By Daun Fields
Chong, Vivian and Georgia Webber. Dancing After TEN: A Graphic Memoir. Fantagraphics Books, 2020.
“Inside a dog is pure joy. Listening patiently with awareness. Mindfully living in the moment” (Chong 152).
Dancing After TEN is artist, dancer, and drummer Vivian Chong’s graphic memoir of her experience with a loss of sight due to toxic epidermal necrolysis syndrome (TEN) is a meditation on the freedoms that can come with forgiveness. It is a moving, open, and gorgeous collaboration with graphic medicine artist and memoirist Georgia Webber (Dumb: Living Without a Voice) which seamlessly weaves both Chong’s and Webber’s drawings together to tell Chong’s story. Chong’s experiences of violation and vulnerability throughout her initial illness, including patient abuse in healthcare spaces, toxic relationships, and a punk community that is both supportive and misogynistic are clearly conveyed through alternating realist and abstract black and blue drawings. She depicts her healing journey initially through dark scenes of bodily confinement leading to images with long, flowing lines that illustrate her eventual freedom of movement through dance, drumming, and most memorably, through the mobility she experiences with her guide dog, Catcher. Chong says that she sometimes feels peoples’ eyes when “they stare because they know I cannot see them” but she realizes “they are just witnessing who I am rocking this world” (154). Being a reader of this text feels a bit like witnessing Chong doing just that.
The powerful message of freedom through mobility comes after the traumas of illness and abandonment. While vacationing with her friend Seth and his family in St. Martin in 2004, Chong experienced a rare medical reaction to medication that resulted in skin burns and a loss of sight and hearing. Seth and his family abandoned her in a healthcare facility in the Caribbean; she was eventually airlifted to a hospital burn unit in Canada where she was in a medically induced coma for almost two months. When she awoke, she was not aware of what had happened. During her subsequent hospital stay and recuperation, she was abused by multiple healthcare workers and supported by her boyfriend, Michael. Both Chong’s and Webber’s drawings, different in style but united by a blue and black palette, are utilized in tandem to convey Chong’s hospital stay, offering a sense of disorientation and a feeling of slipping in and out of consciousness. Chong’s full-page drawings of the confinement of her body by the hospital bed and the effects of morphine on her mind are some of the most dynamic and clear images of her fear of dying in the hospital: “I’m being sucked into the grave! What am I seeing in my head? Horses??? I have to gather my strength…I am so lonely…Where is my hair???” (40-41). Two years after she lost her sight, Chong’s sight was temporarily restored through a cornea transplant. Due to TEN, scar tissue grew over Chong’s corneas shortly after her transplant and her sight was not permanently restored. She drew images of her story while she had sight, which are depicted throughout the book; she especially focused on her hospital stay, scenes with Seth (both past and present in the story), and her expressions of freedom at the culmination of the book.
There is a sense of freedom in Chong’s long, fluid linework in the text. Webber’s drawings compliment Chong’s by offering sharp lines and grounded, “realistic” images. However, it feels irrelevant to discuss which artists offer more “clarity” of emotion or more “clear” conveyance of story through images based on the realist or abstract styles of the artists; the two styles speak alongside each other like two friends describing a shared experience. I was tempted to look for deliberate artistic choices throughout the book such as the possible use of Chong’s drawings to represent more emotional, ethereal moments and Webber’s drawings to show moments when Chong was awake, in consensus reality-based scenes, yet Webber’s drawings seem to show up when Chong just may not have had the seeing time to create an image (her sight was temporarily restored after her initial illness, during which she created as many drawings as possible). After she lost sight the second time during her collaboration with Webber, Chong created “new drawings that expressed my emotional state within the story” (162). Regarding these works, she says, “TEN did not take away my ability to draw, just my ability to see my drawings” (162). The two artists’ work looks and feels like a supportive and collaborative artistic effort; their art fills in gaps like a friend endearingly finishing a sentence for a loved one. Chong’s dreamy and sketchy line drawings convey movement and emotion just as clearly as Webber’s conventionally bordered realist-style images (Figure 1).
One especially moving instance of this overlapping of the two artists is a meta scene in the tenth and final part of the book where the artists are shown discussing and creating the book. Webber draws the scene in black and depicts herself and Chong seated at a kitchen table, overlaid with Chong’s thick blue marker drawings, furthering the color palette as a collaboration within itself:
Chong: Would you like me to draw anything specific?
Webber: I think it would be really powerful if you draw your inner world. Let us feel what the experiences were like…
Chong: I let the flow of my emotions guide me.
Emotion and its precedence over traditionally “realistic” technical skill and abilities in comic art is a central theme in this book that is part of a greater, exciting movement in 21st comics. In musical realms, U.S. DIY punk communities and performers generally value passionate expression over technical “skill,” and the punk community Chong is a part of is a communal embodiment of this theme. Her punk community throws a benefit for her when she needs medical funds for a cornea transplant. However, it is also a site of sexism and ableism; when Chong is sitting onstage on her drum throne, two white men chat: “Who does she think she is? Sitting there in sunglasses, guy doing all the work…” (89). I would have liked to have seen and felt more exploration of her punk community and the traumas experienced by women and historically oppressed people in supposed progressive spaces. Chong’s experience within these spaces has the potential to expand on artistic works of gender and trauma in punk communities; I see Chong’s story flowing alongside work by punk sage Cindy Crabb (Doris Zine) and new Zealand artist Simon Hanselmann (Megg, Mogg, & Owl), among others. Chong’s text expands on these works by moving in the intersections of disability and punk as well as questioning how “inclusionary” some U.S. punk spaces claim to be for women of color and disabled folx. Her personal choice to move from performing in predominantly white male punk spaces to queer theatres is a subtle transition in the text that brings awareness to a relationship between performance spaces and feeling of support and freedom for artists.
