MariNaomi is the author of great graphic memoirs Turning Japanese and Dragon's Breath and Other Stories, both published by 2dcloud. She is the creator and curator of the Cartoonists of Color Database and the Queer Cartoonists Database.
Compared to Dragon’s Breath, Turning Japanese features detailed background drawings, especially architecture. I was surprised by your drawing skill. You should show off more!
How/why did you decide to have more background drawings in Turning Japanese?
Whether I draw backgrounds or not depends on what I’m trying to convey. For the fish-out-of-water scenes in Turning Japanese, where I (as a character in the book) was taking in everything around me, it made sense to show the reader exactly what I was seeing. For scenes where I was more in my own head, or consumed by relationship stuff, it didn’t make sense to draw all that other stuff. Too distracting!
There are very impressive architectural drawings in Turning Japanese such as your house (p. 6), Yamamoto Bar (p. 32), and Twist Bar (p. 141). These drawings show the entire space. Why did you decide to include them? I love them so much.
I was trying to establish a sense of place. As a reader, I find it helpful to have a lay of the land when I dive into a story. It helps me immerse myself in the world and removes confusion about the environment. Like, when I was a kid, I loved it when there was a map in the front of a book, like in The Hobbit. Something to come back to when I was feeling a bit lost.
How did you decide to have a lot of white space in Dragon’s Breath? I think that contributes the unique rhythm of your story-telling / narrative.
I did a lot of experimenting with those comics, especially concerning spatial issues. An abundance of white space can feel creepy and isolating at times. At other times it can draw focus or feel private. It was fun to play around with.
As mentioned in your interview with Rob Kirby at The Comics Journal, you employed a lot of stylistic variations in Turning Japanese. How did you decide on layout / design of the page?
Each time I want to share something new in a story, I consider what layout will be the most effective to do so. So the scenes with more traditional panels might move the story along in a normal-comics sort of way, whereas borderless panels (like the page where I’m covered in pigeons) are more about flow, leading the reader’s eye around the page, and conveying a particular feeling. So yeah, each time I mix it up, I’m trying to plant a new idea or emotion.
Some pages have rectangular panels, and some have rounded-edge panels.
I mostly used rounded panels to indicate anecdotes or moments in time, versus the square or no-panels, which moved the story along. But really they all move the story along in their own way…
As an East Asian, naming a book “Turning Japanese” when the book features stories about working at hostess bar is shocking and brilliant. Because in South Korea, working at the hostess bar is a social stigma. But at the same time, hostess bars are regarded as a mandatory place for business. Here, of course business is done by males. I have heard that this hostess bar came from Japan. What I like about Turning Japanese is that you do not care about that “social stigma”.
Hypocritical social mores have always pissed me off! If anything, the stigma made me want to work at those bars even more.
How was the reaction to Turning Japanese from readers? Do different ethnic groups have different reactions?
It’s so new that I haven’t gotten much feedback yet, so I’m not sure what people are thinking. I do know that pretty much all the negative reviews I’ve seen seem to be coming from white people. I have no idea what that means, though.
I was so surprised when I read Turning Japanese that you told your grandparents that you don’t want kids, because that is unthinkable in East Asia. At the same time, I was very impressed by your honesty to show that moment that might have negatively affected your relationship with your grandparents.
That’s me: honest to a fault! There was probably some naiveté mixed in there too.
Turning Japanese is chronically right next to Kiss and Tell. Will we see your new graphic memoir tell a story after Turning Japanese?
I’ve been working on another memoir, and it takes place over a long span of time that includes the time during both of those books, plus another twenty years or so. So no, I don’t plan on picking up where Turning Japanese left off. But if people want to know what happened immediately after the book ends, there’s a story in Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories called “The Rebound” that pretty much sums it up.
As a famous graphic memoirist, have you been worried about running out of material?
Haha no! I have so much material that I’ll probably never have time to draw it all, even if I keep drawing memoir for the next sixty years.
Also as a graphic memoirist, if something interesting happens to you, do you take a note and think, “this is for my comics!”
Sometimes, although it’s usually the people around me who say that. Like, a dog will fart and they’ll say, “You should make that into a comic!” And I’ll be like, “Yeah, but where’s the story?”
It takes more than an interesting event to make an interesting story. It took me more than ten years to see the story in Turning Japanese. As I was living the events, the hostess job didn’t seem very book-worthy, but looking back I could see how it fit into my search for identity, plus all the crazy shit that was happening on top of that. Perspective makes all the difference.
Are you interested in fiction comics?
Certainly. Some of my favorite comics (and non-comic books) are fictional, although overall I do tend to prefer memoir.
In fact, I’ve written a few fiction comics over the years.
You have mentioned that at first you planned to write Turning Japanese as literary nonfiction, not as comics. Are you still interested in writing?
I think you’re referring to when I was considering the hostess job; I thought, “Maybe someday I’ll use this as material.” But in my mind, I was thinking of using the setting for a novel. I had no idea I’d be writing memoir back then. Memoir was for celebrities.
But to answer your question, I’m still interested in writing. The more comics I make, though, the harder it is for me to tell a story without adding drawings. It’s become a part of me, for better or for worse.
You just announced your next book I Thought You Hated Me which comes out later this year: being about female friendship. I think this subject / theme has been discussed very rarely in our culture, especially in comics. Could you tell me more about the book?
I made I Thought You Hated Me as a response to the lack of honest narratives about female friendship. In movies and TV, women are always fighting over men, which isn’t something I’ve personally experienced. But it’s such a common trope! For most of us, friendship is so important and wonderful and horrible and complicated. I wanted to put that on paper, to add a more realistic voice to the mix. Plus, I think it’s an interesting story that will make people reflect on their own lives.
Debuting two books a year is rare from you. Kiss and Tell was in 2011 and Dragon’s Breath was in 2014, but was published in web comics earlier. Can we expect to see this pace in the coming years?
Oh I think it would kill me! And I don’t want people to get tired of me, so probably not.
Dragon’s Breath was originally published as web comics. When web comics get published as a printed book, many of them lose their strength. But Dragon’s Breath has a very unique and fascinating rhythm that surprised me. I did not read them on the web so I don’t know if that impact comes from your narrative, but I’m wondering how could you be successful in transferring web comics into a printed book. What were your concerns when it was published it as a printed book?
The stories were first published online, but I always intended them to be read on paper. I kept that in mind as I was drawing them.
When I’m making comics for the web, I still print them out on paper when I’m editing them. I try not to spend too much time on the computer, as I don’t find it enjoyable.
I started the databases because I felt like they needed to exist. Specifically it was when I was trying to research PoC cartoonists, and the internet was just a wasteland as far as that information goes. It took a LOT of time and effort at first; I spent weeks researching, editing and putting the sites together. Now that they’re live, my husband and I spend a couple hours a week updating them. The editing and data entry can get kind of boring, but I think it’s important that they exist. I’ve heard bits and pieces about how they’re working: Like, I heard about two different comic book stores where the owners used my databases to choose which books to carry. Moderators have used the databases to find panelists. And I’ve heard stories from cartoonists getting their first gallery shows and other jobs from being listed. Editors, educators, readers and all sorts of people use it, from what I’m told. That makes all the hard work worth it.
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