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The Rumpus Interview With Yumi Sakugawa - Part 2

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Rumpus: Besides the monsters, it seems like a lot of people in your comics are Asian American or Japanese American based on how they look or what they’re eating, or in Cassie’s case, her last name, but it’s usually something that’s in the background, not being explicitly discussed. Is that anything that you ever did explicitly explore in your art, or is identity something that you like to leave in the background and not necessarily spend a whole comic discussing?

Sakugawa: I guess one Asian American comic I did was about this Japanese American character in the The Baby-Sitters Club, Claudia Kishi, so I wrote this whole web comic about it, and just how I connected with her so much because she was like the only Japanese American female character in young-adult literature or pop culture in general when I was growing up, and again, it was just another webcomic I just did for fun on my own, and years later (I probably made it in 2012 or 2013), people still just randomly find it and reach out to me about it. Diversity is really important to me. Even if I don’t explicitly write about Asian American or Japanese American issues or identity, just having that Asian face has always been important to me. And even if they are monsters, they’re eating spam musubi or using chopsticks.

Rumpus: And monsters are really important to Japanese pop culture too.

Sakugawa: Exactly!

Rumpus: I think it’s important to have both kinds of art in the world, the kind that’s discussing identity overtly and the kind where you don’t really have to, you can kind of move onto other things but it’s still there.

Sakugawa: Right, absolutely. Definitely.

Rumpus: When you taught English, was that right after college?

Sakugawa: Yes.

Rumpus: So did you have day jobs for a while until—are you a full-time artist now?

Sakugawa: I do have a day job where I do illustrated how-to guides for this website called Wonder How To, so it’s not something I do in my spare time, but it is still drawing, essentially, and the rest of my time is freelance illustration work, or doing comics.

Rumpus: Were you doing illustration work straight out of college as well? Or was there a struggle between doing something more traditional and maybe stable versus something creative, and how did you make the space to do that creative work that you wanted to do?

Sakugawa: I was really lucky in that when I got out of college, my first day job was working at an Internet startup, and probably within a few months of me being hired as a full-time person, the company decided to become a virtual office, so everybody was telecommuting and just meeting once or twice per week. So that was my full-time day job for a few years, but it was very different from what I saw my friends experiencing—corporate, nine-to-five, traditional office jobs—and I think just having that as my first day job sort of spoiled me, so from then on I always wanted to work from home and not go into an office. So with my current day job, where I do illustrated how-to guides, I get to work from home, so I’m essentially at my apartment all the time.

Courtesy of Yumi Sakugawa.

Rumpus: What kinds of how-to guides are you illustrating?

Sakugawa: It’s a lot of practical, life-hacky stuff, like “uses for white vinegar” or “how to hack your small kitchen to make it more space-efficient.”

Rumpus: And then there’s Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe. I heard that it came out of your experiences with meditating. What drew you to meditation in the first place?

Sakugawa: Well, I was teaching English in Japan and doing really terribly at it, and I was fresh out of college, and I was just really depressed and really just not in a good headspace. And I think it was one of those serendipitous things where a friend lent me a copy of the book, A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, this new-age spiritual author, and my boyfriend gave me an audiobook of the film director David Lynch talking about transcendental meditation and how that helped him as an artist and a film director. Somehow having those two things come into my life almost simultaneously just really made me decide that I wanted to meditate on a regular basis, just to see for myself if it would help me, since it seemed like it was helping a lot of other people. I’ve been doing it on and off for the last seven years now, but these days I do make a commitment to meditate for twenty minutes every morning. I can’t imagine life without it now. It’s something I have to do.

Rumpus: Do you sit in seiza when you meditate?

Sakugawa: No. (Laughs) I just sit on the couch.

Rumpus: In terms of the words of that comic—were any of them mantras that you repeated to yourself, or did they come while you were meditating?

Sakugawa: When I meditate, I usually just listen to my inner silence as much as possible. I don’t really repeat words. So for the words in my comics, whether they’re about meditation or they’re for my fictional comics, I always want whatever I’m conveying to be as honest as possible. So especially with my mindfulness comics, I don’t overthink too much what I’m saying. As long as it’s the most honest way to say whatever I’m feeling, then that’s what they end up being.

Rumpus: One of my favorite comics of yours is “Moon Between the Mountains.” That comic has a really striking ending that, like Ikebana, is all visual with no words at all. And it made me wonder, do the ideas for your stories come to you first as words or as images?

