Cree tells the story of Jolene, a woman from Durham who finds solace, support and ultimately hope from attending the women’s Cree group in Stanley. Using the graphic novel medium, Cree pushes distinct expectations of most literary work through Una’s beautiful use of colour and symmetry. 

Can you tell us a bit about your residency/visit to the Just for Women Centre in Stanley that inspired this project?

The Just For Women Centre was suggested by New Writing North as a good starting point for research into women-led activity in the County Durham area. I was so taken by the project I didn’t feel the need to look much further, though I did spend some time walking around Stanley and driving/walking around the surrounding countryside. I’ve had several visits and conversations with the women at the centre, joining in with their activities, listening to them and running through ideas with them. I think the project is a really good example of a social enterprise and a community focussed, community led project that is making a real difference to the lives of people in the area. The women’s cree has spread out into other villages and there are also a men’s cree group in Stanley. As the JFW team explain in their afterword in the book, the end of industry in the area has left the people with serious economic problems and this has an effect on the mental and physical health of the people. Cree groups are a lifeline for those who are struggling and an opportunity for those who are able to help out as group leaders, support workers, administrators and sales assistants in the shop. The centre is opening a cafe up the road in Stanley soon and I’m looking forward to attending the grand opening.

What do you think are the advances of the graphic novel form, and it’s possibilities, when telling stories?  

The graphic novel or comic book medium has always pushed the boundaries of storytelling in its own, distinctive way, however it’s only in the last couple of decades that comics have broken properly into the mainstream so that a wider audience knows this. I feel this is a good thing for literature and for comics. I’ve heard comics described as an alchemy of the written and the visual and I think this is a good way to think of them. At the moment there is lots of innovation in comics and high production values. There’s a real energy within the community that the literary world could learn from. I was always an avid and indiscriminate reader of fiction when I was young and read a lot of comics too, mostly British ones like Beano, Dandy, Bunty, Twinkle and Whizzer and Chips. I love Madmagazine when I could find it, especially the folding page at the back. I don’t see these publications as lesser or more, elite or popular, but simply different formats. All art forms have a small amount of extremely well-made work, a large amount of adequate stuff, and some dross. The passage of time can filter out the dross but it can also filter out things made by women and other minoritised people so you have to be careful to look and listen and make your own mind up. When I was a teenager I played classical guitar, liked attending the ballet, loved science fiction and punk. I don’t see any of this as a contradiction. Culture should all be up for grabs for everyone.

I read some odd things as a kid because my dad gave me a stack of books that were his taste. I’d read all of P.G Wodehouse’s Blandings Castlebooks by the time I was 14/15 as well as all Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. This was alongside the more typical Narnia series, Secret Garden, Railway Children, Malory Towers, etc. Once I could buy my own books my tastes changed but I think this early grounding in humour, class politics and fantasy has come in useful as a comics creator. I find the possibilities of comics to be endless, at least I haven’t found the edge yet and I’ve been pushing quite hard towards it.

Can you talk a little bit about the use of symmetry in the book?

When I met the young woman that the central character “Jolene” is based on, we went for a walk around Stanley together and chatted about all sorts of things. She has striking red hair and made a great impression on me. This individual and intimate moment with “Jolene” made me think about the Cree group and the individuals within in and I started to conceive of the book as it is – an individual making her way towards the group, then leaving and going back to her own life. This made me think about the form of the work itself. I like to have a strong concept, a framework, because that helps me to settle the narrative around it. It seemed that I could make this a book that sort of meets in the middle, a type of symmetry. Then I began to draw and think about the beautiful County Durham countryside and the role of symmetry/asymmetry in beauty, in fact the working title of the book was “beauty”. After this it became just a matter of being playful with the symmetry of the story, the pages, the narrative. I like to work with slight variations, I think they are really interesting and of course slight variations are at the heart of the sequential.

Can you talk a little bit about the use of colour in the book, specifically perhaps in the centrefold section?

Once I had conceived the book as a journey into the centre and out again I decided to start in monochrome (strangely I think this has the effect of brightening the figure of Jolene) and add colour a little at a time until the story bursts into life with the group and the dialogue in the centre, then fades out again. The colour palette is sampled from photographs of the Durham landscape and the Durham sky, alway changing, often heavy with so many greys and sudden blues. It’s actually quite a limited palette through most of the book, though the centre fold is a sort of cacophony, which matches the aesthetic of the shop, full of infinite and colourful stuff, made by the women who use the centre.

Jolene’s journey through the book feels positive and uplifting, despite glimpses of domestic abuse/troubles that the women are experiencing. Was this something you set out to do with Cree

I touch on some difficult themes in the book because they can’t be ignored. Many of the women at the centre have escaped violence in one form or another and they attend the group because they need support in starting their lives again. It was quite something to sit in a room with the group and discuss openly and truthfully the experiences we shared, because of course I also have this experience. I’ve attended similar groups before, but I think the difference at the Cree is that everyone has busy hands and somehow this facilitates the conversation as well as the healing. It’s well documented that making and crafting things has a therapeutic effect but this doesn’t have to be formalised as ‘art therapy’, it’s just as meaningful and useful when its a group a women sitting down to stitch together, drink tea, eat biscuits and chat.

Una has written about her own experience of domestic abuse on her blog where she is raising funds for Leeds Women’s Aid. Una’s first graphic novel, Becoming Unbecoming (published by Myriad in 2015), and Cree are now available.