Book Review

Paying the Land by Joe Sacco

not a sacco sh*it

fyi this is actually a straightforward blog about a book lol so if you’re only here for the horrors you can skip this one

For some reason that I can’t shake, I have the feeling that Joe Sacco – cartoonist and journalist and author of famous books including Palestine, Footnotes in Gaza, Safe Area Goražde and less famous books including Journalism and The Great War – was recently cancelled. Or, if not cancelled, sternly criticised.

I don’t know if this is correct and I won’t look it up (by Googling “Joe Sacco controversy”, which I could easily do but am choosing not to), but other than a pro-Palestinian stance (by reporting the reality of life in Palestine (a global bestseller would not have been published if it actually libelled a state)), the only other thing within his work that I imagine might provoke criticism is the potential allegation of cultural colonialism, i.e. telling other people’s stories under his own name resulting in critical, commercial and – I imagine – financial success. 

This is a topic I’ve probably discussed on here before, but it remains an interesting and pertinent ethical issue w/r/t non fiction.

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Joe Sacco is a journalist, and unlike the vast majority of journalists, he is also a cartoonist.

Sacco’s journalism doesn’t appear as video documentary or as text in a newspaper, it appears as cartoons, as comics. Sometimes his drawings are realist, or naturalistic, while other times (most conspicuously when drawing himself) they veer more towards caricature or the more traditional hyper-realism of the comic genre.

Sacco frequently appears in his own work, because his journalism is very much investigative (and, I suppose, capital letter New) and involves travel and exploration, field research and interviews, going to places where events he writes and draws about happened, and meeting the people to whom those things happened to.

Sacco’s acclaim is based on texts he wrote about places a long way from his Oregon home: as mentioned above, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, the countries that were formally Yugoslavia. This time, however, his research and his writing keeps him on his home continent, exploring the lives of indigenous peoples, First Nations communities in the far North: the Far North, though, of Canada, not of the USA. 

The historical treatment of indigenous peoples north and south of the border has differed tremendously, and though the Supreme Court in the USA recently seemed to acknowledge Native rights to much of the Land currently known as and administered as “Oklahoma”, and though the Canadian government continues to move forward with its – imo quite mature (compared to the British acknowledgement and acceptance of colonialism) – process of “Truth and Reconciliation”, saying sorry doesn’t fix problems.

The Americans fought with and brutally slaughtered indigenous peoples in a series of colonial wars, while the Canadians did a differently destructive thing, now commonly referred to as “a slow genocide”, i.e. the slaughter of a culture by reeducation and geographical displacement, rather than the attempted slaughter of a culture by (the faster, more American way) trying to slaughter all the individual adherents to said culture.

Sacco’s book explores the terrible realities of this slow genocide, and interviews tens of people who have been affected by it, including lots of activists and politicians from all living generations of today’s Dene communities, a First Nation traditionally based in parts of Canada now known as Yukon, Alberta, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.

Sacco draws what he sees and illustrates stories he is told.

Working in the tradition of, for example, Svetlana Alexievich, Sacco lets his subjects narrate their own experiences. He attributes the words to the people he speaks to – some sources are named and thanked in the acknowledgments, others are anonymous (by request) – and he allows the narratives and their similarities and differences to speak for themselves.

There is lots about addiction and abuse, particularly in light of the residential schools and their continuing existence until 1996, but also in relation to the resource extraction industries that have boomed, busted, boomed and busted again in the last many decades.

From furs and wood to diamonds and gold and oil and natural gas, there is money to be made from the bounties of the boreal forests and – for many capitalists – the people whose communities have lived there for millennia are a problem to get around (solutions to said problems are ethically, morally – and frequently, though what does this even mean – legally dubious), rather than a people who will benefit.

Paying The Land is a powerful book and though,  yes, these stories are not Sacco’s to tell, and maybe lots of people reading this book will not also read books written by indigenous writers as well, but I think that the immediacy of Sacco’s drawings and the blunt honesty of many of his subjects means that most readers should come away from this knowing more, and questioning more, than they did before.

At times beautiful, sometimes funny and powerfully sad over and over and over again, Paying the Land is a stark reminder that colonialism didn’t stop hurting people hundreds of years ago, and that the repercussions of intergenerational trauma will be with us well into the future. 

Well, they’ll be with us well into the future if the Earth continues to support life, which might not happen for much longer if resource extraction continues at its current unsustainable rate.

A powerful read exploring many important and essential topics it is irresponsible to remain in ignorance of.

I’d recommend it, but only with the caveat that you should also engage with indigenous writers, too. I have been doing so during my time in Canada, and will continue to do so going forwards.

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