Rosy Karna

Alwali - The Protecting Friend

“I ask for death because it makes me very sick. I have been suffering with this for 25 years,” exclaimed Rahman.

“When I need to go to school for my children, I can’t wear shoes,” said Bithul.

“I fear that my 12-year-old daughter might not be able to get married because I am suffering from this disease for 10 years,” Aamirah replied.

“I am a burden to my family,” screamed Humairah.

You would hear these lament if you ever happen to talk to a person living with a debilitating disease for years. I have heard them all. During my summer internship in Bangladesh, I learned about a neglected tropical disease – lymphatic filariasis. Lymphatic filariasis (LF) is one of the oldest and most incapacitating diseases in the world (Evans, 2003). The global burden is 120 million, with 40 million people chronically disabled by the disease and about twice that number suffering from covert lymphatic changes or kidney disease (Zeldenryk et al. 2011). Although taking deworming drugs can prevent the spread of LF, the task is daunting. Not merely because 120 million people in 81 countries have the worms, but because of the stigma and secret shame that the affliction causes, particularly in women (McNeil, 2006). Even where the disease is rampant, such as Bangladesh, LF remains cloaked in ignorance and misinterpretation (Zeldenryk et al., 2011; McNeil, 2006).

Bangladesh has one of the highest incidences of LF, with more than 20 million people suffering from the disease and about 70 million people at risk of infection (Hafiz, 2012). People who suffer from unusual swelling of their legs or elephantiasis are almost isolated in their society and have no choice but to remain in bed without work. Having witnessed the plight of LF patients living in Bangladesh, particularly women patients, I had a deep urge to do something for them. But, I did not know where to start. While I was in Bangladesh, I talked with my friends and we came up with few ways by which we could raise awareness about LF amongst people. Some of the ideas were creating a webpage or Facebook page about LF, designing a brochure with the information about LF and distributing it to the people in endemic regions and finally, making an advertisement about the treatment and prevention of LF. Unfortunately, these ideas just remained as an idea and never got anywhere. But, as Paulo Coelho writes, “when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it,” I got an opportunity at Stanford to transform my idea of helping the LF patients into a reality. Thanks to TSR! TSR provided me an opportunity to share my knowledge about LF. I was able to design a project through which I could educate people about the impact of LF. But, it was not an easy journey. I had to overcome few challenges. At times it was trying to figure out the right balance between science and art, and the other times it was fighting with the time constraints. But, most of the time it was the fear of not being able to translate the idea into reality.

The Beginning

In the first class of TSR, when I was asked about my potential topic for project, I said that I wanted to raise awareness about a parasitic disease called lymphatic filariasis. This was not a novel idea at all because there is a huge literature that focuses on the prevention and treatment of LF. Moreover, many awareness campaigns are conducted in the endemic countries to educate people about LF. Here, I wanted to do something new, and yet I saw nothing new in my project.

For the first few weeks of Fall Quarter, I brainstormed ways by which I could make my project unique. But, did not come up with anything. Got little frustrated. It was then I began reading The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp. This book was my savior. I got inspired to find my unique creative voice. All this time, I was affixed in making the content appealing, that’s why I was not getting anything exciting. Then I shifted my angle of focus. Rather than focusing on the content, I started to focus on the medium – how to deliver the message. Several thoughts came to my mind, but one thought moved me more than any other –and that was the idea of writing a graphic novel.

Deciding on the medium was a huge step forward, but my anxiety had not settled. Rather it had just begun. I had chosen a medium that was completely new to me. I had not even read a graphic novel before. The only thing that I knew about graphic novel was that it is a collection of cartoon drawings that tell a story. But, was this knowledge enough to begin the project? I guess it was.

The rationale behind choosing graphic novel as my medium was my intense passion for art. Art has always been close to my heart. My interest in art began while I was making sketches of plant and animal anatomy for my Biology practical classes in 7th grade and since then, art has grown in my life from a mere class activity into a profound passion. I believe that art is the most effective conduit for educating public and bringing them together. It was this belief that kept me going.

My Challenges

Once I pinned down my medium, I started to hunt for some samples. I went to couple of bookstores and started perusing the graphic novel section. In the first month of the Winter Quarter, I skimmed through more than 100 graphic novels. This not only helped me get familiar with the style, but also helped me build my storyline, which was my second biggest challenge. I had a collection of personal stories of LF patients, which I had gathered while I was in Bangladesh, but I had a hard time weaving those stories into a single big story and not romanticizing them. I overcame this challenge with the help of my creative mentor, Scott Hutchins. As per his suggestion, I chose three salient stories from the collection of stories I had. These three stories had one common theme, i.e. the social and psychological impact of the disease. I began to work with these stories and sketch my story. TSR workshops were very helpful in tuning my story arc. After several drafts and revisions, I had a complete storyline by the end of the 6th week of Winter Quarter. This was my second biggest leap towards my goal.

