Friday, July 8, 2016

2dcloud: MariNaomi's Turning Japanese

Following up on my recent Minnesota post, let's take a look at one of Minneapolis's finest: 2dcloud. The publisher, Raighne Hogan, is a cartoonist in his own right, but he's made a splash thanks to his willingness to take risks with avant garde, eccentric and boundary-pushing comics. Hogan's put interesting work back in print, printed the work of locals, given homes to more-widely read cartoonists who needed a new publisher, published the work of emerging cartoonists and he's even gone the international route. At the moment, 2dcloud is running a kickstarter in an effort to support publishing some pretty remarkable books. First, here's a review of a recent publication.

MariNaomi's newest memoir, Turning Japanese, is on the one hand a chronological continuation of her first memoir, Kiss and Tell, as it picks up more-or-less right after the final relationship depicted in that book. On the other hand, it also has a good bit in common with her shorter works that were originally published on The Rumpus and later collected as Dragon's Breath And Other Stories. Turning Japanese is all about not just contradictions and opposites, but also about how someone can be and feel two things at once. In a society that privileges binary distinctions (and almost always creates a hierarchy based on those distinctions), MariNaomi's status as someone frequently in-between points out how simply living her life in certain places and spaces created a tension born from social mores being stretched. She's a person, not an accumulation of traits, and as such this book is about the thoughts and feelings that go into creating and presenting one's identity as well as exploring different aspects of one's roots. All of this is done with an absence of pretension and an emphasis on humor, and it's served to the reader in the form of both extended narratives and bite-sized vignettes.

Like Kiss and Tell, this book to a certain degree is the story of a relationship, this time with a man she called Giuseppe. Through him, she meets a friend who works as a hostess in a Japanese bar, a peculiar sort of job that required them to be extremely friendly bartenders, flirting with men and singing karaoke to create a particular kind of experience for their (mostly male) clientele. MariNaomi reveals that she's half-Japanese but can't really speak the language, a point of frustration for her. So she takes the job in the hopes that she'll be able to pick it up in an immersive environment and also finally get to experience Asian culture and people beyond Western stereotypes. In a series of amusing vignettes that reveal the backstories of the other young women working at the bar as well as the bar's owners, MariNaomi is quickly disappointed by the nature of her interactions with her customers, who range from indifferent to flirtatious to engaging in severe sexual harassment. What had begun as a lark and a genuine attempt at cultural outreach quickly became a job that relied on her deference to men and dependence on her looks and charm in order to please customers, which naturally severely rankled her feminist tendencies.

The most fascinating extended story from this part of the book was her description of her "regular" customer, Hitoshi. He took a shine to her and immediately wanted to shower her with money, compliments and even declarations of his love. Being the person she is, she felt guilty for accepting big tips because she felt she was leading him on, yet she couldn't quite manage to tell him she was engaged when she accepted a lunch date from him. That all led up to him offering her $20,000 to pay off he debts, only he wrote the "check" on a napkin. The idea of accepting this amount of money literally led her to experience her first panic attack. That particular page is illustrated quite differently than most of the rest of the book. MariNaomi usually prefers to use a highly stripped-down approach that employs a great deal of negative space, conveying only what is absolutely necessary in each panel for the reader to understand what's going on in a narrative sense as well as to understand what's going on in an emotional sense. MariNaomi will zoom in and out on faces, going from dots for eyes in a long or medium shot to a more detailed facial close-up that fades out almost everything else in the scene. On the panic attack page, virtually every every inch is taken up illustrating the feeling of panic: spiraling fear lines, eyeballs pulsating, her head exploding and her heart flying out of her mouth. It all kind of melts together as panel distinctions fall away. It curtly ends in the final panel which is more typically minimalist in its drawings and carefully defined with panel borders, when she narrates "Somehow I managed to keep it together".

When the outcome of that whole situation with Hitoshi ends with the whole napkin thing being a fake-out, it revealed that her attempts at empathy and human connection as a hostess were remarkably misplaced. It was a scenario where seemingly everyone else was trying to be someone else, and someone as sincere as MariNaomi presented herself was kind of an easy mark for the right sort of person--even as she had her guard up against creeps. When a different guy out-and-out gropes her, she quits but goes through weeks of agony surrounding digestive issues. She would have agonizing stomach cramps every time she ate something, followed by a panic attack. There's a great page where she was walking up Nob Hill in San Francisco and simply couldn't make it: her fiancee had to carry her up. The bottom panel forms a perspective triangle where we see the concerned faces of her parents forming the base of the triangle and the figure of Giuseppe carrying Mari forming the third point. MariNaomi was wise to leave this as a silent panel, letting the panel's composition speak for itself.

