I Escaped A Chinese Internment Camp by Fahmida Azim, Anthony Del Col & Josh Adams

So I know that that order of attribution seems weird, as Fahmida Azim is the artist, Anthony Del Col the reporter and Josh Adams the art director of this Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novella. Like, who even puts the art director’s name on the cover of a book? But once you look at the contents, you’ll understand why, as Mr Adams’ tight direction keeps the book laser focused on telling its important, painful story.

This story revolves around the real life ordeal of Zumrat Dawut who, if posterity is kind, will be seen as a Muslim martyr who refused to renounce her faith despite torture by the Chinese government. By the grace of God and the American government, she escaped China and lives in the US with her family now. And I’ll be honest, it’s nice to read a story where US Immigration does the right thing. It restores my faith in the American system, a system that seems to be under constant attack by the most fearful and cynical of our fellow citizens even as the rest of us keep trying to make it better.

Zumrat is ethnically Uyghur, and was born in Urumqi, East Turkistan, a part of China. She’s already a mother of three when, in 2016, the government begins accelerating its suspicions of non-Han Chinese and, especially, Muslims. Her neighbors start throwing out anything connecting them to Islam, for fear of being beaten, arrested or worse. Two years later, she reports to the local police station for what she thinks is a routine check-in. Thus begins an ordeal for her and her entire family, as she’s taken away to a re-education camp where she’s routinely abused for being Muslim and, at least once, for being kind to a fellow prisoner.

It’s harrowing stuff, but perhaps the most heartbreaking part, for me, happened after she escaped, fled to America, and refused to be silent, speaking openly about her ordeal despite threats from the Chinese government to keep quiet and enjoy her time with her children. Her father died — in her opinion due to government abuse — and her brothers stopped talking to her. I hope they chose this out of self-preservation, and not because the government cowed them into believing that she’s responsible for what happened to their father.

The creative team behind this book took her testimony (with translation help from Zubayra Shamseden) and formed it not only into a compelling narrative but also into a visceral work with their canny choice of linework and colors. There’s stuff you definitely feel was elided, but that’s a pitfall of oral histories: you’re seeing the story solely from the perspective of what your subject feels able to share with you. There’s no denying tho that the bulk of what’s recounted here is true. Hers is hardly the first story to come out regarding how abominably China continues to treat its minorities, especially in Xinjiang province.

This short, powerful graphic novella well deserves the Pulitzer. A small part of me grieves the fact that Zumrat will not be lionized by certain segments of our shared faith simply because of the way she looks and dresses. But there’s no denying the fact that she withstood greater tests of faith than many condescending faith leaders do. I can only hope that stories like hers encourage people to be more inclusive than not.

I Escaped A Chinese Internment Camp by Fahmida Azim, Anthony Del Col & Josh Adams was published February 13 2024 by Lev Gleason and is available from all good booksellers, including

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