One the most intriguing new voices to emerge in cartooning over the past year has been Tana Oshima, and after reviewing her self-published minis Vagabond, Filthy, and Masquerade in recent weeks, I wanted to reach out to Tana herself and allow her to “have her say” in regards to her own work rather than subjecting you all to more of my blathering about it. Without further ado, then, here she is on her life, her work, her influences, and her aims, interspersed with images from two works in progress : a short-form work entitled Nabokova, and a full-length graphic memoir.
4CA : By way of introduction to readers who may not be familiar with your work, what is your artistic background? Did you attend art school, or are you entirely self-taught?
TO : I didn’t attend art school. I was in Spain back then, and you had to pass an exam to get in the public school of Fine Arts. I was unprepared and untalented and failed the exam. I didn’t know how to paint or draw well. There are many self-taught artists out there who are incredible at drawing and painting, but that’s not my case. I still don’t know how to draw without reference. I don’t know how to draw a car or a horse or most of the human gestures. And I have very limited technique. In my works, I just draw what I can draw.
4CA : What made you decide on comics as your medium of choice? Have they always been of interest to you, or did you try your hand elsewhere first? If so, do you continue to work in other media to this day?
TO : I was a writer before I became a “drawer”. I love writing and I think it’s what I do best, if anything, though I still find it really, really hard to do it well (definitely not in English, which is frustrating because I live in an English-speaking country). It’s funny because for years I did both things separately —writing for newspapers and magazines, and then drawing in my spare time and writing a lot of fiction that remains unpublished. I hadn’t thought of making comics until a friend of mine told me I should try to blend those two “skills”. I remember telling her: “Oh I’m too lazy to make comics.” But then I tried making one, and loved it. That was in 2013 or 2014. I think comics are potentially a “whole” art form, a very rich art form because it requires a careful handling of two very powerful languages, the linguistic and the visual. It activates different parts of your brain when you’re making them.
At the beginning I had some trouble integrating the words in my comics. It felt like I was using words just as a narration tool and I wasn’t happy with that. I wanted words to be heavily charged with meaning, and, if possible, tell their own story, slightly independent from the images, overlapping with the images. It took some time until I learned how to balance that out. Words, when combined in certain ways, have a fascinating, multilayered complexity; that’s the magic of writing. You can achieve that multidimensionality with images too, but I have yet to explore that.
I’ve done some painting in the past, but mostly mere exercises for beginners. I have many limitations right now, in terms of time, space and money. So I stick to the fastest, the smallest and the cheapest medium and materials.
4CA : As I see it, the immigrant experience is a near-constant theme in your work : your stories consistently, and quite literally, reflect the “stranger in a strange land” perspective. Is this a result of your own family experience?
TO : Yes, it’s the result of my own experience. My experience hasn’t always been that of an immigrant (although I am now an immigrant, I guess), but they both have many things in common. My sense of perpetual foreignness comes at an almost exclusively existential level, as a result of not belonging anywhere. This lack of sense of belonging hasn’t been a choice for me. It’s not something I’d brag about; it’s a feeling I don’t like and it’s a manifestation, I think, of how the world works. The need people have to trace borders, to identify with homogeneous groups and so-called nations, to reinforce otherness and others’ strangeness, those are things that have occupied my mind since I was very young.
4CA : Following on from that, alienation and isolation are also part and parcel of the life of your recurring protagonist. Without wishing to get too personal, is hew viewpoint intrinsically linked to your own? To what degree does she function as a stand-in for her author?
TO : Most of my characters have a lot of autobiographical elements. The isolation you mention is the existential loneliness that comes from not belonging, not having a place you can call yours or a place that others identify as yours. I can try to convince myself that I am from a certain place, that I won’t really belong as long as the people from that place don’t consider me one of them.
I was born in Japan but was never considered Japanese because my mother is Spanish. So I was born a foreigner in my own country, so to speak. Being mixed at the time in Japan was very stigmatized, especially if you had Western blood, because they could see it right away. We had to leave Japan because of that, and we landed in Peru. I was a child, so I thought “If I’m not good enough for Japan, I might be good enough for Peru”. But it didn’t turn out that way. I was still a foreigner, and I was an Asian in another very racist country. I spent the rest of my childhood and adolescence between Argentina, Spain, Japan and France and changed schools 11 times, so I was always the foreigner, the stranger. But I feel privileged and lucky and grateful for the life I’ve had so far and the people I’ve met and this unusual sense of freedom that comes with loneliness.
