Interview with G.H. Yamauchi

I met G.H. Yamauchi at The New School MFA Creative Writing Program in 2000. She was writing then about her former work in two low-income communities in Bangkok–a shantytown of 300 families, and a group of young people living under a bridge. It was piercingly insightful prose about compelling lives. When we reconnected more recently in the past two years, I was introduced to her artistry in comics, these other colorful worlds, which reminded me of Alison Bechdel’s work that delves into the personal, exploring matters of family, love, loss, and memory. Yamauchi’s comics are vivid, heartbreaking, and like her prose, so very insightful. Each time I read them, I find new and surprising details. 

NITA NOVENO: When and why did you start creating comics?

G.H. YAMAUCHI: I have only been serious about making comics for about a year, but in retrospect it seems inevitable. As a kid, I kept heavily illustrated creative writing journals from 3rd grade on. In college, I was torn between creative writing and studio art as a major, and although I ended up picking art, my work was persistently infiltrated by text, whether it was a wooden sculpture, a book of interwoven photographs, or a multimedia installation. Ten years later, I got my MFA in writing, then tried (and failed) to convert my thesis into a graphic novel–at the time I found the process overwhelming. After that, there was a series of short stories and a novella; I edited and re-edited each one until I had completely murdered it and then buried it unseen. I shamed myself into creative paralysis and only gradually shook myself out of it, first by getting back to figure drawing, then with a continuing ed class in comics, and much later, with encouragement from an old friend, finally submitting my comic from that class to a journal last year.

I’ve found that creating comics has allowed me to regain the ability I once had as an art major to work very hard on a piece but then let it go even though I know it’s not perfect, I know it could be better–something I never managed to do with my fiction and creative non-fiction. It could be that I’m better able to let the comics go because deep down I still identify more as a writer, not an artist, so less of my ego is at stake if a drawn story falls short. Paradoxically, I know, it’s only in finishing each piece and taking risks with the next that I’ll ever get any better. I wish I had convinced myself of that years ago.

NOVENO: How do you decide if a story should be a comic or a written piece?

YAMAUCHI: I still believe that strong writing can convey complex and layered ideas more concisely than a visual image, contrary to the picture > 1,000 words cliché. Still, as a reader and creator I’m drawn to the tensions and harmonies between words and images, and the way the mood and content of an image can create, in concert with the text, something that’s greater than either on its own. I also like that the flexibility of the medium allows for comics to be a little bit like a poem in evoking a moment, feeling, or reflection, without having to submit fully to a narrative arc, although I am interested in using comics to tell stories as well. For now I’m working entirely in comics, although I don’t rule out going back to text-only pieces.

NOVENO: Can you talk about your process when making comics?

YAMAUCHI: I tend to start with either an entirely written text, or a draft that is a mishmash of text and hasty sketches of images I know I want to fall in rhyme or discord with the words. Then I create more legible thumbnails, thinking more about the composition within panels and how panels relate to each other. Somewhere in that stage I might decide that something I wrote can be better conveyed through image, or choose to shift an idea from narration to dialogue. There’s some organic chaos of re-writing and re-conceiving visuals, but the presence of the images provides some ballast so that I’m less likely to get swept up in endless cycles of editing. Eventually I blue-pencil the panels on bristol paper, then ink them up. I have been working in both color (watercolor) and black and white, and am still experimenting with different approaches with brushes and pens. Then I scan each page and do some Photoshop clean-up and adjustments.

Although I still feel a lot of shame around how long it’s taken me to revive my creative life, and often feel I should be a veteran by now instead of a novice, the upside to being in the beginning stage of anything later in life is that at least I get the pleasure of experimenting and discovering in a wide-open way, and feel free to make mistakes and try new things and evolve. So my process is still developing and I hope that in a year I’ll be able to talk about it more coherently.

NOVENO: Whose work has informed your own and why?

