Iasmin Omar Ata uses a striking palette and manga art style to tell the story of an Arab-American college student, Isaac, dealing with epilepsy in Mis(h)adra. Because this is a graphic novel, Ata has a chance to develop a new language of symbols and images to convey the physical experience of a chronic illness. Ata can show not just pain, but the frustrating and exhausting battle with illness, with doctors, and with medications in an evocative and visceral way.
As Isaac attempts to bargain and placate his relentless illness, strings of beads wind around him, strangling his efforts to be a friend, a student, a son. Knives that only he and the reader can see, attack him, affecting his ability to talk to his friends, go to class, or be the person he would like to be. When Isaac says that he is exhausted, or sad, or terrified that he will always feel sick, it has an indelible weight and solidity because of Ata’s art and care in crafting the story.
Many narratives about illness follow a predictable format: someone gets ill, they suffer, they receive treatment, they reach an enlightened self-realization, and they get better. Illness has taught them a valuable lesson! However good those stories are, and some are excellent, they don’t address more serious illnesses: those from which you do not get better, they don’t address suffering that outlasts a lesson. This exceptional and unique graphic novel takes a different approach. Mis(h)adra is a profound examination of living with epilepsy. It’s revelations feel as earned and as conditional as a sense of well-being gleaned in difficult times. Mis(h)adra has a diverse cast of characters, who are buoyed through rough times by relationships that are not as fragile as they feared, and with the hope that all will be well. They hope that today, at least, will be okay.