Illustrating the Awesome and the Awkward - MariNaomi's Memoirs
MariNaomi is a longtime figure in the comix world with over 20 years of illustration experience. Her autobiographical work spans graphic novels to short form zines and has won numerous awards. Her books include Kiss & Tell, Turning Japanese, Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories, and I Thought YOU Hated ME. Her work has been featured in the Rumpus, Buzzfeed, Midnight Breakfast, LA Review of Books, the de Young Museum, the Cartoon Art Museum, and more.
She founded the Queer Cartoonists and Cartoonists of Color databases, which aim to increase visibility for marginalized artists. With a deep interest in human connection, Mari is able to capture the humor in awkward encounters and the gravity in serious situations. We visited Mari's studio to talk about the progression of her art journey and hangout with her adorable pets.
By Riki Robinson
Photos and Video by George Ko
GR: Can you talk about how you got started with zines and comics?
MariNaomi: I started my first comic in 1997 after I'd been reading comics for a couple of years. Specifically, I was reading Mary Fleener's comics and they inspired me to start making my own. Immediately, as soon as I started making my own, I knew I wanted to turn it into a zine and just self-publish my own and just hand it out to people at conventions and friends and stuff. I've been doing it ever since. More than 20 years.
GR: How has the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) and zine scene changed over the past 20 years?
MN: It's bigger now. There are a lot more people. But there are a lot more people on the planet too, so it makes sense. Recently, there are a lot more ambitious people. People who are looking to get book deals or animation. Maybe it's just LA but I feel like it wasn't really like that before. In 2011, when I got my first book deal for Kiss & Tell, I had been making comics for a long time and I never really thought that was something I would want to have a lot of different people look at. That wasn't my goal. Eventually, it was because I'd always thought of zines and people who read them as this really small community. The readership is a lot bigger.
GR: With the readership changing, have you gotten different responses to your work?
MN: I get different responses depending on where my comics show up. After my first book came out, I was trying to figure out a way to promote the book and that's when I started doing webcomics, just specifically so people would buy the book. That was so strange because suddenly I was getting all this instant feedback or different kinds of people were giving feedback. In the past, maybe I would see a review in a mini zine or someone at a convention would come up to me and tell me how they felt about my comics. It was weird to get all this feedback. But every time I'm on a different website or in a different magazine there's just such a different readership. It's constantly changing.
GR: How has the DIY scene changed specifically for People of Color?
MN: I kind of blame crowd funding for the fact that a lot more People of Color are having their voices heard in writing and comics and everything. There's just a lot more of our stories out there, which is exciting. When the trend started happening, I was worried it was going to be a fad and it would come and go. But so far it's keeping up. I hope it's forever.
GR: It seems like your Cartoonists of Color Database definitely helps with the momentum. Can you talk about it?
MN: Really? Thank you! I started the database once I realized it didn't exist. I was writing an article about Cartoonists of Color and I was doing research on databases and there was nothing. There were a couple of articles but they had such a small handful of people. There was just nothing on the Internet and I'm so used to everything being at my fingertips, so it was pretty horrible. I started compiling my own list of people and after I had enough people I thought, “God, someone should really put this on the Internet.” Then I realized, “Oh shit! That's gotta be me because I'm the one who has this list.” I started out with a list of a dozen people and now there's 1,500 people in both the Queer Cartoonist Database and the Cartoonists of Color Database. I have a person who has volunteered his time and we're actually doing a huge revamp of the database, so it's going to look pretty and be searchable.
GR: Do you have people who are in both databases?
MN: Yes. In the current Cartoonists of Color Database there's a couple options; there's the non-male Cartoonists of Color, the LGBTQ Cartoonists of Color, the general Cartoonists of Color.
GR: What do you do if you find someone online and you're unsure about their identity?MN: Well, that's a little trickier with the Queer Cartoonists Database, which is why I chose to make that an opt-in database. Whereas with Cartoonists of Color, anyone can submit names. I've only had a couple people contact me and say that they don't identify as a Person of Color and ask to be taken off the database.
GR: I saw you wrote the article "Writing People of Color."
MN: That was the article that started it all!
GR: What was that like? Was the audience white cartoonists who want to write People of Color or People of Color themselves or both?
