from, along with the religious Jewish lifestyle she followed as a teenager.

The Book of Sarah is missing from the bible, so artist Sarah Lightman sets out to make her own: questioning religion, family, motherhood and what it takes to be an artist in this quietly subversive visual autobiography from NW3.

Drawings of an imaginary Hampstead bible, a baby monitor,  the local landscape of Ellerdale Road and the outside of St Paul’s Girls’ School: books and streets, buildings and objects fill this bildungsroman set in North West London. Sarah Lightman has been drawing her life since she was a 22-year-old undergraduate at The Slade School of Art. The Book of Sarah traces her journey from modern Jewish orthodoxy to a feminist Judaism, as she searches between the complex layers of family and family history that she inherited and inhabited. While the act of drawing came easily, the letting go of past failures, attachments and expectations did not. It is these that form the focus of Sarah’s astonishingly beautiful pages, as we bear witness to her making the world her own.

Kylie Ora Lobell, Jewish Journal

31 March 2020

“The Book of Sarah” is not your typical graphic novel. Instead of comic-book-style drawings it’s filled with charcoal and pencil illustrations and there are no panels. But that was Sarah Lightman’s plan all along.

The British artist and curator who won the Will Eisner Award for her 2014 book, “Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews,” divided her autobiographical graphic novel into biblical sections. The sections are: Genesis, Exodus, Bamidbar, Numbers, Leviticus, Harry’s Genesis (named after her son), Revelations and Apocrypha. The Book was shortlisted for the 2019 British Book Awards. 

Lightman spoke with the Journal about her fellow female graphic novelists, the matriarch she was named after and what she hopes to accomplish with her new work. 

Jewish Journal: Why did you decide to create “The Book of Sarah?” 

Sarah Lightman: I was an undergraduate at The Slade School of Fine Art in London. I felt really lost so I decided to go backward and draw my childhood to understand myself. I looked at family photos and tried to understand who I was in my family by the way we were standing. I did those drawings 20 years ago. I gave presentations with them, but I hadn’t discovered the world of comics. Even though I kept doing drawings about myself, I hadn’t seen anything similar apart from Charlotte Salomon’s work. I realized my work could fit into that world. She was basically the first autobiographical Jewish graphic novelist. Before she died in Auschwitz, she spent one year drawing her life story. Her drawings are amazing. 

JJ: Are there a lot of Jewish women in the comic book industry? 

SL: Jewish women have been making amazing work since the 1970s, but you only remember the men. Women often aren’t known. We get passed over all the time.

JJ: Do you think Sarah was overlooked in the Bible, since there wasn’t a book about her? 

SL: That’s what I argue. I felt about her story what I felt about myself — I wasn’t leading my own life. I was in someone else’s story. Like me, she was also an older mum. There’s contemporary literature written with her in mind. I found more as time went on. Once a lot of the biblical women began to become independent in the narrative, they were condemned and then ignored. Eve was condemned for wanting to learn more. 

With Sarah, she gets absorbed into Abraham’s great narrative. She’s a conduit through which the Jewish people are born. It’s Abraham who learns her name is going to be changed. It’s Abraham who converses with God. Sarah is deriving power through Abraham. Even when she talks about her baby, she says, “Who believes Abraham could have a baby at this age?” She’s often qualified in relation to the male characters. Sarah has power in my graphic novel. Women can take control of how other women are being presented in the arts and give them power and opportunity. 

JJ: Why did you decide to tell your story like the Five Books of Moses? 

SL: I wanted to take up space and see what it would be like if we followed women’s lives instead of the men. All those biblical texts, they’re just named after men. It’s all about Moses. It’s all through the male voice and scribe. I became a scribe for my own narrative. 

JJ: Did you draw everything at once or as you were experiencing it? 

SL: Apart from my childhood ones, everything was done pretty much as I lived it.

JJ: In the book, you talk about how you went from being secular to Orthodox and then to Reform. Where are you on your spiritual path today? 

SL: I like being in a Reform synagogue and choosing my own Jewish identity and affiliations. I like the fact that a woman is the head of the synagogue and we have a gay rabbi. There’s informal dress for the children’s services. It’s introducing my son to a world where you can be yourself. My academic work and writing are how I encounter being a Jewish woman. With my art, I’m constructing and deliberating my contribution to Jewish culture. 

JJ: You also touch upon your struggles with depression. How does it feel to reveal these struggles on the page? 

SL: It’s great to talk about these things. We’ve all lived lives where we’re not 100% pleased with what we’ve done, but that’s no reason to be upset about it. It helps people not feel alone when they read the book. We’re all figuring it out and asking how do we do it? The fact that life is such an imperfect science — we mess up, we hurt people’s feelings — doesn’t mean it’s something not to be shared. 

JJ: What do you hope people get out of reading your book? 

SL: I felt like I wanted to be myself in my book. The front cover has a painting on it, which is not like a typical graphic novel. Doing it that way was a bit brave and a breakthrough. You don’t have to fit into something like Orthodoxy or marriage or mothering. I figured out what I wanted to do for me, and that was fine. Finding your own way is a totally legitimate way to do things. 

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Olga Michael, IABA Students and New Scholars Network

31 March 2020

Review of The Book of Sarah, by Sarah Lightman

Olga Michael reviews Sarah Lightman’s recently published The Book of Sarah (2019), a brilliant graphic memoir about (“failed”) motherhood, family bonds, Jewishness, belonging and exclusion, trauma and survival, mental illness and healing.

Women’s autobiographical comics first emerged in the US counter-cultural underground scene with Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s work (see Chute 20-27). During the turn of the twenty-first century, we have witnessed a maturation of the genre through the circulation of such texts in book form, and their re-branding as women’s graphic memoirs. Alison Bechdel, Phoebe Gloeckner and Lynda Barry are three among many brilliant female cartoonists, whose works display each artist’s negotiation of issues like problematic intergenerational family relations, parental neglect, sexual and other forms of trauma, and the survival of such traumas. With her recently published graphic memoir, The Book of Sarah (2019), Sarah Lightman, a London-based comics artist and scholar, has established herself within this continuously expanding group of brilliant women cartoonists, whose valuable work can help readers better understand distinctly female experiences of (“failed”) motherhood, belonging and exclusion, trauma and survival, and mental illness and healing.

