Forsyth Harmon '13 Appears in BOMB Magazine's 'A Room with a View' Series
BY Angeline Dimambro, May 6, 2021
Harmon is the author and illustrator of Justine as well as the illustrator of Melissa Febos' Girlhood and Catherine Lacey's The Art of the Affair. Focused on literary illustration in particular, she has also collaborated with writers Alexander Chee, Hermione Hoby, Sanaë Lemoine, and Columbia University’s own Leslie Jamison, Assistant Professor in the School of the Arts’ Writing Program. Harmon’s work has been featured in The Believer, Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Awl. She received both her BA and MFA from Columbia University and currently lives in New York.
The evening began with a reading from each author. Harmon read an excerpt from her illustrated debut, Justine (Tin House, 2021). The novel begins in the summer of 1999 in Long Island, New York and follows the fraught friendship between two young women. Bored, restless, and lonely, Ali never expected her life would change as dramatically as it did the day she walked into the local Stop & Shop. But she’s never met anyone like Justine, the store’s cashier. Justine is so tall and thin she looks almost two-dimensional, and there’s a dazzling mischief in her wide smile. BOMB Magazine has called the novel “an intimate and unflinching portrait of American girlhood at the edge of adulthood—one in which obsession hastens heartbreak.”
The discussion portion of the evening was moderated by BOMB’s managing editor Benjamin Samuel and featured not only questions taken from the audience, but also questions that the three authors had prepared for one another. The three authors featured in this iteration of the series all use “illustrations and hybrid forms to break apart conventional narratives,” as Samuel said. Dancyger kicked things off by asking the others about the unique relationship that exists between the visuals and text in each of their works. For Harmon, visual arts has been part of her creative life as long as writing has been.
“I have always drawn and wrote, and so, practically, as an artist, the two are inextricable for me. When it came to this particular story—Justine—we’re dealing with a teenage narrator who, I would say, struggles to communicate her feelings. We don’t get a ton of interiority from her. She’s not totally able to put into words her experiences and how they impact her. I look to the illustrations as a kind of extension of her interiority. They’re black and white, and in that way they reflect her black and white thinking. They’re also, largely, [drawn] at a very close range—I don’t think she has a ton of perspective. Especially when I show a series of images, I hope that [the visuals] do some of the work of emoting for her.”
This essential link between the written and the visual is clear when the novel’s protagonist warms up to the titular character Justine for the very first time: alongside the text, readers will see a butterfly and a makeup compact that is in motion, opening, on the page. “There’s a kind of opening inside of her and a willingness to participate in friendship,” Harmon said, speaking about the connection between the images and larger story. Not only did Harmon illustrate the images in her own book, but she also collaborated with Febos, drawing the images for Girlhood (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021). While Febos never previously imagined incorporating images into her work because she herself does not draw, she found that working with Harmon was an “organic process” that evolved naturally out of their friendship. “We collaborated on an early version of an essay that ended up in [Girlhood], and it was so fun to watch the images from my own experience that I had redrawn in words to then emerge from someone else’s imagination. It was mind blowing,” Febos said.
When asked by an audience member if they had any specific joyful memories of writing their respective books, the three authors shared the sentiment that while having written is a joy, there is much about the process that is difficult and challenging. For Harmon, there is a “particular pleasure” for her in the ability to move between writing and illustration that grants her a kind of creative freedom. The three authors also agreed that writing, for them, often points more towards having a question rather than deriving from a desire to make any kind of specific statement.
“One doesn’t put oneself through this without the desperate need to figure something out,” said Harmon. “It’s not always an externally rewarding pursuit, so if there isn’t something else to be gained or found in the process, I don’t think we would do it.”