Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

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I Was Never Big on Fitting In: The Millions Interviews MariNaomi

For my friend’s birthday last month, I gave her a tiny zine, three-by-three inches of simply drawn fruits in the bold, limited-color palette of a children’s book. The fruits have sweet, anthropomorphized faces with details added to the pages by hand post-printing, like the glitter gel pen outline of a banana’s half-opened peel (inside, the banana blushes). The orange peers knowingly over its shoulder, showing off a perfectly placed navel-butthole. The carrots, eyes closed, suck each other’s ends. Grapes, in a cluster, fuck. “Does this artist make these as posters?” my friend asked. “I want these on my kitchen wall.” That was her introduction to MariNaomi, and it’s not a bad one. Though the minicomic, Dirty Produce, is a departure from the cartoonist’s work in its major points -- in full color, wordless, not autobiographical -- it gives a glimpse of her signature minimalist design, her sexual frankness, and her joyfully dirty sense of humor. MariNaomi published her first graphic memoir, Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Résumé, Ages 0 to 22, in 2011. Her second book, Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories (2014), is darker -- she jokingly calls it her “book of dead friends” -- mostly made up of short stories she published on The Rumpus. It was nominated for an Eisner Award. She also runs the Cartoonists of Color Database and the Queer Cartoonists Database. Her new book, Turning Japanese, picks up not long after Kiss & Tell ends. Mari, in her early-20s, has just gotten out of one serious relationship and into another when she hears of an opportunity to work at a Japanese hostess bar in San Jose. This job soon leads her to another hostess bar, in Japan this time, where she decides to move for a few months with her fiancé, eager to get to know her mother’s home country as an adult. I talked to Mari over tea at her house in Los Angeles as her two dogs and four cats slept nearby. TM: In your memoir work, you’re talking so openly and honestly about things that happened to you, but at the same time, I don’t get the sense that it’s confessional or that I’m reading more than you want to show to the reader. How do you find that balance between the stress of reading through and processing all of those difficult experiences and then getting it onto the paper as this compact, confidently told story? MN: One of the things that people say to me the most after they read my stuff is, "Oh, you’re so honest," or "You’re so open," and it’s so funny because pretty much every graphic memoirist I’ve talked to, we all hear that from people, but every single one of us is like, we’re only showing you what we want you to see. There are so many things left out. TM: Do you feel your relationships have changed now that you publish memoir? Are people more afraid of offending you? MN: You know, when I started writing Kiss & Tell, which was before I met my boyfriend who would eventually be my husband, I remember hooking up with some guy, and at some point I told him about my project and he was like, "Say goodbye to dating." Oh, great. People like to ask my husband how he feels about those things, but actually he read my comics, and that was what interested him in me. He liked the honesty. “Honesty” in quotes. The only times there have ever been, I wouldn’t even say issues, are when I want to tell something about our private life, and I’m like, could I write about this? He’s like, no, maybe not. He usually gives in eventually. TM: Is he a reader for you when you’re in your early stages? MN: Oh yeah. He’s my muse. Every time I make a comic, I’m either trying to make him laugh or cry, and if he reads it and then hands it back to me and says, “This is good,” I know I’ve failed. I usually get all like, “What do you mean it’s good?!” TM: I was reading about your parents’ response to Kiss & Tell, that your dad took his time to read through it and your mom just read a little and put it aside for a while. MN: Forever. TM: Forever! She never read the whole thing? MN: I hope not, no, I don’t think so. I spent the whole time between when I got the book deal and when the book came out convincing her not to read the book. She’s only kissed my dad, I mean -- TM: It’s a totally different experience. MN: Yeah. And she’s never done drugs, or -- she’s just coming from such a different place. And she’s my mom. So I would tell her these really horrible parts of the stories to distract her because she’s also very curious, and I knew that at some point she wouldn’t be able to resist. So one of the first things I told her was, “I wrote about my first blowjob. The guy didn’t wash himself, Mom. Do you really want to read that? I drew flies around his penis, Mom. Do you really want to read that?” And she’s like, “No, no, I’m never reading it.” I even tested them out a little, thinking maybe I’d show them a couple of comics and see if they could handle it. There’s a story about when I mooned a little kid, and my mom read that and she said, [gasp!], and I said, “Okay, that’s it! If that shocks you, we’re done.” TM: When do you decide to hide a person’s identity? Is it when they explicitly say please do this, or does it depend on your relationship? MN: No one has said that. I guess I opt to hide their identity more than I opt not to. It seems like a good rule of thumb. I mean, I’ve been doing this since the '90s, and I’ve gone through a lot of trial and error, and I’ve pissed off a couple of people. I can only just try to get better and not hurt people, but I also need to tell my story. TM: Some people are more sensitive than others, I guess, about those things. MN: Yeah. And it’s so funny too, when I was doing Kiss & Tell, I didn’t tell everybody who was in it, and there are a couple people, like the dingleberry guy, who I thought, “Am I going to get an angry email from him sometime?” But there are a couple people whose stories I thought were really benign and just kind of cute and when I showed them the stories, one guy in particular was like, “Oh my god, I’m so sad and horrified by how I treated you.” I’m like, “What? It was all consensual.” But you never know. I did this other comic that didn’t end up in Kiss & Tell because it happened later than age 22, where I went on a couple dates with this prison warden, and I paid more attention to her dog than I did to her. When I showed the comic to her years later, I thought she might be mad, but she loved it. So you just never know. People react differently and you can’t control it. All I can do now is try to avoid getting in trouble. TM: When did you start keeping journals? MN: My first one was bought for me right when I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area when I was seven, turning eight. It was my eighth birthday, and I wrote about wanting to have sex with Michael Jackson, at eight years old, which actually was probably my only chance, right? But I was so scandalized that I was having these thoughts that I had to write the word upside down and backwards so that my parents wouldn’t figure it out, the word s-e-x. I think they would have figured it out. My childhood journals are creepy. I would fly into rages about things. When I’m reading myself as a kid, I think, ugh, maybe that’s why I don’t like kids, because I didn’t like myself as a kid. What a little brat I was. TM: You’re going back and reading your old journals closely for your new project. Have you been doing that with every project? MN: Well, this is the first time actually that I’ve gone through the agendas, the schedules, the calendars...They’re so fucking boring, holy crap. The journals are more about feelings, so they’re not painting a very accurate