Sakugawa: It really depends, comic by comic. With I Think I Am in Friend-Love with You, it really did start out as a literal letter I was writing to someone, so it was all text before it became a comic. I think with “Moon Between the Mountains,” it came out from a little doodle I did of a cat baby, and then the cat baby growing up into this cat woman, not knowing where she came from. So in that case, it was the visual that started the rest of the story, and I think that’s why I love comics so much, because I always loved writing and I always loved drawing, and I never wanted to do just one or the other. With comics, it’s always this interesting tug of war between what you can convey with words that can’t be conveyed with just image, and what you can convey with image that words can’t do justice to. So it’s always a combination of both when I come up with the stories because the two things are inseparable to me.

Rumpus: There’s a lot of blank space in your work. Even the comics that don’t have non-verbal endings, like I Think I Am in Friend-Love with You, usually share that same feeling of something slowly unwrapping. I was wondering if that was something you were drawn to early on, or if it came with more age and experience to be able to have that kind of quiet in your stories.

Sakugawa: That’s a good question. Yeah, I think especially with movies, the moments that always resonate with me are the nonverbal moments, and I think with the comics that I like to read, there’s a lot of space and emptiness for the readers to put themselves in. I like the idea of giving readers these sort of empty, silent spaces where they have time to really comprehend or decide for themselves what is happening, what the meaning of everything is. I definitely think that meditation also really helped me with my art, where I liked the idea of silent moments and silent spaces within stories as well.

Rumpus: Speaking as an introverted person myself, do you think it has something to do with being introverted and feeling like maybe there’s not necessarily something to say about every moment out loud?

Sakugawa: Oh yeah, totally. Absolutely.

Rumpus: There have been at least a couple of your illustrations where you’re imagining something like that anxious ball in your chest turning into a dandelion, or turning into some jellyfish… Is it easy for you to come up with a concrete image for some abstract feeling like that?

Sakugawa: Yeah. Absolutely, yes. That way of visualizing emotions, I feel like that came from that book I read that helped me meditate, A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle, who is more famous for his first book, The Power of Now. And one thing he emphasizes over and over, which is also something that’s explored a lot in Buddhist philosophy, is that your true essence is completely separate from your thought process. So whatever verbal chatter is in your mind, you can be immersed in it, or you can actually see it as a third-person observer and sort of step back from the chaos of your thoughts and just think to yourself, “Oh, that’s an interesting response I’m having,” or “Oh, how interesting that I’m going through that mental battle again. I’m triggered to think these thoughts again.” And it’s, of course, easier said than done, but I feel like making these comics is a way of reminding myself that if I’m feeling sad or if I’m feeling anxious, I’m not the sadness, I’m not the anxiousness. I can step back from this bad energy or see it as a rainstorm or a bad streak of weather that will eventually go away.

Rumpus: Do you feel nervous putting your work out there now that you know you have a bigger audience?

Sakugawa: No. I’m definitely thankful that I have a bigger audience, but I think also with age, you just care less what other people think. And also, I feel like at the end of the day, I know for myself if I made a comic I’m really proud of, or if I’m just coasting on ideas I’ve used before. I feel like whether it’s ten people or a million people, ultimately it’ll always be a competition with myself as an artist. Or I’ll always be my own personal barometer of whether or not I’m proud of the work I did.

Rumpus: It’s great that you can feel that way. Do you ever experience writer’s block or feel like you’ve run out of ideas?

Sakugawa: Um, yes, all the time. (Laughs)

Rumpus: How do you deal with that?

Sakugawa: It’s funny you ask that because I think I’ve been struggling with that lately, so as a way to get through it, I’ve been making a series of comics about overcoming creative blocks, in kind of more of a fantastical way. One thing that helped me was to just see the creative process as a series of valleys and peaks, so if you are feeling stuck, it’s not because you’re failing as an artist or as a creative person, but because that creative block is there for a reason, to challenge you to come up with an idea that would inspire you enough to overcome it. I think it was Elizabeth Gilbert who said that even if it’s ninety-nine percent just the grunt work of feeling stuck and it’s just one percent inspiration, no matter how many hours you feel terrible and uninspired, that one percent where you do feel inspired is just always so worth it. I always live for that one percent where I feel like I think I have a good idea, and I want to share it with people, and it ends up resonating with a lot of people.

