Interview w/ Mari Naomi

0 Comments 02 August 2016

mari naomi

Comic artist Mari Naomi discusses her alternative upbringing, being honest in her writing, and her latest graphic memoir Turning Japanese.

by Daniel Barron



Sometimes you need to cross the line to know where it is. That’s something I think about as I am seated for coffee with illustrator Mari Naomi. After an hour discussing her history and work I feel like I’ve said too much about myself, anxious to tiptoe back wherever the line is. Call it a testament to the honesty of her work, whose loose, confessional nature makes one desire to meet it in the middle.

Active in the world of comics since 1997, Naomi’s skill for graphic storytelling that is tender, funny, and tragic has defined her in publications such as The Rumpus. Her 2011 debut, Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, turned a chronicle of her dating history into a vehicle for exploring her rebellious journey towards a life in the arts. This was followed up by another anthology, 2014’s Dragon’s Breath: and Other Stories, that meditated on her cultural heritage, identity as a bisexual woman, and the loose ends of the past. Her latest release, Turning Japanese, was published this past May to Naomi’s to widespread attention. The book represents Naomi’s most direct conversation with her own background yet, as she recounts her employment experiences during the mid-90s in the Japanese illegal hostess bar scene. The impulse behind this decision, and where those desires take her, are presented with as much frankness and humor as readers of her work have come to expect.

Naomi has also committed herself to supporting more diverse voices in the world of comics, both creating and maintaining the online Cartoonists of Color Database and the Queer Cartoonists Database.

In the following discussion, Naomi explains why school isn’t for everybody, the path from memory to the page, and how her subjects react to graphic immortality.


Turning Japanese Book Trailer



When did you drop out of high school?
Well, I quit high school. “Drop out” sounds like a got bad grades when I was there. I have a report card from that period and one semester I got all “A”s and the next I got all “F”s except for my one “A” in Drama, because I kept going to that one class. It just wasn’t very challenging to me. I think it was in sophomore year [that I left], and I just got bored. The Vice Principal suggested that I go to this secondary high school. It was a lot of kids who weren’t really doing very well so they were able to tailor their curriculum a bit. They promised me that I would be studying at a college level, so I get there and I have all of these high hopes. It wasn’t really what they sold to me. Class was a joke. The textbooks that they would give me were so stupid. I remember one day they had me sit in a classroom and watch Kentucky Fried Movie. “What the hell is this?!” It was such a waste of my time. I would rather be scribbling in diaries and writing poetry.
So I told them, “Look, I’m not getting anything out of this.” They said, “Well, maybe you should leave since we don’t really have anything more to offer you.” I left and I was fine. I tried going back to school later, when I was 18. I thought I’d give it another shot. To this day in classrooms I just get bored and antsy. “I could learn this faster on my own.”
mari naomi

Portrait by Rick Worley.

Was there much protest from your parents?
Well, we didn’t really get along back then. I think they had kind of given up on me. I ran away from home, which I wrote about in Kiss & Tell. At that point I think they were just waiting for me to move out so I didn’t receive any pushback from them, which is good, because they knew at that point that I wasn’t going to do anything [laughs].
I wouldn’t think you could defy a military dad.
I wore him out! [laughs] Sorry, Dad!
But obviously you educated yourself outside the traditional system. Where did a love of creating comics come in?
In elementary school I was in all of the advanced placement classes. I think when I quit high school one of my big fears was that I wasn’t going to end up doing anything, so I would really hustle and I learned how to take care of myself in that way. “How am I going to make my million?”
As soon as I got out of high school I just got a bunch of jobs. I held like six jobs at one point. I was very ambitious. A lot of people at that age weren’t very ambitious so it was very easy for me to rise up above. When I worked at this bank I immediately got promoted and promoted and promoted. I mean, I’m not a banker anymore, but it was a lesson in how to play ball and stuff like that.
mari naomi

Photo: Fiona Taylor


What was the strangest job that you had?
Well, when the earthquake hit in San Francisco I was working at kind of a sweatshop for vinyl wallets. I was in Sausalito in this tiny pier. It was me and a bunch of high school dropouts. We were all underage and we were all getting paid five bucks an hour to manufacture these wallets and they were for Harvard and for Yale. We were a bunch of punk rockers making these fancy wallets for overeducated people.
I’m always impressed by the people who can somehow find a back door to success.
Did you get a degree?
Yeah, but I kind of crawled my way towards it. I don’t think I made the most of that whole experience.
Most people don’t. Most of my friends have college degrees, but the only difference between them and the ones who don’t- I feel that a lot of people who don’t have college degrees feel a little inferior a little bit. That’s kind of the only difference. That’s why I think people who didn’t pursue school try a little harder, which sometimes can come off as diesperation or kind of an inferiority complex.
Leaving high school is one of the best things I’ve ever done. It’s gotten in my way twice, but all of the time I would have been wasting and all of the student loans I would have had I just think I got off easy.
mari naomi

