Unveiling the Layers of Romoland: An Interview with Ben Stoltzfus and Judith Palmer on their Powerful Pictonovel Journey

Author Bio: Ben Stolzfus is Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature and Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside.

He is a novelist, translator, literary critic, and internationally recognized inter-arts scholar. He has published twelve monographs of literary criticism and received Fulbright, Camargo, Gradiva, Humanities, Creative Arts, and MLA awards. He has published six novels and two collections of short stories.

Romoland, a pictonovel, was written in collaboration with his artist wife, Judith Palmer. Dumpster, for God’s Sake, a  recent novel, describes Loviers City’s group behavior and collective zeal, both of which reflect an overriding quest for soul. The short story collection, Falling and Other Stories, is by turn mythic and realistic, moving and wistful, innovative and traditional. Stoltzfus’s latest hybrid work, Alliecats, 53 Graphic Tales About Cats, was written in collaboration with the artist, Allie Kirschner, his granddaughter. He lives in  Riverside, California.

Artist Bio: Judith Palmer is a printmaker whose work is in the tradition of Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, and Richard Diebenkorn. She explores the language of art and the process by which art’s sign-system communicates its message-line, texture, color, and image. Palmer collects “found language”—numerals, words, sentences—from streets, walls, or waste paper, transfers their photo images onto zinc plates, and combines these elements with traditional, more rigid patterns and techniques of etching. The result is a dialectic: a movement back and forth between spontaneously flowing arabesques—that represent energy, aggression, and rebellion—and the rigid, straight lines of confinement and restriction. This combined language of spontaneity and restraint generates movement and tension between the different parts-form becomes content.

Palmer’s art is housed in the permanent collections of galleries and museums in Santa Monica, California; Knoxville, Tennessee; Riverside, California; and Pomona, California. She has received many awards, including the Margaret R. Hanenberg Award from the University of California, Riverside; the “Ink and Clay” Purchase Prize Award from California State Polytechnic in Pomona, California; and the “Jurors’ Award” at the Pacific States Print Exhibition.

1.What was the inspiration behind choosing the title “Romoland” for the pictonovel? Was it influenced by personal incidents or thoughts?

In 1987 I wanted to buy a used travel trailer. I found several for sale in Riverside, Corona, San Bernardino, and Romoland. I developed an information page for each trailer: address and telephone number from the newspaper and pasted it onto the page; also, the cost, size, inside amenities, appointment time, and directions. The trailer I purchased was in Romoland, and afterwards I discarded the pages I had accumulated in the wastepaper basket. Judith Palmer, my artist spouse, recovered the discarded pages, chose the one for Romoland, called it “writing as found art,” and made a photoetching–a print with not only the above information on it but also my handwriting, newspaper print, numerals, arrows in red, blue, off-white, and the name Romoland (see page 20). 

2. What is the difference between a graphic novel and a pictonovel? When we search for a book in the pictonovel genre, your novel appears first, and there are fewer works in this genre. Why did you choose the pictonovel genre instead of other genres?

No difference. But I like pictonovel because the word is more expressive.

3. Whether it’s visual, verbal, or written art, the normalization of women’s subjection is prevalent to a large extent. Do you think historians, philosophers, artists, and even feminists have sometimes ignored the normalization of women as presentable objects?

The “Me Too” movement certainly brought attention to the subjection of women by dominant, wealthy men. Historically, women have always been marginalized, second-class citizens. Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex was the beginning of the women’s liberation movement, and Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics was an explosive, if not always accurate portrayal of male dominance.

Others followed: Hélène Cixoux, Monique Witting, and Alice A. Jardine, among many others. The current subjection of women in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Africa, and elsewhere, particularly female circumcision, is ongoing evidence of second-class status. Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Madame de Staël, George Sand, and Colette, among many other women writers, have demonstrated that they are as good as men.

4. The most creative aspect of this pictonovel, Romoland, is that the illustrations not only challenge the dominant appeasing aesthetic but also choose critical femininity as the mode and medium of communication. How can the audience connect themselves with these illustrations?

By reading the text and looking at the images. Critical femininity is indeed the mode and medium of communication in this pictonovel. The writing and the images dramatize an ongoing dialog between a man and a woman. In the beginning she has no identity. Gradually her images persuade the man to change from an aggressive bully to being a partner in a relationship that is both loving and permissive. The first image, “Body of the Text,” is that of a woman looking for meaning in the pool of Narcissus. The last image, “Playgiarism,” is that of a woman who has found meaning and happiness in partnership with man.

