guest post by graphic storyteller Maureen Burdock, one of three recipients of the 2023 Peter James Burns Scholarship award.
I’ve been a part of the Graphic Medicine community for years now and it’s given me so much! My first conference was at Riverside in 2015, right after McFarland published my first book, Feminist Fables for the Twenty-First Century. I was a graduate student at UC Davis in cultural studies at the time. Steven Keewatin Sanderson gave a keynote and so did Carol Tyler. I met so many wonderful new friends there and was completely hooked! Over the following years, I came to the conferences in Seattle, Vermont, and Brighton. I took part in the UnConvention during COVID, and then traveled again to the live conference in Chicago right after the pandemic loosened its stranglehold. I’ve seen friends I met back in 2015 go through so many changes: new jobs, retirements, illnesses, breakups, new relationships, new projects, publications…
I’ve seen a lot of changes, myself. During these past eight years, I got married, moved from California back to Santa Fe, finished my PhD in 2021 and entered the academic job market, had surgery, grieved my mother’s sudden death, completed my graphic memoir, Queen of Snails (Graphic Mundi, 2022), and started Snailhouse Graphics, a sole proprietorship offering illustration, book design, editing, and writing services (with an emphasis on graphic narrative work, of course).
It’s been a rough few years for most of us. The 2022 Graphic Medicine Conference in Chicago felt very muted compared to the others I’d attended. Everyone looked a bit shell-shocked, and we all wore masks, so even if we were smiling at one another with gratitude and relief for being still here existentially, and here in one place together again, we couldn’t actually see that on one another’s faces. So I was especially glad to find those grins I’d missed so much this year in Toronto, to dole out and receive hugs, to eat together and talk and enjoy one another’s great company!
I got to meet some new friends, too, among them lovely Jane Burns, who made it possible for me to fly to Toronto and attend this year’s conference with the help of the Peter James Burns Scholarship. It was such an honor to be among the first recipients of this award. I would not have been able to attend in person without it. This fund, which the Burns family established in loving memory of their son, Peter, is tremendously helpful for underfunded scholars and artists! I took full advantage of this opportunity to attend.
This conference was the perfect place for me to present my new book project, Sleepless Planet: A Graphic Guide to Coping with Insomnia (under contract with Graphic Mundi). The response to my presentation and conversations afterwards have supplied me with the fuel to continue making steady progress! Only at a Graphic Medicine conference does one have the opportunity to discuss one’s work with brainiacs from diverse disciplines ranging from yoga instructors to artists to scholars and teachers to neuroscientists, nurses, and doctors (oh my!).
Much of the programming was full of wonders and new information and insights. I couldn’t be in all the places at once, but I did my level best! I learned about the high rate of Alzheimer’s, especially among women, in the U.S.-Mexico border region, and how comics are helping; learned about a compassionate veterinarian who wants vets to have a seat at the Graphic Medicine table (yes, please, and bring your horses, too!); I got to see and to hear how comics can be made more accessible for those with visual impairments; got to learn about the importance of sensible shoes (not just for lesbians and European women anymore), and so much more! Something that still haunts me is the voice of the First Nation elder who joined us via zoom during the very last keynote panel, “Weaving Our Worldview Using Graphic Medicine.” “We’re told to eat three meals a day,” he explained, “but that’s not how we used to do it.” At first, these words might seem trivial, but they aren’t. The idea that we should eat (at least) three meals a day traveled to North America with English colonists. Many cultures did not and do not consume food this frequently and the practice affects not just culture and cuisine, but also individuals’ metabolisms. Colonialist schedules and cultural mores and types of food imposed on this elder and on his community amount to continued violence, resulting in diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and more. Despite technical difficulties with internet and Zoom, this man’s words made a clear impression on me. It left me thinking that there are limits to what we can do with comics and the best of intentions. Careful listening is even more powerful than drawing when it comes to communicating across cultural and other divides. Each time we come together in community, there is such an enormous array of chances to learn from one another! If COVID taught me anything, it’s that such opportunities aren’t limitless. Let’s continue to make the most of each one and connect as deeply with one another as is humanly possible.