Saturday, May 4, 2013

Unterzakhn by Leela Corman

Twin sisters Fanya and Esther Feinberg grow up in a working class neighbourhood of early 20th century New York City in Leela Corman's Unterzakhn. The title of this evocative graphic novel means "underthings" in Yiddish, and women's undergarments feature throughout. Mrs. Feinberg runs Zilber Corset and Foundation shop. Corman's reproduction of an ad circa 1910 is for corsets that lace in front -- women don't need servants to lace these up, a sign that times are changing.

In the opening scene, a woman lies bleeding on the sidewalk and young Fanya is sent for Bronia, the "lady doctor." Later, Fanya has a conversation with a woman who sells pickles in the street. Fanya is told, "That Bronia, she's a pritze. You stay away from her and you'll be better off." Fanya asks, "What's a pritze?" but the woman cuffs her on the head and sends her off. "Not a word for little girls! Now gey a veg!"

The text is full of Yiddish, but it's pretty easy to figure out the meaning through context. The New York accent is in the dialogue too. Fanya has an Italian friend, Sal, who has something to show her. "It's a oyster shell. The shiny stuff is called 'muddapoil'."

Fanya and Esther take different paths into their futures, which are represented on the front and back endpapers. The front double-spread shows fancy corsets, silk stockings and a lacy camisole hanging on a line. Plain slips, bloomers and socks hang from the laundry line across the back endpapers.

Corman's black and white art brings the era to life. Unterzakhn is moving story with memorable characters. I loved it.

Graphic novel readalikes: The Contract with God Trilogy (Will Eisner) for more stories of Jewish immigrants in NYC; Bluesman (Rob Vollmar & Pablo Callejo) for a similar time period but set in the American South; Persepolis (Marjane Satrapi) for another story of women's lives constrained by culture and politics; and Mercury (Hope Larson) half of which is set in mid-19th century Nova Scotia.

No comments: