MariNaomi is the author and illustrator of Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22 (Harper Perennial, 2011), Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories (2dcloud/Uncivilized Books, 2014), Turning Japanese (2dcloud, 2016), and I Thought YOU Hated ME (Retrofit Comics, 2016). Her work has appeared in over sixty print publications and has been featured on numerous websites, such as LA Review of Books, Midnight Breakfast, and BuzzFeed. From 2011-2013 her comics appeared as the column Smoke In Your Eyes on The Rumpus.
MariNaomi’s comics and paintings have been featured by such institutions as the Smithsonian, the De Young Museum, the Cartoon Art Museum, the Asian Art Museum, and the Japanese American Museum. In 2011, Mari toured with the literary roadshow Sister Spit. She is the creator and curator of the Cartoonists of Color Database and the Queer Cartoonists Database. She has taught classes for the California College of the Arts Comics MFA program, and is currently a guest editor at PEN America.
E.B. Bartels: How did you begin writing and drawing nonfiction? What attracted you to the genre?
MariNaomi: As a girl (as early as age five) I thought I’d grow up to be a novelist, and by age 21 I’d written two novels. I was determined to be a best-selling prodigy. Well, that’s not how things turned out, and I quickly learned that trying to get published is a different game than making up stories, and that I don’t deal well with rejection. After a particularly cruel comment from a publisher (“Who would ever want to read a book like this? It’s too depressing.”) I was shamed into novelistic silence, and I put away my typewriter (yes, both novels were written on typewriters!).
Around this same time, I started reading underground comics. Coincidentally (and I just realized this recently), pretty much the same time I stopped writing novels, I started drawing comics about my life. I had never considered writing memoir, but autobio comics were different. Whereas memoirs were extraordinary stories by extraordinary people, autobio comics were more relatable, about human beings. I was most notably inspired by an all-woman anthology, Twisted Sisters—specifically Mary Fleener’s comic “The Jelly” about her hot-mess roommate. I thought, “Hey, I can kind of draw! And I have interesting stories!” That’s how it all began.
EB: You definitely have interesting stories! Not everyone can claim the experience of being a teenage runaway. When I was thirteen I was just sitting at home writing in my journal.
What do you think you personally bring to your nonfiction writing? What makes a piece distinctly MariNaomi nonfiction?
MN: My voice and my personal experiences. It’s unexceptional in that everyone has them. It’s exceptional in that they’re mine.
EB: Of course. Your work is so distinctively about your own experience that it’s hard to imagine that you were once a novelist. Have you ever considered going back to novels or creating fictional comics?
MN: As a matter of fact, yes! My next book will be a graphic novel—a young adult trilogy, in fact. I’ve also been working on a few other projects, both fiction and non-fiction, comics and prose. I love all forms of storytelling. If I had more time I’d be painting and collaging too. Alas, there are only so many hours in the day.
EB: What has been challenging for you about writing and drawing nonfiction?
MN: There are lots of challenges, but the one that rears its head with each story is the challenge of how to end it. That’s always a tough one, since life stories don’t usually wrap up neatly—life doesn’t have an ending until you die.
I also can feel challenged when I’m depicting something painful from my past. I need to relive the emotion so I can get the point across to the reader, to make them feel it too. That can be exhausting. It’s like reopening a wound that healed a long time ago. It’s the opposite of catharsis.
EB: I know that feeling. It’s rough. But what has been rewarding for you about writing and drawing nonfiction?
MN: Connecting with my readers! Some of my stories feel so personal and weird, I worry that people won’t relate. That makes it extra special when readers tell me they identify, or that my point of view opened their eyes a little. It’s the reason I do all this. That and the sheer joy of creating.
EB: How does writing and drawing nonfiction affect your life as a writer and also a person?
MN: People have asked me if I’ve done things just for the experience, because I’m a writer.
EB: People ask me that too!
MN: When I was younger, more than once I used writing as an excuse to do adventurous things, but I probably would’ve done them anyway.
I’ve been writing and drawing about my life for two decades now. I can’t imagine what life would be like if I didn’t do what I do.
EB: What is it like to draw and write about people who are still alive and part of your life?
MN: It can be tricky! I struggle with what is and isn’t appropriate to tell about others, as there is no right answer. Some people are flattered to appear in a story (even if they don’t come off well), and others will hate it (even if they do). Over the past few years I’ve started asking permission when I feel uncertain about boundaries, but even so, that doesn’t always go so well. I had one guy give me the thumbs up for his story, before and during the process, only to change his mind after the story was put into the world. That was annoying.
Luckily, I have friends, family, and a partner who are about as supportive as you can get of my endeavors. It makes all the difference.
EB: In some of your books, you opt to change peoples’ names––for example, Giuseppe in Turning Japanese is not really named Giuseppe. What makes you decide to give someone a pseudonym versus keeping their real name?
MN: Nowadays I give everyone a pseudonym unless they’ve appeared in previous comics, recognizably, and I don’t want to mess up the continuity between the books. With my first book, Kiss & Tell, the legal department at HarperCollins insisted that everyone get pseudonyms. I figure they must know what they’re talking about.
EB: Ha, yeah, I guess it’s a good idea to trust the lawyers. Your work reveals some pretty personal stuff about yourself as well. Kiss & Tell shares a detailed account of your dating history––both emotionally and sexually. You dedicated that book to your parents, adding “who I pray will still speak to me after they read the contents of this book.” How do you deal with having that sort of information out in the world?
MN: When I started making comics, I never thought many people would see them—I was just photocopying twenty zines here, twenty zines there, and sharing them with a very select group of people who either knew me well or else were familiar with the oversharing aspect of autobio comics. When I got a publishing deal for Kiss & Tell, I kind of freaked out about it. Thousands of books would be out in the world! With a major publisher! I remember having a conversation with someone, maybe my editor, who advised that I just get past what I needed to do at the moment. So I did, and I never really stopped. I’m in a permanent state of denial about it.
EB: I think a lot of nonfiction writers feel that way.
How do you think your identity––as a woman and a person of color––has affected your experience as a writer and artist? Do you ever feel there are certain subjects you have to write about, should write about, or not write about because of your identity?
MN: I’ve been told, in the past, to tone down my experience, as being a woman of color wasn’t considered a universal thing. In the past few years, the landscape has changed, and I’ve been encouraged to write and talk about it a lot.
I appreciate the encouragement, but that’s just one of many parts of me, so I’m not always eager to focus on it, especially as an “expert.” Like, I’ve started turning down opportunities to speak on certain panels—I’m tired of talking about being a woman in comics, for example. Sometimes I’d rather talk about the joys of lettering.
EB: Finally, what is a favorite passage of nonfiction by a woman writer?
MN: I’m rather fond of Cheryl Strayed’s advice to writers: “Write like a motherfucker.” I have it on a mug.
E.B. Bartels is from Massachusetts and writes nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, The Toast, The Butter, xoJane, Ploughshares online, and the anthology The Places We’ve Been: Field Reports from Travelers Under 35, among others. E.B. has an MFA from Columbia University, and she runs an interview series on Fiction Advocate called “Non-Fiction by Non-Men.” You can visit her website at www.ebbartels.com, see her tweets at @eb_bartels, and read her haikus about strangers’ dogs at ebbartels.wordpress.com.