In graphic detail

Una talks about the time-consuming process of creating a graphic novel from her shed, her pride in getting a major publisher and how she’s overcome child sexual abuse and domestic violence

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When a mother of two from Leeds decided to write, illustrate and release her autobiographical story of childhood sexual abuse she did so under a pseudonym. It wasn’t just that the story itself was exposing, it was a question of safety. As an adult she had fled domestic violence with her first son in tow, so when she released Becoming Unbecoming in 2015, she became Una.

One of my favourite drawings of Eve is where she’s just looking really annoyed feeding the chickens.

A devastating personal account of gender violence told in graphic novel form, set against the backdrop of the 1970s Yorkshire Ripper manhunt, it was part of a timely conversation about child abuse that landed shortly after the shocking revelations of the Rotherham and Rochdale child sexual exploitation scandals. It also preempted conversations on gendered violence that came to a head two years later with the Me Too movement. She was Una, but the book was dedicated to all the others.

“I really liked the symbolism of Una. I like that it kind of flattens everything out and makes all of us one,” says the writer and artist over a temperamental Zoom connection from her garden shed, where she has created all her work. It’s summer outside but feels like winter in the shed and Una is wrapped up with an elegant blue scarf tucked under her chin. Pages of artwork are pinned to the wooden walls behind her. The space is her cree – a North East term for a place to escape the world and not coincidentally the title of her third book – a project born of a collaboration with Durham’s Just For Women Centre. While making Cree, Una marked 20 years since the second and final time she left her violent ex-partner. Confident he was unable to locate her, and with her son at an age where she felt he could genuinely consent to his story being told, she decided to share the story and a photo of herself. Her pseudonym, however, remained. What does it mean to her now?

“That’s a really interesting question. I’m not quite sure how to answer it because I’ve actually been thinking about it myself recently. I am basically stuck with it. If I want all my books on the same shelf, I’m going to have to stick with Una. I don’t mind it and I’m not sure whether it matters.”

Before becoming Una she had already legally changed her name to hide from her ex, and prior to that she had been known by a name different to the one on her birth certificate because her parents changed their minds. She questions how much of our identities are tied up with names – women regularly dispose of theirs through marriage, and some people’s names have backgrounds in slavery so they never owned them.

“I do wonder if it matters that much. Surely what matters is deeds not words. I think that’s a rule to live your life by actually.

“It’s very easy to be persuaded by charming people into doing things that you don’t want to do but really you have to look at what people do. And a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. It goes all the way back to Shakespeare, doesn’t it?”

The killing of swans represented abject cruelty to Una when she put it into Eve. Two weeks later it happened in real life

For the last three years Una has been fixated on another three letter name – Eve, the protagonist of her latest book and second full-length graphic novel.

“It’s so all-consuming to make even quite a short graphic novel. It’s a lot of hard work if you’re doing both the artwork and the writing. There’s a reason why most are done in teams. I think you have to be either very special or very stupid to decide to try to do everything by yourself. I’m not sure which I am.”

Eve suggests the former. Set in the near future in a world that seems like our own, Eve grows up in a loving family that is increasingly threatened by a society sleepwalking into totalitarianism. When political tensions and climate change come to a head, Eve’s world is irrevocably changed and she heads into the wilderness alone.

“I didn’t want it to be like Adam and Eve,” explains Una. “I thought: Okay, yes, she is Eve because she’s setting off into the new world but actually I wanted her to be doing it on her own terms.

“She’s very fierce. She really doesn’t care at all what people think of her. She’s very bolshy. One of my favourite drawings of her is where she’s just looking really annoyed feeding the chickens.”

Though Una had finished the story before the pandemic hit, readers in 2021 will find it impossible not to read it in a Covid-context.

“It’s a catalogue of disasters and a book of anxiety and it actually did have a pandemic of a tropical disease when I first started writing it but I thought: Oh no, that’s too far-fetched, and I took it out. Then a real pandemic happened.”

