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An American in Istanbul: Molly Crabapple on Art and Activism

Molly Crabapple talks Drawing Blood, a memoir about her globe-trotting youth and her ongoing search for justice.
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Drawing Blood

Drawing Blood. (Photo: HarperCollins)

"To draw is to objectify, to go momentarily to a place where aesthetics mean more than morality," Molly Crabapple writes in her memoir, Drawing Blood, an addictive volume that I devoured a few weeks ago during a flight from Rome to Istanbul, the city that stands at the center of Crabapple's fascination with what was once called "the Orient." With her artwork already placed in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, her essays and illustrations published in venues like Vanity Fair and Vice, the 33-year-old artist is a curious composite of entrepreneur, revolutionary, and bohemian artist. The book is an account of Crabapple's formation as an artist and political dissident, from her childhood in Long Island to teenage travels in Europe and the Middle East, to her mature return to New York in the heart of Occupy protests at Zuccotti Park.

Drawing Blood is designed as a notebook, where Crabapple sketches her life story in both words and lines—30 short chapters featuring snappy episodes from the artist's life crammed together with illustrations done in the style of a courtroom sketch. The book's central characters and places, meanwhile—a group of intellectuals, artists, sex workers, refugees, dissidents, bookstores, and streets who have helped shape Crabapple's conscience—come to life in the book's sketches, wherein Crabapple seems to have painted each at the moment she first came into contact with them.

Born in Queens to a Puerto Rican father and a Jewish mother, Crabapple spent her time at Lawrence Middle School in New York reading the Marquis de Sade and Vladimir Nabokov. She was diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder (symptoms include showing resistant behavior toward people in authority) at the end of seventh grade and, following her expulsion from school, started spending most of her time online, hanging out on occult Usenet groups, meeting users in person, falling in love. In her senior year, she found it increasingly hard to pay attention in class and signed up for the Fashion Institute of Technology. "I was 17, and ready to be someone—somewhere—else," she writes, describing her decision to head to Paris. She had with her a bit more than 1,000 bucks—just enough money to purchase a "student-rate plane ticket" and book a Paris hotel room that cost 20 dollars a night.

Soon, she discovered the Muslim world, where, to hear Crabapple tell it, she found herself saved in numerous ways. The Muslim world was an alternative to the rising nationalism and narrow-mindedness exhibited by many of her fellow Americans in the aftermath of 9/11, and Drawing Blood traces Crabapple's growing interest in Eastern culture. We watch her, age 15, reading poems by the Persian poet and philosopher Omar Khayyám at a Long Island library. "Heart racing, I had cut out all the illustrations with a razor blade, then smuggled them out of the library, hidden inside my Spanish textbook," she writes. "I was ashamed by the defacement—hurting a book was blasphemy—but the illustrations were exquisite, I couldn't stop myself. Looking wasn't enough. I needed to possess them."

"If you love people who are affected by injustice, you can't help burning against the injustice more."

This need to possess Islamic objects and culture through art is characteristic of Crabapple. It is her impulse to meet the unfamiliar—the other—that drives her to study Islam and Middle Eastern culture.

In Drawing Blood, Crabapple gets hooked by the ruins of Turkey as she wanders the art history section in the library of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology; soon, she moves out of the library, deciding to test her readings with reality. She spends a month in Istanbul, where she walks down Istiklal Caddesi, the city's main commercial artery, which strikes her as "the grandest boulevard in the world, lit by fairy lights." She wonders about how "Turkish words are short, the grammar so logical that Esperanto cribbed its structure, and I began to develop a shaky faculty with the language. I didn't understand much of what locals said, but soon I could reply in childish Turkish."

Crabapple's fascination with the Middle East is similarly bound with a strong identification with fin de siècle decadents. In her teenage years, she learned how "Oscar Wilde was not just a dandy but a socialist revolutionary. Toulouse-Lautrec was a lacerating class critic. Anarchists drank with poets before setting up bombs." The dandified socialism of the fin de siècle translates, in the age of social media, to an identity of socialist cosmopolitanism. "I loved the adrenaline that comes with travel, the feeling of being tougher and braver than the men I knew," Crabapple writes while describing her 30-hour bus rides in southeastern Turkey.

These travels in distant towns in third-world countries have helped Crabapple realize "what a sorry thing it is to use other people's homes a proving ground." Throughout the book, she writes about such experiences as though they are revelations, before acknowledging a measure of hypocrisy. She knows that visiting a troubled region, meeting tough people, and witnessing troubling events do not make her special at all: Crabapple observes such people and places in the role of modest witness, rather than of first-world anchorwoman. Thus, while in Turkey, she knew she "wasn't special just because I'd gone to eastern Turkey. If parachuting in for a few months implied I was tough, what did that make the people who lived there?" It's on the basis of such rigorous honesty that Drawing Blood succeeds as a non-fiction Künstlerroman, tracing an American's political maturation, which, for Crabapple, goes hand in hand with the artistic awakening.

"My friend Zeynep Tüfekçi once told me that a common quality she sees in activists is a blank unwillingness to accept the unfairness of the world," Crabapple told me in a recent interview. "If you love people who are affected by injustice, you can't help burning against the injustice more. While I never identify as an activist, I think that this desire to scream, That's not fair, to kick shins, to mock authoritarian fools, is behind a lot of the political engagement in my work, as well as fairly modest activities I do outside of it."

In this effort to "mock authoritarian fools"—Crabapple's Twitter feed has similarly been quite tough on local authoritarian figures and the rise of Donald Trump politics in the United States—numerous pitfalls (the orientalist desire to "save and enlighten the oppressed," among others) await the activist, pitfalls that Crabapple manages to avoid largely by being humble and asking questions. "I have friends from the communities I'm writing about read my work and tell me if I'm being dumb or wrong or horrid,'" she told me.

In her drawings, too, Crabapple's empathy is sharply apparent. "I think that images can short-circuit and penetrate in ways words can't," Crabapple told me. "After all, you have to choose to read and follow an argument, but an image is just there, going straight into your brain through your pupils." Her tone changed, characteristically, into one of self-doubt, as she offered a warning against equating truth and beauty, as a very famous poet had done some time ago: "Beauty is utterly amoral, and utterly essential," Crabapple mused, "but it's not truth."