We make snap judgments about others on a day-to-day basis whether we realize it or not. We do this partially because of our wiring for survival reasons, but our habit of presumptions based on what little we know of someone is a human folly. Forcing ourselves to reckon with another person’s multidimensionality is something that takes honest effort. MariNaomi’s new graphic memoir Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories is an illustration of that effort in a series of vignettes taken from slivers of her life. Several of the chapters originally ran as a series entitled Smoke in Your Eyes on The Rumpus in 2012. Her complete work, which includes the series and other material, is now available as a paperback and has been well-received by the closely knit community of the comics underground.
The memoir begins with author and protagonist MariNaomi’s childhood in Texas in 1979. After her family moves to California, the work chronicles her experiences as a teenage runaway, high school dropout, artist, a Romantic, and a woman coming into her own as a compassionate human being. Throughout her journey, young Mari confronts a different dimension of her own “reality” by getting to know a new person. As soon as she seems to have a confident grasp on someone, she’s immediately challenged by another side to that person and can no longer approach that person based on the same idea she had of him or her before. She faces these scenarios throughout the book in varying degrees of relationships: friends who turn homeless, mutual friends who die, lovers locked in a cycle of criminality and rehabilitation, aggressive colleagues softening with the passage of time, and doomed relationships.
Dragon’s Breath is steeped in a ponderous element. It doesn’t tell a traditionally linear story, rather it captures moments found in a person’s day-to-day like snapshots of life, while hanging together as the overall experience of one individual. Yet, it doesn’t feel like a single person’s experience, as the protagonist’s insight into others’ emotions is deep enough to create an integration of outside perspectives and associations. This possibility is attributed to the artist’s heightened sense of empathy, and the work itself is full of compassion. Where there are confounded moments resulting in a loss for words, the illustrations do the heavy lifting, creating a lasting poetic effect.
MariNaomi grapples with the limitations of her world and the pain of its expansion. This continuation of learning more of others is in sync with her introspection. Her drive to evolve is both impressive and moving. The book is a journey involving the author’s memory and fantasy, and although the stories may be unique to her, they are emotionally familiar to the reader, as we have all at one point been at the mercy of our own presumptions. Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories is a complex and touching work.
Below is a recent conversation I had with MariNaomi through email. We discuss the book, her artistry, and the politics within.
Grace Jung: I'm curious about why young Mari left school at age 16. What were her reasons?
MariNaomi: In a nutshell, I have issues with people telling me what to do in a school setting. I’d rather learn on my own, or be shown an example and then choose which aspects to incorporate into my own technique. After I left my high school, I had a brief stint at another school where I’d supposedly be able to learn at my own pace, about my own subjects. I got good grades, but I got bored easily, and I thought this new school would present more of a challenge. When that didn’t happen, I took a proficiency test and left early. Years later, I tried to give it another go at a community college, but I found myself just as bored and frustrated. I repeat this each time I try again, taking a class here and there. I just learn better on my own.
GJ: Your first story seems to set a tone for the stories that follow. In almost every chapter, the running theme seems to be young Mari coming to terms with a new layer of a person—a certain character trait, shade or personality that she didn’t see previously. Was this theme intentional?
MN: Many of the comics in Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories originally appeared on TheRumpus.net as a series called "Smoke In Your Eyes." It was a very deliberate decision to run Dragon’s Breath as the first story, in order to set the tone for the others that followed it. When I was putting the book together, I chose to add several stories that I thought filled in the blanks yet kept the mood. My other comics over the years have run the gamut from silly gags to fiction and poetry and what-have-you.
While I was working on the comics that appear in this book, I was simultaneously running a series on Tapastic called Said While Talking (which is now available as a zine), which was also a series of autobiographical vignettes, but far more lighthearted and silly. Think fart humor. Creating something silly helped alleviate the heaviness in my heart from reliving all the dark moments that appear in Smoke In Your Eyes.
GJ: I'm curious about the dragon in the first story of Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories. The story depicts your grandfather as you remember him as a child. When you were illustrating it, were you envisioning a Western dragon—the kind usually slain in European fairytales–or an Eastern dragon, one that is traditionally depicted as a sort of guardian spirit?
MN: I’d envisioned a Western-inspired dragon—I can’t remember where the idea came from, but the smoke was certainly an inspiration. I was going for cuddly but dangerous. I like the idea of a guardian spirit, though. I like that a lot.
GJ: At what point in your life did you decide to become a comic artist? What is it about the medium that draws you as opposed to just visual art on its own or text on its own?
MN: I’m drawn to all sorts of storytelling forms! I’ve spent quite a lot of time working on novels, short stories, essays, poetry, collage, paintings, video games, photography and movie making. Comics is what I’ve been focusing on lately, as it seems to be taking off more than the others. I have every intention to revisit many of those other things in the future. And maybe a few more.
GJ: Is there any particular reason why the strip is in black and white, and not in color?
MN: I work in color occasionally. But I grew to love comics in the nineties, when the bulk of them were black and white, and that aesthetic really stuck with me. I don’t believe in using color unless there’s a good reason, story wise. Otherwise, I find it distracting.
GJ: As I read the book, I saw parallels with poetry and film. One of my favorite moments is in “Coalinga,” and its open-endedness reminded me of those unresolved yet silently poignant endings I often see in independent American cinema (Payne’s About Schmidt, Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise and Broken Flowers). Does poetry or film influence your work at all?