The Book of Sarah is divided into eight chapters: “Genesis,” “Exodus,” “Bamidbar,” “Numbers,” “Leviticus,” ‘Harry’s Genesis,” “Revelations,” and “Apocryphra.” Through its rich intertextual references to the Torah, the graphic memoir displays how Sarah’s journey from childhood to adulthood and to becoming an artist and a mother is marked by her Jewish ancestors, by her own mother’s strong presence, and by her religious upbringing as an Orthodox Jew. In a two-page spread, Lightman draws her son’s shoe and the narrating voice states that as he outgrows “shoes” she “outgrow[s] friends and religious beliefs” (10-11). Emerging from a religious childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, as a more mature adult, Sarah decides to abandon Orthodox Judaism. Nevertheless, her Jewishness is core to the development both of her life and of her (graphic) life narrative. As the narrating voice describes Sarah’s paternal and maternal ancestors and their migratory journeys, a scroll in the visual register of the narrative, depicts the names of the “children of Israel when they came into Egypt” (22-23). Sarah’s sense of self and belonging are therefore introduced as deeply rooted in the archive of her family and her religion.

As she draws incomplete faces, Lightman’s narrator explains that this “is not my whole family’s story (fig.1). Just an attempt at my own. But of course, their story is woven indelibly into my own, like folktales, and bible stories, magical, impossible, and true” (24). Then, she goes on to wonder: “If I have inherited short-sightedness and a propensity to allergies, then why should I not also have inherited a self-thwarting mechanism, an unfulfilled intellectualism, and both over-controlling and over-dependent tendencies?” (24). In so doing, she points to how she is essentially an amalgam of her ancestors and how in The Book of Sarah, familial and religious pasts become conflated so as for her to be able to explain how her autobiographical subject gained and established her own voice as an artist and as a distinct member of her (religious) family.

Page 24 from The Book of Sarah (Myriad Editions and Penn State University Press) 2019. © Sarah Lightman. https://myriadeditions.com/books/the-book-of-sarah/

The conflation of personal and biblical narratives is also indicated by the book’s title itself. Sarah explains that she used to read the “story of the matriarch Sarah” from the Torah, and the visual register shows the book and the page with the story she mentions inscribed in Hebrew (13). The biblical Sarah, the narrator explains, does not have her own book, like the “Book of Esther and [the] Book of Daniel,” but in telling her own life story, Lightman creates that book (15). After the description of regrets, wrong decisions, attempts to become emancipated from her family and returns to its orbit, struggles with mental illness, failed relationships, the trauma and happiness of childbearing later in her life, and the value of being an artist, towards the end of the narrative, Lightman draws a scene from the Book of Genesis (fig. 2). This scene, her own adaptation of Rembrandt’s etching Abraham Entertaining the Angels (1656), depicts God’s angels, who appeared to Abraham as travellers to announce to him that his wife would soon have a son, despite her advanced age. On the side, almost unnoticeable, Sarah is standing behind a semi-closed door, looking at the gathering of the men who are talking about her own fertility and future pregnancy. The door is drawn in a darker shade and Sarah almost blends into the background, in a scene that visually captures her marginal position in Abraham’s narrative. “Sarah, Sarah, come out of the shadows,” the narrating voice urges the biblical Sarah as well as Lightman’s autobiographical subject (231). “This is your life. This is your time,” the narrator explains. As such, Lightman formulates a mirroring between the biblical and the autobiographical Sarah. By telling her own life story, she also metaphorically brings that of the biblical Sarah out of the shadows.

Page 231 from The Book of Sarah (Myriad Editions and Penn State University Press) 2019. © Sarah Lightman. https://myriadeditions.com/books/the-book-of-sarah/

I have written before about the potential offered by women artists’ intertextual references to patriarchal artistic and literary canons, and I have explained that the combination of visual and verbal components allows for fruitful displays of intertextuality that complicate and enrich contemporary autobiographical narratives told via the comics medium (see Michael “Excavating,” Michael “The Other”). Lightman’s nuanced use of the Torah and her references to Sarah succeed in bringing the biblical matriarch’s narrative out of the margins at the same time as forming a matrilineage between her and the contemporary autobiographical subject. Simultaneously, they elevate the latter’s life story out of silence, through an excavation of sorts into layers of familial narratives of the Holocaust, migration, and loss.

In addition to her use of intertextuality, Lightman’s unique drawing and lettering style also presents a new version of what the comics form can be since hers is very different from conventional comic strips with distinct panels, speech/thought bubbles, and narrative captions. Rather, in the process of reading we come across what seem like individual artworks placed on the book’s pages, composing a nonlinear narrative, which is told not only through the narrator’s voice and the visual embodiment of (silent) characters, but also through objects and places, which Lightman very meticulously reproduces in her drawings. The presence of places and objects in the narrative is indeed prevalent. Lightman mentions and draws old and new family homes, a flat in which she lived for some time in the US; she visually reproduces the details of the floor in her therapists’ offices. In so doing, she underscores the auto/biographical potential of space, when it is displayed as lived and experienced by particular people, families, or communities. She talks about the death of her grandfather by zooming in on the family table she prepared afterwards. She talks about infertility by visually displaying a pack of eggs, about the happiness and the unhappiness of childbearing by repetitively depicting a glass that can be read as half-full or half-empty, and about her grandmother’s hospitalization by visually depicting the latter’s favourite biscuits. In The Book of Sarah, objects, like spaces, speak about interpersonal relationships, loss, death and life, break-ups and marriages, beloved people and distant ones. This is how Lightman’s graphic memoir offers readers the chance to reinterpret objects and spaces and to understand their auto/biographical potential and its usefulness in Sarah’s life narrative.