MN: It was for both. It was inspired by my white friend who wrote a book. It was all white and it took place in a time and place where people wouldn't just be all white. I pointed it out and said, "Hey, where are the People of Color in this book?" She said, "I feel really weird writing from that experience because it's not my experience." I'm like, “Dude, all your friends are People of Color.” It started this whole conversation and started to make me think. She was asking me how to go about it. I thought, "I don't know, actually. What's the right way to do it?" It's also valuable for a Person of Color to write about a different Person of Color or even white people. Writing involves writing from a perspective that's not your own. I feel like race is such a sensitive issue that I wanted feedback and I wanted to know how better to do it and to share that information.
GR: Since most of your illustrations are in black and white, how do you portray race when you're drawing in black and white?
MN: It's changed over the years. I have a friend who's dark skinned and I was doing crosshatching and he got super offended from the crosshatching. I'm still playing around with it. Gray tones if it's black and white. I've been working a lot more with color lately. I'm still figuring it out.
GR: How has the introduction of color changed your illustrations?
MN: It takes a lot longer. I still do a lot in black and white. Sometimes color is just a distraction. I know this is not a popular opinion and some people think color makes it better. I just don't agree with that. If I use color, then I want it to mean something.
GR: Have you gotten a response that's made you change the course of the story?
MN: I generally show people their stories after I've done it but before it goes public so they can brace themselves, so not really. The last book that I came out with is about a really close friendship of mine and we're still friends. I showed the story to her as I was making it. She was pretty good about it. There were a few details here and there but nothing that really changed my artistic vision. I don't think we'd be friends if she was the kind of person who wanted to change my artistic vision. That's partly why we are so close. She definitely has a different view of how our friendship has been over the last 30+ years. I told her she should write a book.
GR: How do you grapple with the feeling that what you wrote 5 or 10 years ago doesn't necessarily represent who are you now?
MN: I try not to think about it. Everything that I've done, I grow out of after a month. The publishing takes so freaking long. My book Turning Japanese, there were two or three years from completion when it actually came out as a book. By the time everyone saw it for the first time, it was old for me. I look and I think, “Oh my god, this art sucks and this story is really clunky.” But I can't go back and change it all. If I did I would never create anything new.
GR: When you do autobiographical work, how do you pull from your memories and decide how you want to portray and illustrate your emotions and feelings?
MN: That's the trick. It depends on each project. I'm working on one right now where I don't know what it's going to look like. I'm using Post-its and trying to figure out how the story is going to look. Is there even a story here? What's it going to look like? Am I going to use drawings? It takes a lot of trial and error. Every book has been a completely different experience as far as how I've built it up.
GR: How can people share their stories with you?
MN: People email me. People send me their zines. I love it when people send me their comics. Just put it out there. Because I'm running the databases, I'm always peeking on all the new people who are signing up. I just love how many people are out there telling their story. The Internet has made it so easy for people to do so. When I was starting out, I would make 25 or 100 copies of my zines and I would know where almost all of those ended up. Or so I thought.
GR: Maybe they're being auctioned off online.
MN: When Kiss & Tell came out, somebody contacted me from the Library of Congress saying that they had the first comic I made. I go by a pseudonym now, which is MariNaomi, but I used to go by my actual name. I changed it because I thought it was too hard to spell. For privacy, but I don't really care about that anymore. But now everyone's confused by MariNaomi. The Library of Congress asked, “What name do you want to go by?” And I said, “How about you just throw that (comic) away…” And they said no. But I don't know how it ended up there because I seriously couldn't have made more than 3 copies.
GR: Can you talk about Turning Japanese — the motivation behind the title and your goal for the entire book?
MN: It changed over time. Turning Japanese just sounded funny to me because I'm a child of the 1980s and that song was pretty popular back then. It's kind of offensive but it's also kind of funny. Also, I was literally trying to turn Japanese. I mean, there are so many entendres that started as the working title and I just kept it. The title is easy to remember.
I spent so many years making that book and the goal kept changing. Originally, I just wanted to tell a story about this funny job I used to have. I even started a comic in 1998 about the hostess bars, and I got two pages into it and I put it down because there's only so far you can go with a story about work. When I started the hostess job I thought, “This is interesting and maybe I'll write about it someday,” not even thinking that I would write memoirs. I thought I would write about it like I would have a character in a novel. But in reality, the job was really boring because it was a job and I lost any kind of ambition to include it artistically anywhere. What clicked was when I realized how much it tied into me searching for my own identity, sense of self. I knew that was happening, I just never put together that the two had anything to do with one another. Once that clicked and locked in, that's the story. But it took a long time for me to figure out what the story was, as in all memoir.
GR: I thought it was also interesting how you illustrated the language barriers. Can you talk about that and drawing different cultures?
