Going to Print with Jonathan Dyck
We’re so excited to share…
…that Shelterbelts by Jonathan Dyck has been sent to print. This exciting new graphic novel is already receiving rave reviews, including a starred review from Publishers Weekly.
“Dyck wows with his ability to convey unmistakable emotions and personalities in lightly detailed character drawings. Flashbacks nestled inside outer panels create an unusual, but rewarding, swerve within rigid panel layouts. Fans of Craig Thompson’s Blankets will welcome this nuanced portrait of faith and community.” —Publishers Weekly
4 Questions with Jonathan Dyck
1. I recently read Magdalene Redekop’s book Making Believe. In it she postulates that we are living through a Mennonite Renaissance in writing and art. She cites many Mennonite writers (Miriam Toews, Rudy Wiebe) but also painters and musicians etc. Do you feel Shelterbelts is part of this Mennonite Renaissance? That it is the first Mennonite graphic novel?
I’m not sure that’s for me to say. Is this the first Mennonite graphic novel? I wouldn’t be surprised if there were other precedents. With Shelterbelts, I wanted to focus on a particular time and place that was familiar to me, and comics were the most natural way for me to do that. There’s a lot of incredible work being made right now that engages with Mennonite identity, but that’s been the case as long as I can remember. Writers like Rudy Wiebe seemed to belong to my parent’s generation and I only started to get interested in his work in my late 20s. Miriam Toews, on the other hand, has always been popular among my friends, and her books have felt like rites of passage.
More recently, I’ve really enjoyed the work of writers like Casey Plett and Sarah Ens, and artists like Kandis Friesen and Meg Harder. Mennonites aren’t a homogenous group and I’m not even sure what it takes for something to count as Mennonite writing or art, but certainly I’m not the first to ask many of the questions that emerge in Shelterbelts.
2. Speaking of writers, you have cited the classic American book Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson as an influence on Shelterbelts. They are certainly both books written as linked short stories that describe characters in a small rural town. Is there more to it than that? Are there other literary influences?
Winesburg, Ohio was the first linked short story collection I’d ever read. I was attracted to the form and to its focus on individual characters as “grotesques,” which seemed to lend itself to comics. When I began drawing and self-publishing these stories serially, Anderson’s model fit well with that. But I think the format also helps to reinforce some of the aspects of rural life I wanted to represent: the isolation experienced by particular characters, the variety of ways they attempt (and, at times, fail) to overcome it. Tommy Orange’s novel There There and Eleanor Davis’s graphic novel The Hard Tomorrow, also had a great impact on me as I was working on these stories.
3. Shelterbelts is a book about finding faith but also a book about exploring humanity in all its guises. What is your definition of faith?
In some religious contexts, faith can mean something very prescriptive, but I tend to think about it more broadly, as a response to one’s circumstances, rather than a possession — something that can be lost or found. Faith can be intensely personal but I also find it helpful to think about it as a practice or an orientation.
It’s there in different forms of religious devotion but also in one’s political commitments, in the refusal to accept things as they are and remain open to alternate possibilities.
4. Can you explain the title?
Shelterbelts takes its name from the lines of trees that act as windbreaks for farmer’s fields in southern Manitoba. These tree lines suggest and signify many things at once: on the practical side, they are a source of shelter from the wind, helping with climate control and managing precipitation, thus making life easier for those living around them; at the same time, their grid-like presence on the land is a direct result of settler-colonial interests, a way of enabling and mitigating large-scale changes to the surrounding environment brought about by the agricultural practices of Mennonite Settlers: the destruction of the tall grass prairie and the erasure of ways of life once supported by the mixed prairie ecosystem. I’ve imagined each story in this series as a kind of shelterbelt.
5. There are a variety of characters in the book — Métis, LGBTQ folks, and religious conservatives, to name a few. Why did you include them in a book largely focused on Mennonites?
These stories began to take shape when I turned to my own experiences as source material. Each story feels intimate in some way. When I first began working on the series, the characters felt like my characters — projections of an author trying to represent different perspectives. But in later drafts and continuations of character threads, I realized they were becoming more autonomous and I wanted to do right by them. It’s cliché to say this, but they did really take on lives of their own. Many of the characters in Shelterbelts are Mennonite in some way — whether in terms of faith, background or self-understanding — but they’re all other things too. Each one of the main characters is confronting or beginning to see the limitations of their own individual perspectives and the constraints of their environment. I’m interested in how Mennonite identity continues to operate: what it reveals, what it excludes or obscures, particularly in Southern Manitoba, where Mennonites from Russia settled as an ethnic group, during a time of treaty making and treaty breaking with the Métis and First Nations in what used to be called the North West. Among Mennonites on the prairies, these histories aren’t always acknowledged but they are very present.
6. You have done a lot of illustration work and this is your first long form graphic novel. How did you find the transition?
I’m not gonna lie — it was a challenge. Revisions get so complicated when every panel feels like it’s part of a jigsaw puzzle. With my illustration work, I’m used to focusing on a single image and finessing it as much as I want. In putting together a graphic novel, I quickly realized I had to regulate my time and energy differently if I was ever going to finish. I’d made a bunch of decisions at the beginning that initially seemed fine (large pen drawings within a rigid grid) but midway through the project, I felt pretty locked in. All the characters and storylines I kept adding made the thing a bit unwieldy, but I was sort of aiming for that effect: a tension between form and content that reflects my subject matter. Once the stories were all finished, there was a lot of editing and reorganizing I had to do, in order for them to exist together. I knew Shelterbelts would be a learning experience, but I wasn’t able to predict how much work it would be.