portrayal of what’s going on in my life. For some reason, I felt -- and I don’t do this anymore, but I felt that I had to compulsively write down everything: what I ate, but not for any reasons, and it’s not every day, it’s not consistent. Some days it would be, “We went to Mill Valley Market before work, picked up a sandwich, turkey and avocado, and a Pepsi, and in brackets, [bottle].” TM: So meticulous. MN: This book was originally going to be about an ex-friend, but I think it’s really going to be about memory. TM: Do you feel obligated or responsible to be totally truthful? MN: I feel like responsibility in art is kind of a loaded concept because there’s never any point when I’m creating where I stop myself from saying something. If I did that, I would just stop making art and writing entirely. Because there’s really no way to not offend anybody. Someone’s always going to get offended, no matter what. They’re all bringing their own shit to the table. And the artist’s job really is to tell the story that you want to tell with as little confusion as possible. Every once in a while, like for Turning Japanese, there are a couple things that, way after the fact, I looked at and thought were kind of offensive and didn’t come out the way I intended, so I took them out. It’s not censorship, exactly, it’s just clarifying. I wish I could stop time and redraw all my books. Like all the comics that I’ve ever done. But then by the time I’d be done with them, I’d just want to start over again because I’d be that much better. Can’t win. TM: Isn’t it kind of nice, though, to see how much you’ve changed over time, or how much your technique has changed? MN: No, I wish I were perfect before. There are certain things that I used to do, like it used to take me so long to do a comic because I was all about stippling and crosshatching, and it just took forever. Sometimes I bother with that stuff now if it’s important, but I guess I read a lot of Robert Crumb, and I was like, I just want to see a million crosshatches! TM: What are some of the other comics that have influenced you most? MN: I was motivated to make comics from a specific comic that I read in the anthology Twisted Sisters: A Collection of Bad Girl Art called “The Jelly” by Mary Fleener. That was the definitive point where I went from a reader to a maker. I read it and thought, this is brilliant, and I have stories like this too -- I could do this. Here, I’ll show you. MN: Here it is. So this is her comic. It was about this horrible roommate she had, and I was like, I’ve had horrible roommates, and this is so funny. I love her stuff. It’s so trippy and hilarious and so when I started making comics, this was the first comic I ever made. TM: When did you make that one? MN: March 1997? TM: It’s so different from your current style. MN: Yeah, it’s so different. But it took forever. I mean, just look at all of those little lines. TM: What’s something recent that you read and really liked? MN: So many things! I could give you a list of 100. One that just got re-released is Carol Tyler’s trilogy, You’ll Never Know. It’s a memoir slash biography of her father, who is a vet, and it’s about his PTSD. Another thing that I really love, and this isn’t tainted by the fact that she’s one of my closest friends, is Yumi Sakugawa. She came out with a zine called Never Forgets that, oh my god, just made me cry. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve read in comic form. A non-comics influence would be Cheryl Strayed. Her advice column that got collected into Tiny, Beautiful Things had a huge impact on me. TM: In Turning Japanese, you’re living in Japan for the first time and learning how to communicate. What is it like for you being in Japan? Do people usually assume that you’re Japanese? MN: No. I don’t look Japanese to them. When I was doing hostessing there, I was blonde, and no one believed I was part Japanese at all. I would tell them I was half, and they wouldn’t believe me. They always thought I was Spanish or Russian when I was hostessing. When I was working in the San Jose bar, the Japanese visitors or expats, they wouldn’t think that I was Japanese at all either. So, never fit in anywhere [Laughs]. TM: Gives us a good vantage point, though. MN: I was never big on fitting in, it’s fine. I stopped caring about fitting in at like 8th or 9th grade, but in 6th and 7th grade for some reason, I just really wanted people to think I was cool, which -- I was so not cool. There’s a picture of me that I looked at a couple years later and was like, “Oh, that’s why nobody liked me.” I’m going up some staircase and the teacher took a picture of me, and I’ve got super long hair that’s not combed, it’s so all over the place, it’s a middle part, and I’m wearing Sanrio everything. The biggest nerd. I’m wearing hot pink capris and a little sailor thing that goes with it. I mean, this was 6th grade -- people were wearing designer jeans and making out. It was a Little Twin Stars set, and then I had a Tuxedo Sam backpack and Tuxedo Sam velcro shoes and a Tuxedo Sam whistle hanging from my neck. I wanted to beat me up, looking at that picture. Wow. I also want to beat me up and steal my Tuxedo Sam backpack because that thing’s awesome. He was my favorite. TM: You were born in Texas, right? What part of the state did you live in? MN: Near the panhandle. TM: I used to live near Dallas, in middle school and high school. MN: What was the Asian situation there? TM: I had this friend who was Chinese-American from New York, and we became really close friends and we would watch Bruce Lee movies together. But I remember one day she was going through the yearbook and finding all the Asian people because there weren’t that many, and she was like, “Oh, there’s Julie. She doesn’t count because she was adopted.” MN: Oh my gosh. TM: And I was like, wow, what do you think about me then? And our friendship just kind of started to dissolve. But yeah, there weren’t many other Asians around. Was race or being Japanese something you talked about with your mom or your siblings? MN: No, I don’t think I ever talked about it with them. The first time that I ever really remember talking about race with anyone was with a guy I met who was my first Asian friend, and he was also my first zine friend, and we would talk about, I guess, our moms. But I don’t know, he’s a guy. We would mostly talk about food. I was just so grateful to have someone to talk about that stuff with, I mean, all these things I noticed but had not been able to put to words, certain Japanese customs, certain kinds of passive aggressiveness in the culture, and xenophobia that I had noticed, but I was like, I don’t know, am I just imagining that? There were so many things that I thought were just my mom being quirky, but then I realized later that, oh no, this is a cultural thing. This is completely normal elsewhere. There was one quarter Japanese—Quapa—guy who went to my middle school for like a year, but he and I avoided each other. And then there was one girl who was Japanese, her parents owned the Japanese restaurant, and we also avoided each other. It was interesting. I mean, already, I guess I felt like I didn’t fit in, so to -- I don’t know, maybe not. TM: It’s very complicated. MN: Yeah, especially that age. TM: Has your parents’ relationship with your work changed or are they still nervous about reading it? MN: Well no, they were happy that my second book (Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories) was something that they could read, so that was good. The nicest things that my mom has ever told me in my life were about that book. I archive everything in my Gmail, but that’s the one email that I keep out because it’s like, oh, Mom. She doesn’t pay a lot of compliments, so it was really sweet. Images courtesy of MariNaomi and Mary Fleener

