Written by Kabi Nagata | Translated by Jocelyne Allen
Back in the summer of 2016 I was walking through Tokyo, somewhere near the Shibuya district, when I stumbled across a Gay Pride parade marching gleefully, cheering and singing under the crisp blue June sky.
It was a wonderful sight, and filled the air with electric vibrancy and colour. A few weeks later, a student of mine at a Tokyo university, a young man in his early twenties who was close to obtaining his MA, told me he didn’t believe he’d ever met a gay person.
This took me aback, and made me ponder all of the possible reasons why: Is he naïve, and just didn’t know? Is being ‘in the closet’ much more depressingly common in Japan? Is he denying having met any gay people? Has he, by coincidence, genuinely never met a single gay person in his twenty-something years of life?
These two experiences revealed to me the complicated relationship between the LGBTQ community and Japanese social culture.
The Struggle with Strangeness
So, when I discovered My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness (and the sequel My Solo Exchange Diary), I was elated. To see a piece of Japanese literature – manga, specifically – which autobiographically tells the story of a twenty-eight-year-old woman struggling deeply with both her mental health and her sexuality is incredibly exciting, but also a depressingly rare thing to come out of Japan. Here is one other recent great example.
This is partly because honesty regarding our individual struggles as young people is a tough topic for many Japanese, especially women.
It is also because being gay is fetishized or mocked in much of Japanese media (anime especially), and to see it being explored seriously is a turning point, to say the least.
So here is the story of Kabi, a woman who decided against attending university, and spent her early twenties in a haze of depression, drifting through jobs at stores and bakeries and, when she finds the energy to do so, she writes manga.
She neither avoids nor seeks out friends, companionship, or sex. She simply exists.
She begins with one eating disorder, and moves onto another. She loses her job, and finds another. She lives with her parents, and often fails to find the will to leave her bedroom.
Eventually, as we see in the flash-forward opening pages, she arrives, age twenty-eight, at a turning point. She decides to hire a female escort and a room at a love hotel, in order to learn and understand all that she believes she has missed out on in her youth. These sexual desires and experiences which she has distorted into fear and anxiety in her mind.
This story is a chunk of a life that is still being lived, and as such has no real beginning or end.
It is like a camera being set to record on a random day, and switched off on another. And in that space of time, we get a voyeuristic look at a life of loneliness, fear, and confusion.
Nagata’s art is wonderfully minimalistic. Rarely is a single background to be seen. Instead, simple line work with gleefully rough and amateurish shading pervades, forcing the reader’s eye to admire the way in which Nagata has managed to depict her own inner feelings outwardly expressed.
On each page we see sparse, empty rooms and endless white, with simple outlines of Nagata herself as little more, at times, than a simple sketch.
The art speaks as loud as her words at these moments, where it is clear that she feels less dense than most people, like she is floating or fading, neither grounded nor solid.
She is unsure of herself, anxious about her future and barely able to stand living in the present. Each day is a struggle, and the art rings this bell clearly in two ways: the first is that she appears so transparent in her own drawn representation, and the other is that, perhaps, on some days she could barely bring herself to put pen to paper. And what we see is all she could manage.
With any art, there is more than one way to interpret her choice of style, and we should never be hesitant to assume another person’s state of mind and emotion.
However, one thing that is certainly clear is the evocative nature of her bare and stripped artwork. It’s often cute, always sparse, and certainly worthy of admiration and consideration.
The joy of a memoir as a kind of time capsule is the hope and the intrigue that it leaves us with. We do not know where her life will lead, because she is living it right now, and we only know as much about her past as she is willing to discuss.
What we have here is not so much a story as a moment in time. An experience, written and drawn as she lived and felt it.
Nagata was not trying to accomplish anything with this, beyond perhaps telling her story for her own sake. But, like so much literature on mental health, it hugely succeeds at making us feel far less alone in our strangeness. Because we’re not strange, we’re just people
Purchase ‘My Lesbian Experience’ here. If you like this you might like:
Yiyun Lee’s beautiful memoir ‘Dear Friend’