Interviews

“I Felt A Responsibility To Share My Experience”: Janet Biehl on Their Blood Got Mixed

Photograph courtesy of the artist.

Janet Biehl’s new book, Their Blood Got Mixed: Revolutionary Rojava and the War on ISIS, chronicles her time spent in Rojava—a Kurdish-inhabited area of northeastern Syria consisting of self-governing bodies, officially known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES)—first as an activist, and later as a documentarian. The book, Biehl’s first longform comics narrative, is a culmination of her varied career experience as an illustrator, author, translator, editor, and longtime partner of the late political philosopher Murray Bookchin.

While Biehl addresses the well-known conflict between ISIS (known in the region as Daesh) and the Syrian Democratic Forces that defend the AANES—which espouses values rooted in feminism, direct democracy, decentralization, and social justice—Their Blood Got Mixed also explores the day-to-day lives of the citizens in the region. In this way, Biehl renders the monumental task of building a new kind of society as a confluence of smaller moments. Biehl does not downplay the role of banal meetings and tough conversations in this process. Her delicate, minimal line conveys both intimacy and the fluidity of the situation it seeks to depict.

Graphic narratives of the political nonfiction variety often either oversimplify their subjects into an apolitical morass or advocate to the point of condescension. Biehl shrewdly avoids these pitfalls. As a storyteller, she does not undersell the complexity of the subject matter, but presents it patiently, allowing for detours that illustrate the context, the reasoning, and the significance of the Rojava project. Through moving conversations with people within and adjacent to the movement, Biehl sheds light on their hopes, doubts, and concerns. Biehl’s perspective is that of a hopeful skeptic, even as she sees Bookchin’s libertarian socialist theories brought to life, specifically in the form of Democratic Confederalism, a program of self-organization articulated by Abdullah Öcalan, founder of the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, or "Kurdistan Workers' Party" (PKK) - itself designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States (since 1997), and the European Union. The application of such theories via the AANES has been chronicled by filmmakers Danny Mitchell & Ross Domoney since 2019 for a forthcoming documentary, Road to Rojava, in which Biehl prominently features.

A decade on from its 2012 foundation, the AANES is still defending its existence within the tumultuous region. In early July, the AANES General Council declared a state of emergency, citing information indicating preparation by Turkish forces for invasion of the region. Per the Twitter account of the Rojava Information Center, an organization that facilitates research and reporting on the region, “The statement calls on ‘all councils, bodies, committees & institutions to prepare for an emergency situation & to put all capabilities in self-defence projects.’”

I interviewed Biehl by email in June 2022.

-Ian Thomas

* * *

IAN THOMAS: Your travels in Rojava were clearly very moving to you. Can you say anything about where you were personally at the times of your visits? What has Rojava come to mean to you?

JANET BIEHL: My first visits to Rojava (later officially renamed the AANES, or Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria) were in 2014. By then my late partner Murray Bookchin had died in 2006, but his writings—in Turkish translation—had since then influenced the political program of the PKK, resulting in its Declaration of Democratic Autonomy in 2005, after which Kurdish people in Turkey and Syria started building grassroots-democratic councils and committees.

I got involved with the Kurdish freedom movement in 2011, when a man from the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement, Ercan Ayboga, invited me to participate in a conference in Diyarbakir (Amed), the largest Kurdish city in southeastern Turkey. I made the journey and was astonished by what I found. Young Kurds who could explain Bookchin’s social ecology better than I could. Panels dedicated to women’s rights, ecological projects. I learned that Kurds nearby were building grassroots democratic institutions based on Democratic Confederalism, reflecting the PKK’s new paradigm. Especially eye-opening for me were the panels on Turkey’s violations of Kurdish human rights - I had known Turkey was awful to its Kurdish minority, but I’d had no idea how awful.

