The Chat: Trevor Corkum Interviews Teva Harrison

Harrison_Teva_portrait © David P.Leonard
TREVOR CORKUM cropped

Teva Harrison’s powerful graphic memoir, In-Between Days, traces the painful and personal journey of her diagnosis with metastatic breast cancer at the age of 37. Through comic illustration and short personal essays, Teva documents what it’s like to live with the disease, inviting us to share quiet moments of joy, helplessness, sadness, and love. At times heartbreaking, always revealing, and often fiercely uplifting, In-Between Days is a book that reminds us what a precious gift it is to be alive and awake in the world.

Writing in the Globe and Mail, Peter Kavanagh references Harrison’s preface to the book: “When I was first diagnosed, I didn’t want to talk to anybody. I have since learned that it is the unspoken that is most frightening. Shining a light on my experience takes some of the power away from the bogeyman that is my cancer. I am taking my power back.” For Kavanagh, “it is that assertion of control, that insistence of taking charge, that provides this memoir with its power.”

Teva Harrison is a writer and graphic artist. In-Between Days is based on her graphic series about living with cancer published in The Walrus. It was named one of the most anticipated books of 2016 by the Globe and Mail, and the Globe also named Teva as one of 16 Torontonians to Watch. Teva has commented on CBC Radio and in the Globe and Mail about her experience. Numerous health organizations have invited her to speak publicly on behalf of the metastatic cancer community. She lives in Toronto.

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THE CHAT WITH TEVA HARRISON

Trevor Corkum: Your graphic memoir, In-Between Days, documents and explores your experiences of living with metastatic cancer. When you did you start working on the project, and when did you know it would become a book?
 
Teva Harrison: I made the first drawing about cancer in October of 2014, but those drawings were initially only for me, for processing the changes in my life. A few months later, after a lot of reflection (and encouragement from friends also living with cancer) I put the comics online, hoping they’d find their way to people going through the same life disruption. They soon migrated to The Walrus and found a wider audience.
 
I think the project only became a book because Sarah MacLachlan [President and Publisher at House of Anansi Press] had the vision to see the possibility in the early work. When she asked if I’d like to talk about the possibility, it felt natural and exactly right.
 
Trevor: How has the act of writing the book altered your perspective on your life and your illness? What did you learn about yourself in the process of writing and creating?
 
Teva: When I started to do this work it felt like the purpose had fallen out of my life. I was no longer able to work, I was trying to make sense of things, but I felt rudderless. I’d just been given what felt like an immediate death sentence. In a way, I was waiting to die and trying to make the best of it.
 
Working on this book, and releasing it into the wild, has given my life back a tremendous purpose. I’m making art all the time. I’m connecting with other people going through the worst time of their lives. I’m trying to share in hope, as much as I can. I’m a part of a powerful community.

Working on this book, and releasing it into the wild, has given my life back a tremendous purpose. I’m making art all the time.

I’ve learned that, even though I can’t contribute to society in the way I was, working full time at a great job, I still have social value. I am still contributing to important discourse.
 
Trevor: How does it feel now that the book is out there in the world? What kind of feedback are you receiving from readers?
 
Teva: People have been so generous. I am so grateful. I have heard from a number of people who live with cancer, chronic pain, degenerative diseases, people who have been set aside by society, in a way, that the work makes them feel understood. I don’t have words for how much of a gift that is to me. And many people have told me that it has helped them to understand a bit more what their loved ones are going through with their illness. I have been humbled by the response. The book has a life of its own beyond my personal story and I am so grateful.

I have heard from a number of people who live with cancer, chronic pain, degenerative diseases, people who have been set aside by society, in a way, that the work makes them feel understood.

Trevor: In the section of the memoir called "Cancer Doesn’t Care," you write:
 
"But rather than focus on what cancer takes away, I try to focus on what it doesn’t. Because as much as I’ve lost, my life is really rich and full. I have a remarkable love (truly, everybody remarks on it), a space to write and draw when I have energy, a warm and intelligent family, inspiring friends."
 
I loved this section. It’s such a generous example of the kind of gratitude that weaves its way through the memoir. What were you thinking when you wrote these lines?
 
Teva: Every day has two diametrically opposed possibilities. I can choose to slip into a dark place and feel sorry for myself because this awful thing has happened to me, or I can choose to focus on the good in my life. One of those options is much more pleasant than the other. Of course there are days when there’s no choice, when pain or side effects are too much and I can’t smile through it, but I make an effort to live in the light. It’s just a more pleasant way to be. I really am so very lucky in every way but one. And I don’t want the darkness of the ugly, premature death I am going to have to colour the time I have left. I want to treasure the time I have. This time. Now.

I really am so very lucky in every way but one. And I don’t want the darkness of the ugly, premature death I am going to have to colour the time I have left. I want to treasure the time I have. This time. Now.

Trevor: Finally, what’s a question no one’s asked you about the book, that you wish someone would ask?
 
Teva: “Can you tell me about the heraldic wallpaper you drew for the part titles?”

I thought you’d never ask!

The images I drew for the part titles are hugely significant to me. They represent the sections, which are the dominant stuff that makes up my life. Big stuff like hopes and family and fears. I always knew that I wanted a two-page visual break between the three parts, something that imposed a bit of a break, breathing room, perhaps.

Since they’re so important to me, I spent a long time trying to figure out how to illustrate those breaks in a way that created an emotional pause while also informing the text ahead. I don't know if people really notice, or if they wonder, or skip past them to the next content. We all read differently.

They're really meaningful to me. I loved thinking about an image that might signify each major idea or experience to me, and how to weave them all together into something that felt empowering and timeless. It's no small thing to add that I really enjoyed drawing them. Thank you so much for asking!

InBetweenDays_ISTC_int_28

 

This excerpt is taken from In-Between Days, text and illustration copyright © 2016 Teva Harrison. Reproduced with permission from House of Anansi Press, Toronto. 

June 14, 2016
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