My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness
June 6, 2017
My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata is a manga that chronicles her own struggles with mental illness, her burgeoning sexuality, employment, fulfillment, and everything that could string all those topics together. Originally published as a webcomic on Pixiv, Nagata’s autobiographical stories were published by East Press in 2016, and it was translated and published for English-speaking audiences in June 2017.
Megan Purdy and Kat Overland got together to chat about this relatable, adorable, and awkward comic.
What were your overall impressions of the book?
KO: This book was a wild ride from start to finish! I read it all in a sitting, because I was rooting hard for Kabi Nagata to find a big emotional catharsis, the lack of which actually made the book even more satisfying to get through. Somehow it felt simultaneously incredibly specific and infinitely relatable, despite not sharing a lot of experiences with her aside from, you know, depression and an attraction to women.
MP: I read it in one sitting too! And shit, I was so surprised that there wasn’t that big emotional/sexual catharsis that one comes to expect from sexual memoirs or coming of age erotica. I guess that speaks to how unusual the book is–it feels like something singular–and how good Nagata is that she goes so against the grain of what readers are accustomed to and still delivers something so…satisfying? In the end there was a kind of catharsis, for her and for me.
KO: Right, I was expecting that big moment of truth, where she discovered her true self! Or found a partner that soothed the anxiety! Or something, but instead it was so much better to get to the end and realize that of course that’s not how this would turn out, it’s real life, and in real life most of the time you just have to keep working at it.
Is there anything it did particularly well or poorly?
KO: I think that for as personal as it got, I felt like I only had a very loose understanding of the actual details of Nagata’s life. Reading through it, the thought of “see a therapist!!” was ringing out in my mind, but then she casually dropped in a reference to her therapist–it felt like it was an afterthought when I was expecting it to be a whole chapter, at least, once she finally got there.
MP: What’s interesting about the book is that it felt less like autobio than a memoir of something very specific, like you say, Nagata only reveals particular aspects of her life. Within that sphere–everything pertaining to that core sense of loneliness–she’s unflinchingly open about her successes, failures, strange thoughts, and her occasional backsliding. She’s not confessional, though.
KO: I like how you’re saying it’s not “confessional;” it felt very matter-of-fact and while it made me feel a lot of emotions, the narrative never felt weepy or overwrought when it easily could have.
MP: It’s hard to describe the tone of the book! Certainly it’s unusual for personal non-fiction. It’s interesting to me later in the book that Nagata says she eventually found writing about her own life was easier than writing original fiction, especially original erotic fiction. Fiction, she says, felt more personal somehow. MLEWL is not clinical, or factual, or journalistic, and it doesn’t attempt anything like an unbiased social analysis. It’s an incredibly personal story, one where Nagata has shared so much, yet has also managed to introduce firm distance between us and her. I don’t know if that’s a mirror of her struggles with emotional intimacy or a deliberate tactic – or both.
KO: That distance was really notable, because it felt very much like the reasoned thinking after the fact; we weren’t inside her head at the moments of her lowest points, but we were there for her later dissection of her mental health at the time, the post-game analysis.
This book deals a lot with Nagata’s struggles with her own mental health. What did you think of that portrayal and what were your own reactions to it?
KO: So, very rarely is my anxiety tripped up by media, but her depictions of those anxiety/depression spirals came close because they felt so real and were drawn in such a straightforward way. Nagata’s ability to just expose the real pits of depression without trying to elicit sympathy for herself felt so honest in a way I don’t think I’ve ever been able to come close to in in-person discussions about my own health issues.
MP: I saw so much of myself in Nagata’s struggles with employment. It took me two tries to finish university. The first time, I dropped out two years in, lay in my bed for two months, and then just worked myself to the bone at a series of part-time jobs for a few years. I was looking for something more than money; like Nagata, I wanted those jobs to mean something more, provide connection or validation. I recognize my own bad times in hers, though we don’t share all the same triggers or issues.
Okay, so what about the sex?
KO: The slightly racy cover did make me think there was going to be, well, more sex involved? Or maybe a different discovery of sex? I didn’t read much about it going in so I was unaware the sex work aspect until we got there. But instead it was a litany of sex anxiety and anxious sex, which I can’t say wasn’t relatable? It’s much less “it book” content, though.
