Through a blend of prose, illustration, and collage, visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger explores issues of inequity and social injustice. Her work—both fiction and nonfiction—has appeared in gallery shows and publications such as the Guardian, the Atlantic’s CityLab, and more. Her first book, American Redux: Visual Stories from Our Dynamic History, is out today from Balzer + Bray. PW spoke with Aberg-Riger about her nonlinear approach to American history and her decision to write for a teen audience.
How has your work evolved, and what inspired you to write a book?
Visual storytelling is an amorphous zone of making—not quite a graphic novel, not a comic. I was doing some mini stories, little poetic things, for a local paper here in Buffalo when an editor at the Atlantic’s CityLab asked if I’d do something more journalistic. Each month, I was given a topic—sometimes a single word. One month, I wrote about feminism and bicycles and 1895; the next month, I wrote about toxic waste in the 1980s.
I’d never connected with history as a student, but standing above all that was happening and seeing the junctures between the stories, it started to make sense to me. The more I wrote, the more it felt like I was writing a single story—running into the same themes and wanting to see them all together. An agent approached me and asked if I’d ever thought of writing a book. I said “Yes,” in a second. “And here’s what the book would be.”
In America Redux’s introduction, you write about history not as a straight line but as stories existing in relationship with one another. How did you begin?
I included 11 or 12 stories in the proposal and branched out to 21. While putting the book together, we played with order a lot. Sometimes it stays within the same period; sometimes it jumps around. The first chapter is about the United Daughters of the Confederacy and rewriting historical memory after the Civil War. It frames narrative as something that’s crafted, which felt like a good introduction to the book. The second chapter goes into the abolitionist movement, and then we go back and forward and back and forward.
I had never heard the story of Mustafa Al-Azemmouri [a Black, Muslim, Moroccan man enslaved by Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca], who, according to some accounts, led the first expedition across the American Southwest. You write that he went first but never had a chance to tell his story. How did you learn it?
As a visual thinker, when I thought about American history pre-Columbus, I thought of a bunch of white guys with beards stomping around. Reading [Sam Haselby’s Aeon essay, “Muslims in Early America”] totally changed the landscape in my brain. It was hard to write about Al-Azemmouri because we know so little—the only story we have was written by the treasurer of the expedition. That’s a big part of the book: opening up questions for young people to say, “Okay, this is how this story was written, but here are other pieces to help you better understand what might have happened.”
Why did you decide to write for a young adult audience?
I mostly publish in adult publications, but the feedback that makes my heart the happiest is from educators saying, “I shared this piece with my students, and it started this huge discussion.” In my conversation with Balzer + Bray, it became very clear that writing the book for young people was the most liberatory possibility. We often talk about children and young people as being less than adults, but their brains are so expansive—there’s so much possibility and potential and enthusiasm and excitement. I think that is very inspiring.
America Redux by Ariel Aberg-Riger. HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray, $24.99 May 2 ISBN 978-0-06-305753-1