MN: That's probably what I struggled with the most when I was putting Turning Japanese together: How to show just how difficult it was. At first I thought I would just have it in Japanese but then I still wanted readers to get it even if they don't know Japanese. It was a lot of trial and error. When I didn't understand what was being said I drew gibberish, but I didn't want anyone to be offended thinking that it was actually gibberish. So far, no one has complained about that. Interestingly, I think the language barrier has been what has resonated with the most readers. There was a Russian woman who said she really related to my book that was why.
GR: Since a lot of your work is autobiographical, how do the people in your life respond to being featured in your stories?
MN: It depends. I never know how it's going to go. Some people are flattered, some people are offended. In the cases where I might be divulging a bit of personal information or someone might be offended nowadays I try to run it by them beforehand. But that can be tricky because those details are my story too. It really runs the gambit.
GR: For Turning Japanese, did your parents or sister respond to it in any way?
MN: I've gotten some responses. Not really about that. I don't want to give too much information. They're super private people. That's kind of been a problem when writing autobiographical stuff that involves them or my family. But the racial stuff not as much. It's more about personal like, “You shouldn't have said that,” or “That's too much information,” or “Why are you giving away our secrets?” Which I'm not.
GR: I'm also mixed and I was wondering if you could talk about how you navigate the authenticity of being Asian American?
MN: I feel like there's a lot of people out there who don't consider me Asian American. There's definitely people who have made that clear to me on the Internet. They can go fuck themselves. Writing from the perspective of a mixed race queer person, it can feel like a heavy load if you feel like you have to tell everyone's story. Because you can't. When there's not a lot of people who are telling the story, people assume that you are THE Hapa cartoonist. I just can't listen to other people and let them dictate that. They can think what they want to think but it's not necessarily the case. The more people that are telling their stories, the fewer people are going to do that. There's a lot of pressure but I just try to ignore it.
GR: Yeah you can't please everybody.
MN: Absolutely not! If you can please anybody you're in luck.
GR: What's been your experience in the comix industry as a mixed race queer woman?MN: I mean, it's my life. I never know how to answer this question because that's my only experience. I don't know how things would be different if I were a white guy. Would everything be exactly the same? Possibly. I might not have started the databases but maybe I would have. No idea. Growing up as a mixed race girl, there were no Hapas in the media. Well, there was Sean Lennon, Keanu Reeves, and Phoebe Cates. There was nobody who looked like me. I spent a lot of time just staring at the mirror not knowing any other Asian people who were outside of my family. I had no idea what I would grow up to look like. I used to stare in the mirror trying to imagine wrinkles or how an older Hapa person would look. I just didn't know. That truly has affected me but I don't know the end results. Now, I see Hapa people and they're all younger than me, they're all over the place. Every time I see one I'm like, “Aw! I love you!” I'm so happy they get more representation now than I did.
GR: You are definitely pioneering that representation.
MN: Aw. It's just because I'm old. [Laughs]
GR: What would you want to tell younger mixed race people?
MN: Just tell your story. Anyone, regardless of who they are, everyone should tell their story if they want to. I personally want to hear everyone's story.
GR: Your earlier work seems to focus more on queerness and sexuality and your more recent work focuses on racial identity. I was curious about the progression of the content of your work.
MN: When I wrote Kiss & Tell, I had originally intended to write all my Kiss & Tell stories but I got bored writing about sex. It's not that I'm not going to do it because my 30s were very exciting and there's a lot to write about. But my interests change. I'm not completely done with that. We're all onions, we have so many layers, and there's so much to write about. I did have a lot of fun writing about sexuality and love.
I have three books coming out. They're completely fictional so that's a nice change of pace. I'm still interested in memoir. Lately, I've been interested in writing about friendships between women specifically, or platonic friendships just because not that many people have written about that in a way that I can identify with. I want to do it all. Comics take so long that I probably won't be drawing for longer than age 95. I only have so much time.
GR: Maybe you can pass comics onto your puppies.
MN: They have no thumbs!
GR: When you're thinking more about drawing as you get older and pulling from your memories, how do you choose which memories you want to present? Especially when you want to change the topic?