The punchline of that particular situation is that she eventually got better and finally got tested by a doctor, who revealed that she survived a severe case of salmonella. The panel where she and Giuseppe learn this is hilarious, as their eyes bulge out as though they were in a daily newspaper comic strip. That ends the first part of the book and includes an interlude that talks about her prior visits to Japan as well as visits from Japanese relatives. All of her attempts at connecting to her Japanese side in America had failed miserably, but she and her fiancee decided to visit Japan for three months, leading to the fascinating second half of the book, which is part travelogue, part documentation of an eroding relationship, and part spiritual journey. If the first half skipped forward in time in part to demonstrate the relative sameness of each day, then the second half skipped few details, especially at the beginning of the trip, when even trying to get around town in Tokyo was a harrowing adventure.

MariNaomi really does see Tokyo in an almost magical realist way, as everything from vending machines to pigeons in the park takes on a fantastical quality. The reality of day-to-day living starts to set in, as Mari takes a hostess job and Giuseppe is offered a host job at a strip club that would wind up paying him $20 a night after he took a cab home. Turning it down meant insulting the person who arranged it in the first place, which was a big deal. This was the first sign that a move made in America (turning down a potential job offer) that would have few consequences wound up being deeply offensive in Japan. The book settles down into a series of vignettes once again, but this time around it's not just about life as a hostess; Tokyo itself serves as a secondary character that reminds the couple of how different things are there. It also provokes a sense of dissatisfaction and anxiety, as MariNaomi realizes that learning Japanese from a bunch of drunk businessmen was not necessarily her best idea, and Giuseppe starts to evince resentment toward his fiancee. The one thing that the experience in Tokyo taught her was that the cultural divide, which valued deference to one's parents above all else no matter what, was something she couldn't begin to understand.

The final part of the book featured Mari visiting her grandparents, an occasion that was at once nostalgic and anxiety-ridden. She had wonderful childhood memories of her grandparents but had no idea if they would accept her or even if she would be able to communicate with them. She learned that no matter how much she struggled, she was able to pick up more of the language than she had guessed. The problem with that was she was now placed into the burden of translation for Giuseppe, who resented being left out of conversations. However, having to constantly translate conversations made communication extremely difficult and annoying for her, which allowed her to empathize with her mother a bit, who showed a similar level of annoyance about being forced out of the natural flow of conversation.

In a book about an experience that was supposed to be about transformation and getting closer to one's roots, the only genuine experience MariNaomi had in this regard was in a surprising area: prayer. A staunch atheist, she at first prayed at her grandmother's shrine in an effort not to offend her (silently cursing her own need to "conform"). Later when she went to a temple devoted to the prayers of parents for their sick children, MariNaomi was overwhelmed by the energy she perceived in the place. It didn't make her believe in god, per se, but she did acknowledge that prayer could be a way of releasing energy into the world. Though she doesn't make this connection overt in the book, that overwhelming, visceral feeling that she got from being in that environment was almost the polar opposite of the feeling she had during a panic attack. That's both in the sense of the energy she was receiving as well as sending in both instances as well as the way her body reacted each time.

It was also ironic that while MariNaomi found herself willing to compromise so many aspects of her identity, including her status as a feminist and an atheist, in order to keep the peace in particular social situations, she didn't think twice about not only telling her grandparents that she didn't want children, Not only did she say this, but she said it in a remarkably blunt manner ("Never! I don't like! Children make noise. I like quiet."). She didn't think for a moment that in a country obsessed by family ties, professing out-and-out hostility toward children (something she clearly rarely thought about, considering how rarely it even came up on her radar) might be the most upsetting and disrespectful thing possible. That unexamined hostility also sparked an argument with her fiancee, who wanted children and thought she might change her mind, creating all kinds of doubts in her mind and revealing one of the chief sources of his resentments toward her. While that bluntness had repercussions, it ultimately led to the right decision in terms of her relationship and (as she showed in an epilogue) didn't permanently erode her relationship with her grandparents. In the end, MariNaomi took what was useful from her experiences (empathy for her mom, sympathy for prayer) and rejected what wasn't (polite deference, obeying customs and conventions). MariNaomi's restraint as an artist is perhaps her best quality, both in terms of what she chooses to show on the page as well as the way she uses humor and quotidian anecdotes to act as a palate cleanser for the larger issues she opts to examine.

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