“I want to participate in the side of calming, of reflection”

His first graphic novel, Perpendicular to the sun (Delcourt), in which he tells the story of his correspondence since 2016 with an American prisoner – and sentenced to death – has just won the BD Fnac France Inter 2023 prize. This time, we spoke to its author, Valentine Cuny-Le Callet.

You just won the BD Fnac France Inter prize for your first graphic novel, Perpendicular to the sun (Delcourt, 2022); what do you feel?

What touches me, what gives me particular pleasure, is that it is a truly popular prize, because the jury is made up of half book publishing professionals and half readers and female readers.

One of the great originalities of Perpendicular to the sun, it’s a four-hand story, where we see your drawings and your texts as well as Renaldo McGirth’s, with whom you interact. What does this arrangement mean to you, artistically speaking?

It’s obvious! It was out of the question, in such a work, just to hear my voice. The book is based entirely on our exchanges, therefore on our texts and our drawings in both. And, since the prison is a place where silence is imposed, I also want, to my extent, to be able to serve as a speaker – even if this voice is translated into French.

You have published in 2020 The World in five square meters (Stock), which also recounts your correspondence with Renaldo McGirth. What are the differences between this first text and this graphic novel?

From a creative perspective, you should know that before even releasing the World in five square meterswe are working with Renaldo Perpendicular to the sun. Images are of course very important, because they are part of our skills and our writing.

But images are also important because the prison is the place par excellence of the control of images, of those who enter it and those who leave it. This publication is also a way to regain control over these images, to a certain extent.

Perpendicular to the sun is both an adaptation and extension of World in five square meters. This is a chronological extension, because new events took place and were described there, and artistically – thanks to the images.

Perpendicular to the sun, by Valentine Cuny-Le Callet and Renaldo McGirth. In bookstores from August 31, 2022.©Delcourt

Was it difficult to exchange pictures with Renaldo McGirth, surely, because of his prison conditions?

Right now, he still doesn’t have access to the book. I sent a copy to his mother and another to his lawyer. But the prison did not accept the book, because it had a hard cover, because it was in French and because of the pictures it contained.

When I sent Renaldo photocopies of my drawings during our creative process, most of them were returned to me – under the guise of type “racist images” where “pictures that can be used as models for tattoos”. Mostly I have to send him descriptions of my photos.

In order for his images to reach me, we had to be deceptive at all. Some “lost”, some only reached me in pictures but I never got the original drawings. Some finally pass the controls, because, taken out of context, they have to look harmless. But these images, placed in context, within a narrative, take on all their meaning and all their power.

Where does your interest in prison issues and the death penalty come from?

It is both artistic and human interest. My first approach to these questions was through photographs – for example the photograph of Ruth Snyder in the electric chair, taken secretly by Tom Howard in 1928. This was one of my first photographic shocks, the first photograph of the real death that I saw when I was young. .

Then I joined ACAT-France, Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture and the Death Penalty – an ecumenical association. Through this I corresponded with Renaldo. Just then I registered for a thesis on plastic arts at the Sorbonne, to expand my reflection on these questions.

Are you looking for a companion? Perpendicular to the sunto also deliver a political discourse?

This book is not a political rant. I believe in describing what is is remains the best way to understand what wants to happen. The description of the prison system is its criticism. In the book, we hear from victims and victims’ families who are for the death penalty, while others are against it. I’m not watering anything down, I just want to convey things as they are.

Most of all, I want to engage in the side of stillness, of meditation. I’m not really trying to change people’s minds, but more importantly, make them pause for a moment before giving a very peremptory opinion – this is a very ambitious project!

I also do interventions in high schools around the death penalty. I have noticed that the more students give opinions that seem categorical, the more they are, in fact, eager for new information. Perpendicular to the sun is of course an artistic thing, but if it can also be an educational tool, I’m more than happy!

Perpendicular to the sun, by Valentine Cuny-Le Callet and renaldo McGirth, Delcourt, 436 p., €34.95. In bookstores from August 31, 2022.

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