Graphic novelist explores identity at Asian American Cultural Center

MariNaomi, with a panel from “Turning Japanese” at the Asian American Cultural Center.
MariNaomi, with a panel from “Turning Japanese” at the Asian American Cultural Center. (Photo credit: Abigail Waugh)

Growing up in the mostly white San Francisco suburb of Mill Valley, California, the author and illustrator MariNaomi always considered herself Japanese — until she tried to learn how to speak the language. “I’m not Japanese,” she told a crowd of students and other guests at the Asian American Cultural Center (AACC) on Feb. 7, “but I’m not not Japanese.”

Reading from her graphic memoir “Turning Japanese,” MariNaomi examined that contradiction and other topics at the intersection of race, heritage, culture, and lived experience.

The Texas-born child of a white father and a Japanese mother who wanted to put her home country “behind her,” MariNaomi struggled to connect to her Japanese roots as a young girl.

After moving to San Jose in her early 20s, MariNaomi got work at an Asian-style “hostess bar” frequented by the Japanese businessmen that made up the city’s large expat community — a “unique opportunity” through which she tried to immerse herself in Japanese language and connect to the culture.

Ultimately though, the job made the “feelings of alienation” surrounding her Japanese heritage worse, thanks to rude patrons, abusive employers, and competition among her fellow hostesses.

"Turning Japanese" book cover.
(Photo credit: Abigail Waugh)

I don’t recommend connecting to a culture through bar culture,” she said of the experience, “but it makes for a fun book.”

As a counterpoint to her time at the hostess bar, MariNaomi also shared a passage from “Turning Japanese” in which she visits a Buddhist temple with her grandmother on a later trip to Japan. Though not a religious person, the experience led her to “reconsider the power of prayer” and offered a profound sense of connection to Japanese tradition.

Following the reading, MariNaomi participated in an extended Q&A with guests, touching on the podcast she co-hosts with fellow artist Myriam Gurba, AskBiGrlz; her work founding and maintaining the online Cartoonists of Color Database and Queer Cartoonists Database (projects she described as “necessary”); her difficulties selling “Turning Japanese” because it was considered “too ethnic” by some publishers at the time; her pets; and her forthcoming graphic novel for young adults.

The event was co-sponsored by AACC and the Richard U. Light Fellowship, which supports undergraduate, graduate, and pre-prospectus doctoral students in intensive language immersion programs in China, Korea, and Japan. “Turning Japanese” was offered last year as a selection from the fellowship’s pre-departure library of books available to students before leaving for their studies abroad. Earlier in the day, MariNaomi led a private workshop for former Light Fellows on campus which explored how to use graphic narrative to process and represent their experiences overseas.

For more information about AACC, visit their website or check Facebook for upcoming events.

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Peter Cunningham: peter.cunningham@yale.edu, 203-432-3786