5. Did you worry that the illustrations in the pictonovel might overshadow the impact of your words? How did you ensure a harmonious narrative by balancing the interplay between the illustrations and the text?

No. Judith’s art was already there. My job was to assemble the images in a certain order to give them coherence and direction. Each image served as a generative theme for the dialog between image and text as well as the dialog between the man and the woman. In the beginning, the man is dominant, and the woman is a nobody looking for an identity. Her images eventually assert her identity as a woman artist, and they persuade the man that her achievement is worthy of attention. I wrote a monograph on a French new novelist entitled Alain Robbe-Grillet: The Body of the Text, andJudith borrowed the subtitle for a series of woodblocks entitled The Body of the Text. I used five of these images as generative themes for five dialogs. Judith read Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, a novel about a jealous man spying on his wife through the slats of a venetian blind. In French a venetian blind is called a jalousie, a word that simultaneously connotes and denotes both “jealousy” and “venetian blind.” The slats are straight lines, and the straight lines connote “man.” The wife is in her boudoir combing the waves of her hair, and the undulations of her tresses connote “woman.” In conversation the wife is constantly undermining her husband’s values. In Judith’s Assemblages images, Fugue images, and Surface Series images her use of straight lines and squares also connotes a male voice, and her use of squiggles, arabesques, and circles connotes the female voice. Judith’s squiggles and arabesques, when confined by straight lines and squares, eventually break through the confinement. This is her abstract language that connotes subversion and liberation. The Proving Ground and Construction images are images of triumph.

6. The Romoland picto-novel also attempts to decode the ideas of identities and how women are consistently referred to, attached to, and represented through male identities. Do you believe we need a multiple identity approach to understand gender?

The LGBTQ movement certainly shows that a multiple identity approach to understanding gender is already with us, in progress so to speak. But that’s not what is going on in Romoland. The pictonovel demonstrates that women already have a voice; that a woman can be an artist, and that men and women can work together as equals.

7. From historical to contemporary times, the female body has often been associated with roles such as sex slaves, desirable wives, and objects of entertainment, as mentioned in the novel. “Which surface is it, and whose space? Is it another body or the same one, cast in a different light? He says white is good and black is bad, but the print is brown, etched in black, and framed in white. White occupies the margins, but her body is at the center. His straight lines are visible, but her surface predominates. This body has a voice.” Do you think women also consume and try to conform to feminine beauty standards and ideals instead of questioning them? If yes, why?

The answer to your question would require a book. The short answer is “which women?” The liberated ones or the conformist ones? The ads in various magazines show women in high heels and sexy outfits. Surely, the women who buy into this code are vying for male attention. But male attention is always sexist, and women know it. In the realm of birds, however, flashy feathers are male.

8. The Romoland pictonovel thoroughly analyzes the public and private spheres with a comparative analysis, as stated: “All narratives belong to him. He creates, he writes, he is Mister Chronology. From the beginning: she has listened to his words, lived his thoughts, and exercised his will. She wants to tell the story of her exclusion, but the means at her disposal belong to him: his alphabet, his grammar, his books. He is the active, intelligible father, whereas she is matter, the passive matter, the body at the lower end of mind, a bundle of sentiments, unworthy of intellect.” Do you think rationality as a concept is a biased, male-centric social construction?

Language is a social construct. Social values are, inevitably encoded in language. Until recently the word “man” stood for men and women. French is even more gendered than English. It has male and female articles: “le” and “la;” whenever male and female pronouns appear in the same sentence, the male pronoun dominates. Grammar is the tip of the iceberg, however, because, until recently, women in the United States could not vote, were excluded from holding important positions in industry and academia, and the Supreme Court is now telling women how they can and cannot use their bodies.

9. The illustrations in Romoland also examine how the division of labor results from the segregation of public and household domains. Do you believe the assignment of women to household chores and men to the public world is a forced and involuntary inclusion imposed upon them? ( Question to Judith Palmer )

Judith: I wanted to have children, and I loved raising them. It was my choice That meant feeding them, reading to them, driving them to school, and to doctors’ appointments. I know that other women feel differently about these matters but, for me, that was the joy of enabling children. I also wanted to be an artist, and after the children were old enough to take care of themselves, I was able to pursue that dream.

10. Each illustration in the picto-novel carries multiple embedded ideas. Which of the illustrations is your favorite among all? ( Question For Ben and Judith Palmer)

Judith: My favorite image is “Playgiarism,” the image on the cover, because it makes viewers ask, “What does it mean?”