After that, I realized I was in a position to help. At the conference I’d met some Kurdish solidarity activists from Germany who did fieldwork on the area’s nascent democratic institutions. When they went on to publish their findings as a booklet, I, knowing German, translated it into English, and published it as Democratic Autonomy in North Kurdistan [New Compass, 2013]. That process educated me in the movement’s commitment to implementing Democratic Confederalism, even under adverse conditions.

In 2014 and 2015 some other European Kurdish solidarity activists invited to participate in delegations to visit Rojava, to witness firsthand the new society that was under construction there and report back on it. I was astonished, not just because I was witnessing a revolution at first hand (how I wished Murray had been able to visit with me!). Not just because I was visiting a refugee camp (of displaced Yezidis from Sinjar) and saw that intense degree of suffering first hand. Not just because I drove around an urban battlefield where the building walls were still ammunition-pocked (in Serê Kaniyê‎), and not just because I heard ordnance going off in the distance (from the ongoing the war against ISIS). No, what astonished me was that these idealistic people, who had studied the history of revolutions, were trying to use theirs to create an inclusive society based on mutual respect across gender and ethnicity and religion, grounded in institutions of grassroots self-government. How did I feel, you ask, knowing that in some ways it was in the writings of my late partner? It felt like an extraordinary honor and privilege.

All images from Their Blood Got Mixed.

After that I translated another book, Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan, by [Michael] Knapp et al. It was one of the first studies of the revolution, based on a May 2014 visit, by several Kurdish solidarity activists in Germany. I was eager to get it into English, since Anglophones didn’t have anything like that yet. Pluto Press agreed and published it in 2016. It’s since been translated into many languages.

Fast forward to the spring of 2019, when Danny Mitchell and Ross Domoney invited me to return to Rojava, this time to make the film. By then my focus had shifted somewhat back to the US, out of horror at the Donald Trump presidency. Like many Americans, I woke up every day feeling sick, wondering what Trump’s wrecking ball would bash that day, appalled by the ethnic hatred that he was unleashing, and dreading that he would ultimately submerge whatever remained of US democracy in a swamp of ethnic hatred, misogyny, and homophobia. Democracy turned out to be more fragile that I had realized - when you have it, I now understood, you have to protect and defend it, because too many powerful and aggressive people would rather have autocracy.

But Kurds and their allies in northeastern Syria already knew this. Since 2015, Rojava, now AANES, had gone on a different course from the US. The leadership of its democracy consistently and clearly enunciated messages not to foment hatred but to encourage and to praise pluralism and inclusiveness, acceptance of those who are different, and mutual respect. In their political practice they exemplified the civility that is fundamental to a democratic culture - in stark contrast to Trump’s America. And they had been at war since 2014 against ISIS, a war that pitted a multiethnic democracy against murderous theocratic thuggery.

So visiting AANES in 2019, a place that positively affirmed and defended democracy, was refreshing.

Can you talk a little bit about how this book relates to the film? Do you see it as a companion piece? A restatement in a different medium?

I’ve seen a rough cut of the film—it’s to be released next year—and I think it and my comic are complementary. The film is different from the comic, it even has a different name, Road to Rojava. But that’s understandable, since during that month when Danny and Ross and our fixers and I traveled around Jazira and Kobanî cantons [i.e. administrative divisions], we accumulated a ton of material, enough for several films.

Meanwhile I’m an inveterate note-taker - putting something on paper is what makes things real for me, and especially a peak experience like this on... you just have to try to record it while it’s going on if you can. I took a lot of photos and also made drawings every night, after the day’s shooting was over. So I too accumulated had a lot of material.

And after the month was over, and they returned to the UK, me to the US, we worked separately, making our own choices of what to work with. Of course I had no say in creating the film - that was Danny and Ross’s project entirely. But I felt so privileged to have had access to so many aspects of that society that I felt a responsibility to share my experience. After all, so few people in the west are able to travel to Rojava, let alone witness a cross-section of society like I did.

So I asked Danny and Ross if they would mind if I did something with the material too, and they graciously agreed. Initially I thought I would write a little book, like a travel journal or carnet de voyage with my illustrations, but as I thought about it, I decided I wanted to convey my specific experience more or less as it had unfolded. Sharing the experience by recreating it as a narrative seemed to cry out for the comics medium.