The Book of Sarah constitutes a valuable contribution in contemporary women’s graphic memoirs. It is an intimate graphic memoir that can potentially allow readers to understand the protagonist’s struggles at the same time as identifying parts of their own past and present experiences in her story. It is also an important feminist text that voices experiences of (“failed”) pregnancy, motherhood, familial and religious bonds, as well as mental illness, as it simultaneously presents the story of the biblical Sarah from a feminist angle, conflating past and present, as well as personal and religious narratives.

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Ranen Omer-Sher­man, Jewish Book Council

30 September 2019

Sarah Light­man is one of our lead­ing lights in Jew­ish-themed comix, both as a schol­ar and a prac­ti­tion­er. Light­man is a co-founder of the ​“Lay­deez do Comics” inter­na­tion­al forum for artists and also edi­tor of the ground­break­ing vol­ume, Graph­ic Details: Jew­ish Wom­en’s Con­fes­sion­al Comics in Essays and Inter­views, which grew out of an exhi­bi­tion that toured North Amer­i­ca. This vibrant col­lec­tion offered read­ers and edu­ca­tors unprece­dent­ed and deeply illu­mi­nat­ing glimpses into the art and life of eigh­teen inter­na­tion­al Jew­ish female artists whose work encom­pass­es a range of gen­res and styles. The Book of Sarah, which might best be described as a graph­ic auto­bi­og­ra­phy, but is in many ways a sub­ver­sion of the form, offers rich­ly tex­tured, lumi­nous and often raw and inti­mate win­dows into Lightman’s emer­gence as an artist and some­times tor­ment­ed younger self. Through­out this non­lin­ear nar­ra­tive, Light­man sit­u­ates her painstak­ing jour­ney from the Ortho­dox upbring­ing that sti­fled her auton­o­my and cre­ativ­i­ty, to her life as an inde­pen­dent artist amidst por­traits of Lon­don and New York City, as well as the fam­i­ly mem­bers and oth­er indi­vid­u­als intrin­sic to that growth.

Light­man report­ed­ly invest­ed decades cre­at­ing this work and one can sense that the out­come rep­re­sents a deep cathar­sis, enabling her to con­front deep and hard-gained inner truths. Though there is prob­a­bly no such thing as a ​“con­ven­tion­al” graph­ic nar­ra­tive, read­ers antic­i­pat­ing a ful­ly-reveal­ing mem­oir may find them­selves a lit­tle more chal­lenged by Lightman’s some­what more elu­sive and frag­men­tary approach to her sto­ry, but they will find myr­i­ad com­pen­sato­ry rewards. In lan­guage rang­ing from spare and col­lo­qui­al to lyri­cal, the artist exam­ines years of pain and inse­cu­ri­ty. But what will most enthrall read­ers is her lumi­nous imagery, beau­ti­ful­ly ren­der­ing her inti­mate rela­tion to every­day objects, indeli­ble aspects of fam­i­ly life, reli­gion and cul­ture. Light­man is the kind of gen­er­ous artist who cel­e­brates her relat­ed­ness to oth­ers and, sub­se­quent­ly, there are mov­ing homages to the artists, writ­ers and books that inspired her along the way.

Whim­sy and pathos often inter­min­gle through­out this bil­dungsro­man, begin­ning with chap­ter head­ings evok­ing bib­li­cal books, such as Gen­e­sis which com­mem­o­rates both fam­i­ly his­to­ry and her own ear­ly sense of self­hood, or Bamid­bar (In the Desert), the orig­i­nal Hebrew title of the Book of Num­bers, which explores her return to Lon­don fol­low­ing a dis­as­trous rela­tion­ship in New York. Else­where, she recounts her halt­ing progress in ther­a­py, the joys and ambiva­lences of moth­er­hood, and deeply per­son­al rev­e­la­tions about her life as a woman and artist. All of this is accom­plished through tru­ly haunt­ing art, much of which takes up entire pages. Reflect­ing on her art and life, Light­man once observed that, ​“I haven’t changed the world, or made a lot of mon­ey, or held an impor­tant posi­tion. But I have strug­gled, and lost, won and sur­vived, and that jour­ney mat­ters.” Any­one who has the plea­sure of spend­ing time in the com­pa­ny of her deeply absorb­ing book will like­ly agree.

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Jewish Book Council

28 August 2019

Sarah Light­man’s gor­geous­ly con­struct­ed mem­oir fea­tures shad­ed images with stun­ning pops of col­or. These images and her qui­et but hon­est cap­tions show a life’s jour­ney reck­on­ing with reli­gion, love, fail­ure, and rela­tion­ships. The ques­tion of moth­er­hood comes up again and again, ask­ing read­ers to con­sid­er their own per­cep­tions of and rela­tion­ships with parents.

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Mom Egg Review

15 July 2019

Raised in an observant Jewish household, Sarah Lightman realized that her biblical namesake, matriarch of her people, did not have a book of the bible named for her. In recognition and remedy, Lightman has named her book The Book of Sarah. The book is an idiosyncratic coming of age memoir in words and pictures, beginning at age ten. The quest for identity is a continuing thread as the narrative traces the author’s spiritual, social, and psychological evolutions in conjunction with her development and identity as an artist and, eventually, a feminist, mother and partner.

Physically, the book is handsome, a hard-covered volume with silky gloss paper and full color art. A dual exploration, of heritage and self, informs the work. In art school, young Sarah began a project, a ‘Scroll of Sarah,” by pointing out the fact that she shared a name with two great-grandmothers. But she questioned her own endeavor. “I asked myself, how could I draw a book of my life, when I didn’t know who I was? If I couldn’t hear my own voice over all those that surrounded me?”

As a young woman, she had a chance to live in New York, but still did not feel a sense of agency. “…I was waiting for permission to start my life” (78). She reiterates her frustration with her young self, observing, “I was a free animal who, having spent her whole life caged, would only walk in circles in this time of freedom, missing the protective walls of her enclosure” (88).