MN: Although I do love the work of certain poets (my all-time favorites are Myriam Gurba, Steven Gray and Bucky Sinister), I don’t find that they necessarily influence my comics. Then again, there’s a certain freedom to take risks that you find in poetry that I also like to employ in my sequential art.
Film, though, is something I used to be obsessed with. I was a film student for a hot minute in the early nineties, and I worked at a video rental store for a couple of years, so I have a pretty vast knowledge of movies of a certain era (I no longer find movies interesting, as so many of them are garbage these days—it isn’t worth it for me to wade through all the trash to find the gems). Some of my favorite directors are Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch. I really enjoy slow-paced movies from the late sixties to the late eighties, movies like Carny, Taxi Driver, Bullitt, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Wings of Desire and The Last Picture Show. The comics in Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories are meant to be read slowly, with a pace that hopefully makes the reader carefully consider the situations. At times I also hope to build up tension, something that is definitely borrowed from my favorite films.
MN: Catharsis was an intention behind my first book, Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22. At least, it was when I started writing it, but over time (and over several drafts) I became less focused on figuring myself out and more focused on telling a good story. With Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories, there was almost no moving on involved. If anything, I was moving backwards, revisiting scars and tearing open old wounds. It was really hard. At times I felt like I was reliving situations I never wanted to see again. Maybe I occasionally gained new insight into what I’d already buried, but overall that wasn’t the case. I’m all the more haunted for it.
GJ: I was struck by the chapter "Gone" and how in spite of the difficulties young Mari and her ex-boyfriend have been through, in the end, she still wants to reconnect with him after many years of separation. Why do you think this is? What is her reasoning? Do you think she has a hopeless romantic streak?
MN: I don’t feel this way with all my exes, friends or otherwise. There are plenty of people I never want to hear from again, people I might have felt a connection with at some point, but who proved themselves to not be the people they’d sold themselves as. But for the most part, when I give a piece of my heart to a person, they pretty much have it forever. So even if I don’t necessarily want to have that person in my life, I’m still always wishing them well, and I like to be able to check in on them. The internet has made this very helpful.
But there’s a small handful of people who have left an indelible mark on my life, and who I’ve felt a deep connection with. With these select few, a decade or two can go by without a peep, but when we see or hear from each other again, it’s like no time has passed, we’re just as connected as we were before. It’s rare, but I can spot it when I see it. Jason is one of those people.
GJ: “The Rebound” deals with racial microaggressions, at least in the beginning when a love interest named “Joe” bows and greets you in Japanese. You don't dwell on this issue for too long, but in an author's note you say that white guys attempting to connect with your “Asian side” creep you out. Were you ever able to discuss this at any point with Joe when you were together? As an Asian woman I've dealt with this issue frequently in the US. What advice do you have for women who find a partner or potential partner that tries to “connect” with certain facets of her Asian identity?
MN: I don’t think I ever broached the subject with “Joe.” I was young and I didn’t realize that this sort of thing bothered anybody but me, so I didn’t have the confidence to tell someone they should stop. Of all the guy’s faults, this one was put into the “annoying but harmless” category. His raging jealousy, premature ejaculation and controlling nature was much more problematic.
If I encountered that sort of thing in a potential date nowadays (if I weren’t monogamous and married, that is), I’d probably laugh at them and tell them they were being gross right at the get-go. But more likely, I sincerely doubt a person who would approach me in such a manner would find themselves in the “dating potential” category to begin with.
MN: I was always a feminist, but it took me a long time to embrace the word. When I was a kid, certain males in my life used the word as an insult, so it took a while. When I read the book CUNT: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio, I pretty much dived into feminism and never looked back.
GJ: In “Telling Friends,” Mari has an uncomfortable confrontation with a gay friend who struggles to be enthusiastic about her marital engagement. His disappointment stems from Proposition 8. This interaction highlights the ideological dimensions that complicate interpersonal relationships. Mari explains that her own decision to marry doesn't adversely impact gay marriage struggles. You identify as a woman of color and a queer artist, privileged in some ways and unprivileged in others. I think our society goes through great pains to simplify people for ideological reasons. How can a person be a politically and socially conscious individual and still find ways to get through day-to-day interpersonal struggles without compromising political integrity?
MN: I have loads of guilt for all sorts of thing I feel I could be doing better. Specifically: the treatment of animals, the treatment of humans, the Texas-sized accumulation of plastic bags in the ocean, I could go on and on. When I think about all the ways I’m destroying the planet and everyone who lives on it, I get really bummed out. I own electronics, so that means I contribute to sweatshops and landfill. I eat meat sometimes, which means I contribute to the suffering of animals. I drive a car and fly in planes. I deny homeless people money that I’ll probably just spend on meat and electronics and gas and medicine that’s been tested on animals. I’m a terrible person!
But I put a lot of thought into the things I do and buy. Not everything will end up aligning with my politics, but I try. I try really hard. Forgiving myself for not being impossibly perfect helps me sleep at night. I highly recommend it.
Grace Jung is the author of Deli Ideology and translator of The Abject by Lee Cheong-jun, forthcoming at Merwin Asia Publishing. She is currently producing a feature documentary entitled A-Town Boyz. She is a former Fulbright scholar. Follow her @aechjay on Twitter.