A year after comics writer Anthony Del Col and artist Fahmida Azim were awarded the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for Illustrated Reporting and Commentary for their online collaboration, I Escaped A Chinese Internment Camp, the heart-wrenching story of Zumrat Dawut and her escape from China, her story will be released as a book collection by New Friday. The book, which will hit shelves in September, is the story of Dawut—her torture, interrogation, and forced sterilization for being a practicing Uyghur Muslim, and her plan of escape and eventual reunion with her husband and children in the U.S.
An acclaimed comics writer, Del Col is best known as cocreator of Kill Shakespeare, a six volume graphic novel series launched in 2010 that turned a universe of Shakespearean characters into a swashbuckling adventure series. Azim, originally from Bangladesh, is an author (Muslim Women Are Everything, 2020), illustrator, and storyteller whose works are focused on issues around identity and culture. In 2020, Del Col began publishing a series of serious nonfiction online comics on Insider.com, of which I Escaped A Chinese Internment Camp is a part.
After conducting interviews with Dawut and a meticulous examination of the human rights record of her dilemma, Del Col and Azim transformed her life-story into an evocative comics tale about a courageous woman. PW spoke with Del Col and Azim about creating the online comics series, the need for a trade book collection, and the ability of the comics medium to report important, inspirational, and transformative nonfiction.
Publishers Weekly: How did you discover Zumrat’s story?
Anthony Del Col: Around June 2021, I pitched the idea of the Uyghur internment camps to Insider, and then we started to reach out to a few Human Rights organizations. The United Nations Human Rights Council loved my idea and replied back immediately. Their organization’s whole mission is to spread awareness, and my work at Insider would give them that outlet to do so. I wanted to find the right story for it—I hate to say it, but I wanted someone who’d gone through a lot of experience so we’d have the full gambit. I was presented with a number of individuals but Zumrat’s story jumped out to the forefront. She’d been in prison, she had horrible things happen to her, and she'd been able to escape and talk about it, as she currently lives in the US.
Zumrat is unafraid to speak her mind and tell the truth. My editor, Walt Hickey, and I spoke with her through interviews in August of 2021. They were intense. She’d walked us through every single thing; there were some gruesome aspects of her story that we weren’t able to fit in due to time constraints and limitations, but after finishing the first Zoom interview, Walt and I just sat there and looked at each other. She’d broken down in tears when revealing some of what she’d gone through. She’s a warrior who’s trying to get the truth out—one thing she’s doing right now in social media is combing through and trying to find photographic and video proof. That’s one thing we’ve been doing with our reporting with Insider—since it’s so hard to find footage, we try to paint that image. That’s where Fahmida comes in.
Is that what made you want to tell her story in the comics format?
Fahmida Azim: Yes. People need to be able to see in order to empathize with what’s going on. It also made things not too gory. If it was photographed or videotaped, it wouldn’t have been able to reach as many audiences. But when you have an illustrated representation, it becomes far more accessible for way more people. We’ve had people show our comic at schools, to kids, to explain what’s going on. They wouldn’t be able to do that with a long article or gruesome footage.
ADC: It’s one thing to read about reports and stories of internment camps in China, but there are unfortunately so many atrocities happening in the world. But when you have a visual representation—this is her getting beaten, this is her being grabbed and being thrown onto the gurney so she can be sterilized. The visuals make it more present, more visceral. It grabs people by the shoulders, shakes them and tells them, this is what’s happening today.
What are some of the challenges that you faced in making this comic?
ADC: We had difficulty finding artists for this story. A lot of artists were scared. One artist was located in a country friendly to China, and was scared to attach her name. Another artist was working for a startup that was going to China for funding. Fahmida didn’t care – she was like, I need to tell this story. Zumrat also doesn’t speak English. We had to bring in an interpreter, and had to be very detailed as things could be lost in translation.
I also had to send the final script to Zumrat so she could sign off on everything, because we wanted to make sure that everything was truthful and we hadn’t misconstrued anything. Everything was taken from her interviews and other testimonies she provided in other Human Rights conferences. But Zumrat was very forthcoming, and very happy to provide as many details as possible, so we could tell her story.
FA: I was working on three different book deals, and didn’t know if I’d have the time. But Anthony talked about the artists that bailed and Zumrat’s story. Plus, it was an issue I’d already deeply cared about. I got so mad! I said, if I can somehow make a difference I’m going to.
How has your background in comics and visual storytelling influenced this work?
ADC: I learned the “ins and outs” of storytelling [from working in comics]. If you take a look at Kill Shakespeare versus this work, it feels like a huge difference. I think I understand story and character better. What’s most crucial to this story was emotion. I learned that some of the best panels are ones that don’t have any dialogue at all, like a reaction shot or capturing the emotion on someone’s face. I learned how to script action, which helped with the scene where Zumrat was in Pakistan trying to get onto the plane—would she be able to clear Pakistani airspace and get to the United States?
FA: The subject matter of this story was relevant to previous works I’d done. As an editorial illustrator, I get pulled into doing stories about international women’s rights and advocacy work. I did an interactive comic for The New Humanitarian about Rohingya refugee women and the infrastructure challenges they have in refugee camps in Bangladesh. My debut book, Muslim Women Are Everything, was about badass women/nonbinary identities who identify as Muslim and the experiences they go through. This story was completely up my alley.
Apparently there was a small controversy surrounding the comic receiving a Pulitzer Prize. What happened?
ADC: Some traditional editorial cartoonists wrote an open letter to the Pulitzer board, saying that although they really liked what we did, they’d like their category back. As newspapers and its readers dwindle, these cartoonists feel like they’re participating in a dying artform. They’re concerned that the board is going to give the award to comics creators instead of editorial cartoonists who spent their careers writing traditional cartoons.
FA: I think they were miffed because the medium has changed as news has changed. The illustrative reporting category is a reflection of that: people get news from websites where they can infinitely scroll. There are more images on the web than ever. It’s not just a comic strip on the back of a newspaper. You’re not limited by the number of pages anymore.
How important is it to have a print edition collecting Zumrat’s story?
ADC: I’m excited about the print edition. I remember turning to my wife and saying, “this is the most important work I’ve done”. The print edition will ensure even more people can read it. One comic can’t change the world, but a comic can influence it and create a pathway to some sort of change.
FA: I’m really excited about a world with multiple mediums as news [sources], with sequential art as a medium for communicating and not just a genre in itself.