Are You Listening?
Tillie Walden (artist & writer)
August 7, 2019
Content warning: This work contains references to sexual assault.
“The guidebooks play deception; oceans are
A property of mind. All maps are fiction,
All travelers come to separate frontiers.”
-Adrienne Rich, Itinerary
When two young women face a chance encounter on the road, they open up about their lives to find comfort and healing against the strange forces pursuing them along the way.
Bea is running away from home and crosses paths with Lou, an old family friend, while making a pitstop on her way to West Texas. Quickly catching on to Bea’s circumstances, Lou offers Bea a ride out of both sheer pity and understanding. As the ride goes on, the women touch base and learn about each other in deeper ways than they bargained for.
Bea reveals troubling snippets about her family life and Lou talks about the volitions of her own childhood and relationship with her mother. As their bond grows, so do outside threats that have been unknowingly stalking their journey. After they stumble upon a strange white cat, the two detour and vow to return it to its home. Meanwhile, mysterious figures trail the women and aggressively demand the cat’s return. The world around them grows more and more surreal, becoming alien to the typical landscapes of the trail they once knew across the American South. Ultimately, Bea and Lou come to terms with themselves, their pasts, and their futures through an unexpectedly enchanted trip.Are You Listening? is a lushly illustrated and intimate story about finding healing through human connection. Tillie Walden shows something magical and visually interesting within the mundanities of reality. Walden’s landscapes, and the palettes she uses, are thoughtful. In spite of their flatness and very solid blocking, readers can feel immersed in the space of a world so grounded yet so colorful. Compositions that evoke emptiness and desolation still manage to evoke attraction and longing through its palette. Where characters hang on close, Walden tightens the panels with color and that claustrophobia is felt. The burning, hot oranges and reds of the Texan highways and landscapes bleed throughout the first pages, illustrating the anxieties and initial distance of the main characters. Eventually, cooler blues and purples come into play, marking the allegorical allure of sudden snow falling in a place it shouldn’t be as Bea and Lou come to terms with recovery from their respective traumas. Page after page, there is harmonious transition when environments change and moods falter. Detail is sporadic and only most focal on the main characters and the scenery that surrounds them. The two are very similarly designed, but this could be deliberate as they turn out to mirror each other in literal ways.
Are You Listening? is an emotional journey even if it is brief. The main characters have a chemistry that feels natural and realistic; Bea and Lou create a familial relationship they lacked in their own respective lives with each other. For instance, Bea brings up how she never learned how to properly drive, and Lou takes time throughout the book to help her. Bea is volatile and does not have the answers she wants; Lou, the older adult, tries to provide them—but she herself does not necessarily have her own things sorted out.
The book already succeeds at focusing on the development of and between these two women, so unfortunately the fantastical elements eventually introduced felt gratuitous and unneeded. When the women find the white cat, the world of Are You Listening? kicks off through a magical lens that feels too ambiguous and underdeveloped. Walden’s art becomes more beautiful and spookier, superfluous without the proper justification to do so. The pursuit of the cat and the cat’s ultimate purpose is never explained properly. Even the mysterious figures and changing environments are not further dissected upon the book’s conclusion. This is all the more baffling as the main characters do not react as strongly as one would expect at their increasingly unnerving situation. At some point, the two drive over what appears to be a bridge rapidly crumbling. They make it through and recover quickly from their panic, continuing their trip without hesitation or considering help. Their reactions to the event come off as contradictory to the sort of rationale established with them up to that point. It all feels very random and disruptive to the story’s main interpersonal drama. Whether or not these elements were meant to be literal or part of a greater allegory, they are not fleshed out and are integrated poorly, hurting the narrative by simply getting in the way.Tillie Walden is from Texas herself and the root of her stories is often based on personal experiences. She made her presence in the literary world especially clear with Spinning, a coming-of-age memoir about her time as a competitive ice skater. It would win the 2018 Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work, making her one of the youngest Eisner Award winners. Like her previous works, Are You Listening? is a deeply personal narrative hoping to address queer experiences, trauma, and recovery contextualized through lavish illustration and grounded characters. Although the book suffers huge character development gaps as a result of introducing an overbroad, unneeded fantastical concept, it succeeds as an interpersonal story, showing the fruits of coping through the bond between two young women. The lush art might be enough to help readers look past the book’s flaws—Are You Listening? illustrates that while sometimes the destination may be unclear and unplanned, the pleasure is in the journey there.