In Darkroom: A Memoir in Black and White, the first work of graphic nonfiction published by the University of Alabama Press, author/artist Lila Quintero Weaver looks back at her childhood as an Argentinean immigrant in Alabama during the era of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement. The press plans to publish the 264 page book with an initial print run of 1,500 on March 1 and will also release it as an e-book.
Darkroom is work of graphic nonfiction focused on Weaver’s family life after arriving in rural Alabama from Argentina in 1961 at the age of five. The book recreates Weaver’s memories of her family’s arrival and life in the racist South of that time, but she also offers a lively and detailed documentation of day to day life in Alabama at that time as well as the efforts of local African Americans to fight racist Jim Crow restrictions and the beginnings of the Civil Rights movement in her town. The book was developed from Weaver’s senior project for the University of Alabama’s External Degree Program, which serves adult students returning to school. She produced a miniature graphic novel, which led to an art exhibit on campus, which, in turn, attracted the attention of the University of Alabama Press in December 2007. Daniel Waterman, editor in chief of the U of A Press, noted, “Lila’s artwork is not only arresting and beautifully expressive, the tone of her prose and her use of dialog struck us as natural, authentic, and persuasive.”
In an interview with Weaver, she told PWCW that she is largely self-trained as an artist. She was influenced by her mother, who was a portrait painter, and majored in studio art while briefly attending college for the first time. “Disillusioned by how art departments of that era approached art education,” she told PWCW that she dropped out. “The rest I got on my own, learning by doing and by reading about the working habits of other artists,” she explained. In terms of writing, she participated in her first creative writing class at an independent bookstore at the age of 45, as well as taking a few correspondence courses.
The author credits Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed Persepolis with introducing her to the graphic memoir and also cited such autobiographical comics works as Craig Thompson’s Blankets and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home as important influences. “I studied those books with the ardor of a scholar, looking for exactly how they performed their magic,” Weaver said. She said that only by combining art and text could she really tell her story, as “words alone didn’t seem to convey the emotional weight I felt about the events and issues the book depicts.”
Darkroom stands out not only for Weaver’s lovely black and white artwork, but also for her unique perspective on the South during the upheaval of the Civil Rights movement. She explained that, “Most depictions of the Jim Crow South have come through the viewpoint of black or white people who had grown up within the system and were either victims, perpetrators, or so conditioned by lifelong exposure that they believed it was normal. As an outsider, I arrived on the scene without conditioning and that allowed me to receive as full an impact as an observer can.” One of her hopes for the book is that it will allow generations too young to remember the era to understand “that change finally took place only because African Americans fought for their rights.”
The press will be marketing and promoting the book using social media and by bringing the book’s author to conferences and trade shows, including BookExpo America in June, according to Rebecca Minder, the presses’ publicist. Weaver will appear at the Arkansas Literary Festival in April; she’ll be on a panel on segregation and racism at Troy University's Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, and possibly at the Alabama Book Festival also in April, as well as working with high school classes. According to Waterman, “With Lila Weaver’s artistic ability, we are able to capitalize on that and have book signings at art galleries and other venues where her work can be displayed.” Venues under consideration include the Kentuck Gallery in Northport, Alabama. These exhibitions will also include family movies and other family memorabilia supplied by Weaver.
While Darkroom is the first graphic novel published by the University of Alabama Press, its editors are open to more and expect that the category will strengthen its list, which includes an emphasis on Alabama history and culture, as well as fiction and memoirs about life in the South. Waterman noted that, “We can’t speak for other presses, but we would think it would be a growth opportunity for university presses if the subject matter of the specific work fits with their missions and areas of interest. We certainly consider this instance to be a fantastic opportunity.”
Darkroom should attract readers interested in history, memoir, and the author’s Cinderella story. “In both words and art, Darkroom commands your attention,” Waterman said. “That it touches in a wholly convincing way on subjects such as the Civil Rights movement, immigration and the rural South, and a young immigrant Latina girl’s quest for racial enlightenment and a sense of self and purpose, made it all the more compelling.”