The Millions Top Ten: December 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 2. This Is How You Lose Her 4 months 2. 3. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 5 months 3. 4. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 3 months 4. 8. Gone Girl 5 months 5. - An Arrangement of Light 1 month 6. 5. NW 4 months 7. 6. Telegraph Avenue 4 months 8. 7. Both Flesh and Not 2 months 9. - Arcadia 1 month 10. - Sweet Tooth 1 month   After an impressive run, A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava graduates to our Hall of Fame (check out Garth Hallberg's profile of De La Pava that introduced many of our readers to this unusual book). This makes room for Junot Díaz's This Is How You Lose Her (our review) to be crowned our new number one. Also joining our Hall of Fame is The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn (see our review of the last book in the series). Debuting on our list is Nicole Krauss's An Arrangement of Light, a bite-sized ebook original. And Krauss is joined on our list by Lauren Groff's Arcadia (selected by Alexander CheeEmily St. John Mandel, and Janet Potter in our recent Year in Reading series; Groff was also a participant) and Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan (which we recently reviewed). Dave Eggers' A Hologram for the King slipped off the list. Other Near Misses: Dear Life, Building Stories, The Round House, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: November 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. A Naked Singularity 6 months 2. 3. This Is How You Lose Her 3 months 3. 2. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 4 months 4. 6. Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 2 months 5. 4. NW 3 months 6. 5. Telegraph Avenue 3 months 7. - Both Flesh and Not 1 month 8. 7. Gone Girl 4 months 9. 10. A Hologram for the King 4 months 10. 9. The Patrick Melrose Novels 6 months   With our November list, A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava is enjoying the final month of its miracle run at the top before graduating to our Hall of Fame next month (don't miss Garth Hallberg's profile of De La Pava before it goes). A Naked Singularity will join Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies, as the Booker winner, which has just been inducted Mantel's first Thomas Cromwell book, Wolf Hall, is now also a Hall of Famer. Moving up to number two on the list, Junot Díaz's This Is How You Lose Her (our review) continues its climb, surpassing D.T. Max's biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. Wallace looms large on our list as his posthumously published collection of essays Both Flesh and Not debuts at number seven. The book is the third by Wallace (after Infinite Jest and The Pale King) to appear on a Millions Top Ten list. The new Paris Review anthology is another big mover, hopping two spots in its second month on the list. We've got an interview with one of the editors. Near Misses: The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays, The Fifty Year Sword, The Round House, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, and Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. See Also: Last month's list.

