In her graphic memoir Spellbound, Bishakh Som blurs the mundane and the fantastic—the facts and the truth—in the story of how she wrote her first graphic novel. Through mirrored protagonists—herself, Bishakh, a Bengali American trans woman, and Anjali, her cisgendered stand-in—Som tells a story about creativity, process, identity, and self-love. After Som’s brief introduction, the memoir plunges readers into Anjali’s story. Anjali has quit her New York architecture firm and she sets an intention: use this next year to pursue her passion project, a graphic novel.
It’s a narrative of confusion, angst, growth, and rebuilding. Instead of jumping on a morning train into the city, Anjali holes up at her Park Slope apartment. She draws panels and shoots the sh*t with her cat Ampersand. Her days dissolve into wine and vegetarian meals. This steady narrative of quotidian process is intercut with vignettes from Anjali’s life—her childhood move from Ethiopia to New York; her teenage years in ’90s New York replete with punk shows at CBGB’s and awkward explorations of sexuality; then her college years when she changes majors from the parentally-prescribed pre-med to architecture; her parents’ decline in their old age; and also her ongoing struggles with dating. Throughout, Anjali makes sense of it all with wry observations and lamentations. Bursts of emotion and magical realism punctuate the narrative. Ghosts visits her—you know, basic memoir stuff.
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As we read Anjali’s life story in its colorful particulars, we almost forget that Anjali is not technically real. Deviations between the pictures and text also raise questions about what Anjali’s narration leaves unsaid and what truths are hidden or brought to light in the act of substituting Anjali for Som.
Evocative, too, are Som’s drawings in their rich detail. Som’s architecture background shines here. Panels are scenic, and room interiors specific. One can recognize different architectural signatures as Anjali travels through New York, Kolkata, and the Adirondacks.
I sat down with Som (via Zoom) to talk about Spellbound, her profound story of defying external expectations, and finding the courage to follow your desire—even when it’s not glamorous. Along the way we talked about the quagmires of genre, being read by your own work, and realizing you’re trans part-way through writing your memoir.
On writing about her life
Som started writing short diary-esque comic strips after she completed her first graphic novel, Apsara Engine, a haunting book of fantasy vignettes, and sent it off to prospective publishers. “I didn’t want to draw myself, so I created this other character to be my substitute. It was just a way for me to not close up, or get jammed up with my creative process. I just wanted to have a reason to keep making comics,” Som said.
Eventually it became more than a diary. Som added longer narratives about her past and her family. At first, Som didn’t particularly like the idea of writing a diaristic piece, but she wanted to challenge herself to try something new. “Once I got into the rhythm and once I had someone playing me, it was much easier.”
The “simple substitution” of Anjali for Bishakh led Som to understand a fundamental truth about herself
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“[H]aving written a lot of women characters in my comics, and having Anjali be my sort of ambassador very directly was sort of the last step in me coming out as trans,” said Som. She continued, “It was like the door was opening and Anjali was sort of doing that for me. This was how I projected myself in my head. That simple substitution became much more of a psychic strategy for me.”
Spellbound blends genres
Som said, “I don’t have the perfect two-word description. My publisher and I call it a graphic memoir, with the caveat that it’s not 100% true.” Others have called it a “meta-memoir,” or an “almost memoir,” or “a displaced memoir.”
“If you’re looking for accuracy and veracity as far as my experience goes, that’s not the main point of the book,” Som explained. “Anjali as a character does represent me, but she goes off and does her own things too. And those things can either be attributed as fantasies or desires or projections or whatever. That might not be 100% my experience.”
There’s a third manifestation of Bishakh in one of Anjali’s love interests
Throughout the story, Anjali has various short-lived love interests and bedroom encounters with partners who feel far away. Then she meets the beautiful Titania at a party. The two form an easy bond while waiting for friends to arrive at a party. Titania says, “At least you’re not the only trans person in an apartment full of cis folks. You’re not trans, are you?”
In that moment, the trans-ness of the narrative is pulled into the open—so open as to validate the potential trans-ness of someone who might appear cis.
From then, Titania and Anjali form a strong connection, leading Anjali to confront her own internalized fears about her queerness. That includes what her family might think about it. In a spectacular sequence, ghosts of Anjali’s ancestors visit her. Som did not confirm whether this happened in real life.
Titania is so important to the story that she gets her own little chapter with panels told from her point of view. Som said this had to do with her aversion to writing about herself. She explained, “There’s some sense that she’s a different aspect of Anjali or of me, she’s like almost a second mirror in this like, trio of like selves. Yeah. And she’s not exactly like a outsider. She’s actually part of this trinity.”
Som doesn’t want readers to think she wants to be cis woman
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Som said, “When I did the Anjali substitution of that was like, sort of a trans strategy, right, but it’s very implicit, whereas Titania as a character is the explicit trans motif, let’s say.”
It’s powerful, because Anjali loves Titania, as she gets closer and closer to loving her full self. But as Som notes, Anjali’s character being cis might give the impression that she wishes to be cis. “But when I first started writing the book, and before I, you know, had this sort of gender reckoning, I wasn’t going to adopt the voice of a trans person because I didn’t [yet] know I was trans. And I think Titania comes in to sort of mitigate that? Maybe not enough. But yeah, I don’t know, I don’t think I got to the bottom of any of that.”
By the time Som realized she was trans, she was already about eighty pages in. “So I just kept it and then, but, I think that’s a mirror of my process of my experience as a person who came out later in life,” she said. “It’s a mirror of my uncertainties and the things that I was going through. In that sense, it is it is quite honest and authentic but it’s also very tangled.”
But in the end, Som said she felt her choices were legitimate. She added, “I’m just writing my truth, the way I see it.”
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