Culture  A Journey Through the Shared Human Experience

A Review of Aimee de Jongh’s Taxi! Stories from the Back Seat

Aimée de Jongh’s autobiographical graphic novel Taxi! Stories from the Backseat embodies the phrase “less is more.” True to its slice- of-life genre, Taxi! does not culminate in an action-packed finale or wondrous philosophical epiphany – instead, it reveals how the seemingly simple act of riding in a taxi can teach us lessons about our prejudices. In a series of vignettes, de Jongh interweaves stories of her taxi rides from 2014 to 2018 in four different cities: Los Angeles, Jakarta, Washington, D.C., and Paris.

From traffic jams to the concept of celebrating life rather than mourning death, her mirroring of themes and events across the globe shows that people of different cultures will always share experiences, despite outward differences.

Taxi! is a story about getting to know strangers and going beyond first impressions. It explores how we move from surface- level small talk to sharing our vulnerabilities. In Los Angeles, de Jongh’s uncommunicative taxi driver turns out to be kinder than he appears. In Jakarta, she learns that her driver’s religion allows him to maintain a positive attitude towards personal tragedies. In Paris, she bonds with her driver over their shared experience of being second- generation immigrants, and in Washington, her driver – a bubbly comic-book lover – reveals the difficulties that depression and anxiety have caused in his life. Through these experiences, de Jongh comes to recognize and dismantle her instinct to judge others by first appearances. Taxi! reminds readers to confront their prejudices, as nobody is exactly as they seem at first glance – and stereotypes are more prevalent in our judgement than we may think.

De Jongh’s detailed black and white artwork is reminiscent of scratchy ink-sketches that, despite being drawn relatively thickly, manage to convey subtle facial expressions and the scenery outside of the taxis in great detail. She also utilizes panel spacing to draw the reader’s attention to important moments; although most of her panels are contained within boxes, scenes of high tension do not have these, and are spread across the entire page.

The interwoven style of the four separate taxi rides also plays a role in her method of storytelling. By transitioning between each thread, de Jongh draws attention to similarities in situations. From traffic jams to the concept of celebrating life rather than mourning death, her mirroring of themes and events across the globe shows that people of different cultures will always share experiences, despite outward differences.

A perfect blend of solemnity and humour effectively hooks the reader’s attention throughout the entire novel, despite the simple choice of setting. De Jongh asks her Jakartan driver, “Do you think we will ever see our dads again?” “I’m a Muslim,” he replies, “so… I believe we will.” The atmosphere created by these touching moments might seem opposite to the general positive mood throughout the graphic novel. The contrasting moments of levity and gravity do more than roll the story forward, however. De Jongh uses them to bring racial issues to light. In one memorable example, her driver tells her that, “it’s not easy being a Muslim… especially in Paris,” just as the taxi passes a sodden bouquet of flowers with a card reading #JeSuisCharlie on the corner of rue Nicolas-Appert. “You mean because of…” de Jongh trails off, staring back at the flowers on the street. “Yes. Because of [the temptation of food in Paris during] Ramadan!” her driver exclaims, surprising both the reader and de Jongh, and creating a moment of comic relief in an otherwise heavy scene.

De Jongh’s achievement, however, is her ability to make the reader care about people she introduces for only a short time. Her characters and their flaws become so real to us that, despite only seeing a snapshot of their lives spread over a couple of pages, we become invested in their stories. Taxi! Stories from the Backseat provides a glimpse of humanity through a lens that is at once compelling, funny, and profound.

Taxi! Stories from the Backseat provides a glimpse of humanity through a lens that is at once compelling, funny, and profound.

Aimée de Jongh is a Dutch illustrator based in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. To see more of her work, cartoonist, animator, and visit her website aimeedejongh.com and her Twitter @aimeedejongh.