How much of her timidity was fostered by her upbringing? “You should know there is a history of parental intervention in my family…” as both her mother and her father had had their aspirations halted by disapproving parents (95). The author also has had to wrestle with periodic bouts of depression.

The author says of herself, “Things and spaces speak to me” (123). She makes them speak to the reader as well. Images of houses and apartments, book covers, and objects reverberate with emotion. A set of dining room chairs elucidates a family dynamic. A recurring trope of water glasses at half-mast cleverly illustrates emotional undercurrents. A series of self-portraits exposes fixations and depression.

The Book of Sarah is a story of one woman’s journey which will resonate with anyone who has struggled to achieve authenticity and power as a person and as an artist. Its honest, nuanced content can spark analysis, comparisons, and identification.

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Chris Gavaler, Pop Matters

27 June 2019

Ever since Art Spiegelman's Maus won a Pulitzer in 1991, the graphic memoir has been comics' avenue into mainstream literature and academia. Though an academic and comics scholar myself, I was surprised to learn that another university press has ventured into the increasingly esteemed field of comics publishing. This spring the Pennsylvania State University Press released Sarah Lightman's graphic memoir The Book of Sarah under its Graphic Medicine imprint (around since 2015). While I look forward to perusing the dozen or so other titles, Lightman seems an ideal starting point for any comics reader, though especially for those with an interest in the art of sequential art.

Each of Lightman's eight chapters feature a Torah-related title, emphasizing the religious focus of her upbringing—one that resulted, directly or indirectly, in her suffering decades of anxiety and insecurity. Or maybe she would have suffered the same if she had grown-up in another religion or in none at all. Still, the absence of a biblical Book of Sarah speaks metaphorical volumes.

Unlike most comics creators, Lightman is not interested in layout norms that treat a page as a multi-image unit. Most of her pages feature a single work of art, and when they include two, it seems to be due to the width of the images requiring, or at least inviting, a pair to be positioned in a column. She rarely includes more than two—though the exceptions are striking: a family portrait redrawn in incomplete fragments; a repeating half-full, half-empty water glass providing a visual metaphor for her shifting optimism. She extends beyond a 2x2 structure only once: two pages divided into a Warhol-like 3x3 grid of self-portraits in varying styles, but all with vague backgrounds that she uses to emphasize her inability to engage fully in her life.

Lightman also eliminates the related comics norms of drawn frames, instead letting the white of an image background bleed into the white of the page or, if the image is drawn to its edges or on cream-colored paper, letting the image float freely in the whiteness. The visual approach emphasizes the images as artwork rather than just pieces in a narrative—though they function at that level too.

Lightman's narration appears beneath most images, ranging between four words ("Smile, said the midwife.") and 140 (in an atypically long account of her grandparents' immigration to England from Lithuania). Lightman uses a handwriting-imitating font, which is a nice gesture, but the perfectly identical letters and spacing is an imperfect match to the intensively hand-created images above each, some of which include their own hand-drawn words.

But the font choice also establishes a sense of two-worlds, the visual and the verbal, playing against each other. Here's where Lightman proves herself not simply an accomplished artist, but specifically an accomplished comics author. While the art world is full of excellent artists who could fill a similarly sized book with equally well-crafted drawings, few have the comics savvy to construct the sort of complex narratives and image-text relationships that Lightman achieves in her memoir.

She narrates, "Things and spaces speak for me," a reflection on the form of the graphic memoir, especially in her ability to shape her experiences into visual meanings. After describing reading Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969) to her son, she begins a litany of the foods she ate as expressions of her former insecurities, moving into other kinds of objects -- the gift of a plant, a boyfriend's toothbrush, her cell phone as she waits for him to call, the bench she sits on, and finally a two-page spread of its pencil-gray view.

The images match her words—and yet Lightman is absent. Her cellphone floats in the white of the page instead of the palm of her hand. She draws the bench twice too, but never herself on it—an absence that poignantly contradicts her narration. When she does finally draw herself, in a three-image zoom-in of a framed photograph that begins with blanks spaces where her and her former lover's faces belong, it is a sudden, full-color close-up that visually states far more than the word "happy" repeated in the narration below it can.

Elsewhere Lightman's word-image combinations are even more inventive. She writes that her "scaffolding of self was barely holding up" below a self-portrait that includes scaffolding in the background. Assuming the image is drawn from a photograph (as it and many others presumably were), did the incidental inclusion of the background detail prompt Lightman to develop scaffolding into a verbal metaphor or did she write the sentence first and seek an image to match it, possibly adding the scaffolding? While such process-focused questions are usually non-essential to a final product, they are more revealing for Lightman since her memoir is about process in multiple senses.

At times she seems to be selecting images from her pre-existing work to include as needed, while at other times she seems to be drawing in order to fill a narrative need. And there are even moments when an image seems to be included for its own sake, making the narrative flow bend around it. All three approaches are intriguing, but their combination is even more so. Since Lightman is depicting her years-long struggles with depression and her varying attempts to overcome it, the vacillating approaches take on further significance.

Lightman herself seems to be more than one person—or rather herself at different moments in her evolving life. Her self-portraits and varying styles capture this effect, but her verbal narration emphasizes it too. At times she speaks retrospectively, looking back on past events from a present tense grounded somewhere around 2015: "From where I draw now, I can see a church and a synagogue." At other times her present-tense narration is a diary-like account of past events as they seem to be happening: "I asked a stupid question in a talk. I feel bad about it now two hours later." She offers no visual cues (a change of fonts, a sudden shift in the visual style of an accompanying image), but the effect is subtle and so no obstacle to reading, while also offering rewards to greater attentiveness. It also makes the words image-like, snippets seemingly pulled from the same sketchbooks as many of the images.

