Through her work in books like like “Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22” and “Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories,” Eisner Award nominated creator MariNaomi manages to deftly capture what it means to be young. At the same time, she combines that with a perspective and insight into family dynamics, along with a greater empathy and understanding that comes with distance and growing older.
MariNaomi’s new book, “Turning Japanese,” depicts a period of time in her twenties when she worked at a hostess bar in California, and then a lengthy trip to Japan to visit relatives. It’s a book about her relationship with her boyfriend, but it’s also about her relationship with her family, her understanding of what it means to be mixed race, and the changing perspective that comes with being twenty-something.
CBR News: “Turning Japanese” is sort of a sequel to your earlier book “Kiss and Tell,” picking up roughly where that book ended. What made this a story you felt like you needed to tell?
MariNaomi: When I was considering taking the job, there was a little part of me that thought, even if this goes horribly wrong, I can use this material one day. I wasn’t making comics at the time. I started making comics shortly after the events in the book happened, but that’s what was going through my head. When I ended up doing the day to day drudgery of hostessing I thought, my God — this is so boring. I don’t want to write about this and have to relive it. But in 2009, when I was finished drawing “Kiss and Tell,” I found myself sketching images of the outfits that I used to wear in the ’90s. That’s where it started.
Once I got enough perspective, and looked back at all of the events, I realized that this isn’t just a story about some annoying job I had. I was going through deep emotional things with my family and culturally. It’s obvious looking back on it. At the time I compartmentalized everything, but if you take a step back you can see how they’re tied together. I wanted to tell an interesting story ultimately.
You mention in the back of the book that Giuseppe, your boyfriend in the book, is not his real name. This is your story, but how do you go about thinking about that and deciding what to run past people?
This is tricky, and it’s something I’m still learning. Although I think I have a much better hold on things now than I did 19 years ago when I started making comics. [Laughs]
When I started writing this book, Giuseppe and I were estranged and hadn’t talked in years. By the time I was about halfway done, he and I got back into contact. He’s one of my best friends now. He read it, and his only problem was his nose wasn’t big enough. That was pretty much it. He said, if I came across this and we weren’t friends, I’d be so mad at you right now. But he was cool with the book. After I was done, his wife read it. That’s the best case scenario. [Laughs] My rule of thumb is to try to tell my own secrets and not other people’s. There are a lot of things I could have talked about in the book that are scandalous or whatever, but they weren’t my stories to tell so I left them alone. That’s my general rule of thumb.
For example, I have another book coming out in the fall, from Retrofit, and it’s basically the story of me and one of my best friends and our friendship over the years. I very closely consulted with her, and made sure that I could talk about certain things. I changed her name, but I change everyone’s names. I certainly didn’t want her to be upset or to give away too much. There’s a constant balance in my head, and sometimes I get it wrong, but I try. For smaller stories, where I don’t feel like I’m stepping on anyone’s toes but other people are involved, I will finish the comic and give them an opportunity to see it before the rest of the public sees it.
I suppose it depends a lot on how much the person is in the book and your relationship with them.
I never know how people are going to respond. There are people who I thought would get mad at me, and they’re just thrilled they appeared in a comic. Other people who I thought would be thrilled were just mortified. [Laughs] There are still some people who appeared in “Kiss and Tell,” who to my knowledge have never seen the book, so I’m always waiting for an angry email from a number of people. [Laughs]
Your family is a part of this story. I know that if I wrote a novel about bad parents, my mother would go, “What the Hell is this?” How do you deal with them?
[Laughs] I feel like I broke the seal with my parents with “Kiss and Tell.” When your first book is about your sex life and your bad relationship with your parents, it’s only smooth sailing from there. I think they’re just happy they can read the rest of my books now without being horrified. [Laughs] I sent them “Turning Japanese” in the process, because I wanted them to be a part of it. Also I wanted to mine them for information. [Laughs] I think we’re at a good place.
You mentioned that you became a cartoonist after the events of this book.
A couple months after, in fact.
This is a book about being in your twenties, and that experience of gaining a perspective about yourself and your family and your cultural context and what that all means.