As with all good speculative fiction, it predicts a set of circumstances that are rooted in reality so could easily happen, and often do. A main strand of the story revolves around a government scouting initiative called Arcus Aim, which recruits aimless young people in schools and with widely distributed propaganda. Nationalistic and militaristic, in one scene a local squad pointlessly kills a swan.

“I really love swans and spend a lot of time admiring them. Those sequences seem symbolic of abject cruelty and thoughtlessness, but then some guys actually did kill some swans and it popped up literally two weeks after I had drawn them. It did mean I was then able to adapt the sequences according to the video that someone took of the men killing the swans.

“It happened more than a handful of times that I put something in the book and then it would pop up in the news, so it might be my fault that there’s a pandemic.”

Familiar too is the landscape in Eve. Based in the fictional Yorkshire town of Crakewick – which like many Yorkshire towns is not pronounced as it’s spelt [Crack-a-wick] – Una explains that it is roughly based on the towns around Keighley.

“I was thinking through what it is to live in a northern town in the current era, which is not at all what people from the South think it is,” she says. “Unless you’ve spent some time in the North of England, it’s almost impossible to understand it because there are so many stereotypes and just slightly misleading ideas that come from a general southern bias. That’s was the beauty of moving the capital city to Bradford.”

It wasn’t a random choice based on giving a middle finger to London-centricity, however. As the highest city in the UK, Bradford is a place climate scientists are already pointing to for safety once sea levels begin to consume our shores. In one of Arcus Aim’s posters we see a depleted map of the UK alongside the slogan “Know Your Place”. Una based it on a flood map made by Friends of the Earth using Environment Agency data.

And it’s in the landscapes that Una, who studied fine art at Leeds College of Art, focuses her talent – abandoning the greyscale pencil drawings with flashes of colour that dominate the early pages for a sumptuous digital paint palette.

“I remember when I was coming out of a horrible depression, after I left my violent ex, and I was getting my life back together again and taking a bus trip through up to the Lakes and looking out the window and thinking: Oh, wow, I had forgotten that this is what it looked like – such beauty and freedom.

“I don’t think that there is anywhere that looks quite like the North of England, especially the North East, with those really heavy grey skies that you get, and the hills that are often too big to climb easily but too small to call mountains.”

To get the colours right Una took photographs and sampled them so she could paint with colours lifted directly from the likes of Ilkley Moor and the Yorkshire Dales.

“I wanted it to be as close as I could get it and there was a lot of thrashing about with my publishers during the period of printing. But then the book arrived in my shed about two days before I went walking in the Yorkshire Dales with my husband and we had one of those days where you get all the weather. We walked through some trees, past some hedgerows, across some fields, up a little hill, towards a castle, and I thought: Oh, I’ve got the colours exactly right. I was really pleased. But it was a heroic effort on their part, and I’ll be eternally grateful.”

Eve is Una’s first book with a major publisher and, fittingly for a women’s rights and justice advocate, it’s landed with women’s publisher Virago.

“I’m so proud because I used to have practically all Virago books on my shelf when I was younger,” says Una who, in addition to Becoming Unbecoming and Cree, has published another short book. Self published with Arts Council funding, On Sanity documents her own mother’s psychosis and sectioning under the Mental Health Act and is told from both Una’s perspective and her mother’s – who has since recovered. Eve is her first work of fiction.

“I think it was Simone de Beauvoir who said that you have to announce yourself as a woman when you come into a room. Like a man’s just there and so he can just write anything he wants, but a woman has to go: ‘Okay, well first, I’m a woman and then, I’m going to tell you about this.’ So I feel like that’s what I’ve done. I’ve announced myself through an autobiography and I quite like that I’ve written a complete work of fiction now.

“When I was a kid, I actually was such a bookworm but I didn’t think it was something I could do. I never imagined that I could write books and that is partly because of representation. While women proliferate in literature, other people bought my books for me. I didn’t even read Jane Austen or the Brontës until I was well into my twenties. I was reading people like Graham Greene and PG Wodehouse, who I thought was hilarious. I mean, what did I, a 12-year-old girl, have in common with people who live in castles and keep pigs and have butlers and stuff?