Ultimately, Lightman finds herself, metaphorically but also visually, as her later self-portraits suggest. She even addresses "young Sarah" as a separate entity she wishes to console. This is not a narrative surprise, since the shifting time perspective reveals her marriage and child's birth midway through the memoir, even as it then wanders back to lonelier times—when "the hole inside" parallels more empty-faced, incomplete portraits of herself attempting to be a good daughter and granddaughter and niece, as well as girlfriend to variously less-interested boyfriends. It's also no surprise that she's no longer an Orthodox Jew by the end—though her spiritual life seems more complexly deep after she becomes a mother.

There is so much more here worth analysis and praise—the use of a carton of eggs in a reverie about contemplating pregnancy; the distantly rhymed images of her therapist's shoes, the first male, the second tellingly female—but I will leave it to readers to explore themselves.

Jewish Art Salon

27 June 2019

Distilled from hundreds of intensely beautiful diary drawings into a compelling narrative of identity, The Book of Sarah is both a comfort and inspiration to anyone who wants to know how to belong as an artist to a family, a culture, and a religion.

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Julia Weiner, The Jewish Chronicle

27 June 2019

Sarah Lightman has built a reputation as an expert on Jewish women graphic artists, writing a PhD on the subject, curating exhibitions and lecturing around the world. Now, after many years in preparation, her own graphic novel, The Book of Sarah, has been published. But if you are expecting cartoon-like characters, speech bubbles and lots of images on every page, you will get a surprise.

As Lightman says: “This is not a normal comic book. I draw like an artist. It is transgressive of comics.” For each page of the The Book of Sarah contains reproductions of her beautiful art works, mostly intricately realised pencil drawings as she explores her life in a highly original manner with captions underneath in a font based on her handwriting.

Early in the book, Lightman writes: “Every year during my first three years at the Slade School of Art, I would read from that week’s portion of the Torah… I would mark down my questions and comments in the margins. And then I would travel on the tube to the Slade and show my drawings of my own life story.”

With siblings named Daniel and Esther, she questioned why both of their biblical namesakes had books named after them, but her namesake, the matriarch Sarah, did not. She was told: “You have a whole section of the Torah named after you, and the Torah is holier than the Writings of the Prophets… But still she demanded a Book of Sarah.” And this publication is the result. Most of the chapters reflect those in the Bible. Genesis tells of her family background and childhood, Exodus of her leaving London for New York, Bamidbar, the Hebrew title for the Book of Numbers, which translates as “In the desert”, deals with her return from New York after a failed relationship.

The book is a joy to read. Lightman goes into surprisingly personal details about her life including her failed relationships and some truly terrible dates. As she writes: “My drawing enables my catharsis but it is also a stick to beat myself with.”

Several pages are filled with drawings of plastic cups of water, filled to different levels which represent her meetings with her therapist. Under each glass are snippets of what she discussed in therapy.  When she meets her husband Charlie, she confides in her anxieties about both her wedding and her fertility.

When her son Harry is born, she alternates between recounting her love of her new son and the drawbacks of motherhood, including a very graphic image of her Caesarean scar. The drawings that accompany her musings include family portraits in a range of styles from realist to expressionist, the homes she has lived in and other key buildings in her life, covers of books that have inspired her and objects of importance to her — for example, a beautiful drawing of lace doilies inherited from her great-great-aunt accompanied by the reflection “I am just a stitch in time in my family’s intricately woven history.”

I found the drawings of the more banal subjects perhaps the most moving —a succession of pages showing the foods she eats in moments of stress or the packet of Osem chocolate covered wafers that she bought for her dying grandmother. The book ends on a positive note with a chapter called Revelations, which has Lightman preparing to give up her autobiographical drawings for painting.

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Teddy Jamieson, Glasgow Herald

17 June 2019

This is about words and pictures. This is about what words say and what pictures describe. And this is also about how words and pictures reach for what is not physical; for what is felt, for what is, or sometimes is not, understood.

Sarah Lightman is an artist, an academic with a PhD from the University of Glasgow, an author, a wife, a mother (of Harry), a Jewish woman, a feminist, a daughter. And now Sarah Lightman is a graphic novelist.

The Book of Sarah is her own story. It's the story of a troubled young woman coming to terms with her cultural inheritance, with her emotional baggage, with desire, with wanting to be loved, with motherhood, and with her struggle to find autonomy when for long periods she didn't really know who she was.

It is a remarkably candid piece of work, but also remarkably sophisticated in the way it plays off word and image, makes them echo and harmonise and sometimes clash. It's a vision of the world as seen through faces and buildings and everyday objects and at the same time the "everydayness" of it floats on a sea of deep interiority.

Here she talks to Graphic Content about religion, feminism, the battle for self and why apples are difficult to draw:

Sarah, tell us about the origins of The Book of Sarah?

The Book of Sarah began when I was student at The Slade School of Art over 20 years ago.

I found myself overwhelmed and lost in the art studios during my first year, and I had no idea what art to make. I found myself going backwards, and inwards and this led me to start to draw my life from childhood photos.

The Book of Sarah was also an attempt to reconcile my worlds and experiences. I was a traditionally brought up Jewish woman in an art school in London. I had spent a year in Israel studying the Jewish texts, and instead of feeling I had found a Jewish home after my Church of England school, I rarely found myself, as a woman, reflected in the biblical stories I read. Nor could I find myself in any of the rabbinic commentaries that we studied.

The Book of Sarah was a creative response. I made a small printed book with text in it, a Book of Sarah, that was also known as The Hampstead Bible.

Even then, art was a way of reconciling myself, of drawing a place where I could be, and live, as myself.

How did it develop? When did you find that rhythm of word and image? Was there anything you had read that served as a model for your approach?

I have been inspired by Life? Or Theatre? by Charlotte Salomon. Salomon was a Jewish artist, born in Berlin in 1917, who moved to France to escape the war. Tragically, she was sent to Auschwitz, where she died in 1943. Life? or Theatre? is a three-colour opera that is over 800 pages long; the first autobiographical graphic novel. I love Salomon's way of drawing her life, and how the pages vary from careful renditions of homes and countryside to much looser pages of text and repeated images.

