How I Completely Changed My Mind

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by Christine Mowat

reprinted from the PLAIN Language 2013 Conference website

I’ve had an interesting change of heart and mind over the last two weeks. And it came out of a session I was facilitating at the PLAIN 2013 Vancouver Conference.

When Cheryl asked me to facilitate speakers who were writing narratives but were cartoonists, I mentally rolled my eyes. Then I muttered to myself, “Cartoonists presenting at a plain-language conference? Now, the dumbing-down is real!” But it was late in the planning and I didn’t want to ask for another session.

Good thing that I didn’t! Here’s the story.

The first “cartoonist” was David H.T. Wong, author of Escape to Gold Mountain, A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America (2012).
I finished reading his 239-page book a few days ago. Yes, it’s that long. And this over-150-year history of how the Chinese have been treated, and how they endured, is a stunning history book. In fact, I learned about all kinds of mistreatments and discriminations and cruelties that I knew nothing about. Yes, I had heard of the legislation restricting Chinese immigration in both Canada and the USA, I had heard of the Head Tax, and our PM’s apology to the Chinese a couple of years ago. But the significance of these racist decisions and other behaviours I didn’t know. The absence of this kind of information in our educational system saddens me.

In fact, in Canada, it is parallel to the educational vacuum we have about First Nations people and their significance and value to our history. When I read John Ralston Saul’s A Fair Country, I felt I had been waiting all my life to have a more balanced view of colonial history and the role First Nations played.

Well, what can I say about David’s “graphic history”? To me it was a very fine academic surprise. As an illustrated history (more accurate than “cartoons”), it contains:

  • a Table of Contents (aptly titled Contents)
  • a Preface
  • Introductions by (1) a professor and founding member of the Canadian Historical Society of BC, (2) an American Ethics Studies Senior Lecturer at University of Washington, and (3) a third with the Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project at an Asian Pacific Museum
  • a glossary of Chinglish
  • an illustrated timeline
  • a travel map and introduction to David Wong’s family
  • 13 chapters powerfully and cleverly illustrated with developing characterization and plot
  • an Afterword
  • Notes and References

David Wong personalizes this history by writing about his own family’s story of hardship, courage, and triumph over five generations. But most interesting of all was my realization that the visual portrayal of such a painful and sensitive story turned out to be such a success. Rather than degrading or dumbing down the substance, it inspired me to keep “reading”. Yes, it was reading. Some of the conversation balloons were bigger than usual cartoon speech holders, but the details were concrete and clear and in plain language. The combination of historical facts and people combined with the pictures spellbound me in a way that mere text would never have done.

I began to wonder whether some emotional topics, for example, in fields such as history, education, health and medical fields might at times be more effectively portrayed with graphic narratives.

Christine Mowat is a Founder and Past President, Wordsmith Associates, and Past Chair, Plain Language Association InterNational (PLAIN)

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