‘I was a real artist until I turned 11’: the anxieties of New Yorker cartoonist Liana Finck | Books

Consider all the small anxieties that pepper your average day, to leave you quietly irritated or uncomfortable. They might be so ordinary that you barely realise you’re bothered; perhaps a manspreader on your commute, a person who walked into you while gazing at their phone, the coffee queue jumper.

New Yorker cartoonist Liana Finck calls these “micro-unkindnesses – the tiny permutations of rudeness that people perform on one another”. From afar (lurking on her Instagram), it is easy to identify Finck’s main bugbears: the strange distribution of seats in her local cafe in New York, boorish people blundering into her personal space, slow walkers. But it’s this eye for small annoyances that makes her so popular. She may feel that her constant existential terror makes her a bit weird, but it seems there are enough like-minded souls out there to make her quite normal. (Her 200,000 followers on Instagram are devout enough that her biography states: “You may tattoo.”)

“All my weirdness around people is just weirdness about myself. I’ve always been self-conscious and shy, but I wonder if that can be your whole life. I might get used to all the things in the world and stop being anxious about them,” she says. She doesn’t sound very sure.

Finck’s style reflects her anxieties: her humans are spindly scribbles with childlike faces that are sometimes little more than a chin, or two bulging eyes. Yet, it is anything but simple; she can reproduce a complex emotional state in just a squiggle – a talent she credits to her synaesthesia. One might think that supernatural levels of confidence must be required to draw as she does, where nothing can be hidden by beauty. “Thank you,” she says, gravely. “I fake it. My dream is to think while I work. I don’t know if that will ever happen.”

Finck loves observing human behaviour, whether it is through advice columns (she addresses strangers’ romantic woes, anxiety problems and zipper issues in her own, the New Yorker’s Dear Pepper), talk radio or simply watching passers-by. But her latest book, Passing for Human is all about people she knows most intimately: herself and her family.

Set around a family story – that women are born with a shadow, a literal embodiment of their true self – Passing for Human is a bildungsroman of sorts, laying out all the decisive moments that have made Finck who she is now. Her shadow, a looming figure that watched over her early life, simultaneously inspiring and holding her back, is Finck’s explanation for the strange scrap of a girl she once was: one who talked to rocks and plants because she “saw the souls of objects”, made an imaginary friend and struggled with communication. (She took to barking at adults, after “learning” from her dog, Pepper). Then, at the age of 11, she began deliberately adopting what she considered normal behaviour, changed her clothes, developed an eating disorder – and, finally, made friends. But lost the shadow.

Finck talks about her shadow matter-of-factly – as if it was a literal friend who left her life: “It is not the self, but the judgment that helps you know yourself. It walks behind you, knows you better than you know yourself and guides you to what is right for you. My shadow was a burden, it made me weird, shy and awkward. But it also taught me to draw, so it’s not all bad.”

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Liana Finck. Photograph: John Madere

Passing for Human is also a creation myth, about creation: entire worlds, babies, houses, childhood stories – even the book itself, with the narrative constantly restarting as Finck reattempts to explain herself. Finck is Jewish, and links her architect mother’s construction of their childhood home with God’s efforts designing the Garden of Eden. (Finck’s God is also a woman, quietly moulding a paradise from clay.) Her family’s faith sits uneasily on her: she reads the Torah and loves Hebrew, but she feels an outsider in her parents’ orthodox community. “Plus there are so many Jewish holidays, it’s too much. With all the get-togethers, you feel like you’re in an Edith Wharton novel,” she groans.

Finck has a noticeable flair for phrases that are simultaneously odd and precise: her high school was too “tight-sweatpantsy” for her, while her father is “very smart, but in a presidential-biography way”. Yet she still struggles with communication. She likens her feelings during any regular conversation to the rising panic a tourist might feel in a foreign country – trapped in her own mind, scurrying about for the perfect words to “appease” whoever she’s talking to.

Drawing was the perfect communication method, then – until it wasn’t. Countless artists and writers talk of learning by copying; for Finck, her favourites became a burden: “When I started as a cartoonist at the end of college, I was trying too hard. I thought I couldn’t be a true artist unless I was Daniel Clowes, Haruki Murakami or Saul Steinberg. I was just a stuffier version of them.” Everything that emerged from her time at Cooper Union college in New York was “overworked”, too deliberate compared to her childhood efforts: “I think I was a real artist until I turned 11. I was a perfectionist, but I wasn’t trying to be professional.”

These days Finck only works with a single black pen, a sign to herself that she has relaxed somewhat. For she has found her people through the New Yorker, braved publishing an exposing memoir and has learned, as she puts it, “to turn myself outward. That never came naturally to me.”

She may be the only person on Earth that has had her anxieties – about being alone, about being misunderstood – soothed rather than exacerbated by social media. “I am already starting to feel like I have exorcised those demons through Instagram. I don’t feel like writing about them any more,” she says. “It’s a bit sad!”

Passing for Human is published by Penguin Random House.



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