In The Red Zone: An Earthquake Story (Amulet Books, 2019), graphic novelist Silvia Vecchini provides a look at how a natural disaster can strike and forever change a community. Sualzo illustrates the book, originally published in Italian as La Zona Rossa (Castoro 2017). In the book, Matteo, Giulia and Federico have ordinary lives; they hang out with friends, help around the house, and go to school. Then, in a single night, everything changes. The ground shakes, as an earthquake devastates their town and their sense of security. But life must go on. In the aftermath of devastation, the roots for stronger friendships can be laid amid the rubble. Silvia Vecchini discusses her graphic novel in this exclusive interview for Accenti.
Where did the idea for this book come from?
It was a necessity rather than an idea. After the earthquake that struck central Italy in 2016, we, together with our publisher Il Castoro, thought that there was a real need to recount what had happened. More often than not, children and young people were the ones dealing with “fractures” that put them to the test. Because of that, we wanted to recount that suspended, slow, uncertain experience in words and images that were suitable for those very children and young people.
How did you feel when The Red Zone was published in 2017?
The emotions that accompanied its publication were very complex – not like any other story I’ve written. Although La Zona Rossa is not a chronicle of the earthquake, it was born from an unpredictable and frightening real-life experience. When the book finally came out in Italy I was happy to have completed, what was for me, the very difficult task of trying to convey both truth and hope: the truth that things can happen to upset our lives, our habits, our security; the hope that we can overcome fear and hardship, and start over. I was also very excited at the thought of bringing this story to children and young people, especially those who had lived through the earthquake; and I was curious to know how they would receive it. For this reason, together with the publishing house, we decided to give part of our sales revenue to a drama workshop for children and young people in a small town hit by the earthquake. They took the text of The Red Zone to create an original play to recount what the earthquake had been for them: sharing thoughts and emotions, getting over their fear, finding strength from being together, and moving on.
What was your reaction to the English translation?
When the book was published in English, these emotions all re-emerged, but amplified. When stories are translated and they reach readers from other countries, it’s as if there is more responsibility.
Has your book been translated into other languages?
Yes. The book was also translated into Korean, Spanish (in Chile) and Slovenian.
Is this the first time your work has been translated?
No, other books of mine have also been, but it’s always a joy to know that your words will reach distant readers. A writer’s work is long and lonely. Translation is a road that gives your story the chance to take a longer journey. It’s wonderful.
It is said that something is always lost in translation. What do you think of the linguistic and graphic changes in the translated text? I am referring to the Scuolandia sign which, in the Italian text, has a very specific purpose that is omitted in the translation.
Yes, some things do get lost. Scuolandia was a symbol; the first garrison that gets back on its feet is the school, despite the fact that it is not a real school, but rather a meeting place for those with the desire to continue learning together. The sign shows that people are looking for normality, even if the end result will be a bit different. Maybe it wasn’t an easy nuance to convey in translation.
What do you think of the addition of an explanatory subtitle?
At first, I wasn’t thrilled – I didn’t think it was necessary. However, every publishing house knows its market and adaptations can be appropriate. I had also not wanted a subtitle because I didn’t want la zona rossa to only be a physical place. Every one of us has a place deep within where we close off our innermost feelings. This story shows that. Even if it’s difficult, it’s good to go and see what’s in your “red zone,” and that maybe it’s better not to do it alone.
Who was the audience you had in mind when you wrote this book?
Children and young people, definitely. However, children’s literature is for everyone and a good graphic novel even more so. What an adult can take away from The Red Zone is different from what a child will see in it. I’m interested in creating a story in which those who want to can read deeply and grasp details and meanings that are not immediately evident. I’d like to think that even though, as a comic book, it can seem very simple, it remains a work that one can come back to and question even after some time.
The choice to include the myth of the turtle – an ancient legend in North America – is quite interesting. Why?
The choice comes from my knowledge of children. A child’s thought process tends to elaborate more universal questions that do not only concern the “mechanics” of a given event. In my story, after the earthquake, teachers must try to explain what happened to their students. The older children receive a scientific explanation and are shown a map of seismic zones. The little ones need something more: ancient stories, myths and legends. Asking oneself big questions within the context of a shared ancient history is reassuring. It makes us feel less alone.
A number of other topics are touched on in the book, such as divorce, the importance of grandparents, sharing, animals, and loss. Can you elaborate?
All these themes are intertwined deliberately in the book: all are offered to the reader, who can choose to search for the deeper meaning. Closest to my heart, though, is the theme of families who have gone through separation. For children and young people it can be a very sensitive issue. Beyond the earthquake, I wanted the book to be able to talk about many other “earthquakes”: those all-important, sudden changes that affect us, and how we get back on track. This story also shows that we do not get to choose how these earth-shattering events will find us. In a way, an earthquake takes a snapshot of our community and ourselves. It makes even more evident the fact that we are tied together and that everyone should choose to help each other.
In The Red Zone, the themes of rebirth and hope are emphasised. Which, in your opinion, is stronger?
The one expressed by the art of kintsugi: repairing and filling a broken object’s cracks with gold and, in doing so, giving value to that negative experience. It means not denying that something has happened, but stopping for the time needed and taking care of one’s own wounds to then be ready to move on.
Giulia, one of the characters of the story, is fond of Japanese comics. Is this intended to place the graphic novel within a well-established tradition?
We feel that this is an important moment for comics. In comics we can deepen, transform, and adapt language according to what we want to communicate by way of the visuals. Comics are a powerful and very rich medium. This detail is included in the book to suggest, as well as to keep in mind, that many passions are born in adolescence. It’s like saying, for Giulia, it’s comics: what about you?
You are known as a poet. How and when did you decide to write a graphic novel?
Sualzo and I met over 20 years ago when I was writing poems and he was drawing comics. We grew up together, exchanging passions and discoveries. The first graphic novel we published is called Fiato sospeso (Hold Your Breath), which was reprinted several times. I love the freedom of comics, especially the silence of mute panels where all my words become images. Comics and poetry have a lot in common, including the use of metaphors and indirect messages. Sualzo allows me to include a poem in every comic: either one of mine or one by another author. In The Red Zone, for example, there is a poem by Walter Cremonte.
What is the difference between writing a graphic novel and other works of yours?
Actually, it’s a four-handed job. I write the story, the subject, the dialogue, and the setting. Then Sualzo comes into play, developing the storyboard and giving rhythm and breath to the story. The storyboard then becomes a new starting point for working together. When that’s done, the actual drawing begins, and everything is entrusted to Sualzo. So for me, writing a graphic novel is a very different work from writing a narrative. It is writing in images and it is writing with someone else. It is a very enriching experience.
Who has influenced your writing as a graphic novelist?
For sure all the works that Sualzo has recommended to me over the years. Dupuy and Berberian, Manu Larcenet, Sfar, Gipi and Davide Reviati in Italy.
Can the artwork influence the direction of the story? How involved are you in the visual representation of what you have written?
We have an agreement that has been defined over the years. An important step for me is to see my characters’ faces and expressions. Sualzo calls it “casting.” Once the characters have been approved, and after working together on the storyboard, Sualzo draws without any more interference. I really like it that way. He is not just an artist, he is an author, too. Once he’s finished, it is as if I were reading a new story.
What projects are you currently working on?
We are working together on a new graphic novel about the power of words, and a book without words! We like these ideas very much and we are keeping our fingers crossed as to their reach because, of course, at least one of them will be very easy to translate…!
Maria Pia Spadafora is a freelance writer living in Milan.