From Turning Japanese

From a writer’s perspective I’m sure it was also a gift because it gave you so many rich life experiences to draw from
[laughs] I do think that every time something bad happens I think-
“Here’s some new material!”
Exactly. When something bad happens to someone else I almost covet it. “I want to write about that!”
I was recently talking with comics creator Sina Grace about the subgenre of autobiographical comics and how it seems ridden with oversharing, just this ongoing test with the reader as they spill all of their dirty deeds, “Do You Like Me Now?!”
[laughs] I’m certainly not trying to do that with my comics!
mari naomi
Was there any point in writing your books where you felt like the filter needed to be turned on, or that you had to tread lightly?
Omigod, toootally. It’s so stupid. For example, I was telling a story about my boyfriend seeing me after hours. We were fooling around and I got my period. My parents were coming down the stairs and I shoved my boyfriend in the closet and he was covered in my blood. When I wrote it at the time I thought, “Well, my parents should never see this.” Because they didn’t know that I would sneak guys in. Also, “No one must ever see this because it’s so embarassing.” The whole time I was drawing I felt so mortified. And now I think back, “That was one of the best stories that I have! Why was I so embarassed by it?” I was a kid. Who cares?
In Dragon’s Breath– most of those stories appeared on The Rumpus. There was this instant reaction as soon as a column would go up and I would get all these repsonses or at worst no responses and I would think, “No one is reading it,” and I was playing close attention to that. There was this one story in there about this guy who’s a writer who is a bad neighbor. He lives downstairs from me and he’s always writing me these passive-aggressive notes. “Take off your shoes while you walk in you apartment.” I would get home and there would always be a passive-agressive note waiting for me. Now I look back on it and I see the story for what it is. I was in kind of a mildly abusive relationship with a boyfriend and all of these things were going on. The story is more about empathy and compassion and lack thereof. But my main concern while writing was that The Rumpus readers- many of which who are also wrtiers- would go “How dare you distract  a writer from his work!” Now I realize that was stupid. Why was I worried about that?
When you’re creating art you don’t really know how it’s going to be taken. When I’m drawing that’s a lot of time in my head to come up with this fantastic, horrible outcomes, which is why now I just listen to a lot of podcasts.
mari naomi art