I knew I also wanted to write and draw my life. At art school, there were others working in text, but they didn't take as much care over drawing images as I did. In addition, my constant references to being Jewish, whilst making this vulnerable work, left me feeling very isolated. Salomon was an artist with whom I felt I had much in common and from whom I could draw strength.

It's a very open, candid take on your own life and thought. How easy was it to put it down on the page?

I felt this very strong need to tell my story. It was almost an unbearable need. And I only felt a release when the words that circled my head were finally written down. Sometimes these phrases were like buzzing bees in my consciousness. Now they are on the page and it is such a relief to see and hear my thoughts and feelings in the world.

I also knew that if I made art then people would stop, see and listen. Perhaps I now understand my need to be heard was exactly what I felt my parents and family never did. They couldn't hear my voice above their own needs and anxieties, or the background noise of the family home. But on the page I could write and draw as I wanted. I could be heard and hear myself.

I know that no matter how much we reveal about ourselves it will always resonate with others. That's the magic of autobiography. Our deep truths, worst feelings, biggest regrets all have elements of the universal, and reflect how our lives are part of the wider human experience.

Faith can be a belief system, an identity, a source of comfort or a source of disaffection. What is your own relationship with Jewishness (nice easy question there? You can probably wrap that up in about 20 words, right?)

I am no longer obliged to be a religious Jew, with strict laws and behavioural expectations. Instead, I feel very happy with a life and identity that reflects how I enjoy the cultural heritage of being Jewish. Harry and I go to a Reform synagogue and attend communal meals there. We both like the songs and music, and the creative ways that festivals are celebrated in that synagogue.

I also have a very intellectual relationship with being Jewish – my own academic work and writing reflects my love of Jewish feminist theology, and feminist Judaism. I have been transformed by the writings of Alicia Ostriker, Esther Broner and Laura Levitt. I am so happy to have found this tribe of Jewish women who are feminists and intellectuals, who are developing and creatively engaging with their own Jewish intellectual and cultural history. I celebrate their work and books in my graphic novel, as I draw their front covers. Even though these women live miles away, their books help me feel part of a community and conversation.

You talk near the beginning of using your diary as a place to store all your "thoughts, desires and dark secrets" when you were a child. What was art and drawing for at that age? Was there any crossover?

Diary writing was so important to me at school. I do recall making some autobiographical text/image art at A-level, but my art teacher was a bit freaked out and recommended that I did not exhibit them. I also made a significant self-portrait when I was 15. Everyone else in my class made these jolly little works, and they all looked so nice and wholesome and pretty. I drew myself with a sad face and tired eyes, taking care over each eyelash, each curl of unruly hair. I was looking at myself with such a forensic gaze, trying to capture my feelings and the reality of my world. Even though that image did not use text, it was my attempt at making a drawing tell a story and explain how it felt to be me.

You never name your unhappiness, never label it. Was it ultimately unnameable?

I think the depression – that might be the best word I can think of – was mostly based on a feeling of powerlessness. I felt to be loved I couldn't be myself and I never believed that my own desires and ambitions were legitimate. So, over the years, I learnt to ignore my feelings and I did things I didn't want to do, and, I said no to things I wanted to do. In the end I created a life that I didn't really want to live in. Eventually this became so intolerable that I went and got the help I needed to change my behaviour and beliefs. Now I have learnt I can say no to other people, and I can say what I want. I could withstand other people's negative responses to me, as well. These days, my own thoughts and dreams are precious to me, and I love to ask myself what I want to do and make, and I delight in my own autonomy.

I also recognise that in the culture I grew up in, everything centred around men and their success. Women were expected to fit around the men, to curtail their dreams. I don't do that now, but it was a huge cloud over me for much of my early years. I would have these deep drives and ambitions. I wanted to be standing up and talking about my ideas, in synagogues, or other centres of learning. I wanted my books on bookshelves, I wanted to be known for my own achievements. But it was only the men who seemed to do that with ease and be treated with respect for their accomplishments.

You return again and again to faces and places in your drawings. What is the pull of people and buildings for you as an artist?

I love to draw. I especially love to draw really carefully over time – the feeling of the pencil on paper, slowly, slowly building up form. I also love to use my eraser to remove marks and still leave a trace. Don't all our life experiences leave a trace on us, physically and mentally?

The pages of drawings of buildings were also about the time it took to draw every brick, every windowsill, every doorway. Sometimes my feelings were so strong I would cry as I drew and remembered what had happened there. But even though the story made me sad, I never stopped loving drawing.

Reading your book was a reminder that parenthood is this constant swing between joy and fear.

I am so glad you said that. Yes, it is. I have also learnt to live with risk and uncertainty, so Harry can be comfortable with this feeling as well.

I love that drawing of a knife and my fear of "f*****-up motherhood".

When Harry was little, I suddenly became aware of danger everywhere, and, also, I felt I would be judged harshly as a mother if anything were to happen to him.

There are so many different objects in the book; from fruit to buses, telescopes to plastic cartons? Which one was the biggest bugger to draw?

The apples were tricky, making things round and reflecting light on any surface is hard. But that is also so exciting. I feel it is a constant question – can I really draw this? And the answer is always yes, yes, I can. Drawing is magical. A flat piece of paper becomes a world, or a thing; a space, place or object of memory.

What do you love most about the mixture of words and pictures? (Will you do more like this?)

I am not working on another graphic novel at the moment. Instead, my current project is editing my PhD, "Dressing Eve and Other Reparative Acts" to become a monograph published by Penn State University Press in their series, Dimyonot: Jews and the Cultural Imagination, edited by Samantha Baskind. I am so excited that my thoughts on feminism, art, biblical images and comics will be published in the future.

After that book I want to focus on making paintings. I want to make narrative paintings. I have seen so many paintings that inspire me, and I can't wait to have time to make paintings that are layered with stories, thoughts, feelings and people.

What do you most want to tell the world? Here's your chance.

