Leela Corman’s “Unterzakhn”


I don’t know how it’s possible that I managed not to know about Leela Corman’s 2012 graphic novel Unterzakhn until a few days ago…but I’ve always known her sort of backwards anyway. She performed for me as a belly dancer in 2008, and I’ve known her primarily in that context, rather than the one she is probably better known for, as an illustrator/ comic book artist. At any rate, the Mad Marchioness got this out of the library and I just picked it up yesterday and finished it today, and we both love it.

It’s a moving story about a pair of Jewish twin sisters growing up in the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century, with some of the backstory of their parents in Eastern Europe. The sisters are very close, but then are driven apart despite the fact that they are both victims of the sexual hypocrisy of the age, one becoming a prostitute, burlesque dancer and actress, the other a midwife and family planning activist. It’s a world where societal and political norms make natural relationships impossible and no one is allowed to follow their heart. Their father abandons the love of his life in exchange for a ticket to America; their mother chides the girls for the slightest perceived waywardness while secretly banging all the neighborhood men. Yet one walks away feeling one has merely been regarding a wonderfully complete portrait, full of humor and tragedy and charm and love. There’s no pushy thesis, no lesson, other than that we ought to be more honest and humane to one another — and things really sucked for women a century ago (and aren’t so great for many of them now). Who knows who’s having a similar tough time in 2015? Maybe we should listen.

Corman’s drawing’s are beautiful, funny and sad, and her writing was the biggest shock of all. It is extremely good. And she clearly did a huge amount of historical research and then absorbed it, for it is never forced into the story. It’s pretty safe to say that anyone who habitually reads this blog will probably love this book.

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