Today I would like to share an example of a creative Quebec history project that has really inspired me: Asbestos, PQ: A Graphic Novel. It draws together history, art, and sounds to illustrate the relationship between the town of Asbestos, Quebec and its chrystotile asbestos mine, which is the world’s largest.
I first heard about Asbestos in a class on the history of Quebec that I audited this past semester. We read a chapter from Jessica Van Horssen’s dissertation on the dynamics of asbestos mining in the town and its environmental impact at local and global levels. Then we looked at the graphic novel version that she created in collaboration with her friend, artist Radha-Prema McAllister. Though the two works are very different in terms of the level of detail they offer, the complexity and importance of the story comes through in both.
A few days later I came across an article by Dr. Van Horssen in which she described the result of putting her work online in graphic novel form:
To my knowledge, the graphic novel has been used extensively in high schools to teach history, especially in alternative schools for at-risk youth. It’s part of reading lists for environmental literature courses at several universities. It is certainly on many of my course outlines, and those of others teaching environmental history. Most surprisingly, it’s on a lot of union websites in Canada and the United States, and Lung Associations have used it in their anti-asbestos trade campaigns.
These are forums where my more traditional scholarship wouldn’t have reached, and the process of “going graphic” with my dissertation, especially from looking at the history of Asbestos from the perspective of the mine, really added to the approach I have since taken in my more traditional scholarly activities, including writing.
Her work is reaching all kinds of different audiences. That is excellent!
She also quotes from J.R. McNeill’s article, Drunks, Lampposts, and Environmental History:
…the most urgent duty of environmental history is to abandon the shelter of ivory towers for the blood-spattered arena of public discourse and the dangerous task of infiltrating the corridors of power.
Yes!! Into the breach!
These issues of public engagement have been on my mind quite a bit. For one thing, my Fulbright project is intended to merge scholarly and digital public history work. It’s good to see examples of others who have successfully accomplished this. For another thing, I am applying to PhD programs this month, and I’m heartened to hear of dissertation research that has extended beyond academic circles into the wider world.
I will be keeping the example of Asbestos, PQ: A Graphic Novel in mind as I continue in my own work. Thank you, Dr. Van Horssen, for this excellent project!