Am I correct that this is your first graphic narrative (comics) work?

Yes, or rather the first one that I finished. Back in 2006, when Murray was dying, I’d promised him I’d write his biography. When I got to work on it later that year, it occurred to me that it could be a graphic biography. My fellow Vermonter Alison Bechdel’s entrancing Fun Home had just been published, and I foolishly thought, gee, maybe I could do that. I created the first 12 pages of a comic biography, then realized I wasn’t ready; there were too many technical things I didn’t understand about comics production, and the story was too complicated, and really prose would be a lot easier. So I put the comic biography aside and wrote the book Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin, which Oxford University Press published [in 2015].

But in the meantime I kept drawing, by now understanding that it has to be a daily practice if you are serious. I took a class on graphic novels with Rachel Lindsay (of RX fame) here in Burlington. Andy Kolovos of the Vermont Folklife Center periodically organized comics events, bringing in speakers whose words and advice I soaked up. Glynnis Fawkes lives in my town, and just running in to her from time to time was inspiring. A local university professor, Dan Vogel, admired graphic novels and occasionally hosted public events about them. The Center for Cartoon Studies, two hours away, nurtured a comics-friendly attitude in Vermont. And nearby Montreal had its own brilliant comics culture. So I slowly pieced together a comics education that way.

What attracted you to the comics form?

I’ve always drawn - as a child and teen, I copied Michelangelo’s sculptures from photos in a big book. I loved Steinberg, Searle, and Steadman, and I played around with dip pens. I practiced watercolor painting, which... emphasizes spontaneity of execution. In pen and ink the line is everything, in watercolor the brushstroke is everything. Watercolor also taught me fearlessness toward white paper.

But my parents didn’t approve of me making art. As a teen, reading Marvel and DC comics, I came across one of those ads that said, “If you can draw like this, we have a correspondence course for you.” I thought, yes, I can draw like that, so I answered the ad and sent in a sample. One day sometime later a man came personally to our house to sign me up for the course, but my parents, who answered the door, drove him off—I never even saw the guy—and they scolded me for-- for what, wanting to learn art? That was devastating and made me think unconsciously there was something wrong with art-making, so I never studied it systematically, just took the occasional class here and there.

During my 20s, when I lived in New York, I marveled at “Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies” in the Village Voice every week and wished I could do that. But at that time I had psychological difficulties and needed to overcome them, and above all to become financially independent of my parents. So right after college I entered the workforce, becoming a freelance proofreader and then copyeditor, working for book publishers like Knopf and Norton and FSG [Farrar, Straus and Giroux] and Random House. I survived, but otherwise drifted through my 20s, spinning my wheels and doing a lot of psychotherapy.

When I was 33, I somehow met the social theorist Murray Bookchin, and I attended his school’s summer program in Vermont. He invited me to move to Vermont afterward to work with him, and instead of going to graduate school, I did. I spent 19 years with him, up to his death in 2006.

Those years were a whirlwind, he never sat still, traveling, lecturing, reaching out to people, polemicizing against stuff he thought was wrong, trying to persuade folks that assembly democracy is really the best way to organize a self-governing, people-empowering society. I gave myself over to collaborating with him. I didn’t draw but I wrote my articles defending his anti-statist, grassroots-democratic, bottom-up politics against his critics. I edited and compiled The Murray Bookchin Reader [Cassell, 1997], and I wrote a primer on his political ideas called The Politics of Social Ecology [Black Rose, 1998]. I edited everything Murray himself wrote after 1991. We spent a total of about seven years on his four-volume history of revolutions called The Third Revolution [1990, 1996-2005]. I edited it and helped research it, and by the later volumes I was writing parts of it.

