guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

Shake Girl: a graphic novel. Written and illustrated by the members of the 2008 Stanford University Graphic Novel Project.

By Beth Hewitt

Shake Girl is a remarkable book—not least of which because it has forced me to relinquish a long-held belief in the impossibility of corporate authorship. The “graphic novel” (as it is official subtitled) is the creation of 15 undergraduate students studying at Stanford University, who were members of the 2008 Stanford University Graphic Novel Project. As the editors, Adam Johnson and Thomas Kealey (who were also the students’ professors) note, it does seem “a little miraculous” (I would say more than a little) that these students were able to write, illustrate and design Shake Girl in six weeks. Also miraculous is the novel’s aesthetic and emotional cohesiveness and beauty. Their story is based on a true tale of a young Cambodian woman who wants to be a dancer, but ends up the mistress of a wealthy Cambodian businessman. According to Johnson and Kealey, once the students heard her tale (by way of a visiting journalist, Eric Pape), they immediately determined her story would be the subject of their graphic novel project.

The novel gives us an intimate portrait of one small and powerless individual—the eponymous heroine, who makes her living selling fruit shakes in the streets of Phnom Penh. Although she was born long after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the novel represents the ways in which the legacy of Pol Pot affects all its citizens. The book begins with her explaining that “one of the best spots” for a shake stand is in front of the Torture Museum. Tourists, anxious to “get their mind off genocide,” buy lots of shakes, and, eager to assuage any guilt, they tip her heavily. And yet, for all the political context of the narrative, the story of the Shake Girl follows a very conventional novelistic archetype: a tragic seduction tale.

We follow the Shake Girl’s first-person narrative from a 14 year-old working at the stand to a 15 year-old girl working as a karaoke girl in a bar patronized by wealthy businessmen, government officials, and military men—many of whom were former members of the Khmer Rouge. The karaoke girls are pretty young Cambodian women who serve drinks and flirt with the clientele, and we learn that many of them—including our heroine—become lovers and mistresses of the men they meet in the bar. The Shake Girl meets a wealthy man, Frankie, and the novel reveals the life of being the other woman—not the “first wife”—as well as the horrible crimes inflicted on these poor women. Although my description of the novel as a tragedy will indicate that this is no fairy tale, I won’t reveal the details of what happens to the Shake Girl, save to say, it is a moving and heart-wrenching story of what is, in fact, the commonplace violence against women.

Although in his afterword, Eric Pape tells us the real heroine’s name, the writers never provide her name in the novel: she is forever just Shake Girl. I will confess that I did not notice she was nameless until I read back through the novel to try to discover it. This fact speaks to the complexity of the novel, which offers us the life history of an individual person, and yet, also subtly allows us to see this individual as allegorical. This effect is also achieved because the multiple artists, who illustrate her, draw her differently—always with the same basic features, but with subtle mutations. Consequentially, she is always the heroine of her private tragedy, but she also stands in for the many (Cambodians, women, post-colonial citizens subject to wars both foreign and civil, etc.).

The novel’s ability to relay the Shake Girl’s private tale as One that, like a pebble in a pond, patterns the stories of Many also characterizes the Graphic Novel Project itself, which coordinates the voices and vision of fifteen different authors into their effortlessly cohesive novel. Each of the students was involved in either writing the script or in illustration: thus, this was not a project in which the committee talked through the tale, ultimately relinquishing creative control to one writer and one illustrator. Often times, when I have read a novel that has multiple illustrators, I find myself annoyed by the variety—anxious to return to the style or look that I like best. I never felt this in reading
Shake Girl: not because the illustrations were so similar, but because the illustrative change seemed a stunning way to visualize the story of this young woman’s passage through life. Unlike the art, I could not determine any stylistic differences in the narrative (despite my knowledge that different people had written different parts of the script): the voice I heard was always the Shake Girl’s. And, thus, the novel can brilliantly end with her proclamation, “I am still myself.” We should all read their story of her story of self.