We Are All Things

We Are All Things, words by Elliott Colla and art by Ganzeer

Review by Burgi Zenhaeusern

“I am not a thing” rings the woman’s angry voice in the man’s memory when, for once, she made him feel like one with the heedless sex she’d had with him minutes before dropping him like a rag on the bed, naked, stripped of all pretense.

But, while this is the story’s premise, it’s not where the quiet drama of We Are All Things (Colla and Ganzeer, 2020) begins to unfold. Rather, the break-up of two lovers, who remain anonymous throughout, is the foil against which a room’s objects come alive in this genre-bending graphic prose poem. The objects are the inanimate protagonists made animate by both Elliott Colla’s sharp observations and no-frill, lyric diction and by Ganzeer’s striking illustrations that underscore the animate/inanimate theme through a clever use of the black, white, and pink color scheme. Ganzeer uses black and white for naturalistic depiction and pink for what the narrative implies or as a color accent to create contrast and focus. His detailed graphics deliver their own story next to Colla’s text-blocks, which bring to mind fragments of magazine columns lifted off and set down randomly on the page, halting the left to right reading inclination of a Western reader and allowing for distinctive ways of constructing a narrative.

We Are All Things is the first collaboration between Colla, who teaches Arabic Literature at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., and the Egyptian artist/designer/storyteller Ganzeer. Colla and Ganzeer discussed their collaboration in a conversation found on Radix Media‘s, pub sheet:

Colla: Over the years, I made one or two attempts to publish We Are All Things as a prose piece, but there was something missing. This is where Ganzeer comes in: he’s the one who realized its potential.

Ganzeer: Elliott wrote the text a long, long time ago, I think not long after the actual break-up the story references. […] It’s my understanding that upon coming upon a copy of The Apartment in Bab El-Louk [a collaboration among Donia Maher, Ganzeer, and Ahmad Nady, Darf Publishers; Translation edition, 2018], Elliott thought it would be really cool for We Are All Things to get the same treatment. [ … ] So, Elliott got in touch, we talked deets, and then I took it from there. So yeah: text first, images and design next.”

We Are All Things is set at a time when people still listened to tapes and is located in an unnamed city which can be inferred to be Cairo. This lack of specificity, where even the room itself has no definite location other than it is facing East and on the 12th floor, shifts the focus inward, signaling intimacy—the intimacy of long-used, everyday objects and the intimacy of setting—a naked man in his room surrounded by a chorus of inanimate witnesses, each with a personality of their own.

The seemingly random selection of stylized objects—aptly rendered glyphs on pink ground—on the book’s cover in conjunction with its title impart a sense of mystery while at once raising interesting questions: who/what is “we,” who/what is “all,” but foremost, what could be the meaning of “things” here: “objects,” “something,” “anything,” “everything”? Considering the narrative’s gist, the cover design and its graphics are particularly well chosen, although their genius becomes clear only in hindsight, after the reader has been led into the story by an omniscient narrator and the objects start to reveal themselves one by one, an assembly gradually emerging from anonymity.

The first object is “[t]the chrome lamp on the nightstand, the first thing fingers touch at night.” The opening sentence begins a clause that appears to prepare the reader for an innocuous description, then shifts unexpectedly, making the lamp the real protagonist. Thus, the lamp is moved front and center. Its shade becomes a distorting mirror for the other objects in the room and the weeping man on the bed. In those reflections everything and everybody is briefly introduced, and the stage is set. We hear about the objects from an omniscient narrator:

The bed, the sheets and
blankets, the glass of water
next to the alarm clock,
the stereo, the wardrobe,
the rug, the walls, the portrait,
the rusty mirror, the
black night scratching at
the window, and the naked
man, now crying on the
bed. All shine, all reflect.

In addition to the story’s narrator, objects speak in first person, expressed in italics. There is the old and nearly blind mirror filled with visitors only it remembers; the tape knowing that “with each turn fidelity slips away” and that “[e]ach time it is called to perform, [it] cannot but feel the frictions;” the glass full of itself; the water in it musing about its origins and connective potential; the singing mattress, a kind of ur-mother to multitudes deriding the man’s measly sperm with these words:

How can I compare
the thousands of creatures
whose eggs I have held
in my bosom, whose tiny
bodies I have shielded, to
those few seeds of yours
which have scattered and
died in my shallows? I can
hold so many! And I have
sheltered so many tender
lives before you came to
swim!

