MariNaomi on Building a Graphic Memoir

September 24, 2014 § 1 Comment

lizardAn interview conducted by Sarah Einstein:

Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories by MariNaomi, out this month from Uncivilized Books, is a graphic memoir comprised of brief essays drawn and told in a sparse style, but taken as a whole, they create a complex and lovely picture of a life. Many of the vignettes were first published on the online magazine The Rumpus as the series, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

MariNaomi agreed to answer a few questions for Brevity about the work, and I was particularly interested in the ways in which graphic memoir coincides with other forms of brief creative nonfiction and how the author deals with the nonfictional in her artwork.

SE: In a statement in the front of Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories, you say “These stories are memoir, which means that each one is only as true as the author’s memory is reliable.” I’m thinking that veracity must be particularly tricky in graphic memoir. Can you talk about the choices you make both in writing and in design, and whether you feel the need to be more “truthful” in one or the other?

MariNaomi: In 2005, I drew a comic about a dog mauling that occurred in San Francisco that resulted in a woman’s death. I did a ton of research to make sure everything was accurate, reading countless articles and one terribly written book, poring over police crime photos, figuring out the layout of the crime scene. I even drove by the building where the mauling took place. The ten-page comic took almost a year for me to draw, a year of staring at horrific images. It wasn’t a fun year, but I was proud of how accurate the comic was, in the end. But I’ll probably never illustrate someone else’s experience again, as it was terribly exhausting.

For my own stories, I follow my memory paths, and sometimes fill in the blanks by consulting photos, diaries and friends or family who were there. This means that I don’t get nearly as many facts right.

I know that other memoirists are all over the place on this subject. Alison Bechdel, for example, holds the specifics in high regard, whereas Liz Prince has compared memoir to historical fiction. Personally, I want to be completely emotionally honest in my comics, and also convey a time and a place, but the physical details beyond that are unimportant to me. I mean, who cares if I get a date wrong, or if I can’t remember where each Duran Duran poster was placed on my bedroom walls? I’m not on trial, and I’m not a historical figure, so the minutiae seems irrelevant. I do draw the line on fudging experiences, though. I’ll never write that I had an experience that never happened to me.

That said, every time I purposefully alter the truth (like combining characters or incidents in order to tell a more succinct story), I toil over it a lot. And every time I write and draw a story and am later told “That’s not what really happened” by someone else who was there, I feel a little bit ashamed. But you know, everyone sees an event from their own unique perspective, so that’s bound to happen.

SE: So much of this book is about loss–loss of home, loss of love, loss of safety. There are a number of elegiac pieces in the book, such as “What’s New, Pussycat?” “Mr. Vanoni,” and “Coalinga.” I was struck by the grace with which you bring tiny moments to life and how effectively these tiny moments stand in for the longer, fuller life lived and seemed in some ways to be teaching me, as the reader, how to understand the larger work.  How I should see the tiny vignettes from your own life as serving as glimpses meant to stand for the whole. I was wondering if you could talk a little about the craft of building a memoir out of these tiny moments in a way that creates such a beautiful sense of something larger than what is on the page? You have managed that so very well here.



MariNaomi: Thank you! That’s really nice to hear.

A fellow cartoonist once told me that the whole point of drawing was to create an image using the fewest brush strokes or lines possible. I didn’t necessarily agree with his idea in terms of artwork–sometimes lots of lines/detail is the way to go, sometimes a minimalist technique gets the point across better–but I do agree with that idea when it comes to storytelling. And graphic storytelling is a fantastic medium in which to pare down a story. Not all pictures are worth a thousand words, but it’s worth it to me to try to show a reader complex emotions and situations using the smallest of details–a slight smile here, a defeated posture there. Reading a graphic book can often go much faster than a book filled with just words, however I believe that an attentive reader will absorb just as much information in the same amount of pages, if it’s done right. Which is good, because drawing a book takes so much longer than writing one!

SE: I first discovered your work in XOJane, where you published “It Happened To Me: I Was Sexually Harassed On Stage At A Comic Convention Panel.”  Could you talk a little bit about your experience writing for an audience that at least sometimes seems hostile to, or at least dismissive of, people of color, women, and LGBTQ folk? I know you promote the work of LGBTQ and POC cartoonists, and I’d like to know more about that work.

MariNaomi: That panel was a bit of an anomaly for me, as it’s rare for me to interact with the mainstream comics world (my harasser is a writer for DC Comics). I’ve heard that sexism and homophobia is rampant in the indie scene, as well, but honestly, I’ve seen very little of that first-hand. Maybe that’s why I was so shocked by that incident, enough to write an essay about it. (The other harassment I mention in the article also happened with someone I consider a mainstream artist.)

Since that article came out, I’ve met a lot of mainstream comics creators, and overall they’ve been really supportive. But I’ve also gotten a glimpse into a whole lot of sexism and misogyny that I probably wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t stepped forward like that, and I’ve found it very unsettling. It’s kind of similar to what some people have been going through since Ferguson got on the news. Many folks weren’t aware there was still such a problem with racism in this country. If it’s not in your face on a regular basis, it’s easy to forget that it exists.

But I digress.

I’m not writing for a hostile audience of racists and trolls (I couldn’t care less what a misogynist thinks of my work), I’m doing it for people who are open to the experience of others, who want to be better people but maybe don’t always know how to go about it (like me). People who get that compassion is something you have to work at your whole life, and are willing to try (and forgive themselves when they slip into judgment). If you read the “news” or read the comments section in a feminist article, it’s easy to think that compassion is a dying thing. But I don’t think so. I’m keeping the hope alive.

And of course, compassion is the only thing that can kill off ignorant hate. And visibility helps foster compassion, right? That’s what’s at the root of my projects, the Cartoonists of Color database and the LGBTQ Cartoonists database. At first glance they’re just lists of names and links and maybe a little information. But if you delve into it, you can get lost in the work of all those amazing, diverse creators. I get lost in it everyday.

SE:  Graphic memoir and biography seems to do a particularly good job of telling complex, difficult stories. I’m thinking of Alison Bechdel, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman, and of course you. I wonder if you could talk about why the genre is so well-suited to untangling complexity without mitigating or obscuring it. (If that’s too grad school sounding, please reword. I spent an hour trying to make this question less awful. Ten of those minutes were spent trying to decide whether or not to take Spiegelman off the list.)

MariNaomi: I’m not sure that comics are a better way to tell complex, personal stories, it’s just another medium in which to do so. If you delve into the genre of graphic memoir, you’ll find plenty of badly told personal stories, I assure you. And there are many amazingly complex stories that are told in the form of essays, paintings, photographs, music, collage, sonnets, etc.

I’ve been writing about my life in comics form since the 1990s, but autobiographical comics seem to be getting more attention now than ever. I expect the fad will pass eventually, just like any other. But in the meantime, as long it’s popular, we (as memoir-loving readers) are lucky that more creators will be making and publishing quality work.


Sarah Einstein is the Fiction Editor for Stirrings and a PhD student at Ohio University. Her work has appeared in journals including PANK, Ninth Letter, and The Sun and been awarded a Pushcart Prize and a Best of the Net. Her first book, Mot: A Memoir, is forthcoming from the University of Georgia Press and the recipient of this year’s AWP Prize.

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