With my every leap, my challenges got more intense than before. My third challenge was translating the words and emotions of my stories into drawings. I had to be precise in choosing the shots and portraying the emotions of my characters. Never before had I thought about drawing with precision. My arts are never carefully planned: it is just an outcome of spontaneity and randomness. But, now I had to follow mathematical rules and calculations. Very daunting. But, the book Making Comics by Scott McCloud made everything easy. It helped me draw facial expressions, perspectives, and also helped me design the page layout with minimal rules and calculations.

The first step in creating a page or strip of comic art is to draw in pencil because it gives us the chance for correction. I began my first step with mixed feelings of nervousness and excitement. I started drawing my characters with pencils. I made my drawings as detailed and precise as possible. Most graphic novelists do lettering after finishing the penciling process, but I did the lettering and penciling together. This gave me a sense of how the story was progressing. Based on the feedbacks I received during the TSR workshops, I made revisions and finished penciling my story at the beginning of the Spring Quarter.

After finishing the penciling process, I got stalked by another challenge, i.e. the inking process. Inking is the second step of making the graphic novel. It is a refining process that builds on the sketch that you made. At first, it seemed like tracing because I was just making the penciled edges more visible. But then, I started to experiment with different gradients of Sakura Pigma Micron Pens that allowed me to create depth and perspective. The process was time consuming, but I enjoyed every bit of it.

The final challenge was publishing and curating the work. I had to shrink the size of every page and look at the density of coloration. However, with the help of the technicians, I was able to reduce the pages to an appropriate size. Through TSR workshops, I got some ideas about curating my work. For the exhibition, I had few printed copies of my novel and a poster. I have adapted my graphic novel to my own needs and the demands of my targeted audience, therefore, many people might not find similarity between my work and the conventional graphic novel. Despite the dissimilarity, I hope that the audience will find my work artistic and educational like other graphic novels.

About the Novel

Alwali –The Protecting Friend is a story about loss, but it also a story about hope. The story is written from the perspective of Aamirah, a 25-year-old woman with lymphatic filariasis. Aamirah, who has been living a normal life, experiences sudden social upheaval after being diagnosed with lymphatic filariasis. She loses support from her family and her lover, but ironically gets support from a stranger named Washeem. Washeem is an angelic character who helps Aamirah in getting treatment. Aamirah gets cured. She then decides to help women like her.

All the characters in the novel are fictional, but their stories are real. The stories in the novel were inspired by my interview with LF patients in Bangladesh. I am indebted to them for sharing their time and personal experience with me. My primary goal of writing a graphic narrative on lymphatic filariasis is to spread knowledge of the disease and contribute to the synergy of art and science. Even if one person changes his/her attitude towards LF patient after reading my graphic novel, I know that I will have achieved my goal of contributing to improving the existing condition of the disease.

My Experience in TSR

The first class when the ex-TSR students were presenting their work, I was overwhelmed. Their works were amazing, and I got nervous because I had not done a creative project before. But, after each class, I got inspired and motivated to create my creative project. Weekly workshops have really helped me shape my project. With every workshop, my project got better and better. When I was struggling through my artistic journey, support from my TSR-ers gave be strength to keep moving forward.

TSR has taught me to hear my inner voice. It has allowed me to explore my inner potential. Though it has been challenging in the beginning deciding the topic, choosing the medium and mentors, I have treasured every moments spent with TSR. I have had the opportunity to challenge myself and to believe that I can do things I didn’t think I could do. I have learned that it is okay to not know where you are heading and be confused, but to believe in what you are doing. I have learned to trust my potential and myself.

I am very grateful to TSR for the enlightening experience. I got to know and work with some incredible people throughout my project journey. TSR has by far been one of my best experiences because I got an opportunity to integrate the knowledge that I learned in Bangladesh and the skills that I learned at Stanford.

Thank you Professor Sue and Andrew for starting this wonderful program. Thank you so much for your inspiration and encouragement. Without your support this project would not have been possible.


Evans, R. 2003. “The Global Elimination of Lymphatic Filariasis: The Story of Egypt.” World Health Organization. (accessed November 28, 2013).

Hafiz, I. 2012. “Elimination of Lymphatic Filariasis-Bangladesh Experience.” International Congress on Infectious Diseases, Bangkok, Thailand. (accessed November 28, 2013).

McNeil, D. G. 2006. “Beyond Swollen Limbs, a Disease’s Hidden Agony.” The New York Times. (accessed December 1, 2013).

Zeldenryk, L. M., Gray, M., Speare, R., Gordon, S., and Melrose, W. 2011. “The Emerging Story of Disability Associated with Lymphatic Filariasis: A Critical Review.” PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases. 5(12).