Working with Murray focused me, and I learned a ton from him about history and philosophy and politics. He also helped me out psychologically. His love for me did more than anything to heal me psychologically - sorry for the cliché, but it’s true, love heals. He transformed me from a psychological basket case into a functional, confident person capable of creativity, and I forever honor him for that.

When he was dying in 2006, as I said, I promised him a biography, and afterward I spent seven or eight years working on it, interviewing people, researching in archives, then organizing my material and writing the manuscript and revising it. I was comfortable with writing a book since I had been working for so long in the book publishing industry. But I kept an eye on comics, loving Spiegelman’s Maus, which was eye-opening. Someone gave me one of Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese books, which I adored. And I came across the comics of Ben Katchor, whose characters like Julius Knipl and whose settings reminded me of the working-class Jewish milieu that Murray had come from. Meanwhile Katchor’s drawing style and great poetic imagination drew me deeper into understanding comics as a sophisticated artform.

On my first trips to Rojava, I made a few sketches, too, but by the 2019 visit, I was ready to try an extended narrative comic. Joe Sacco’s approach to using comics as journalism set the paradigm for me. Zerocalcare’s Kobane Calling [2015, English translation 2020], an early comic about Rojava, was idiosyncratically brilliant and inspiring. I learned a lot just from looking at Molly Crabapple’s illustrations for Brothers of the Gun [written by Marwan Hisham, 2018], and Sarah Glidden’s Rolling Blackouts, both about Syria.

What did the pitch for Their Blood Got Mixed look like? To what extent did you work with editors and the publisher on shaping this work? I ask because a lot of work I see in this genre tends to pair an artist with the author. It makes sense that you would illustrate given your illustration experience, but was that the plan from the beginning?

There was no writer-artist pairing - I wrote and drew the comic myself. I wrote the “screenplay” first, then developed the visuals. This was how I spent the first 18 months of the pandemic.

When I was finished, I sent it to some mainstream literary agents whose websites announced that they handle graphic novels. One of my goals in using the comic medium was to attract new readers to the subject of Rojava, including mainstream readers. But mainstream agents showed no interest, and I guess there was a reason for that. So I tried PM Press, an independent radical press. I’d known one of its principals, Ramsey Kanaan, back in the 1990s, when he was at AK Press and published Murray’s books. I sent Ramsey my proposal, including a PDF of chapter 1 and a little summary of the contents and such, a pretty standard proposal.

About two weeks later Ramsey got back to me. “Janet, so sorry for the delay…” I thought, two weeks and you’re apologizing? And in the next moment he said: “We want to do this.” And that was that. No, the folks at PM Press didn’t shape it or make substantive changes.

They did do one helpful thing - they changed the [lettering] font. The one I originally used was too hard to read, they said, and together we chose a more legible one. During production it was a challenge make everything fit the broader font, but we did, and they were right, it’s better this way.

Many works in the political graphic novel genre feel like PowerPoint presentations. They strive for an overview, but often miss the nuances in an attempt to maximize appeal. I feel like this work does not shy away from the complexity of the subject matter. This work feels very organic in that you allow for branches and detours. You seem to address things as they come up in the narrative. Was it difficult to present the information in this way while allowing for an overarching narrative thrust? Did you have to move the pieces around a lot before arriving at the sequence presented in the book?

Thanks for your remark about complexity. While preparing for this project, as I said, I wanted the book to reach new audiences, so I had to presuppose a reader who knew nothing and bring him or her into it. I could see that that was what Danny and Ross were doing with the film, and they were right, since so many people really don’t know about Rojava. At the same time, I’d written a lot about Rojava before, and had readers who knew me for that, and I figured that they would expect more from me than ABCs. So I had to be both introductory and complex…

How to square that circle? I decided just to be faithful to the particularities of my experience. I would write about the specific people I encountered, the specific experiences I had, then as I went along fill in whatever seemed to need explaining to newcomers.

I did shift things around a bit to structure the chapters thematically (economics, security, democracy, women, etc.). But I kept that shifting to a minimum, to be faithful to the specificity of the experience, which was my guiding light.

