MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The New Yorker is one of this country's most influential literary magazines, its articles and cartoons devoured as soon as they arrive in the mail or online. But Liz Montague felt something was missing in the cartoons - a point of view like hers. So she wrote to the editor, and now she's believed to be the first Black female cartoonist to have her work featured in the magazine. And at 24 years old, she's also one of the youngest.
Given the focus of her work and the events of recent weeks, we thought we'd like to hear more about what's on her mind and sketchpad these days, so we've called her up.
Liz Montague, thanks so much for joining us.
LIZ MONTAGUE: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: And first of all, congratulations. I mean, The New Yorker takes only a fraction of the pieces submitted to it, so that's no small thing.
MONTAGUE: (Laughter) Thanks.
MARTIN: It isn't. I mean, so can you just tell us a little bit about when you decided to become an illustrator? What inspired you?
MONTAGUE: I really decided - I think my sophomore year of college, I had heard someone else speak just about his experience as a graphic designer in communicating, like, his experience of war. And it really inspired me - just the way that you could communicate so much visually. And then from then on, I was, like, OK. I'm going to do this. I'm going to be an illustrator and a cartoonist. And then I was working as a graphic designer in D.C. and emailed The New Yorker one day. And my cartooning journey really started there.
MARTIN: So I understand that you first got the attention of an editor there because of a letter you wrote. Do you mind sharing that?
MONTAGUE: Yeah. I had emailed just, like, the general New Yorker email from the Instagram account and had said, hey, you know, there's a lot of - there's definitely some diversity lacking at The New Yorker and The New Yorker cartoons just based on the characters that are drawn and the point of view and perspectives, and that - you know, that's something that was really lacking. And then, to my total surprise, she responded and just asking, you know, if there's anyone I would recommend. And I recommended myself.
MARTIN: Well (laughter), I mean...
MARTIN: OK. I'm just going to say that takes a lot of stones to do. Or was it just - you just didn't think about it? I mean, did you ever think - I mean, come on, that just isn't something everybody would think could do. What made you do that? You just figured, what the heck. What can it hurt?
MONTAGUE: Yeah. At the time, it didn't feel like a big deal or even, like, a big ask. It was just kind of, like, oh, OK. Well, she asked me, and this is something that I'm good enough to do, and I think I'm good enough for this. So why not? I mean, but obviously, like, there's a lot of progress and a lot of things that have happened for me to, like, be in this situation and think that I'm good enough and that my voice is good enough, so it definitely was, like, a culmination of a lot of people's hard work for me to be able to, like, embrace that moment.
MARTIN: I mean, obviously your work draws upon and also communicates your personal experience as a Black woman. And I've read that you sometimes worry that your perspective is too niche for readers. Is that still a worry you have?
MONTAGUE: Oh, yeah, for sure. I mean, I think there's this internalized sense of self-editing and of making myself smaller to fit into this space or what I think that this space requires. And I think that it's taken a while for me to, like, catch myself when I'm doing it, at least, when I'm, like, dehumanizing myself by trying to make myself filtered. And I don't need to be filtered. Like, it's so along racial lines, along gender lines, along class lines who's filtered and who isn't. And I just need to catch myself when I do it to myself.
MARTIN: One of the ones that got my attention just - I laugh every time I see it - is that where you've got these two people on a rooftop, and they've, like, activated what would be, like - what do they call that? - is that the bat phone or the spotlight?
MONTAGUE: The bat signal (laughter).
MARTIN: The bat signal, thank you. Like, there are two people on a rooftop, and they've activated the bat signal. And it says, per my latest email - and then the caption is, we've done all we can. It's out of our hands now. (Laughter) And I just - I'm sorry. I - you can tell that, like - you can tell that work in an office because...
MARTIN: It's just - I can't explain why it's so funny. I guess if you don't - if you work in an office, then you know why it's funny, right? Because it's, like, what else can I...
MARTIN: ...Do? What else can I do? But do you think that there's kind of an added layer that the people saying that are people of color?
MONTAGUE: Oh, for sure. I mean, I think that, you know, women of color especially are, like, silenced in a lot of ways and not heard. I think that's kind of the undertone of that cartoon - of, you know, who is and isn't silenced, especially in a corporate environment and in the workplace.
MARTIN: You posted one of your most recent cartoons for The New Yorker on Instagram recently. And part of the caption reads, humor needs to be in the revolution toolkit right next to hand sanitizer and face masks. Can you talk about that a little bit?
MONTAGUE: I mean, I think that, you know, a smile helps everything go down a little bit easier, especially some hard truths. And I think that humor is a good way of forcing people to acknowledge really tough things, you know? There's a lot of things coming to the surface right now that have always been there and always been aware to some people and not aware to others.
And, you know, that's going to take time to heal, to understand what's been done, to understand the pain that it's caused. And, you know, if you can laugh through it, that's a lot of progress, to be able the laugh through something and to be able to smile through something - especially something really hard.
MARTIN: So before we let you go, what do you think your role is right now? And I know that's a terrible question to ask you as a - you know, you're really at the beginning. Even though you've got this incredible platform, you're really at the beginning. But I feel that a lot of people are sort of asking themselves that question - what's my work right now? How do you see not just your work - we know what your work is - but what do you see as your role?
MONTAGUE: I think my role is to just be truly honest and just fully myself - which, I mean, I was doing before, but now even more so just an unwillingness to make myself smaller, to hold back. I think that for a long time, Black people, women, Black women have been holding back, and it's just - we can't do that anymore. Society - it can't handle us holding back anymore.
MARTIN: That's Liz Montague. She's an illustrator and contributing cartoonist at The New Yorker magazine.
Liz Montague, thanks so much for being with us.
MONTAGUE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.