Courtesy of Yumi Sakugawa.

Rumpus: A lot of your comics end on a note of loneliness, but never just bleak, pure loneliness. There’s always something warm there as well. Is that something that you feel like you are mediating?

Sakugawa: Yeah, I never want my stories to be just sad or just happy. I always feel like the stories that I love, they’re never completely resolved. All the loose ends aren’t tied, but it’s that tension that makes me keep thinking about it. One ending that keeps coming to mind is the ending for Spirited Away, the Ghibli movie, where it’s a happy ending but also a sad ending, but there’s also this possibility of more things to come. I just feel like that’s the most accurate representation of life. Even if it’s an ending, new things are on the way. Or even if it is a happy ending, it might pass one day. I feel like ultimately, with characters, I want them to go through a journey or go through some sort of transformation of epiphany. So it’s more a matter of that than whether it’s happy or sad.

Rumpus: Do you ever have any idea of what happens to them after the last frame? Or do you leave them where they are?

Sakugawa: That’s a good question. Yeah, I guess I don’t really think about my characters after the story ends. That’s interesting.

Rumpus: Well, maybe that’s good—it means you ended at the natural end.

Sakugawa: Like, people always want to know what happens with the Friend-Love characters, like, “Oh, do they meet for coffee?” and my editor and my agent, they really wanted an ending where it showed them meeting up afterwards. They thought that maybe the original webcomic ending, where it was just a letter at the door, that was a little too sad for the book version. And so the compromise was that I extended the ending where you really saw that the Friend-Love crush received the letter and read it, but that was it. That was always really important to me because I felt like the point of the story was not that they become best friends but for me it was more that the main character really went through with showing his or her friend-love crush their true feelings. That was the most important thing, rather than whether or not something came of it.

Rumpus: Was there a negotiation like that with Ikebana too?

Sakugawa: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I struggled a lot with the ending of Ikebana, so I probably had three or four endings that I considered before the final ending. It was a fine balance of wanting to show autonomy for Cassie in her performance. I really didn’t want to portray her as a victim that needed to be saved. I also really wanted to convey in some way the idea that when making art, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum—you need at least one audience member, and that’s sort of an extension of life itself too. You need at least two people. The quote I always go back to—I think Tony Kushner said this in the introduction to Angels in America—is “The smallest indivisible human unit is two people, not one.” That’s a quote that has always reverberated with me.

Rumpus: What were some other final contenders for the ending?

Sakugawa: The idea that stuck with me the longest was that Cassie and this nameless classmate, they would just look at each other in the ocean, and in the last panel, you see Cassie open her mouth, but you don’t hear what she says. So it ends with her breaking her silence and thus ending her performance. And then there were all these bad ideas, like maybe she just drowns. (Laughs) It wasn’t until towards the end of my process when I decided, oh, I want them to go underwater, I guess just sort of more symbolic of what you have to go through to rebirth yourself essentially, sort of what you have to go through over and over as an artist.

Rumpus: When you are creating your art, who do you feel like you’re doing it for?

Sakugawa: I feel like I’m almost making comics for younger versions of me. And I guess subconsciously maybe that’s because a lot of my fans are young Asian American college girls or high school girls, which is really awesome to me. I feel like they’re all younger versions of me, whether it’s college me figuring out what she wants to do after college, or high-school me feeling like she doesn’t fit in anywhere, or, I don’t know, nine-year-old me who feels like she has no friends. Yeah, I always feel like I want younger Asian American women to read my works. Maybe I’m not always consciously thinking that, but looking back on the works I do, they’re all aiming towards things that I would like. I’ve never liked the idea of trying to make a story that an audience would like, because then I’m just not going to make anything good, or I’m just going to overthink the whole process. I feel like my best stories that resonate with people the most are always stories that were interesting to me. I obviously want people to read them, but I think it just goes back to my own personal barometer. If I’m really proud of it, it almost doesn’t matter what other people think. And vice versa—if a lot of people like something but I feel like I could have done better, then I won’t be satisfied with it.


*This article was originally published on The Rumpus on September 18, 2015.


© 2015 Mia Nakaji Monnier

art artist book bunnies comic identity ikebana illustrator meditation monsters rumpus Yumi Sakugawa