Can you see yourself revisiting the comics medium as a mode for your storytelling? Did you find any notable advantages or drawbacks?

The only drawback I found is that making comics is laborious, but it’s worth it in the end, because they make your story so accessible. Yes, I would love to do another one if I find the right subject.

In preparing this book, did you see yourself more as a journalist, chronicling what you saw, or an advocate, espousing the values of Democratic Confederalism that you witnessed in Rojava?

That’s a complicated question, but spot-on to ask it. As I mentioned, I was Murray’s collaborator (and romantic partner) for a long time, and he always told me I was the best explainer of his ideas, But to be honest, I never really saw myself as an anarchist, and I told him that. And then around 2001 I reached a point where I could no longer continue, and I told him so.

Anarchists tend to regard the nation-state as evil, but as I said to Murray, I think the state has also functioned at times to promote human rights (like, in the US, the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and Supreme Court decisions like Roe v. Wade) and to redistribute wealth downward (as in progressive taxation). It’s never done that enough, and it does it less now than in the past, but I couldn’t reject the state because it was still well-positioned to improve people’s lives in the here and now. And we were about helping people, right? I told him I thought an antistatist social revolution in the US would likely not turn out as predicted - that it was more likely to come from the right than from the left, and that without a restraining government, the plutocrats would take over everything. And in a decentralized United States, what would happen to black and brown people in white-majority regions?

That was a very hard conversation to have with my beloved anarchist, but I had to be honest. He was disappointed, but he said he loved me anyway.

After he died, as promised, I wrote his biography, and I also wrote several explainer articles about his work - as a scholar, not as an advocate. If people were going to accept or reject his ideas, I thought, I wanted them at least have an accurate understanding of what those ideas were. I archived his papers carefully and did everything I could to ensure that his legacy, going into the future, was intact and as he wanted it to be. It had been important to him that I help transmit his ideas into the future, and I did what I could as part of my responsibility to him.

Then came the Rojava revolution - and suddenly I had before me the example of a place where Murray’s ideas did in fact work.

As you know, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group on the planet who don’t have a nation-state of their own. They didn’t get one after the post-World War I carve-up, and so since 1923 they have had to live as minorities in several states, all dictatorships that persecuted them, suppressed them, denied their cultural and human rights. Nor did it seem likely that the Kurds would ever get a nation-state - the PKK had been fighting for one since 1984, but by 2000 they were no closer than before.

That year, Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK leader, who had been captured, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment, faced this fact head on and decided the PKK needed an ideological reset. He set to work on it and asked comrades to send him books of social theory, east and west, and they did, and he read them. That was when he read Murray’s books in Turkish translation.

He was attracted to Murray’s decentralist program for assembly democracy and confederation, I think, because they seemed to suit the Kurdish dilemma. Instead of seeking a nation-state, Kurds could try to build democracy from the bottom up, within existing nation-states, and thereby achieve autonomy and freedom. That was the paradigm shift that he recommended to the PKK, and that by 2005 they accepted under the name Democratic Confederalism or Democratic Autonomy, then set about implementing on the ground.

It’s ironic that the model that I predicted would be a disaster here has worked well over there. Different conditions require different solutions, I guess, although I admit that the cognitive dissonance makes my head throb.

Your illustrations here are both delicate and very self-assured. Is the imagery you used in the book drawn from photo reference? There is a reflexiveness and ease that makes me think these were sketched on the spot.

Thanks for those kind words. I hand-drew all the line art, pen on paper, then applied color using Photoshop. Some of the illustrations, the ones that are like set-pieces, I drew while I was there. I would take photographs during breaks while we were shooting, and then at night I would make paintings from them. I brought along my handy travel watercolor kit and my pens. Those drawings have a kind of immediacy and resonance, at least for me, because I drew them there.

But the other sequential drawings - those I made when I got home. Yes, I used photos as reference, but not to copy or labor too long over one drawing. I learned that from Steinberg and Searle and Steadman that you have to have the confidence to jump onto that white page and create a vibrant spontaneous line, and if it turns out poorly, then you just draw it again until it looks right. I made many, many tries 'till I got drawings that were good enough. My wastebaskets got very full!