Ben: I like all of them. Each one is a part of the whole, and the total effect is what matters.

11. Prejudices and stereotypes tend to persist even after attempts to unlearn them. During the process of working on this pictonovel, have there been any stereotypes that you have personally overcome?

No. I had overcome my personal stereotypes long ago. But I hope readers of Romoland might see it as useful experience for overcoming their own stereotypes, if they have them; they  probably do even if they don’t know it.

12. Society and even nations have celebrated the revolutionary attitude of rebellious men, but rebellious women are often viewed as unfit and harmful to society. How do you perceive and understand rebellious women?

Judith is and has always been a rebellious woman. That’s what brought us together. We have both been disdainful of authority, arbitrary control, and constraint. Need I say more?

13. The novel also portrays the nuanced layers that language holds, with words often unconsciously or consciously conveying meanings of power and powerlessness. How do you see the relationship between language and gender?

See question 8 and my answer.

14. Surveillance over the needs and desires of women is not only an unquestioned practice but also a significant aspect of smooth societal functioning, as stated: “Handwriting is an intimate thing, right? Take a woman’s diary. It’s the most private form there is, and when you see it exposed you say to yourself, aha, secrets, veiled pleasures, fears, longings, expectations. And what do you get? A freezer, an awning, propane cylinders. It’s a big deception. You wanted intimacy, but you get only surface impressions, a few colors, and blurred newsprint.” Do you think surveillance is a feminist issue?

Surveillance is not the issue. I was describing Romoland, the photoetching, ironically (page 21) to highlight the discrepancy between expectation and fulfillment. My reference to a woman’s diary was a metaphor for difference. Instead of intimate details all you see and get are everyday kitchen objects.

15. The novel directly exposes the misogynistic humor that is part of our daily vocabulary. Do you believe humor sometimes reinforces prejudices and stereotypes against females?

For misogynists humor probably reinforces the stereotypes against women. Donald Trump’s locker humor about grabbing women by their pussies no doubt helps and reinforces the bias of his supporters while alienating people who disapprove of such behavior.

16. “On the one hand, he exploits the earth, but on the other, he says he venerates mother nature. He always has it both ways, using and abusing. He is the master manipulator, changing words to suit his schemes, dressing them up in double speak, and whenever expedient, he says that white is black and black is white. Reversible, like 69.” How do you perceive the relationship between female to male as nature is to culture?

For eons men have been exploiting women and nature. But that is changing, not only  because of the “me too” movement but also because of the urgency of climate change, global warming, and the extinction of species.

17. The freedom to choose something in contemporary times is often a myth, as our choices are mostly influenced by what is displayed, presented, and insinuated. Do you think women are being denied their choices?

Advertising seems to work because in the West it is omnipresent. But the influence is not restricted to women. Men seem to be just as susceptible to its pernicious effects.

18. The significance of this novel lies in its imprint of art and illustrations, which are expressions of multiple voices waiting to be heard and acknowledged. What are the ways in which the audience can understand these illustrations?

Romoland—the pictonovel is ironic, comic, and playful. Its postmodernism conjoins feminist art with innovative fiction. The written text uses twenty-five art works as generative surfaces for a series of dialogs between a man and a woman. The images and the text explore the historical subjection of women by men and their deliverance—in this case–through art and the dismantling of cultural codes. Both texts foreground the voice of the Other—the unbconscious—as it manifests itself in the traces, lines, and cracks of speech, be they visual or verbal. The arabesques of the woman’s sensibilities oppose the squares of the man’s authority. Her art speaks and his text sees, and the juxtaposition of the two arts sustains a combined response. Together, they unveil the iconotext—the space between the pictures and the text—the body of bliss and equality.

19. The novel features a powerful quote: “Feminists who try to eliminate the ‘stereotypes of the male imagination’ play a dangerous game; seem to be playing with the ultimate apocalypse. – Eugénie Lemoine-Luccioni, Partage.” Have you ever examined the stereotypes that women have against women belonging to lower strata in society?

I have not examined them professionally, but I know they exist. White racist women are biased against Black women. In India, the women of “untouchables” are at the lowest level of society, and there is little if any crossing of social barriers. In Europe, Romani women occupy the lowest rung. Bias against minorities is a known fact, and it exists in men as well as women.