As for my life in the US, which I elaborate to some degree in “Filthy”, it’s more about surviving here while not being American enough. I love the diversity in America and the fact that there are so many immigrants and foreigners, but you still need to have a certain amount of “American-ness” to blend in. It’s natural, we humans do that. We’re all ethnocentric. America is a super-superpower and that impacts our daily lives and the way Americans see themselves, even in the most progressive and open minds. On a practical level, I can see that not having graduated from an American university (or any other school that has a place in the American social imaginary), or not being an English native speaker are circumstances that place you at the bottom of the line. I’m not sure that happens all the way around, if an American tried to find a job in a foreign country. (Americans tend to be seen as valuable assets elsewhere, I think. You guys have the most powerful passport in the world!). So, as a foreigner, you know that what you bring is more or less useless here when it comes to finding a job, which is key to survival. But art is different. Art knows no borders. Or maybe it does, but those borders are of a very different nature. I shouldn’t be complaining anyway. It’s a minor struggle in my case. For one thing, I can always leave. But it’s a real, serious struggle for many other people.
4CA : There is also a surreal or dream-like flavor to much of your work. Do your ideas literally come to you in dreams?
TO : Haha no, not really. Not while I’m sleeping at least. I’m just trying to stay away as much as I can from “literality.” I like it more when reality is inspired, or inferred, rather than told. I tend to think that there’s more reality in a poem than in a history book. I’m not sure how to define reality anyway.
4CA : I’ve noticed recurring imagery features in all your stories to date, particularly those black and white tubes. Are they indicative of anything specific? When did you first start “seeing” them in your mind’s eye?
TO : Those tubes are part of my daily landscape ever since I moved to NYC. I’m surrounded by them, and I see beauty in them. They are charged with meaning. They come from the underground and they somehow connect different worlds. They represent some sort of hardship and adversity that comes from living in a big city, but I also turned them into symbols of the “underworld”, which can be the unconscious, or the margins. I’m very interested in the margins as a place, as a mental, societal and existential space where people end up for a variety of circumstances. Not a nice place to be in.
4CA : To date, all of your work has been self-published. Do you find that a taxing experience, or do you appreciate the absolute freedom it offers? Maybe both?
TO : I love the absolute freedom of the self-publishing act. I hope I can self-publish forever. And I am lucky to be in the US because here you have distributors like Domino Books and a real, however small, independent comics market. But I also need to make more money and I’ll look for different ways to increase my earnings while making comics. I know, it sounds like a joke. Probably an oxymoron.
4CA : Picking up on that, do you have aspirations to work with any larger publishers in the future? Are you readying any “pitches” for strips or books?
TO : I would like to work with publishers to reach more people, maybe, or a more diverse pool of readers. I make comics primarily to communicate with people, so yeah I’d like to reach more of them. Doesn’t have to be a lot of them. I know there’s a lot of romanticism surrounding the self-publishing world and I agree that it’s great, and I love the informality and the independence of it, but I also need to ensure myself a place. My priority right now is to make a living in this country, in this expensive city, which is of course the priority for most of us living here. Another great thing, though, about self-publishing is that I publish in Spanish too whenever I can afford it. Most of my readers in Spanish are Miami-based Cubans, and I love that. They are very communicative.
4CA : So far the mini-comic has been your format of choice. Do you see any longer-form works in your future, perhaps even a graphic novel?
TO : I recently started working on a graphic memoir. It only covers my childhood years in Peru. There was a war situation there, a conflict between the army and the Shining Path, a Maoist guerrilla that became very violent. We were in a permanent state of emergency, under the martial law. There was a curfew, violence, and much, much misery. There was an apartheid-like situation against the Quechua and Aimara peoples, who are the majority of the Peruvian population. I’d never seen anything like what I saw in Peru at that time, and have never seen it later in life. Those people were pushed to the furthermost limits of the human psyche. And that was happening in front of my eyes. So I thought I’d tell this story in comics format, but I’m having some conflicting feelings with the non-fiction aspect, as I mentioned before, and with the fact that the story is so racially charged. I want to keep it as poetic, as non-political as possible, and that’s challenging for a memoir of this kind, at least for me.
4CA : Any particular artistic influences you’d care to give a “shout-out” to while you have the chance?
TO : The main influences that I’m aware of are, I think, Richard Brautigan, Merleau-Ponty and David Lynch. And probably books I read during the past years. Visually speaking, I think Chagall can be my main influence. And, again, David Lynch. And maybe some manga and Ukiyoe, too, tangentially. I feel like I haven’t read enough comics (except for manga, growing up) so I’m trying to catch up now.
4CA : Process question : what are your drawing implements of choice? Do you draw on paper, or a tablet?
TO : I draw on paper. I don’t have a tablet and it’s a pain in the ass to draw on my computer. I then color it with markers or crayons or just black ink. But I often color digitally just because it’s the cheapest, the fastest, and the smallest way to do it.
4CA : Lastly, the floor is yours. Anything you’d like the world — or the tiny corner of it that reads this site, at any rate — to know about Tana Oshima that we haven’t covered already?
TO : I have two kids.
Thank you, Tana! For more information about her ‘zines and comics, please check out https://dostoievskiswife.bigcartel.com/
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