Magnolia: A Graphic Novel in progress by Emma Louise Pratt – Emma Louise Pratt

He aha te maunga e tu nei? Ko Taranaki pea.

Who is that mountain there? It is Taranaki.

Set in New Zealand at the turn of the 20th Century, in the aftermath of war, and in a tumultuous time of change, an isolated community struggles to hold on. Magnolia is a story of hope and how our choices make ripples that last long after we are gone and how healing and reconnection do not simply unfold in one’s lifetime but can continue even when there is no one alive to remember.

The story begins with the final days of Birdie’s life as she reflects on a moment in her childhood when she found herself embraced by people, from apparently opposing sides of history, all challenged, flawed and thrown together by circumstances. They are ordinary and unsung. In this moment in time, the paths of these people cross, with their quiet, unifying desire to live. Decisions are made that influence lives forever.

How it Began

In the northern winter of 2020/2021, I created a webcomic and I discovered I enjoyed the mode of sharing my storytelling even as I created it. Comic lexicon, for example repurposed speech balloons and panels, had been finding its way into my visual work for many years. But this was the first time I was consciously working within the genre. That webcomic came from family research that had been like a small creek. It soon joined another wider stream of work, including a family gathering and the connecting of family and place. By that time, I had begun to write this story.

Why a Magnolia?

The Magnolia is one of the oldest flowering trees in the world and it pre-dates the existence of bees – fossilised plants having been found in Guangxi China. In fact, for this reason, the Magnolia relies on beetles, not bees for pollination. While their origins go back to East and South-East Asia, they made their way to New Zealand in the late 19th century and quickly found a home in many gardens.

The Jury Magnolia of Tikorangi, Taranaki, New Zealand

Around 1870, Thomas Jury purchased a farm at Tikorangi in Taranaki, where my story is set. The farm, world-renowned for its magnolia cultivation, was part of land confiscated by the New Zealand government from local iwi as a punishment for the wars of the 1860s. Arrests, punitive action, repression, the breaking up of hapu and incarceration for over 100 men followed. Resistance and tension lasted well into the 1880s with more repression, alienation and arrests. The hurt, scars and loss of this period are a legacy that has been passed on through to today.

Much like my main protagonist, the Magnolia, this outsider tree, growing in foreign lands, is known for its calming effect and is used in Chinese medicine to treat depression and anxiety. The Magnolia represents many qualities, but especially endurance and perseverance.

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Why this work is important

I sit in the Spring of 2023, investigating Midjourney, Dall-e and Stable Diffusion, open-source AI-driven platforms for image creation. I am discussing prompt language with my partner, and thinking about how the prejudices and perceptions of a world are embedded in the language, by the architects of the language – who are the architects? What un-critiqued knowledge has gone into creating the language? ah, the uncritiqued search engine bias I guess.

I am curiously trying out different prompts to see what it will create, but part of me is observing what is happening – how quickly we are colonised – to get “x”, I need to say it a certain way. Apart from my AI friends telling me artists like me aren’t needed anymore (WTF!!!), it is the birth of new communication … and other things. We’re witnessing the invention of the printing press.

I am not rejecting technology. Javier and I already discussed becoming monks and going to live on a mountain, or me returning to the farm and raising sheep and cows (dad, please don’t sell the farm). While it is an intellectual marathon to keep up right now, outright rejection isn’t the answer. The idea of my late grandmother’s voice being the voice of my Alexa, personally freaks me out, but I know it could be 100% meaningful and comforting to another. Why shouldn’t Ai-driven things become part of the fabric of what is real to us?

Most of my life post-18 years old has been spent living on the edges of my so-called identity and observing the spaces where my world and other people’s worlds meet. If you ask a permaculturalist what is the most exciting part of a garden or nature space? They will say the edges of things, where one plant meets another. Think fungi and trees!

That is the space I occupy every day socially, linguistically, and politically. I know no other place now. Philosophically and technologically, that is the space I also occupy. I have to accept that most of what we are, is our construction, our own mythology or self-mythology. As Reality + philosopher David Chalmers argues, there is no way to prove that we do not exist in a simulation, so…why not? Infinity has no centre, right?

Part of my Ph.D is to investigate excitedly, from a tech and material perspective, just what my storytelling can transform into with the help of AI and other technologies, spaces and platforms. Philosophically it is to argue that we have to do the hard work on critiquing and questioning what forms our identity in order to be robust humans moving forward (in my case, Pakeha identity). I want to do this from my position at the edge, talking to my neighbours, observing and listening to others, and reflecting on my own lived experience. All this is important in order to provide for ourselves and the next generations with robust and diverse cultures that can interact in healthy, productive, creative and life-affirming ways with and without the help of machines ;).

The mountains: Taranaki, Ruapehu, Hikurangi. To honour the places and the people of these ancestral mountains, and to acknowledge loved ones who lived beside them and who have departed this world.

Regions: Taranaki, Te Tai Rawhiti, Manawatū, Otaki, Te Onetapu (Rangipo Desert). Aotearoa New Zealand. These are the sounds, places, and personal experiences of home that are the springboard for a lot of my imagery in the graphic novel.