Maybe you noticed my format of three large horizontal panels per page. (Often they get broken up, but that the basic layout.) I chose that because I knew Their Blood would have a lot of words, and I didn’t want the panels to be crowded. To me when I’m reading a comic, I find crowding very off-putting. So I staked out a lot of space by defining large panels.

I also faced the problem of talking heads: the head and shoulder shot, with big speech bubbles coming out of the mouth. I would need some talking heads panels, surely, but they can get so tedious, both for the reader and for me. So wherever I could, I tried to build in whole-body figures, action figures, and to use different “camera angles” when possible.

I got a little stumped while working on the discussions at the Jineoloji academies…. Several women had explained Jineoloji to me, and that was potentially a protracted taking-heads situation, it would have been one after another, which I didn’t want. The solution I found was to consolidate several women’s explanations into one big explanation and have it coming from the mouth of Ishtar, a drawing of a little clay figurine of her. I’m pleased with that solution, and as I went along, I loosened up and got better at thinking up stuff like that. Next time I want to make more use of that kind of free imagery.

I found the palette you used to be very evocative. Can you speak to what informed your choices in this regard?

Wow, no one has mentioned that, thank you. I gave it a lot of thought. I knew I needed a pale yellow because Syria is semi-arid. I would need an olive green for the military uniforms. Black and white for faces and limbs. Those colors were fixed. Then for nuance, I wanted a tan and a warm gray. I experimented to find ones that would work with my existing colors.

I decided to use gradients to avoid the monotony of solid color backgrounds. That came in handy for flashbacks. My comic has a lot of them, flashing back variously to ancient history, or to decades-ago history, or to a-few-years-ago history. I needed to signal shifts in timeframe to my readers, but how? How did other comics artist handle flashbacks? I had no idea, so I studied how others did it. Finally I decided to set off flashbacks with background colors. So where the background color is pale yellow, that’s the present. Grays and browns as background colors indicate that we are in the past, in a flashback.

Early in the book, you depict editorial cartoons from the Turkish press, illustrating the repression of the Sheik Said rebellion in 1925, wherein the Turkish states quelled a Kurdish uprising. Did you re-draw those cartoons yourself? If so, can you speak to that choice? It’s an interesting way to contextualize the event within your own narrative.

Yes, I was trying to figure out how to draw that brutal repression, but to be honest, I’m not so good at drawing evil. I googled photos for that episode and luckily came across those Turkish propaganda cartoons. They conveyed it so vividly using metaphors - so much more effective than depicting actual fighting would have been. So yes, I made sketches of them.

You have worked in a variety of media over the course of your career, did you find any notable differences in your creative process making Their Blood Got Mixed?

You’re right, I’ve been an author, an editor, a copyeditor, a graphic artist, a watercolor painter, a translator. I feel very lucky to have those existing skills under my belt, but to create Their Blood I had to learn new ones. To be honest, I jumped right in, because learning new skills, and gaining some mastery with them, is what makes me feel alive and like I’m growing into the future.

One more similarity in the various creative processes. My work as a copyeditor and editor requires a long attention span, poring over manuscripts sentence by sentence, so that after 40 years of it, my brain knows how to sustain focus. I saw Murray work obsessively on his manuscripts over months and even years until they were finished, and for his lengthy The Third Revolution, I edited, etc., a little bit every day. By modeling that small-bites-over-a-long-term process, he taught me that it’s essential to always be working on a big project, to never be without one. It could be authoring a book or making a translation or painting an art series or writing and illustrating a comic. You break the project down into small steps and every day you polish one of the many stones that will go into the larger mosaic. I love that process because it suits my temperament; because the daily practice keeps my skills honed and improving; and because the goal of completing the project gives me something to live for. And once it’s finished, go on to the next one. It’s now a way of life for me.