Éloïse Marseille: Deconstructing taboos around sex through comics

The Concordia studio arts alumnus recently translated her own memoir in English

Éloïse sits at her station in the tattoo studio she owns with three colleagues. Photo Alice Martin.

Before Éloïse Marseille began writing her first comic book during a graphic novel class at Concordia, one tip she kept in mind was to write what she knew, and for her, there was nothing she knew better than her own life.

“I had to find an angle and I really love talking about sex, I think it’s funny. We all have our awkward sex stories,” she said. “But as I was writing it, I realised it was going to more emotional places.”

Éloïse’s NAKED: The Confessions of a Normal Woman—published originally in French in April 2022 and translated in English last November—is a memoir about her experiences with sex and relationships, going all the way from a first kiss in childhood to the recent end of her first long-term relationship.

She dives into a wide range of topics, ranging from sexually transmitted diseases, to questioning her still-blurry sexual orientation, as well as her experiences with infertility and abuse. She explained that she had “the bad luck of suffering plenty of taboo things” but that the book was her way to normalize these experiences.

“The fact that I have herpes is really taboo. But by talking about it openly, with confidence, it empowers me when society tells me I should be ashamed,” she said. “It’s the same thing with the fact that I’m sterile, especially considering a lot of people find it shameful and that my job as a woman is to pop out babies,” she added sarcastically.

Éloïse was used to sharing her life online; she had already been publishing small three-panels comics on Instagram. However, for her graphic novel class, she was determined to make the largest comic book project she had ever done, which eventually became Confessions of a Normal Woman.

Having graduated in studio arts in 2020 and going back through her old classwork out of quarantine boredom, Éloïse started adding onto the 25 pages she had first written for her class as a pandemic project. Pages piled up and she sent them to her cousin, Frédérique Marseille, who is also an author, for feedback.

“I thought it was genius. I told her she needed to send it to publishing houses because in my opinion, it was already publishable,” she said. 

Éloïse had never thought of publishing her book, but with a push from her cousin, she sent her manuscript to Pow Pow Press, a publishing house known for its Quebec-authored comics and autobiographical works. “Four hours later, they answered,” she said.

Indeed, when Luc Bossé, founder of Pow Pow Press, received Éloïse’s manuscript in his inbox, it was love at first sight.

“I have two young daughters and when I read this book, I knew that it was something I’d like my girls to read some day,” he said. “As a father, I’m worried about them being loose in a fucked-up world and Éloïse’s book confirms that it’s a fucked-up world sometimes.”

The French version of NAKED: The Confessions of a Normal Woman sold over 3,000 copies in Canada and is also available in France. Translating her memoir to English was something she knew she wanted to do herself ever since she began writing the original version.

“I wanted to try it out and I was scared some humour would get lost in the translation,” she said. “I’m happy I did it, but I don’t think I’d translate my next book myself.”

Admittedly, translating her work came with a unique challenge.

“Initially drawing the comic book is such a slow process that I had time to pace myself, to get in the zone. I wasn’t concentrating on the text, more on the illustrations,” she said. “Translating was much faster and it had been a while since I read it. There had been some stories I forgot had happened to me and reliving the emotions all over again really saddened me.”

Confessions of a Normal Woman is part of a larger drive by Pow Pow to translate their books to reach a broader market outside of Quebec. Since 2015, Pow Pow has translated twenty of their comics, with Éloïse’s memoir being the latest.

“Montreal is a bilingual city and 90 per cent of Pow Pow’s authors are from Montreal, it just made sense to be a bilingual publishing house,” Bossé said. “It also helps us give more exposure to our authors. In the long term, we’re also hoping to publish initially anglophone authors whose work we can translate into French.”

The covers of both versions of Éloïse’s memoir. Photo Alice Martin.

Close to two years after the release of her memoir, Éloïse is now working on a sequel, where this time around, the confessions will come from the cousin who initially pushed her to submit her manuscript.

“We are co-scripting and co-writing it,” said Frédérique. “It’s the first time that I write collaboratively, and on top of that, I’m doing it with my cousin who I respect and love very much.”

Éloïse’s ability to tackle hard subjects with the perfect amount of humour stood out to Frédérique when she first read her book, and this is what she hopes Éloïse will add to her own darker stories.

“We’re working together through all of it, I modify the text she sends me, I send it back for feedback,” said Éloïse. “She trusts me a lot with her story and she has a great sensitivity for the type of stories we’ll be telling.”

No date has yet been slated for the sequel, but Éloïse has high hopes for it and said it will touch on different stories separate from the first book. While she’s working on the sequel, Éloïse is working full-time as a tattoo artist and is the co-owner of Studio Lapin Lapin in the Plateau.

“I love tattooing, but I know it’s a temporary job,” she said. “In the future, I would really like to write and illustrate comic books full-time.”

With Confessions of a Normal Woman poised to be turned into a series, and it being one of Pow Pow’s best-selling comics at launch, Éloïse is on track to do just that. For anyone reading Confessions of a Normal Woman, she hopes that people realise that embarrassing sex stories “aren’t that deep.”

“Shit happens and it’s not a big deal,” she added. “When it comes to love and sex, we tend to catastrophize everything in our head—and yes, sometimes it is especially when you’re talking about sexual violence and abuse. But in general: you’re going to be okay. No, you’re not stupid and you’re really not alone.”