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Manga artist Fatima Atie uses her art to engage with reality and all it has to offer: the good, the bad and the ugly

This is a photo of Fatima Atie sitting on a porch.
Courtesy of Fatima Atie
Fatima Atie has been using art to document her life since she was a teenager in Beirut, Lebanon. Now, as a manga artist in Columbia, she continues to bring characters to life for herself and others.

Life is hard. Art can help. Life is fun. Art can spread the joy around.

Columbia manga artist Fatime Atie has found that a relationship with art is a way to heal and process reality, however challenging or exciting it happens to be. KBIA producer Katelynn McIlwain sat down with Atie.

Here's an excerpt from their conversation:

Fatima Atie: So, I really love bringing characters to life. And it's always why I watched animation, why I wanted to animate or draw comics. There's just something about how a picture can say a thousand words. And there's always something about their expression and their features. Sometimes you cannot express that yourself. So you just, you know, put it in a character.

Katelynn McIlwain: Why do you think that type of cartoon style, in particular, it's just really attractive to you?

This is an illustration of two girls with green-ish hair holding hands and smiling.
Fatima Atie
Both girls in this image are original characters (or, OCs). Atie's OC (right) is named Arza, which means "pine tree" in Arabic. Arza represents Lebanon, Atie's home country, as her red and white outfit resembles the Lebanese red and white flag, even down to the pine tree on Arza's shirt. Atie's friend's OC is the character to the left.

Fatima Atie: So I come from Beirut, Lebanon. I've been in Columbia, maybe for like six or seven years now. But I always felt that as an introvert and coming from that religious bubble, I could not freely express myself sometimes. And it is mostly just society norms and stuff like that. Also being a girl, you know: you have to be a lady, and you can't do this or that.

So I always just resorted to drawing comics, and even writing. I just wanted to have those strong female characters, people who can actually save the day. But they're not represented in DC Comics or Marvel; we didn't have all those female superheroes back then, or, you know, anyone with powers. And then slowly, as I became a teenager, I got so interested in psychology. And so I started representing mental health issues. I'm drawing characters that are depressed, but they're fighting it.

So I always just resorted to drawing comics, and even writing. I just wanted to have those strong female characters, people who can actually save the day. But they're not represented in DC Comics or Marvel; we didn't have all those female superheroes back then, or, you know, anyone with powers.

Katelynn McIlwain: And so now as a mother, as someone I know — you've also experienced some grief, I know that there was a miscarriage that you mentioned. How does art help with coping with just life and the sadness of it and the difficulties of it?

Fatima Atie: So for me, personally, I feel like I am embodying the characters that I need in my life, sometimes. I was talking actually with my therapist not long ago, and she was talking about a coping mechanism. Like, when you need someone to tell you something, but they are not. Let's say you're traumatized or having an issue with a certain person in your life, and they are not helping you heal, or they're not accepting you both to have a conversation together about it. You can write a letter and write their response the way you need it, so that they talk to you back the way you need, and it will help you move on. And I think that's what I've been doing, subconsciously, with my comics. I've drawn these figures, these friends, these relatives, either helping each other or being against each other, and then discovering something later on. Just having that support, or having, I want to say, a method to get out of real life and just find those people that you need. That's something I really love introducing in my comics or stories, and I feel I still do it subconsciously.

Katelynn McIlwain: Now, you know, there's some who might say that using art to perhaps, like, dissociate from reality, that there's maybe a line where it becomes unhealthy or too much, maybe too escapist. I'm curious what you think about that.

This is an illustration of Atie's husband squishing their baby's cheeks. Atie is shown at the bottom taking the baby from her husband in response.
Fatima Atie
This short story from "FaLeFil" depicts a snippet of Atie's life with her husband and newborn.

Fatima Atie: Disassociating might help you get back and look at the general problem, rather than being stuck somewhere and just panicking and whatever. Because for me, whatever I'm feeling at the time, usually that's expressed in my art. So, if I go back to my teen years, most of it was just dark, emo. And then when I met my now husband it was all those cute characters, the chibi, the lovey dovey. This is like one of the comics I actually made with him. And we called it "FaLeFil," which is "falafel" in English. Just because our first date he asked me like, "Hey, let's go have a Falafel sandwich." That's kinda like asking someone to go to Taco Bell on the first date. But it was just so casual and random, like, "Okay!" It wasn't even actually a date, but it kinda was a date.

So this reflects that part of my life. And then right now, when I'm writing stories, there's a lot of, I want to say, indirect parenting, you know, like some characters are trying to be motherly to each other, like more understanding. Which is something I'm trying to apply to my kids right now, like I'm trying to break the cycle. So you will still see whatever affected me in the day or even in the month or something in whatever I'm working on, which is something you don't see in other things. You don't, you can't really sometimes put everything in your gaming, you can't really put it, I don't know, in sports.

Katelynn McIlwain: I think you bring up a very good point. As I was doing research about dissociating and using media, a lot of it had to do with social media. And just the way social media kind of puts you in this, you know, carousel of content, in a way. And you're just kind of stuck in it, you know, you scroll and you're like, "Whoa, it's been an hour." I feel like with your interaction with art is more active, like you are actively letting the emotions that you're feeling show up.

Fatima Atie: So, having comfort characters, having characters sometimes that represent you, that is therapeutic. And I just did not know about it until my therapist mentioned it. And I'm like, "Oh, so that's what I've been doing."

Katelynn McIlwain: Kind of putting a name to something that you've already experienced.

Fatima Atie: Exactly.

Katelynn McIlwain: That's always very empowering. I love the way you describe that. Because when we think of trauma, and what we wish we would have had at that time, it's empowering to take on like this role of, "Okay, I can — I can be the one to provide. What I wish I would have had."

Fatima Atie: Kind of like when someone asks you, "What would you tell your younger self?" Or something like that, so you are somehow trying to treat or heal yourself.

Katelynn McIlwain, originally from Freeport, Illinois (go Pretzels!), is the managing editor for KBIA. She assists KBIA newsroom leaders in planning, supervising and producing news programming for radio broadcast, including daily news and in-depth reports, as well as public affairs programming.
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