MN: The topic just changes itself by what stories I want to tell. Normally, the stories I end up telling are ones that I've talked about with people. Anecdotes. This is how I started making comics. I think, “I've told this story a million times. I have it perfectly formulated in my head so I should make a comic about it.” Now that I'm doing longer form work, it's a little trickier than that because I do want to have those fun anecdotes but that's not the meat of the story. I'm figuring out how to navigate it, still. This book that I'm working on isn’t going to be done until far in the future. It's about memory and an old friend. I started writing it as a form of catharsis, which is something I don't usually do. I usually just want to tell a story. But I thought about how everyone's always talking about writing as a form of catharsis so I'm going to do that. The relationship ended badly and for some reason my whole memory of her and everything we went through has vanished. I've been doing a lot of research, looking at journals and old calendars thinking, “Can I bring back any of these memories?” Part of this book is about her and my friendship, but I think it's turning into a book about memory and how unreliable it is, which is funny because I write memoirs.
GR: It makes me think a little bit about the episode of Black Mirror where you can replay your memory and how that would affect your relationships. You can literally hit rewind to see what happened in the moment. What happens when you have a fight with someone and they're like, "You did this!" But then you can say, "Well, actually, let's go back and replay my memory.”
MN: I tried to do that! I was in this horrible relationship where we fought all the time. We would get in these fights and every night it would be to the point where we would forget what we were fighting about but by then we were so angry with each other that it didn't matter. One night we brought a tape recorder out and we taped the freaking fight. I found the tape recently. My husband and I never fight, so I thought, "I wonder what that was like?" I pressed play and it was so tedious and I don't even know what we were fighting about. I don't recommend doing that. Or being with anyone who you fight with.
GR: Do you ever read back on your memoirs and view them as diaries or accounts of your life?
MN: Yeah, because my actual diaries are really boring. I do go back to the diaries sometimes when I have absence of memory. But for the most part, they're terrible. It's funny, I changed pretty much all the names of my exes in Kiss & Tell. I've gotten to the point where when I think about those exes, I think about them as the names in the book and not their actual people names.
GR: I'm really interested in the concept of writing about female friendships. I was wondering if you could talk more about that? I think in the grand scheme of things, having a friendship breakup isn't taken as seriously as a romantic breakup.
MN: They're so much more painful. So much more painful to be dumped by a friend than by a lover. I'm trying to figure out how to write about that right now. I don't like how the media— by media I mean books, movies, just everything— the way they portray friendships as this side burner type thing. Or if there's a close female friendship then they're always fighting about boys. I really haven't lived that experience. There's so much acrimony, it's always competitive. There might be that element to friendship sometimes, but it's just not the way it is in the movies or whatever. When Retrofit approached me and asked if I want to do a book, I said, “Oh, sure.” They said it could be about whatever I wanted it to be and that was the first thing I thought of. Because, ultimately, relationships are what interest me the most. Relationships between strangers, lovers, friends. It's just so interesting how humans interact. We're so weird.
GR: What sort of friendships and community support you in this work?
MN: For at least the first ten years of making comics, I didn't really have a lot of friends in comics. I had maybe one or two. It was only in 2005 or 2006 that I started having a lot of cartoonist friends. It's fun to have people who get what you're going through, people who understand what it's like to sit at a table at a convention. At first it was super novel for me because most of my friends had never had that experience. It's important for me to have connections, work friends and colleagues. But it's good to have friends who aren't doing that too, to keep a good perspective.
GR: Do you find that you get a lot of support to continue your work?
MN: Well, I don't know. Sometimes it can be off-putting. There's friendships and then there's the Internet and that form of friendship. Sometimes viewing the community, it can be discouraging for various reasons. For example: criticism. Cartoonists are pretty critical of each other sometimes, in ways that others are not critical of cartoonists. For example, if I have a writer friend say, “Wow, this is really cool that you drew this.” Then you might have a colleague who says, “Can't you do better than this?” You got to have both. Especially if you have super talented friends who do what you do. Because it can feel like everyone is better at this than I am and then it's easy to get in your head. So well-rounded friendships are important.
GR: How do you deal with that self-doubt?
MN: I try not to think about it. When I was a lot younger, I had more of that where I felt like I wasn't doing enough, I wasn't doing good enough. I would be jealous of other people's success. At some point I stopped caring what other people were doing as much. That was really freeing. Maybe it was the point where I realized that I'm doing the best that I can. Whereas maybe at that time I wasn't. Or maybe it's just with age.
GR: Do you have advice for young cartoonists?