YAMAUCHI: My work in comics is so new it’s probably too soon to say how it’s been informed. But the writers who first made me want to write were James Baldwin for his eloquence, his analysis of US racism, and his precise and powerful fury; Jeanette Winterson for her wit and imagination (both of them, like me, were also apostates from fundamentalist Christianity), Salman Rushdie for the elaborate and playful voice of his early novels, and Martha Gellhorn for her commitment to clear-eyed, ground-level truth-telling about war and poverty. Next I was blown away by Toni Morrison’s novels and the poetry/prose hybrids of early Michael Ondaatje, by Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red and Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway (which I got to via Michael Cunningham’s terrific The Hours). The writers whose work has most recently excited me are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chris Bachelder. I don’t think there’s much of a through line for all these writers, except maybe how they can capture a deeply interior feeling of being alive and in the world, and even with their radically different approaches and concerns they can each drop you into a truth about how we love, attack, redeem, misunderstand, connect to, and need one another.

When I read comics, I am open to a wide range of voices and styles, but the ones I re-read tend to be narratives that live in a recognizable social reality and allow for human ambiguity and contradiction. Lynda Barry’s work was the first to show me how text and words can resonate off each other instead of illustrating, and I’m a long-time fan of the worlds that Ben Katchor creates at just a slight angle to ours. I always liked how Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For characters explicitly argue politics as part of life but are also fallible, sometimes ridiculous, humans. There are many cartoonists whose work I’ve been trying to learn from, even if their work is totally different from anything I’m attempting now: Chris Ware for his amazing use of design, Jaime Hernandez for the way his expressive line, gesture, and composition all serve his characters’ relationships and intertwining stories, James Sturm’s recent Off Season for its pacing and understated melancholy, Mira Jacobs’ Good Talk for her humor and complexity in directly addressing race and contemporary politics, Jason Lutes’ Berlin for his melding of human-scale fiction and enormous forces of history, Kate Beaton’s Hark! A Vagrant! for its utter hilarity, and many more. There’s so much great work being done, and I’m looking forward to continuing to grow as I learn.

NOVENO: What do you think of the state of our world in 2020?

YAMAUCHI: That’s a big question! Is it too obvious to say that it’s hard to be hopeful right now? With the rise in so many countries of xenophobic nationalism and far-right ideologies, the doubling-down on environmental destruction, the huge leaps backwards that our own country is taking on so many fronts, including the massive re-energizing of White supremacist groups, viral bad-faith disinformation and good-faith misinformation and reductive polemics and toxic online discourse that seems mainly to calcify positions…there is of course a lot to say, but I’m always torn because on the one hand I feel that as a writer/artist I should be addressing what is happening right now, at this moment, more directly in my work. But on the other hand I feel at a loss to address any immediate current event with as much complexity and nuance as I think it deserves, in the form of a comic. Which doesn’t mean other people can’t or don’t do it well. But I also don’t work fast enough to respond before a situation has morphed into its next hideous evolutionary stage, at which point I’d want to address it differently. More power to explicitly political cartoonists, but I don’t think that’s my forte–or maybe I just haven’t figured out how to do it well yet.

At my day job, I work with community college students in the South Bronx, average age 25; most of them are working, many are parents or taking care of other family members, some are veterans, half are the first in their family to go to college. Seeing their drive for a better future gives me hope. At the same time, most are living in low-income communities of color that have to battle racism, anti-immigrant discrimination, housing inequality, insecure and underpaid employment, mistreatment by police, and other institutional inequities and oppressions. So while I’m encouraged every day by students’ determination, smarts, and kindness, I’m discouraged by the deeply embedded injustices they have to face. I’d like to think that by the end of 2020 we’ll have reason to hope that our country is trying to turn around, but I’m not feeling so sure.

NOVENO: What do you like doing when you’re not writing or drawing?

YAMUACHI: Spending time with my husband–who, despite difficult work (middle school) in another struggling community (Newark), manages to be positive and hopeful, and is in fact a supernova of heart+brain+humor+love–seeing my terrific friends, talking with my awesome (grown) stepsons, cooking, walking around the city, watching movies, and listening to podcasts.

NOVENO: Thank you so much and more power to you and your work!

Be sure to check out G.H. Yamauchi’s eloquent piece “Morning Rush“.

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