Creation by Sylvia Nickerson
Drawn & Quarterly, September 2019
192 pages / Amazon
Sylvia Nickerson is a gentrifier—a label that would cause many in the neo-upwardly mobile community to virtue signal in response, but it instead drives Nickerson to confront her complicated relationship with the city she calls home. Nickerson illustrates the intersection of public and private spaces and the effects of gentrification in Hamilton, Ontario, in her debut graphic memoir, Creation. Hamilton’s stark cityscape unfolds in black-and-white watercolors as Nickerson pushes her son in a stroller across industrial sectors, crumbling residential spaces, and revitalized neighborhoods. This is “the armpit of Ontario,” or, as it is more officially known, “the best place to raise a child.”
It’s this strange juxtaposition—the harsh reality of the city and the one people want it to be—that Nickerson lays out for us in seven chapters. The first chapter, aptly named “Crucible,” begins with Nickerson answering a question about what her life would be like if she hadn’t become a mother. There’s nothing surprising in her response. It boils down to simple freedom. But it leads Nickerson to consider what she gave up in exchange for motherhood and how that reflects in Hamilton’s development as she pushes her son, Toby, through the city on their way to swim class.
Hamilton was once a symbol of hope, but now strains to uphold this representation. The manufacturing industry has collapsed. The nuclear industry stores toxic waste in pits and open barrels kept near residential areas. City officials attempt to rebrand Hamilton by conjuring images of its more successful past as “The Ambitious City” while also leaning into a physical beauty that remains clouded by the pollution haze dominating the skyline and dilapidation running through its streets like a disease. Ironically, the rebrand doesn’t reach the city’s inhabitants, like Nickerson and her parents. Nickerson tries to hold on to a dream in a place “where so many dreams had come to die” in the midst of parenthood while the latter have cancers as consequence to the city’s own overambitions during industrialization. It begs the question: What is the real crucible—Hamilton or motherhood?
The answer is: both.
Nickerson is candid about her own failings. She was self-centered in the past and attempted to control her experiences, curating particular moments and rejecting others in an attempt to ignore death in the face of her aging parents and even her own mortality. Motherhood forced her to acknowledge “that things were about to change.” Pregnancy forces her to incisively examine herself and she later casts this lens on the spaces around her. In “Stacks,” she asserts that residents have a right to want “methadone clinics, needle exchanges, and women’s shelters. Not art galleries, art supply stores, or restaurants” or other developments that displace people. Yet, she acknowledges that the community benefits from the creative class such as herself, which is working to combat long-held stigmas and create healthier communities. “But artists are imaginative, and now we are reimagining the neighborhood,” she writes. Nickerson expresses regret that her success as an artist in Hamilton is a result of gentrification, but she strives to take responsibility for displacement this causes.
In “Garbage,” Nickerson begins with, “This world, it’s a bizarre place” followed by The Beatitudes floating upward in snippets from a church’s open door. The blessings hover over a homeless individual crouched in an alley and drift across the dour city. Nickerson contrasts the Beatitudes’ message against a life they do not reflect, positioning one’s beliefs against a more dominant reality. We have to ask ourselves if this is hypocrisy or ignorance, or, in the fashion of Karl Marx, Nickerson laying out the truth behind the opium of the people. Nickerson doesn’t give us a straightforward answer and instead transitions to her son’s obsession with garbage and an encounter with a man they find lying inside a dumpster. She asks a nearby stranger to check on the man while she cradles her son. We have to intuit her character’s emotions in the subsequent wordless panels, but it’s not difficult to imagine fear and concern and unanswered questions if we were placed in a similar situation. Is the man dead? What happened? What do we do, if anything? We learn that the man is alive, “Just sleeping,” before he’s summarily dismissed, treated like the very garbage that he sleeps on. Blessed are the poor, remember?
Nickerson interweaves introspection and wide reflection throughout Creation. It’s this duality that allows her to paint herself and the city in the same honest and exacting brushstrokes. And thus, the memoir isn’t just about her but also about Hamilton.
Each chapter could be its on powerful, standalone critique of a particular element of Hamilton or Nickerson; however, each chapter contains moments of intersection that make the graphic memoir a more cohesive narrative. A homeless woman Nickerson briefly meets in “Garbage” is the main focus in the later chapter “Nancy.” She introduces her past in the first chapter, but it’s later described in depth in “Broken,” where Nickerson dives deeper into her identity as an artist while also exploring grief, power, and motherhood. The scenes in this chapter are more detailed and vividly drawn, showing more of the dichotomy of self and city. This is when we begin to see repeating elements that spill over into the subsequent chapters. Scenes become jumbled as characters fill the ground and the sky, and sometimes every inch of white space. Here is when it’s most difficult to decipher the message as we have to sift between the chaos on the page.
But this is the true tension between understanding the self and its relationship to the space around it. It means to exist in transition, to always be caught in a cycle of life and death, or past and present. They are inextricably linked to our lived experiences. And thus, life won’t always be as neat as we want it to be.
Interludes conclude each chapter, adding a more intimate examination of gentrification’s effects on the city. In one, Nickerson tends her tulip garden during pregnancy to childbirth while garbage collects in the flower beds during her absences. In another a character battles narcotics addiction, while a different interlude illustrates a prowler who stalks women walking the streets at night.
Creation isn’t just about gentrification. Nickerson does not shy away from exploring complex subjects. She deftly renders the interconnections between motherhood, violence, poverty, capitalism, and pollution throughout the graphic novel. But Creation is also a tribute to life (and death) in the city. We see that it’s all cyclical. The building up and breaking down. The new and the old. This is a part of the larger natural order, but something of intrinsic value is always lost in the process. What that is, is left up to us as Nickerson leaves us to draw our own conclusions.
There are several unanswered questions in Creation, which surprised me. When I finished reading, I wasn’t sure if I “got it,” but the point is for the reader to take everything Nickerson presents and reflect them back onto our own communities. We won’t comprehend everything, but there’s enough for everyone to take away what they need.
Creation’s open-ended nature is aided by Nickerson’s illustration techniques. The characters are ill-defined, more like outlines or blobs with limbs. Nickerson even draws herself this way. Very few people are drawn in detail, except when she focuses on a homeless individual or someone who is relegated to society’s subclass. The lack of details combined with the neutral color schemes allows for the city- and landscapes to achieve universality. We can project ourselves and our neighborhoods on top of Hamilton such that it becomes Harlem or Houston or [fill in the blank]. And in that way, Sylvia Nickerson’s story becomes our story.
DW McKinney is a writer living in Las Vegas, Nevada. She currently serves as the review editor for Linden Avenue Literary Journal. Her essays have appeared in Narratively, Bitch, Stoneboat Literary Journal, Boston Accent Lit, and TAYO Literary Magazine, among others. You can visit her website at dwmckinney.com.