But the man scratching his leg “senses none of the depth on which he floats.”

There are the walls reverberating with the call to prayer; the broken air-conditioning unit; the clock that forgets itself for a minute; and the forever dripping window that becomes a mirror to the window washers, shielding what is inside from their view; the old portrait wondering “why [its eyes] ever wanted to be human.” Finally there is the weeping rug, the object most sympathetic to the man, and the only one with which he seems to commune:

He twitches as the carpet
hooks catch and tug gen-
tly on his optic nerves.
Lovingly, softly, she asks,
You think you’re so differ-
rent, my love? Really? And
once again, he feels the
yarns inside pulling loose.
In a voiceless weave, she
tries to soothe his nerves.
We are all things here, she
whispers. All things.

The rug makes him weep again, but less now from despair, as he has started to connect with his surroundings, if only at the periphery. The metaphorical use of yarns pulled loose underlines this connectedness. Previously, the man has been self-absorbed in his pain, oblivious, except for the change of light– night turning to dawn. And the objects in the room have mostly been detached observers and caught up in their own musings. It is interesting that along with their anthropomorphism they have also been assigned genders. Instead of the neutral ‘it’ typical of the English language, they become he, she, even they—a play on how many languages gender their nouns.

It is left to the reader’s imagination how far these objects reflect the man as a person. The glass, for example, easily lends itself to such a metaphorical interpretation, not without implying a dose of wry humor:

He feels her lip-
stick still smeared along
his own lip. He remembers
the tremble of her fingers
around his brittle body.
Only minutes ago, gripped
in her shaking hand, he felt
the precariousness of his
situation, poised to break.
But the hand set him down
and the moment of clarity
was gone. He immediately
went back to his old ways,
forgetting his fragility.

The texture of We Are All Things comes from the nuanced characterization of the objects and the intriguing parallelisms and contrasts they create, as noted above, in the voices of the rug and the woman, or in the reflections of the different mirroring surfaces. Its movement is forward and inward at the same time. Object and man are on par in how they inhabit the room together, each continuing their own story in it for a while, until other persons and things enter and the dynamics reshuffle. This paradigm says that a room is always inherited and owning it is temporary and relative.

We Are All Things seems to postulate that a world of sentient objects moves alongside a human’s world without intersecting. This is especially true when a human fails to be fully aware of their surroundings. The consoling rug pulls the man back into the room by “telling” him that it is alright to feel, to feel like a thing, or all things—the interpretations are various. And it leads the reader back to the book’s title which has assumed a shimmering multitude of facets. I encourage readers to read We Are All Things for the rich interplay of text and illustration, which comes to life in a space where at first, there are no words.

Title: We Are All Things
Author: Elliott Colla|
Illustrator: Ganzeer
ISBN: 978-1-7340487-1-1
List price: $12
Publication Date: February 25, 2020
Publisher: Radix Media

PURCHASE HERE!!

Elliott Colla is a Washington D.C.-based writer, educator, and translator who teaches in the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is the author of Conflicted Antiquities: Egyptology, Egyptomania, Egyptian Modernity (Duke University Press, 2008), the novel Baghdad Central (Bitter Lemon Press, 2014), as well as many articles on modern Arab literature and culture. His current academic projects focus on protest cultures in contemporary Egypt. http://www.elliottcolla.com

Ganzeer operates seamlessly between art, design, and storytelling, creating what he has coined Concept Pop. With over forty exhibitions to his name, Ganzeer’s work has been seen in a wide variety of art galleries, impromptu spaces, alleyways, and major museums around the world. His current projects include the short story collection Times New Human and the sci-fi graphic novel The Solar Grid which received a Global Thinker Award from Foreign Policy in 2016. http://www.ganzeer.com

Burgi Zenhaeusern is the author of Behind Normalcy (CityLit Press, 2020), winner of the 2019 Harriss Poetry Prize. Her work appears in various online and print journals. She volunteers for a local reading series and lives in Chevy Chase, MD. Find more at burgizenhaeusern.com

Risa Denenberg is the curator at The Poetry Cafe.

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