“I wish I’d have realised that it was something I could do. My whole career and probably my whole life would have been a lot more straightforward if I could have just found a little room of my own and £500 a year, like Virginia Woolf says. I probably could have been quite happy.”

Now 56, Una is happy and says she has all the things that she finds satisfying in life. “You can’t ask for more than that, can you?” She’s married, and has two grown sons and two grandchildren. She has her home in Yorkshire and two sheds now – she’s just inherited a second on her new allotment.

“I wasn’t always like this,” she says of the long road to recovery from the trauma of sexual abuse in childhood. Today she’s contacted frequently by other survivors, and while she modestly says she doesn’t have the answers (Becoming Unbecoming was crammed full of insightful reflections and thought-provoking approaches to thinking about it) she adds that she does her best to offer them a bit of support.

“I think that expecting too much of yourself is probably where a lot of people fall down. You know, it’s fine to be not okay, it’s better to be okay, and you should always be working towards that. But, no, I think it’s perfectly normal.

“It did take me such a long time to recover, and I do regularly hear from middle-aged women who have only just started to process their trauma from sexual abuse in childhood. I just heard from someone the other day who was 64 and only just processing it. I was lucky enough to start processing it some time in my late twenties, early thirties.”

In her mid-twenties, she explains, her mental health plummeted and for years she lived a nomadic lifestyle backpacking around Europe.

The first cartoon Una ever drew was while teaching at Leeds College of Art after a huge boom in graphic novels in the 1980s that addressed “real, emotional stuff”. The cartoon ended up in On Sanity. “Somebody said to me that having a psychosis is like being trapped in a tunnel with both ends blocked and deciding to escape through the ceiling. I really like that as a kind of an analogy for what I could see was happening to my mother.”

“I’ve lived rough, I’ve slept rough, I’ve lived in a squat in Amsterdam next to a man called Dr Death who was the class A drug dealer, and I’ve slept in a van that had no engine and didn’t go anywhere.

“Some of it was really cool, don’t get me wrong. Some of it was just laying around on beaches, looking at art, visiting really exciting cities, and hanging out with amazing people but actually a lot of the time I wasn’t very well and probably wasn’t really able to cope with what you’d see as a normal life.” And she wasn’t artistic at all.

“I couldn’t do anything. You get all sorts of people, especially in a really big squat. You get people who are really together who have got amazing vans that are really well organised and then you get people who couldn’t get anything together at all and steal vegetables from people’s gardens. I was one of the second type.”

Una says she had a decade of very poor mental health before having her son led her to begin to piece her life back together. It still took her around eight years before she was stable and managing, a process invariably slowed by finding herself in a violent relationship.

“I’m just happy that eventually I had a normal family life because, weirdly, that is what I wanted through all those years. It was like being outside a window looking in and I just wanted to feel like a normal person. I have accepted now that I’m probably not quite a normal person. But that’s fine.”

Her experiences are reflected back at readers in her new book, through the alternative lifestyle of Eve and her parents and through Eve’s abandonment of them as she heads out into the wilderness alone. But Una doesn’t see Eve as a representation of herself, and nor does she really relate to the parents, who she imagines starting their family in the present day. Rather, as author, she presides over them all in a maternal role.

“I was exploring my thoughts about my children but also about all the young people, all the children. I’ve reached that age now where I’m feeling just really worried for them. I’m very aware of one set of people being not too worried about things and the other set of people being very anxious about things. I’m thinking about what we can learn from one another but then I think about all of the generations that have hoped that
their children will sort out the problems. Then, of course, they don’t and we just do it again.”

Perhaps it is a generational trap but Una can’t help but look at her sons – caring, sensitive, respectful of women – and see a stark contrast to the misogynistic and conservative culture she grew up in “where the boys made a lot of noise and shouted at everybody and the girls kind of tried to look nice”.

“Eve is how I wish I’d been actually. I was quite worried about what people thought of me and very anxious. Not timid exactly but not self-assured like she is. So she’s like the ideal me that I wish that I’d been when I was younger.

“I have to say and I know that it’s a lot of pressure to put on them, but I have got a lot of hope for the younger generation.”

Eve by Una is published by Virago

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