Nameless: Exploring Bezimena by Nina Bunjevac

Bezimena by Nina Bunjevac.Photo courtesy of Fantagraphics.

           

By Anna Maria Sordjan

CW: Sexual Assault, Rape, Suicide

Bezimena (Serbian): Nameless

Nina Bunjevac is a Canadian-born artist, who was primarily raised in the former Yugoslavia but returned to Canada at the start of the Yugoslav wars in the early 1990s. Her second comic, ​Fatherland​ (2014), propelled her into the spotlight and earned her a spot on the ​New York Times ​best-seller lists. Bezimena is her third publication and won the Artemisia prize in the category of best drawing at the Angoulême International Comics Festival in 2019.                     

In her comics, Bunjevac explores contentious and harrowing topics and brings them out from under the shadows and into the public.Thematically, Bezimena is more akin to ​Heartless,​ her collection of comics dealing largely with female sexuality and sexual assault, in comparison to ​Fatherland’s f​ocus on complex family histories. Visually, however, Bezimena’s style echoes its direct predecessor ​Fatherland​, with a strikingly haunting and realistic stippled technique that “resembles woodcuts or intaglio . . . [that] creates a stagey tableau . . . [with] frozen pictures that suggest carefully posed selfies”.[1] 

Bezimena i​s a complex story to digest, both on the narrative and visual level. What does it mean to be nameless? T​o be without a name is, in large part, to exist without identity, agency, or power. The process of naming is a political one, bound by power dynamics and structures. In the author’s afterword, Bunjevac dedicates the graphic narrative “to all forgotten and nameless victims of sexual violence.” This situates the comic as one directly confronting the violence of sexual trauma and a traumatic past—one of the nameless victims at the center of the story is Bunjevac herself. In the Afterword, Bunjevac recalls her own experiences with sexual assault as a young teenager in Serbia, positioning the comic as semi-autobiographical. 

Bezimena ​is a graphic narrative that refuses to abide by the conventions of narrative or genre. Told through the perspective of the perpetrator, Bunjevac’s graphic text​ ​explores the psyche and mind of a sexual predator. The text details a story of a man named Benny who begins losing his grip on reality as he pursues an obsession with a former classmate. Many reviews of the comic highlighted the controversial and unsettling manner in which Bunjevac chose to tell a story of sexual violence. ​Bezimena ​is by no means an easy read, as Bunjevac explicitly confronts the morally grotesque both through narrative and visual tactics. It is this hybrid form of storytelling that positions the graphic narrative as unique and especially vital in our understanding of trauma.

Bezimena by Nina Bunjevac. Photo courtesy of Fantagraphics.

           The story opens with a mystical encounter between a young Priestess and an elderly witch-figure— Bezimena. The Priestess has come to the old lady for help following the desecration of her temple and idols. Despite the distress of the Priestess, Bezimena remains “calm, and seemingly undisturbed” which causes the Priestess to proclaim “how can you just lie there, so indifferent to my pain? Don’t you care, have you no heart?” Bezimena then takes the Priestess and plunges her into a body of water, akin to an aggressive baptism. This is where the comic takes its surreal turn. 

Readers are taken on a visual journey of reincarnation that culminates in the Priestess’ rebirth as a young boy. The story of Bezimena and the Priestess offers direct parallels to the Greek myth of Artemis and Siproites in which Siproites, after seeing Artemis naked, is punished and turned into a girl. However, in ​Bezimena​ this myth is inverted, and it is the victim rather than the predator who undergoes a transformation and is turned into a boy by the name of Benny. The comic follows Benny from his birth as a miracle child to parents who thought they would never get pregnant; his adolescence where “he was a funny child, always leering at his classmate ‘White Becky,’ with his hand down his pants”; and finally, to a young man who was “always lurking in the shadows, for the infliction of his childhood had never fully taken its leave—it had merely learned to hide.” Benny becomes an isolated and troubled young man struggling with his sexual obsessions. One day, he runs into Becky from his past and steals her sketchbook. This mysterious book contains sexually explicit instructions prophesying future sexual encounters between Benny, Becky’s maid and friend, and finally Becky herself. For Benny, “it was clear that the encounter had not been purely accidental, and that the sketchbook had been purposely left there for him to find, perhaps as an invitation to fulfill these fantasies.” This encounter propels the text into depictions of Benny’s sexual encounters with these women, told through a dark surrealist lens that allows Bunjevac to explore the unexplorable. By the end of the graphic narrative, Bunjevac subverts the expectations of readers by revealing that Benny has been delusional all along and that the reality of what was going on is much more sinister. It is revealed that the sexual encounters Benny has been partaking in were actually him raping and murdering young girls. This sinister revelation comes to readers as a gruesome shock, problematizing the content of the text as a whole, and leading us to ask: what is the purpose of exploring the psyche of a predator and acts of evil?