The Millions Top Ten: October 2012

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. A Naked Singularity 4 months 2. 2. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace 2 months 3. 5. This Is How You Lose Her 2 months 4. 3. NW 2 months 5. 4. Telegraph Avenue 2 months 6. - Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story 1 month 7. 8. Gone Girl 3 months 8. 6. Bring Up the Bodies 6 months 9. 10. The Patrick Melrose Novels 5 months 10. - A Hologram for the King 3 months   Our hurricane-delayed Top Ten for October has arrived. This month we see a new Paris Review anthology land on our list. We recently covered its creation in an interview with one of the editors. Meanwhile, Dave Eggers'A Hologram for the King returns to our list after a month off wandering in the desert. A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava remains in our top spot (don't miss Garth Hallberg's profile of De La Pava from June), and D.T. Max's biography Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace holds on to the second spot (read the book's opening paragraphs), and Junot Díaz's This Is How You Lose Her (our review) leapfrogs other big fall books to land the third spot. We had two books graduate to our Hall of Fame: How to Sharpen Pencils by David Rees (don't miss the hilarious, yet oddly poignant interview) and Stephen Greenblatt's Pulitzer winner The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. Near Misses: Shakedown, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, An Arrangement of Light, The Fifty Year Sword, and New American Haggadah. See Also: Last month's list.

Tuesday New Release Day: Strayed, Iweala, Claudel, Andersen, Boyne, Hemingway, Dream Team, Pollack

Cheryl Strayed's collection of "Dear Sugar" columns is out this week (read our review). Also out are Our Kind of People by Uzodinma Iweala, The Investigation by Philippe Claudel, True Believers by Kurt Andersen, and The Absolutist by John Boyne. The new edition of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms with all the extra endings is out, as is (just in time for the Olympics) an oral history of the original Dream Team. Donald Ray Pollack's The Devil All the Time is out in paperback.

