Turning Japanese: A Graphic Memoir by MariNaomi
In 1995 at age 22, MariNaomi leaves her boyfriend of five years, her job, her San Francisco home and transplants herself 50 miles south in San Jose, where she almost immediately “move[s] into an idyllic, century-old one bedroom cottage that rested on a large plot of untamed land.” In addition to “a small cast of animal friends,” she shares the home with a Sicilian American named Giuseppe, with whom she’s been “swept up in a whirlwind romance.”
Ensconced in their “wonderland,” Mari finds a job – through an ex-girlfriend of Giuseppe’s – as a hostess in a Japanese bar. “What a great opportunity to finally learn Japanese!” she initially thinks to herself. Growing up in a hapa home – she’s Japanese, German, English, Irish, Scottish, French – her white father “was always studying Japanese,” while her immigrant Japanese mother only spoke Japanese on the phone to faraway relatives.
Mari’s hostess-ing experience is mixed at best, but her desire to explore her Japanese culture doesn’t dissipate, and she and Giuseppe temporarily move to Japan. As tourists, (not-quite-legal) workers, family visitors, wanderers, the couple’s extended stay provides Mari the cultural exploration she’s longed for, as well as the opportunity to hone enough language skills that she can communicate (well-enough) with her grandparents. But the trip also proves unsettling, especially for the couple’s relationship.
Mari’s portrait-of-an-artist-as-a-culturally-“nebulous”-young-woman is a vulnerable, searching, raw record. Exploring the meaning of “hafu” on both sides of the world doesn’t result in easy answers, and the need for translation – not just of language – proves to be ongoing. Her cover image underscores the different identities she embodies as Japanese, American, hapa – the dissonance literally sprouting forth. Throughout the panels within, Mari’s use of nonsense characters to signify Japanese becomes a regular reminder of the misunderstandings she endures and never quite overcomes. May the illuminating journeys continue.
Readers: Young Adult, Adult