I stayed up too late reading Kabi Nagata’s My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness (Los Angeles: Seven Seas Press, 2017). It’s one of those books. It moves fast and covers more ground than it seems to. I thought I’d just take a look at it before going to sleep and the next thing I knew it was 3 am. I do talk about some plot elements here and it’s a book about depression that includes some discussion of self-harm.
Nagata’s book is autobiographical, although she uses a pseudonym. And it starts right up front with Nagata in a love hotel about to lose her virginity with a sex worker from a lesbian agency. Nagata writes about depression, her eating disorder, self-harm and struggling with her idea of adulthood. The book is more humorous and less depressing than all that might sound. But while it might seem like comics make painful matters easier, sometimes they can make them more visceral (See for example, Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half and Sarah Anderson’s Sarah’s Scribbles). Nagata isn’t quite hilarious, but her story is quietly funny as well deeply engaging, smart and kind. And Nagata’s fine lines convey both a fragility and grace to the story she’s telling.
Nagata depicts herself at 28, having a hard time. She suffers from depression. She has scars on her arms from cutting herself and a bald spot she’s self-conscious about from when she pulled out her hair. She wants to please her parents, but she can’t be the person she thinks they want her to be. She has trouble holding on to jobs. She is lonesome and detached and she wants more than anything is to belong. She is ambivalent about sex, but realizes she is attracted to women. And everything she knows about sex she’s learned from reading manga dedicated to depictions of idealized love and sex between men. I am not going to speculate on why she was drawn to yaoi/shonen-ai.* Nagata’s story is so personal, so specific to her that it doesn’t feel right to appropriate her life for theory’s sake.** In trying to figure herself out, Nagata herself wonders about it.
So many coming out stories—especially fictional ones–are about falling in love and, ideally, receiving love in turn. You fall in love and then you might learn to love yourself, even if society doesn’t love you. The predominant stories used to be painful ones, autobiographies like Audre Lorde’s Zami: A New Spelling Of My Name (1982), or novels like Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1936). There was a whole small press dedicated to romance predicated on coming out as a lesbian, Naiad Press, and while often corny, these books provided a positive depiction of lesbianism in a time when lesbianism was still often seen as a mental illness and sexual dysfunction (usually a result of abuse or a bad experience with a man that could be fixed by another experience with a man). And for a while, Naiad was the only place readers could find Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (1952), aka, Carol, while her Tom Ripley novels were being published by Vintage and W. W. Norton. Manga and anime opened things up for a lot of queer folk outside of Japan. Because, seriously, why wouldn’t you go with Sailor Uranus*** and Sailor Neptune? Why not choose love between magical girls who fight to protect our solar system?
Of course, Kabi Nagata’s manga comes out of a whole different tradition. I doubt she read those books when she was trying to understand herself and her ambiguous, engulfing pain. But I mention them a bit because it’s part of what I thought about while reading her book. And I bring them up because central to the whole genre of coming out stories and survivor stories is the idea that telling the truth–telling a personal truth–about our lives the has power to change things. Ideally, in romantic fantasy, love and/or sex solve everything and it gets better. But, of course, things are still complicated, hard and confusing, much more so than a monolithic story of Queerness might imply. Nagata’s book is much more about the importance of telling a personal truth than it is about sex and it’s a story of how things remain complicated, hard and confusing, even as they do get better.
Both Nagata and My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness resist categories and genres. The book is: autobiography, coming out story, survivor story, yuri/shōjo-ai*, manga, graphic novel, Künstlerroman, maybe Bildungsroman, and probably many other things. Despite the fact that her experience is necessarily simplified and stylized by being told as a story, her story also resists becoming simplified. Whether in discussing her feelings, sexuality, experience or relationships, categories can be useful, but they can also elide and obscure the personal. And, of course, Nagata was, in part, trapped by her ideas of how things should be—how she should be. What it meant to feel like an adult. What it meant to belong. What it meant to have sex.
Nagata indirectly realizes that she is attracted to women. In trying to figure out what is wrong with her, she reads a book on “mental illnesses in pubescent children,” and much of it resonates with her. But what resonates with her isn’t what it seems.
The story’s hook is also part of Nagata’s solution to her problem—or at least part of her problem: hiring a sex worker. It’s a sensationalistic angle that is surely part of why the book has received so much attention—and was translated into English. It’s a kind of inversion of lesbian exploitation. Instead of pretending the educate the public about the dangers Sapphic sisters represent, á la old school exploitation, or using the story as an excuse to get to the hot girl-on-girl action, Nagata brings in readers to talk about her own experience, including the awkwardness of sex. She talks about her depression and her attempts to break free. And unlike pulp fiction or idealized psychiatric case studies, sex doesn’t liberate or cure Nagata. There is not sexual healing. But she does feel liberated in the sense that she starts to feel more okay with how she feels and more okay about not feeling like she thinks she should.
And her solution doesn’t work exactly they way she thought it would. It’s true that having sex doesn’t change everything for her. She’s just getting a handle on it and by “it,” I mean everything. But she finds a balance that works for her at least for now. Sometimes it’s enough to know that you are making progress, that you can see where you were and where you are now.
But it’s also true that this experience at the love hotel coupled with the encouragement of a man at a job interview lead her to decide to focus on creating manga. And her comic about her experience ultimately becomes very successful when she publishes it on the Japanese art board, Pixiv. It’s so successful that the Tokyo publishing house East Press picks up the story and she expands it into a book. And that book is picked up by Seven Seas Press and is translated into English and was published this month. The book’s Japanese title was, The Private Report on My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness. I really like that title, but I can see why Seven Seas shortened it.
I love that art is her solution. Now Nagata is a person who know she’s attracted to women, who has had sex, and has realized that she wants to create manga. She’s a person who dared to post this story online and got a book out of it, a book that’s being read all over the world.
My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness (Seven Seas, 2017) was translated by Jocelyne Allen and adapted by Liane Sentar. Karis Page did the lettering and layout. Nicky Lim designed the cover for the Seven Seas edition.
*I am not getting into the relative Japanese and North American subtleties and connotations around genre terms. Especially when one of the things I like about My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness is its resistance to categories.
**It does make me think about this essay I read by Joanna Russ long ago—so long ago I don’t remember the title. She talked about her first crush being Danny Kaye. And Russ also wrote about women and Kirk / Spock slash fiction in the 1970s.
***This is serious business, Keith Allison, and I am not making jokes about exploring the love of Uranus here.
Carol Borden agrees with Kabi Nagata about the importance of teaching sex ed in school.