Dear Sugar: On Tiny Beautiful Things

A good psychoanalyst does two things: she listens, and she dissects. In Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her advice columns, Cheryl Strayed does both adeptly. The thing is, she’s never met the people she’s scrutinizing, and she’s far from a trained psychoanalyst. In fact, Strayed writes, “I’ve only seen a therapist a handful of times in my life.” It’s a shocking revelation. The columns in the book were originally written for The Rumpus under the pen name Sugar, and Strayed’s identity was concealed until February. In the book, the pieces are presented in five groups, interspersed with short Q&As with Strayed. Like every advice column, each piece here is in two parts: the letter someone sent in and the reply Sugar wrote back. Only here, the letters are long affairs -- usually paragraphs, sometimes pages. If you want to read Sugar’s words, you must read her advisee’s story first. But the real listening is in Sugar’s replies. Most people who write in use an alias -- Stuck, Mourning and Raging, Wanting -- which Strayed repeats throughout her letters, a reminder that she’s writing a column, yes, but she’s also writing it to you, letter-writer. It’s the affection of a mother, or a lover, saying your name over and over again. But it’s charged with an undercurrent: this isn’t, in fact, your name. It’s the question or lack that drives your existence. “I could put most of the letters I receive into two piles: those from people who are afraid to do what they know in their hearts they need to do, and those from people who have genuinely lost their way,” Strayed writes in one letter. It’s the former that yield the most interesting and thoughtful responses. Strayed finds the worm buried at the bottom of a pile of dirt, pulls it out like a thread, and slices it open. The innards of the innards: that’s where she starts. As Sugar puts it, “This is where we must dig.” Often, she quotes letters back at her advisees, showing them what they’ve already told her. One young woman, about to lose her job, asks Sugar whether she should take a prostitution gig in order to pay the bills. “You don’t need me to tell you whether you should accept this offer. You need me only to show you to yourself,” Strayed writes. “Every time I think about him touching me I want to cry, you say. Do you hear that?” Or, in another letter: “The sad but strong and true answer is the one you already told yourself.” Sugar forces us to swallow sometimes painful realizations about what we want, who we are, and what we therefore must do -- or, if not that, the choices we must make. She also lays bare the impossibility of controlling what isn’t ours to control. To a woman contemplating inviting her abusive father to her wedding in the hopes that he’ll be different, Sugar writes, “Oh, but baby girl, your father is not going to do anything you want him to do because you want him to do it. Not one damn motherloving thing! You simply didn’t get that kind of dad.” You simply didn’t get that kind of dad: this is a slap. Some things you don’t get to pick. The honesty is far more comforting than shallow promises would be. Sugar can handle what’s real in us. Psychoanalysts are meant to act as containers for their patients’ emotions and subconscious thoughts, modifying frustrations so patients can handle them -- the type of thing a detached or emotionally fragile mother can’t do. Sugar has this capacity, if (obviously) not the knowledge of her letter-writers that analysts have of their patients. If she can handle our treacherous secrets without disintegrating, maybe others will accept us in our entirety, too. Maybe we can even accept ourselves. Strayed’s letters were written anonymously, but this doesn’t prevent her from divulging incredibly personal details. We learn that her father was a “destructive force,” that her mother died young, that her grandfather sexually abused her. Her past has included theft, heroin, an abortion, a divorce. We learn that she now is married with two children, that she’s content, that her husband cheated on her, but that they transcended that horror. And we know that, by now, she knows herself pretty damn well. Sigmund Freud wrote: “The doctor should be opaque to his patients and, like a mirror, should show them nothing but what is shown to him.” Sugar? No. Aside from the anonymity, she’s anything but opaque. Well, sort of. Sugar seems to have had more experiences than any human we’ve ever met, like some sort of omniscient goddess. This is its own form of opacity. But on a literal level, yes, she’s sharing heaps of personal information. How do we reconcile her analyst-like aura with her revelatory tendencies? More to the point, how does she come across as listening to readers with her entire being if her response often features herself? These stories are not written for their own sake, but as a way to explain human complexity. The details of her past theft comes out as a means of empathizing with a writer ashamed of the same. Sugar describes her husband’s infidelity to help a fiancée with a stark, black-and-white view of marriage consider nuance. This is the type of meaning-making any personal essayist or memoirist should aim for, of course -- and, notably, Strayed is both -- but it’s all the more explicit and obvious in an advice column. Strayed’s story is, in its way, a mirror. One of Strayed’s most vital messages -- which her revelations of past lapses are meant to show -- is that being a real, whole person means being imperfect. Sugar models this not only in her history, but in her letters, too. Once in a while, she doesn’t offer the empathy we so seek. She falters. One woman writes in, distraught that her parents will no longer be helping with her student loans. She writes that she is angry, but that she feels selfish about it; more importantly, she writes, “My relationship with my parents has always been rocky to the point that I’ve come to realize I’ll never get any emotional support from them,” and “I wish my parents would see me for the vibrant woman I am.” Strayed replies by describing the 16 jobs she’d had by the time she graduated from college. She writes, “You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself.” Her letter focuses on the woman’s responsibility for her own (financial) life. This is valid. But perhaps Strayed’s own complexes about her financial history are clouding her judgment here, because her focus is misplaced. This letter isn’t, at root, about the money. It’s about emotional neglect -- the woman has literally written that she wishes her parents could really understand her. The monetary support was just a feeble stand-in, and now it’s gone. Sugar’s error here -- her rare failure to unearth the nugget at the center -- in fact helps us better understand her point. Sugar is good enough, but not perfect, as a person or an advisor. Which is exactly what she’s been trying to tell us all along.
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