Here are two thoughts I would love to share:

Firstly, all our stories matter and have importance. I use this phrase a great deal when I talk about autobiographical comics: "the superheroines and superheroes of everyday life". Nothing important or noteworthy has happened to me; I haven't changed the world, or made a lot of money, or held an important position. But I have struggled, and lost, won and survived, and that journey matters. My story matters, and so does yours.

And finally, there is this phrase: "You write the book you want to read". I was thrilled when my book was listed as a beach read for this summer on Bustle.com. Now, I, of all people, know The Book of Sarah is not a light reading. It's so thoroughly embedded in the grime of real life; you certainty couldn't call it escapist either. But it really made me laugh to see it as a recommended beach read for 2019 as there is page in The Book of Sarah where I describe my own depressing holiday reading material: "In Mexico, I relaxed by the beach in my designer sunglasses/ Reading books on trauma and bereavement." And now, here I am, someone else's wretched holiday reading.

I think that's pretty marvellous!

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Christine Ferguson, Professor of English at the University of Stirling

12 June 2019

Wow. I am sitting here with tears in my eyes, having just finished The Book of Sarah. What an accomplishment this is! I am absolutely blown away by beauty of the drawings, and the elegant succinctness of the text: (Sarah) signifies so much with sometimes just a few, beautifully drawn sentences. I particularly love the way each chapter moves from a blank page in an open book to a rich, fully drawn episode.

I am absolutely blown away. This is necessary reading for anyone interested in graphic non-fiction, Jewish feminism, literature and motherhood, London writing— actually, just for anyone. Read it!

Abigail Morris, Director, The Jewish Museum London

12 June 2019

I really loved this book and found it hard to put down. It was such an original mixture of beautiful line drawings and confessional raw emotion. On the one hand very personal and self reflective and on the other it manages to be both engaging and accessible.

Andy Oliver, Broken Frontier

23 May 2019

Sarah Lightman’s long-anticipated project is here and it’s been well worth the wait. Lightman is, of course, the co-founder of the vitally important Laydeez do Comics group and a former Broken Frontier Awards nominee for Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews.

Exploring the complexities of families, feminism, Judaism, motherhood and art this genuinely distinctive graphic narrative provides a fresh approach to autobio comics in a book that is deeply personal but always relatable. Look for a full review at Broken Frontier in the not too distant future.

Turnaround Graphic Novel of the Month

10 May 2019

Authored and illustrated by London-based artist and writer Sarah LightmanThe Book of Sarah collects a lifetime of work, distilling thousands of diary-esque drawings, and dating all the way back to her days as an art undergrad in 1996. It ranges from oil drawings to charcoal etchings, but mostly consists of exquisitely detailed pencil sketches of everyday objects (a toothbrush, an egg tray, a bottle of surface cleaner) and the people and places that make up her past and present life.

Named after the biblical matriarch and Lightman’s namesake, the title eludes to the no shortage of tomes dedicated to men in the Bible, amongst an absence of any dedicated to women. But unlike the Book of Daniel or Esther, The Book of Sarah is not a biblical epic in the traditional sense, but a personal reflection on religion, family, motherhood and what it takes to be an artist – complete with its own Genesis, Exodus and Revelations. The Book of Sarah is Lightman’s attempt to carve out a space that is all her own.

Each drawing is annotated by Lightman’s own observations, together forming a tapestry of her life from a young girl in Hampstead to present day motherhood. Poetically poignant contemplations that, much like the book’s biblical namesake, can be drawn wisdom and opened on any page.

A beautiful, resonant, gallery of a graphic memoir, Lightman’s modern graphic tome had already pulled in significant praise as a landmark publication.

Sarah Lightman will be doing talks and events throughout May which can be found on Myriad’s website, and her work will be exhibited at the Koppel Gallery until 4th May.

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Dr Ruth Gilbert, University of Winchester

14 January 2019
In this intense and beautiful visual memoir, text and images are placed in dialogue with breath-taking eloquence. At the heart of the book is an exploration of family and culture, circling around the central question of where a collective and inherited sense of personhood ends and the self begins. Lightman comes to an understanding that ‘I am just a stitch in my family’s intricately woven history’  but the ‘self-scribed’ Book of Sarah shows the painful tensions in play as an individuated self begins to emerge from these tightly woven threads of connection.
Through a delicate interweaving of images (ranging from the architectural, loose outlines, fractured repetitions and empty spaces) and text, the reader becomes immersed in this deeply considered reflection of gender and cultural identity. In its spirit of perpetual enquiry, it is an intensely Jewish book; but the questions it asks, about being and belonging, speak to the wider concerns of twenty-first century life.
As it evokes the subtle transmissions of postmemory and intergenerational hauntings, the younger Sarah becomes herself a kind of a ghost, lingering within her own narrative until she can be released into the present tense. This is an achingly poignant, profoundly moving and, ultimately, hopeful book.

Olga Michael, IABA Students and New Scholars Network

Women’s autobiographical comics first emerged in the US counter-cultural underground scene with Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s work (see Chute 20-27). During the turn of the twenty-first century, we have witnessed a maturation of the genre through the circulation of such texts in book form, and their re-branding as women’s graphic memoirs. Alison Bechdel, Phoebe Gloeckner and Lynda Barry are three among many brilliant female cartoonists, whose works display each artist’s negotiation of issues like problematic intergenerational family relations, parental neglect, sexual and other forms of trauma, and the survival of such traumas. With her recently published graphic memoir, The Book of Sarah (2019), Sarah Lightman, a London-based comics artist and scholar, has established herself within this continuously expanding group of brilliant women cartoonists, whose valuable work can help readers better understand distinctly female experiences of (“failed”) motherhood, belonging and exclusion, trauma and survival, and mental illness and healing.