MP: When I reviewed the book over at The MNT my first line was something like “I really expected more fucking.” My initial impression of the book was that it was wacky, Millennial sex tomfoolery, but jacked up with truckloads of stress. Which sounded of the zeitgeist, I guess? The book is of course much different than that. There is sex, but not of the tomfool variety. The sex is always awkward, because Nagata herself is so awkward. Even seeing herself as a sexual being is impossible for her at first, much less working through the social and familial pressures about being a precariously employed, tomboyish lesbian. So much of the book revolves around sex and while there are erotically charged moments, it’s not a particularly sexy book. It’s absolutely not what I expected but I value it so much for more that. Because it’s relatable.
KO: Her awkwardness about her own potential for sexual pleasure was sort of amazing to read, because I think often sex in media is meant to be as unreal as possible, either incredibly sensual or traumatic or meaningful. But awkward sex that remains awkward, that doesn’t smooth over once everyone laughs, that’s seen a lot less. I also loved her frankness about what shaped her expectations for sex. When she asks herself if she was really seeking that “yaoi hole experience” I just about died, and not only because I grew up reading fanfiction. Nagata really dug deep into how you can idealize sex and how media that focuses on sex that is not necessarily the kind of sex you want to have can skew it even more. Her penchant for yaoi doujinshi also ties into that sort of detachment you talked about earlier–looking for something sexual, but not wanting to put yourself into it, per se, felt very relatable, especially since slash fandom was kind of the first depiction of queer anything I encountered.
MP: Part of the appeal of slash and yaoi for many female readers is that distance, I think. There’s a certain remove from your own body, is how some readers and writers have put it. I cackled over yaoi holes too because, seriously, what is the sex those poor boys are having and how does it work. Yaoi is one of the worst ways to learn about actual sex, but it’s not a terrible way to explore your own sexual feelings.
KO: It feels very “safe.” You don’t have to think about your own body or feelings or even potential sex you might have, because it’s not even physically possible! Nagata’s first appointment with a sex worker was like a perfect chronicle of all the weird thoughts that all rush to the surface when you realize sex maybe isn’t an erotic blur of sexual desire and emotions and you are still the same person you were before. I loved her realization that maybe this one time wasn’t going to solve all her problems, i.e., the theme of the book.
MP: Yes! I love how she has that same realization when it comes to work, emotional intimacy and her mental health overall, that there’s never going to be one singular experience that will make everything better. The journey was just learning that and learning to run with it.
We also recently read My Brother’s Husband. Are there any parallels in the books?
KO: In MLEWL I wanted more about her family in relation to her being a lesbian, if that makes sense? She focused so much on their approval/disapproval with her employment, but only glanced at how they might feel about her sexual orientation.
MP: I think that does make sense. Her relationship with her family fed into so many of her mental health issues. If she does a follow up I’d love to see something focused on that aspect of her life. It’s not just sexual intimacy her life lacks; she’s absent a support network, either because she can’t connect with the people in her life, or because she slowly lost friends over the years.
KO: Right! I think there was a definite “loneliness” in My Brother’s Husband when you discover that Yaichi essentially neither rejected nor accepted his gay brother when he came out; it was just something he didn’t want to deal with. The title of this book sort of made me think of my own thoughts about queer loneliness, that lack of support system, especially when you’re still figuring it out yourself and don’t know who will support you. Nagata’s story feels more centered on the isolation due to her mental illness issues, rather than anything due to her orientation.
MP: I think it’s great that English translations of these books came out in the same season because I do think they’re complementary. They’re vastly different books in terms of structure, mode, technique, and even genre, but they resonate. The building up of support networks in My Brother’s Husband is so sweet and reassuring. The complete lack of them in MLEWL is all too true. It’s not that one hurts where the other soothes, because I think both books bring readers to a cathartic point. (For me, at least twice for each book? During which I cried? A lot?). I don’t know, maybe it’s just that it’s nice to read these two queer manga by queer people and recognize parts of ourselves in them. It’s just nice to have two excellent queer books back to back, supported by publishers and major hits, both of them.
KO: Ha, when you asked me if I had read MBH I was wondering what the tie-in was, because they are very different books! But it is extremely nice to read queer manga by queer mangaka that lived up to the hype! The fact that MLEWL’s first print run sold out almost immediately is incredible, because it could have been a really niche, marginalized comics. You can imagine it coming out ten years ago and being the kind of scanlation that would get passed from queer woman to queer woman, you know?
MP: Yeah, absolutely. And I guess it’s worth mentioning that MBH was scanlated and passed around; it’s been easily available on pirate manga/doujin sites for years, like so much of Gengorah Tagame’s work. It’s nice to see both MBH and MLEWL translated and receive massive international attention.