When I spoke to her in June, the week before her book tour around the country, MariNaomi had a broken wrist and a strained writing hand. But she wasn’t too worried. “It’ll be really fun carrying luggage around,” she said, with a laugh. “I’m trying to figure out how to pack light.”
MariNaomi’s graphic memoir Turning Japanese, published in May of this year, is as much about the big themes of travel, romance, family, and culture as it is about the specific details of her own life: having a mother who doesn’t teach MariNaomi her native tongue, becoming a bar hostess in the U.S. and Japan to try to learn it instead, then traveling around Japan with her then-boyfriend and finally getting a chance to speak to her grandparents in passable Japanese.
MariNaomi can create a strong sense of setting with a few strokes and full characters with only the smallest details. Her art throughout the memoir is crisp without being spare. As her story jumps around the Bay Area, where she grew up, all the way to Japan, it never loses balance. What I find unique about MariNaomi’s work is that, while it deals with internal struggles, she’s an adventurer—someone who recognizes that these struggles are sometimes better dealt with outside yourself rather than within your own mind. This is no surprise to fans who’ve read her previous graphic memoirs, Kiss & Tell or Dragon’s Blood. She’s also had other memoir comics published this year, such as the beautiful How A Friend From My Past Inspired My Future, the bittersweet Chicken, the very dark Things That Go Bump In the Night, and her latest book, I Thought You Hated Me, which came out this September.
But Turning Japanese may be my favorite, and her best.
The memoir begins when MariNaomi is 22, back in 1995, with her desire to learn Japanese. Her mother, who is Japanese, would often speak Japanese over the phone and translate for her daughter when she spoke to her grandparents, but resisted teaching her the language. MariNaomi writes that when she asked her mother why she didn’t teach her, she simply responded, “I don’t know.”
“I think that’s a good enough answer,” MariNaomi, whose father is white, told me over the phone from her L.A. home. “The more I ask people who grew up in multicultural homes, this isn’t completely uncommon. I think…there’s often a fear that your kids knowing another language or having the other language might alienate them from their peers,” she explains. “To me it seems a little irrational—but fears aren’t necessarily rational.”
MariNaomi’s suspects there are multiple reasons behind her mother’s reluctance to teach her Japanese—including the sheer difficulty of teaching a child a second language—but she’s made her peace with her mother’s decision. “As much as I wish I had been taught Japanese at an early age, and I was pretty bitter for a long time that I had never been taught, I’ve forgiven that. I get it. It’s a lot more complicated than what I thought it was.”
Turning Japanese is very good at describing the head-spinning struggle of learning a new language. “One [reader] said she identified with the book because of how I portrayed learning another language, and how hard it is, and how it kind of fries your brain and how hard it is to wrap your head around another language, let alone another culture,” MariNaomi said. “That made me really happy.”
Though the challenges may be universal, what’s more unique is the method by which MariNaomi chooses to learn Japanese: by taking a job as a bar hostess, which she gets through her boyfriend’s ex. As MariNaomi describes it in Turning Japanese, “Bar hostesses were kind of like bartenders…only they made more of an effort to be social with the patrons, and participated in the revelry more than regular bartenders. Their primary role was to encourage you to drink.” The bars in the States were “a home away from home for expat Japanese businessmen in bland Silicon Valley.”
”There was a part of me that thought, maybe I’ll use this for material some day,” she told me. “But when I actually got the job it was so tedious and ‘I never want to write about this.’” It was only after years of perspective that she was drawn back to the story.
Her stories about her bar hostess job are paired with keen observations about the warped ideas of race and gender that proliferate in her work. Concepts of beauty and skill are constantly in flux when part of your job entails singing karaoke and gambling. She describes several different clients and co-workers, imbuing them with quirk and personality. Mr. Miyasaki sings the same song every single night. Hitoshi tells MariNaomi he loves her and offers to pay off her debt. Ryoko is a die-hard romantic and a mail-order bride who had “scared off her meek Silicon Valley husband.” Sue Anne is a bodybuilder with a beauty mark and an ability to work a table.
”One thing that’s delighting me really is that people who don’t share my experiences are finding things to relate to in the book,” she said. “That was really my biggest fear when I tackled the subject, who’s going to care about this other than some dude…who wants to read about racy Asians or something. That was the fear.”
“There’s been a little of that, true,” she’s quick to add.
But it’s easy to see why people would relate to MariNaomi’s story. It goes beyond generic clichés about how hard it can be to be multiracial or a person of color in this country, and focuses on that particular bittersweet pain of not knowing the language one of your parents grew up speaking. The intimacy and detail of her story reminds you again and again that MariNaomi isn’t trying to be relatable—by sharing her story, and doing so in the most honest and authentic way she can, she just is.