Building Community: MariNaomi on Community, Necessity, and Forgiveness

Dragon's Breath, Mari Naomi

Dragon's Breath, Mari NaomiMariNaomi is an indie cartoonist and artist specializing in memoir. When we spoke, she was touring her latest book, Dragon’s Breath and Other Stories. The book collects a series of stories, first published on the Rumpus as Smoke In Your Eyes. The book “explores a wide spectrum of topics including youthful rebellion, mortality, disillusionment and compassion.” In 2015, her graphic memoir about working in illegal hostess bars, Turning Japanese will be published by 2D Cloud. MariNaomi’s illustration and comics have appeared in numerous anthologies and magazines, including The Big Feminist Butt and Anything That Loves, (both of which we’ve covered) and she has contributed to the LadyDrawers. You can find her full bibliography here.

In addition to her comics work, MariNaomi also maintains two databases, the Cartoonists of Color Database and the LGBTQ Database. I spoke to her about her work on these and her attitudes to community building and forgiveness. 

The Cartoonists of Color and LGBTQ databases have been live since September 2014. I tried to count the entries in them but kept losing track! Already you’ve indexed so many creators — hundreds in each list. How big do you hope these projects will get? Is there an end in sight or do you foresee yourself working on them for years to come?

Currently there are 782 people of color in the CoC database, and 211 in the LGBTQ database. I’d love to see both of these databases keep growing, both in number of creators and in content. For that to happen, I’ll need help from the public—details including book titles, birth dates, etc. I don’t know how far this will go, or for how long. Already there has been a slow-down of new information. I’d like to keep the databases online indefinitely for people to reference, but I’d also be willing to hand it all over to a non-profit, someone who might be able to do more with the information.

In the Cartoonists of Colour FAQ you write that “this is a labour of necessity.” They’re both increasing visibility and, I think, opening new possibilities for community building. What role do you hope your databases will play in changing comics culture and how do you hope they will be (are being) used?

At the very least, I want the databases to let PoC and LGBTQ comics lovers know that we have a voice in the industry, and show them this in no uncertain terms. I’ve been told that the databases are being used academically. The other day a cartoonist tweeted at me that she was grateful to the LGBTQ database, as it was responsible for her getting some sort of opportunity as a result. This made me so happy. That was the best-case scenario for the databases, that they’d help creators directly.

What I’m hoping of the databases is that they will connect cartoonists to readers and to one another. I want to help give people the confidence to tell their own stories. Anything beyond that is icing on the cake.

In this interview with Keith Chow of Nerds of Color you talked about growing up in very white town, with few Asian-American friends or role-models, and how surprised you were at the initial explosion of the CoC. How important have these databases been to you personally? And how do you hope they will affect others?

I see the databases as being very necessary. I was surprised by how little documentation there is online about this subject. When you look up cartoonists of color, you’ll find a few of them here and there, but nothing extensive. Personally, I was upset by this lack of visibility, and I knew I had to do something about it.

When I first started collecting names, I was blown away. I had no idea there were so many of us, and I felt less alone. I’m hoping that others feel this way too. It’s a very hopeful, exciting feeling. Like, now that we know we’re all out there, maybe we’ll be less scared to tell our own stories for fear that no one will connect to them. I felt that way about my upcoming memoir, Turning Japanese. I was worried there’d just be no audience, since I felt like the only half-Japanese indie comics reader in the world. I’ve since learned that this is not true.

In January of 2014, you wrote an honest and affecting blog post about forgiveness, asking: do apologies matter, and do we need to forgive to move on? For some, apology/forgiveness is a necessary “putting to rights,” but it’s a (so often public) ritual that can turn toxic, and distract from larger issues at play. What positive role can forgiveness play in building community, and what can’t it do?

Frankly, I think forgiveness is overrated. If that’s what you need to move on, then do what you need to do. But a little bit of outrage is good for a community, good for change. I don’t think a lot of bad behavior should be forgiven. Bill Cosby is a good example of that. Why did we brush it under the rug when those women accused him of rape? Should he be forgiven for ruining all of those women’s lives? I don’t think so.

But anger also needs to be aimed at the right targets. When I was sexually harassed on a panel and decided to talk about it publicly, I was dismayed when the readers wanted blood; they vehemently insisted that I name the harasser. To me, that seemed like a distraction from the main issue, which was that this sort of behavior exists all over the place. My harasser was just some idiot guy who didn’t know how to behave around other humans. I didn’t confront him then, so why should I confront him later with an army full of indignant protectors? But then he revealed himself, and the conversation stopped being about how women are mistreated, even in professional environments. Suddenly it was all about this guy, as if he’s the only perpetrator. He’s not. It derailed the conversation.

You’re active in the comics community in other ways: supporting other cartoonist’s work, touring, doing interviews, and blogging. Do you have any ideas for new community building type efforts or are the databases more than enough right now?

I’ve often daydreamed about creating my own micropress, to give attention to cartoonists who deserve more. I’ve also been talking with Rob Kirby and others about co-editing some anthologies. Other things on my list: open a bookstore, open an art gallery. But all of these pipe dreams would take away from precious time creating comics and promoting my new book, Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories, which is what I want to focus on right now. I’ve learned from other things I’ve done (curating shows, anthologies, mentoring, teaching) that I only have so much energy to give, and that it should be spent carefully.

The databases are time consuming, but they don’t involve deadlines, working with other people, or anything else that could potentially stress me out, so for the moment, I’m fine staying at the helm.

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Megan Purdy

Megan Purdy

Publisher of all this. Megan was born in Toronto. She's still there. Philosopher, space vampire, heart of a killer.

2 thoughts on “Building Community: MariNaomi on Community, Necessity, and Forgiveness

  1. She’s half-Asian and looks completely white! I wonder more at the blandness of the question than at her evasive answer.

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