MN: Don't listen to other people. I used to mentor young cartoonists at the colleges and by young I mean people who have just started making comics. When they start listening to their peers, that can be a huge hinderance. It's funny, these people are also students, even though they are colleagues, really they're fellow classmates who have definitive ideas of what's right and what's wrong. They're probably also figuring that out for themselves, but they have no problem telling other people what they're doing wrong. That's not always true. It's so subjective, it's art. One person was getting very bad advice from their classmates. Don't listen to them. Just keep following your vision. It's important not to get too caught up with “I need a book deal,” or “I need to get in this part of the industry,” or “I need this or that to be successful.” Ultimately, true success is that you're making art that you love making. Sometimes people get so caught up in wanting to please people or wanting to get jobs that they end up not liking it. This is not the industry to be in if you care about money that much. There are so many things that are also artistic that people could be doing that make a proper living. So if you're not enjoying it, then why do it?
GR: As you have more published work, do you still make zines?
MN: It's funny, I don't have as much time to do it because of all the deadlines. But I still have the urge. I'm working on these two books and various projects, which is basically a full time job. Just the other day out of the blue I thought I should make a zine. I told my husband, “That was a stupid thought, I don't have time for a zine” and he laughed at me. I still have the urge and I think next time when I have a chunk of time I'll put something together. I don't like selling zines but I like making them and just handing them out to people.
GR: Do you envision writing anything about your pets?
MN: So many! That's one thing that's on my list and I have so much written down but I don't know where to start. I have so many stories and I don't know if they're stories that just matter to me or if they're interesting to other people. That's always the problem with memoir— everything I write I wonder, “Is this just interesting to me because I lived it?”
GR: How do you know when the memoir will be interesting to others?
MN: I don't. Before Turning Japanese came out, I was terrified because I thought no one was going to be interested in this. I thought maybe I could get the interest of— this sounds horrible but— white guys who like Asian chicks. Compared to all my other books, I think it's done the best. I just didn't see that coming because it's so specific to me that I just thought that no would relate to this. But, yay, they did.
GR: What are some memorable responses you've gotten to your work?
MN: Anytime anyone acknowledges anything that I've written. Even if they don't like it, I just get really happy because they read it. Turning Japanese has had some interesting responses from people who were in the hostess industry. I'm not going to talk about their responses other to say that they were very different from mine and it made me feel very lucky that I had such positive experiences. To hear other people's responses and stories was a real eye-opener. After Kiss & Tell came out, I always assumed that my readership would be young, half-Asian girls, a little younger than me who were like me — feminist. It was very interesting that a lot of my readership tended to be middle-aged white men. They weren't creepy guys. They'd come to my readings, they were just really cool guys. Finally, I started asking them, “What is it that drew you to my work?” These were guys maybe a little older than people that I would have dated back in the 1980s. But back then, they were these young guys who just couldn't figure out what women were thinking. Several of them told me this: “It was great to get into this young girl's head.” That's pretty cool. I like that.
GR: It also sounds like you've also gotten some heavy responses to your work. How do you deal with that emotional baggage from other people?
MN: I've been pretty lucky compared to other cartoonists. I do get that sometimes. Some people, if they relate to anything, that is an excuse to reach out and I just had to create boundaries. I used to be the kind of person who responds to everything right away. If I have an inbox full of emails, I get really tense about it. But I stopped being that person very deliberately. I stopped being there for everyone because it's just too much. I definitely had people contact me who are in need of emotional support, have a lot of questions, and are just maybe lonely, or see me as a potential friend. Which is not that that friendship couldn't happen, but I can only give so much of myself and still get work done and keep up my personal life. I definitely have to take a step back and sometimes not respond and sometimes give really short responses. I used to give a lot more detail and get into conversations with people. I just don't have time for that, which kind of sucks. Especially once I started the databases, I'm actually helping people instead of helping just one person. I have to give that priority.
GR: Have you seen tangible action come out of the databases?
MN: I wouldn't still be doing that if I hadn't. Lots of people have gotten jobs or been on panels. It's out there getting people work, which is great. It's such tedious work, maintaining databases is really boring. Sometimes I get a little down on it and then someone will tell me that they got this job and it's a little bit of fuel to keep me going. When people stop saying they get anything out of it, maybe that's when I'll put it to bed.
GR: What's next besides the new book?
MN: Isn't that enough? [laughs]. I have three books coming out, it's a trilogy, it's about teenagers and possibly aliens. The first one's coming out next spring. I just started inking the next one yesterday. There's the third one that I have to do. I also have another memoir coming out with 2dcloud in the fall. It'll be in color. I have a long list of things that I want to do eventually.
GR: What about stuff not related to work?
MN: I've gotten really into —this sounds douchey— being physically fit lately. It's my version of a midlife crisis. I've always been very committed to being out of shape [laughs]. I was a smoker, I did a lot of drugs, I was very sedentary so this is a weird, big thing for me.