A lot of the cultural things I feel like I got out of that experience in “Turning Japanese,” I’m still learning every day. I’m still figuring out what it means to me. When I started writing the book, I absolutely thought no one would want to read it. I just really wanted to write it. I’m pleasantly surprised that people are interested in it. Part of it is that I grew up not knowing any other mixed-race people, really. There were a couple, but everyone was younger than me. No one had quite the same experiences as me, and so I just thought, nobody’s going to relate to this. Now, we live in a world full of mixed-race people, which is great. I really envy those who are able to look around and see people who look like them, because I couldn’t when I was growing up. There would be one or two people that I met, and pretty much nobody famous that I knew about. Now I look back, and Phoebe Cates and Keanu Reeves were mixed-race, but they didn’t talk about it. There was also Sean Lennon, but he’s younger than me. When I was young, I spent a lot of time wondering what I’d grow up to look like as a mixed-race person.
You say that when you started this book, you didn’t think anyone would be interested, but you wanted to make it. I think those are the best autobiographical comics.
I feel like a lot of people are trying to pander to an audience. Unless you’re really into telling a story, there’s no point to telling it. I mean, I guess stuff like that sells — vampires are hot, so let’s write about vampires — but I don’t feel like that kind of stuff really stands the test of time if you’re not super-passionate about something. Especially with comics. Best case scenario, you’re never going to be a millionaire. [Laughs]
I was talking to Box Brown recently, when I was on tour in Philadelphia, and we were talking about best case scenarios for writers versus best case scenarios for cartoonists, and man, it’s pretty dismal. [Laughs] Best case scenario for writers is like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. Best case scenario for cartoonists are, I don’t know, Art Spiegelman? Alison Bechdel? The top tier of comics is not quite Stephen King-level. [Laughs]
I feel like the industry has gotten big, and there are so many more cartoonists in the past twenty years. But I don’t see comics getting better, necessarily. I have some theories as to why this is. My foremost theory is that most people drop out after a while, because there’s no money in it and it’s hard work. People enjoy it, but a lot of people just don’t last very long. Which means, they sometimes don’t end up exploring all they can do with comics. I feel, as a medium, comics are so unexplored in ways that prose books aren’t. It’s impossible to do a completely original prose novel, but there’s so much that hasn’t been touched upon in comics. I was complaining to Raighne about this one day, and he said, let me send you some books. There’s one by Christopher Adams called “Strong Eye Contact.” It was the most interesting and innovative comic that I’d ever seen and it really gave me hope. It completely renewed my faith in comics that someone would make this book — and that a place like 2dcloud will publish it. It made me think I should stick with this comics thing.
You’ve been on tour for “Turning Japanese,” and you still have a lot more events to come.
I’m briefly back home, and then I’m going to CAKE in Chicago and then doing a Midwestern tour, then some events in San Francisco. Then, in the fall, I’m going to the East Coast, then I’ll be in the Pacific Northwest. It’s all online.
“Turning Japanese” has been finished for a while, and I’ve seen comics of yours in the past year on “VQR” and elsewhere, so what have you been working on lately?
I have two books that haven’t seen the light of day, yet. One, “I Thought You Hated Me,” is coming out in the fall from Retrofit. The other is a young adult book, and I’ve been working on it since 2009. I just finished that one last year, and I’m actually working on two more, because it’s a trilogy.
I’m really excited about what’s happening with “Turning Japanese.” It’s getting such a good reception, and it seems to be selling well. I’ve never had that happen before, so it’s exciting. [Laughs] I feel really excited about the book coming out in the fall, too, because it’s different and I play with the form a little bit. I have five other projects I’m working on in addition to the trilogy. A little while back, I thought, maybe I’ll give novel writing another chance. I wrote this short novel and sent it to my agent and said, what do you think? He said, this is really interesting, how would you feel about adding some pictures to it? [Laughs] Now I just have to figure out how to make it graphically interesting. Once he said that, I thought, yeah, I guess that’s who I am now. I’ve got a lot of things going on. But right now I’m just trying to get through the tour. That’s my goal, survive tour.
MariNaomi will be making a number of other stops in the Midwest and California this summer. Dates and more information can be found on her website