From Dragon’s Breath: and Other Stories

How many people are aware that you’ve written about them?
Just a couple in Kiss & Tell. There are people I lose touch with, like the guy who had to hide in my closet. I wanted to get in touch with him but I don’t know where he is. He’s not on Facebook so he’s dead to me. [laughs] You know? There are a few people who have probably seen my work because all of my friends know about it. If it’s a really bad story I’ll get in touch with [the subject].
There was one story about me and my ex-girlfriend- it didn’t really say horrible things about her. It was in an anthology called Queer. I was just a really shitty person to her. She told me she loved me and I kind of laughed at her. [laughs] Which is not the nicest thing to do when someone says they love you. At the time it seemed kind of ridiculous but now it seems really shitty. So I wrote a comic about it in which I’m pretty much the bad guy. I was telling Stephen Elliott, the Editor of The Rumpus, “So, if I write about this person would you happen to have any friends in common?” And he said [sighs] “Yes.” It was just weird because we went out for a year and we never talked and our relationship kind of faded away. We’re still friendly now, but it still would have been really awkward for me to tell her about it. So I did eventually confront her about it and she said, “Oh wow, we never did talk about that and it really did hurt how you treated me.” [nervously laughs] It was good, in a way. But it’s been awkward in other instances.
But also a bit flattering that you’re still thinking about these people? At least they left an impression on you.
[laughs] Sometimes! There have been some mixed reactions.
Not enough to stop you, obviously.
Ican’t imagine it would ever get bad enough for me to stop. I think I used to tell a lot more of other people’s stories, and now I don’t do that anymore. I kind of learned, “Tell your secrets, don’t tell other people’s secrets.” Not that I did a lot of that, but there are a couple of times where I went too far.
mari naomi
You’ve been featured in LGBT journals and collections and spoken on queer panels. Do you feel like there are a special set of expectations associated with bisexuality as opposed to simply being gay or lesbian?
Oh yeah. There’s an anthology called Anything That Loves that specifically addresses that issue. It came out about two years ago from Northwest Press. That’s why I think I’m on so many queer panels, because of that book. I feel like the kind of bigotry that I’ve encountered for being bisexual usually comes from lesbians. I mean, there will be stupid guys going, “Uh-huh-huh, me and you and a girl should hook up!” That’s not how it works! Although it could, I dunno. It depends. Anyway, I haven’t been totally offended by those statements, whereas with lesbians it can be, “We’re not gonna let you onto this team if you aren’t all in.” It can come from a really defensive place.
There was one very close friend I had for a very long time. Our friendship eventually had to end because we would go to bars together and if a cute girl was talking to us she would say, “Oh, this is my straight friend Mari.”
I listen to Dan Savage’s Savage Lovecast, and there was one episode where a teenage boy called in because a friend who identified publicly as a lesbian was hitting on him hard and he felt ashamed for feeling attracted to her. Dan ended up bringin on a lesbian who noted that many women who are actually bisexual publicly identify as lesbians.
I listen to that, too! I was listening to that before I came here! I don’t always agree with what he says but it’s fun to listen to. I think it’s because a lot of bisexuals just get treated like crap. Men and women. I think men actually have it worse. I know a lot more in-the-closet bisexual men than bisexual women. I certainly know some dykes who will tell you if you ask them if they’re bisexual, but they don’t present themselves that way.
I’m told by a lot of bisexuals that they lean towards the opposite sex because it’s just much easier to know right off the bat if a person is into them.
Omigod. Dating women is hard.  With bisexaulity you could only be into one man or one woman. For me, when I’m in a monogamous relationship, I’m pretty much only into the person that I’m with. A friend of mine says that I have two modes: I’m either dating everyone or I’m dating one person. There’s never any in-between. Being attracted to both genders doesn’t mean that I’m into EVERYONE.
As a bisexual I think everyone is bisexual. I think some people just aren’t willing to commit to that part of themselves.
mari naomi

From Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume

Do you just have a really good memory or have you kept a diary for awhile?
I’ve had diaries. When I was doing Kiss & Tell I was definitely mining my diaries from that time. It was more about having a timeline, though. I didn’t use the diary to talk about actual things. I do keep a lot of calendars, and that’s been very helpful. When I was trying to write certain stories I reached out to people who I hadn’t spoken to in a million years and there was one person in particular who- I actually already had  pretty much all of the information in my diary, but I had to ask, “How did we break up?”
I vaguely remembered having a fight, so I contacted him and said, “Look, I’m writing a book.” We hadn’t seen each other since we were teenagers, and the insights that were so clear to him were fascinating. “You were so hung up on your boyfriend in jail.” And that was not my memory of the situation at all! That changed my outlook on the whole book. It was reflected in all of my relationships after him.
So there are friends that I ask. I have kind of a shitty memory about some things
One of the things that I love about the comics medium is that it’s pretty limitless in terms of how you can structure or present a story. You often reject the traditional panel format outright. Are there any artists whose style you learned from?
Mostly it was about cutting corners, because I had these deadlines every two weeks. Some of the comics were pretty long and I’m a really slow drawer. But I do think that- and you can see it in Dragon’s Breath– experimenting really improved my storytelling. I learned to tell a story in a more concise manner. I think every storyteller’s goal is to leave out the bullshit. You don’t want the reader to lose patience and stop reading! [laughs]
I also feel like when you remove the borders the story feels lonelier. It’s almost like you’re in this big universe. Writing an dillustrating are two very different muscles. I’m writing a novel right now for the first time in 21 years and it’s such a different experience for me. I wouldn’t say that I cut corners now, it’s a style, but it’s definitely something that I figured out by way of economy.
Anything you want to say about Turning Japanese?
It’s my first long-form story, with a beginning, middle, and end and a very specific story arc. Kiss & Tell and Dragon’s Breath meandered a bit. I hope you like it!



mari naomi turning japanese



Turning Japanese is available now.

Learn more about Mari Naomi on her website.

Order books from her online store.

Follow Mari Naomi: Twitter, Instagram, Facebook

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- who has written 424 posts on Yay! LA | Arts & Culture Magazine.

Rudderless college graduate Daniel Barron founded Yay! LA Magazine on a love of writing, passion for the arts, and a firm belief that people really like talking about themselves. He contributed to a number of publications, including LA Music Blog and the defunct The Site Unscene, before deciding to cover arts and entertainment the way he wanted to read it. He works as a freelance writer and digital PR consultant in his current home of Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter at @YayDanielBarron.

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