Bunjevac challenges culturally dominant portrayals of trauma most evidently by upending the assumption that these stories can only be told through the lens of the victim. She moves beyond this assumption by telling her story through the eyes of the predator. She then takes it one step further by blurring the lines between victim and predator, forcing readers to wrestle with taxing and complex questions about morality, violence, and the darkness that may linger deep within all of us.  Bezimena captures what comic scholar Hillary Chute’s calls the “risk of representation” which refers to the, “complex visualizing it takes [in order to] rethink the dominant tropes of unspeakability, invisibility, and inaudibility that have tended to characterize trauma theory as well as current censorship-driven culture.”[2] The “it” that Chute refers to encompasses the delicate and intricate work undertaken by the cartoonist who creates and constructs a series of visual images that challenge the status quo. 

Bezimena by Nina Bunjevac. Photo courtesy of Fantagraphics.

Throughout the text, Bunjevac blends the genres of dark surrealism and hyperrealism to explore the troubled psyche of a sexual predator. The surrealist style is seen through Bunjevac’s emphasis on the unconscious, dreams, and the uncanny, while the hyperrealism is evident in the way in which she draws her characters with extensive detail, almost as if they were being reproduced from photographs. Bunjevac alternates between the use of hyper-realistic visual images and more mystical, and surreal symbolism and metaphors. Bunjevac dedicates a lot of time to detailing the human body in very authentic and graphic forms. The drawing of Benny demonstrates this hyperrealism. On one page, Benny occupies the center of the page and is surrounded by a background of leaves. “In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud writes that “backgrounds can be another valuable tool for indicating invisible ideas [… ] particularly the world of emotions”. He expands on this, highlighting the fact that “even when there is little or no distortion of the actual characters in a given scene, a distorted or expressionistic background will usually affect our “reading” of characters’ inner states.”[3] In this case, the leaves help submerge Benny within the shadows. The background that serves as a veil for Benny simultaneously serves as an instrument of clarity for readers, revealing his unseen, and troublesome nature.

Hyperrealism is also evident in Bunjevac’s depictions of sexual encounters. Bunjevac depicts bodies in their utmost raw and uninhibited state, her depiction of the female body being especially graphic. This can be seen, for example, in a lengthy eight-page spread dedicated to Benny’s first sexual encounter with Becky’s nameless friend. The first two pages depict the woman masturbating to the contents of a book. She is seen touching her breasts in one panel and in the next, she is stimulating her genitals. Her genitals are drawn with detail, down to the minute details of her pubic hair. The graphic and hyperreal depictions of sex force readers to engage with the abject as they depict visceral bodily interactions, BDSM, ejaculation, and blood. Bodily fluids are especially abject as they are both a part of the body, and outside of it. The visualization of ejaculation and blood both expose bodily vulnerabilities while simultaneously breaking the taboo of publicizing and visualizing sex, something often restricted to the private realm. Another element that is important to consider in these sexual encounters is the fact that the woman’s face emphasizes the eroticism of the act, and gestures toward her enjoyment and gratification.

Bezimena by Nina Bunjevac. Photo courtesy of Fantagraphics.

     This tension between titillation and disgust is one that Bunjevac explores through the visually visceral and hyper-realistic sexual encounters between Benny and the women. The depiction of these sexual encounters is complicated by the fact that by the end of the narrative, it is revealed that they have been a fabrication of Benny’s perverse and delusional mind. ​ Peggy Orenstein writes that “the most explicit images threaten to implicate the reader, transforming a sympathetic eye into a voyeuristic one.”[4] This implication is important as it forces the reader to confront the uncomfortable. It makes the reader grapple with the fact that the graphic scenes they have been witnessing have been the result of a man’s delusions, and that they have actually been witnessing rape. The fact that Bunjevac chooses to depict this through a lens of hyper-realism reinforces this unsettling reality.       

This sexually explicit and graphic scene is an example of how Bunjevac pushes back against invisibility and is taking what Chute calls the “risk of representation.” Bunjevac pushes the boundary of how the female body and sexuality can be talked about in a public and cultural space. Her graphic images can be labelled excessive, pornographic even. These types of images are powerful because they emphasize a deconstruction of tropes of unspeakability. They actively challenge what women are ​allowed​ to talk about.   

Bezimena ​ends with Benny’s suicide in jail, instigating a parallel to the beginning of the comic in which the Priestess is transformed into Benny, except this time, Benny is transformed back into the Priestess. Bezimena, the old mystical lady, pulls the Priestess out from the water. “Who were you crying for?” she asks, not once, but twice. [5]This emphasis suggests a controversial claim: that one may cry for the predator, as well as the victim. Through her visual style of both hyperrealism and surrealism and exploring her own sexual assault through the eyes of a predator, Bunjevac challenges the ethics of visualizing trauma and sexual violence. She demonstrates how emotional survival following sexual violence doesn’t always fit into a prescribed and correct box that society seems to impose upon victims. The ending is radical in that it explores what it means to go beyond sanitized and accepted forms of healing. It is within this radical reimagining that Bunjevac creates space for how we can begin to rethink and break free of what society has deemed an appropriate way to experience and heal from trauma. 

[1] Lehoczky, Etelka. NPR Review: ‘Bezimena’ by Nina Bunjevac. NPR.org, May 2019. 

[2] Chute, Hillary. Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics. Columbia University Press, 2010. 

[3] McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994.

[4] Orenstein, Peggy. A Graphic Life. The New York Times, August 5 2001. 

[5] Bunjevac, Nina. Bezimena. Fantagraphics, August 2018.


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