After a transcendent scene of forgiveness, she moves into a relationship that brings her a freedom of mobility. Chong has many community collaborators to offer support in her healing, but it is her guide dog, Catcher, that most effectively represents the power of loving collaboration. Chong says that through her relationship with Catcher, she “begin(s) to love her environment in a new way…To be a part of nature, I have to feel it” (138). Forgiveness (of Seth, who abandoned her in St. Martin and was an abusive ex-boyfriend and bandmate); proactive communication and making art; and getting a guide dog are all keys to her freedom. Dance and music are central to gaining her freedom, but the story of her freedom culminates with her decision to work with a guide dog. Chong encounters a dog on walk that barks at her which triggers her thought, “I’ve been afraid of dogs all my life, but now that I’m blind I can’t see them coming,” and the next two panels show her unsuccessfully using a cane to navigate the sidewalk on her way home (122). The final panel in this sequence shows her lying on her side in bed next to an outline of what seems to be an absent figure next to her. During breakfast the next morning she thinks, “I wonder if I could like a seeing-eye dog?” (123). The moment that follows is an important one which shows Chong’s belief in the wisdom and power of the body: she closes her eyes and puts her hand on her heart center, taking a deep breath. Black silhouettes of dogs emerge in the next panel with one blue dog appearing in the foreground with a single word: “Yes.” (123). The final 48 pages of the book tell the story of how her work with Catcher allowed space for her to move more safely and confidently through the world, as well as lead to her instructing access-focused yoga and participation in triathlons. Chong says, “I begin to love my environment in a new way. To be a part of nature, I have to feel it” (138). Catcher is present on almost every page throughout the part ten, culminating with a loving illustration that reads, “Inside a dog is pure joy. Listening patiently with awareness. Mindfully living in the moment” (152, Figure 2). This is when her story blooms open to mark a transition from a long phase of living inside herself and inside her healing body by necessity, to having access to being fully present, aware, and outwardly exploring. Her practices of engaging with the forest and cultivating “living in the moment” are all made possible by her willingness to be in relationship with Catcher.
Chong states that her intention with her graphic memoir Dancing After TEN was to answer “ongoing questions…from the ever-curious sighted world” regarding how “blindness had affected [her] daily life” (162), letting us know this is a work of art to ease the constant labor she expends in answering questions regarding her lifestyle. She succeeds in conveying the disorientation and physical struggle inherent in her intensive healing process. This is a work with her collaborator Georgia Webber, an artist and writer in the graphic medicine community of artists.
The discipline could include graphic memoirs of illness, educational comics for both students and patients, academic papers and books, gag strips about healthcare, graphic reportage and therapeutic workshops involving comic making, as well as many other practices and source material, both fictional and non-fictional (graphicmedicine.org).
Dancing After Ten adds to the fields of graphic medicine and feminist visual rhetoric whilst working at intersections of disability studies, Asian American studies, comic studies, animal studies, art therapy, and the medical humanities. Chong’s graphic memoir shows the resilience and joy inherent in moving through a process of intense physical and emotional change. Her story appeals to the general public, crafting a narrative focused on adapting to different ability experiences while also opening conversations of communal care, gendered violence in punk communities, the role of the artist’s body, and healing as opposed to treatment. Critical disabilities scholar Angela Carter states more broadly, “we need to focus our efforts on changing the social structures and cultural ideologies surrounding trauma and its healing processes” (15). Taking into consideration Chong’s statement of intention with the creation of this work, it could also be read as technical communication to attempt to answer questions from sighted people about blind people’s lifestyles that may have similarities to Chong’s experience living with a guide dog.
The beauty of the story and the collaborative artwork by Chong and Webber are reason enough to take a deep breath and read by looking, listening, and swimming with Chong for a while. As a reader, I had a liberating experience at the end of the book in celebration of Chong’s liberation; she illustrates what it’s like to “(sink) into my fluffy bedding in my quiet home…relax all my senses…letting go of the job of figuring out this world” (158, Figure 3). I am a currently seeing person, but, due to Chong’s vulnerability and honesty in her storytelling, I felt an empathic release anyone might feel upon finally falling into bed at the end of a long day navigating this world.
Carter, Angela. “When Silence Said Everything: Reconceptualizing Trauma through Critical Disability Studies.” Cripistemologies of Crisis: Emergent Knowledges for the Present, issue 10.1, 2021.
Chong, Vivian and Georgia Webber. Dancing After TEN: A Graphic Memoir. Fantagraphics Books, 2020.
Webber, Georgia. Dumb: Living Without a Voice. Fantagraphics, 2018.
Williams, Ian. What is Graphic Medicine? Graphic Medicine International Collective, https://www.graphicmedicine.org/why-graphic-medicine/. Accessed 22 Dec 2021.