The Book of Sarah is divided into eight chapters: “Genesis,” “Exodus,” “Bamidbar,” “Numbers,” “Leviticus,” ‘Harry’s Genesis,” “Revelations,” and “Apocryphra.” Through its rich intertextual references to the Torah, the graphic memoir displays how Sarah’s journey from childhood to adulthood and to becoming an artist and a mother is marked by her Jewish ancestors, by her own mother’s strong presence, and by her religious upbringing as an Orthodox Jew. In a two-page spread, Lightman draws her son’s shoe and the narrating voice states that as he outgrows “shoes” she “outgrow[s] friends and religious beliefs” (10-11). Emerging from a religious childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, as a more mature adult, Sarah decides to abandon Orthodox Judaism. Nevertheless, her Jewishness is core to the development both of her life and of her (graphic) life narrative. As the narrating voice describes Sarah’s paternal and maternal ancestors and their migratory journeys, a scroll in the visual register of the narrative, depicts the names of the “children of Israel when they came into Egypt” (22-23). Sarah’s sense of self and belonging are therefore introduced as deeply rooted in the archive of her family and her religion.

As she draws incomplete faces, Lightman’s narrator explains that this “is not my whole family’s story (fig.1). Just an attempt at my own. But of course, their story is woven indelibly into my own, like folktales, and bible stories, magical, impossible, and true” (24). Then, she goes on to wonder: “If I have inherited short-sightedness and a propensity to allergies, then why should I not also have inherited a self-thwarting mechanism, an unfulfilled intellectualism, and both over-controlling and over-dependent tendencies?” (24). In so doing, she points to how she is essentially an amalgam of her ancestors and how in The Book of Sarah, familial and religious pasts become conflated so as for her to be able to explain how her autobiographical subject gained and established her own voice as an artist and as a distinct member of her (religious) family.

The conflation of personal and biblical narratives is also indicated by the book’s title itself. Sarah explains that she used to read the “story of the matriarch Sarah” from the Torah, and the visual register shows the book and the page with the story she mentions inscribed in Hebrew (13). The biblical Sarah, the narrator explains, does not have her own book, like the “Book of Esther and [the] Book of Daniel,” but in telling her own life story, Lightman creates that book (15). After the description of regrets, wrong decisions, attempts to become emancipated from her family and returns to its orbit, struggles with mental illness, failed relationships, the trauma and happiness of childbearing later in her life, and the value of being an artist, towards the end of the narrative, Lightman draws a scene from the Book of Genesis (fig. 2). This scene, her own adaptation of Rembrandt’s etching Abraham Entertaining the Angels (1656), depicts God’s angels, who appeared to Abraham as travellers to announce to him that his wife would soon have a son, despite her advanced age. On the side, almost unnoticeable, Sarah is standing behind a semi-closed door, looking at the gathering of the men who are talking about her own fertility and future pregnancy. The door is drawn in a darker shade and Sarah almost blends into the background, in a scene that visually captures her marginal position in Abraham’s narrative. “Sarah, Sarah, come out of the shadows,” the narrating voice urges the biblical Sarah as well as Lightman’s autobiographical subject (231). “This is your life. This is your time,” the narrator explains. As such, Lightman formulates a mirroring between the biblical and the autobiographical Sarah. By telling her own life story, she also metaphorically brings that of the biblical Sarah out of the shadows.

I have written before about the potential offered by women artists’ intertextual references to patriarchal artistic and literary canons, and I have explained that the combination of visual and verbal components allows for fruitful displays of intertextuality that complicate and enrich contemporary autobiographical narratives told via the comics medium (see Michael “Excavating,” Michael “The Other”). Lightman’s nuanced use of the Torah and her references to Sarah succeed in bringing the biblical matriarch’s narrative out of the margins at the same time as forming a matrilineage between her and the contemporary autobiographical subject. Simultaneously, they elevate the latter’s life story out of silence, through an excavation of sorts into layers of familial narratives of the Holocaust, migration, and loss.

In addition to her use of intertextuality, Lightman’s unique drawing and lettering style also presents a new version of what the comics form can be since hers is very different from conventional comic strips with distinct panels, speech/thought bubbles, and narrative captions. Rather, in the process of reading we come across what seem like individual artworks placed on the book’s pages, composing a nonlinear narrative, which is told not only through the narrator’s voice and the visual embodiment of (silent) characters, but also through objects and places, which Lightman very meticulously reproduces in her drawings. The presence of places and objects in the narrative is indeed prevalent. Lightman mentions and draws old and new family homes, a flat in which she lived for some time in the US; she visually reproduces the details of the floor in her therapists’ offices. In so doing, she underscores the auto/biographical potential of space, when it is displayed as lived and experienced by particular people, families, or communities. She talks about the death of her grandfather by zooming in on the family table she prepared afterwards. She talks about infertility by visually displaying a pack of eggs, about the happiness and the unhappiness of childbearing by repetitively depicting a glass that can be read as half-full or half-empty, and about her grandmother’s hospitalization by visually depicting the latter’s favourite biscuits. In The Book of Sarah, objects, like spaces, speak about interpersonal relationships, loss, death and life, break-ups and marriages, beloved people and distant ones. This is how Lightman’s graphic memoir offers readers the chance to reinterpret objects and spaces and to understand their auto/biographical potential and its usefulness in Sarah’s life narrative.

The Book of Sarah constitutes a valuable contribution in contemporary women’s graphic memoirs. It is an intimate graphic memoir that can potentially allow readers to understand the protagonist’s struggles at the same time as identifying parts of their own past and present experiences in her story. It is also an important feminist text that voices experiences of (“failed”) pregnancy, motherhood, familial and religious bonds, as well as mental illness, as it simultaneously presents the story of the biblical Sarah from a feminist angle, conflating past and present, as well as personal and religious narratives.

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Bustle

A beautifully illustrated coming-of-age story, The Book of Sarah moves through the author/subject's life, examining her path from orthodox Judaism to her own, feminist version of her faith.

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Paul Gravett, Art Review

'Not every autobiographical comics artist is driven to create their own private book from the Bible. Sarah Lightman’s motivation came from her brother and sister having the Book of Daniel and the Scroll of Esther named after them, but there was no Book of Sarah, until now.' 

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