20. If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be? ( Question to Judith Palmer)

Mother, Artist, Wife

21. You mention being influenced by renowned artists such as Jasper Johns, Cy Twombly, and Richard Diebenkorn. How have their work and artistic styles inspired your own approach to printmaking? (Question to Judith Palmer)

Judith: Jasper Johns rejected realism in favor of playful, enigmatic works that interrogate the ways we see and interpret the world. Diebenkorn’s geometric, expressionist paintings also rejected realism. Twombly’s scribbles, spare canvasses, and experimental digressions from abstraction also affected the way I work. My scribbles and arabesques, like his, tap into the spontaneity of the unconscious. Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, once said: “The unconscious is structured like a language.”

22. It’s impressive that your artwork has been acquired by prestigious galleries and museums. How does it feel to have your work recognized and exhibited in these esteemed institutions, and how has this recognition influenced your artistic journey? (Question to Judith Palmer)

Judith: At the time I was surprised but pleased by the recognition. It meant that my art was communicating something important to the viewer.

23. Among the awards you have received, including the Margaret R. Hanenberg Award from the University of California, Riverside; the “Ink and Clay” Purchase Prize Award from California State Polytechnic in Pomona, California; and the “Jurors’ Award” at the Pacific States Print Exhibition, which one holds particular significance for you, and why? (Question to Judith Palmer)

Judith: I am unable to choose. It seems to me they are all important.

24. As an artist, what message or experience do you hope viewers take away from your prints? Are there any particular emotions, ideas, or themes that you aim to evoke or explore through your artwork? (Question to Judith Palmer)

Judith: Don’t listen to other people’s advice or let them tell you what you should paint and how to do it. Follow your instinct, especially when it leads you to new, surprising places. Keep yourself informed. Go to museums and art shows. Keep in mind that even if you are only one voice in the long history of art, it could be an important voice.

25. Have you encountered any notable obstacles or difficulties in your artistic journey? If so, how did you overcome them, and what lessons did you learn from those experiences? (Question to Judith Palmer)

Judith: In the 1970s teachers at The Claremont Graduate Program in Art advocated realism. Painting realistically, however,  was not what I wanted to do. My teachers wanted a portrait of a person to look like a real person, whereas I was more interested in conveying feeling, context, and influence—the intangible. See for example my woodblock on page 36 of Romoland, “The Body of the Text,” and Ben’s description of it on page 37: “She is caught between his world and hers, between culture and nature, between quadruped and Cartesian logic, between straight, clear-cut male supremacy and the black, circular patterns of the unconscious.” The lesson I learned is in my answer to question 24.

26. How do you feel about working with Judith Palmer on this fantastic journey of the pictonovel Romoland ? What has been the biggest realization during the process?

Over the years Judith and I have collaborated on several projects, and we have enjoyed the journey together. She is an innovative artist, and I am an innovative writer. Our work is impressionistic, not realistic. We are not averse to breaking rules or experimenting with language, be it the language of art or that of writing.

How does Judith feel about working with Ben on this project, and what has been my biggest realization?

I have been enthusiastic about our collaboration. It made me realize that viewers were not only responding to my art as art but also to Romoland’s message. The coherence of the pictonovel’s message depends entirely on the sequential arrangement of the images. I’m proud of each one as a separate work of art but when viewed together they give meaning to my journey as a woman artist in a phallocratic society.

27. You have had several of your works published by a specific publisher, 39 West Press. How has your experience been working with them? Can you share any insights into the collaboration process and the support you’ve received from the publisher?

j.d. tullock, the editor of 39 West Press, has been most supportive. Our relationship is positive. He is professional, very responsive, and attentive to detail. He works with me on layout, cover design, and publicity blurbs. His books are always well designed, and he uses top quality paper.

28. Are there any upcoming projects that you are both excited about and would like to share with your audience?

39 West Press will soon publish Baja—The Puma Drinks the New Moon. It’s our latest collaboration—Judith’s and mine–about our travels up and down the Baja peninsula:her photoetchings of cave-painting pictographs and pen-and-ink drawings of places, people, flora, and fauna; my narrative and 71 haiku.

I am also working on a biofiction memoir of Judith’s remarkable life entitled Big JP—The Nine Lives of Judith Palmer.

Discover the captivating world of Romoland—a thought-provoking pictonovel that challenges societal norms and explores the complexities of human relationships. With its blend of intertwined fictions, relatable analogies, and profound social commentary, this book is a must-read. Get your copy on Amazon and embark on a transformative journey today.

Share on:

We believe in sharing knowledge with everyone and making a positive change in society through our work and contributions. If you are interested in joining us, please check our 'About' page for more information