I’ve been spending a lot of time reading picture books lately and when I’m not doing that, I am either reading the New Yorker, academic journals, or slowly catching up on trade fiction must-reads that I’ve missed out on over the past couple of years. This is what happens when you have a toddler in the house and run an editorial business!
But, when I got my hands on Keshni Keshyap’s Tina’s Mouth, I made sure to put everything down so that I could read a graphic novel whose publication I’ve been awaiting since 2008 (when I first got wind of its development). Cleverly and sweetly illustrated by the Japan-born Mari Araki, the book was well worth the wait and is a welcome addition to the library of fusion stories — contemporary novels by Asian Americans aren’t traditional tales set in Asia nor stories about coming to America for the first time.
The jacket flap aptly compares Tina’s Mouth to two of my favorite graphic novels, both of which deftly and humorously weave together themes of coming-of-age and identity with portraits of family and cultural life.
In the tradition of Persepolis and American Born Chinese, a wry and endearing high school heroine comes of age. Tina M., sophomore, is a wry observer of the cliques and mores of Yarborough Academy, and of the foibles of her Southern California intellectual Indian family. She’s on a first-name basis with Jean-Paul Sartre, the result of an English honors class assignment to keep an “existential diary.”
Like American Born Chinese, the protagonist of Tina’s Mouth encounters awkward social situations in her school environment that are all-too-familiar to children of immigrant parents (i.e. reader like myself). As Keshni Keshyap explains,
Tina is from a very specific world – a tight-knit ethnic community and family and also a very particular sort of school environment. So yes, the book is inspired by the environment I grew up in. Tina is an outsider in both these worlds, just like I always felt I was. This ‘outsiderness’ may explain why I’ve been drawn to questions that are internal in nature. I think the same goes for Mari – and you can see that in her paintings. How do you live an authentic life? How do you figure out who you are in a complicated, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society? I was a pretty shy and anxious teenager and I spent a lot of time alone – eating lunch alone, etc., not unlike Tina. I think that’s why existentialism appealed to me. It encourages you to find an anchor within yourself.
And, like Persepolis (the two books boast the same editor, Anjali Singh!), Tina’s Mouth offers idiosyncratic and an almost film-life portrait of South Asian family and cultural life –ones that I, as a reader of South Asian background, particularly appreciated because they felt like an organic part of the novel, not a political statement or specific exploration of Tina’s cultural heritage. The author, a film-maker herself, “wasn’t interested in writing an Indian ‘longing for the homeland’ sort of story, the kind that we see in a lot of Indian diasporic writing. She “just wanted to write Tina’s story, really, and be very true to who [she] felt [Tina] was and that shines through beautifully in the book. As Keshyap (who herself is a filmmaker) explains,
“I didn’t think [Tina] was directly interested in her cultural heritage. Not at fifteen at least. She was more interested in boys and friends. She was interested in her identity only by default. To that point, I think we’re in a transition period in America where demographics and power are shifting. The America I grew up in was less familiar with weird names and different races. So, there was an early nineties identity-claiming that people of color in America who are now in their thirties and forties went through. Tina’s a different generation. They think about race slightly differently. I talked to teenagers while I was writing this book, particularly non-white girls who went to expensive schools. It was interesting…they are a little different, and yet kind of the same.
Below the fold are some sample pages from the book as well as a brief Q&A with Keshni Keshyap, which focuses specifically on the desi (South Asian) perspective that the author brought to the writing process.
Literary Safari: Your book was clearly influenced by Persepolis which tells a story about coming of age at a specific political moment but is interlaced with themes of culture. When you read that book, did you think, “there has to be a desi version of this?”
Keshni Keshyap: No. I never thought that there had to be a ‘desi’ version of the Persepolis story. I’m sure there must be, but that is not what I set out to write. I was inspired by Perseoplis as a form. I hadn’t been exposed to literary comic books and, having directed a handful of short film, I found them intriguing as a way of visual storytelling. I wanted to use the form to tell a story and I wanted to write about the world I knew – being an Indian-American teenager growing up in L.A. From the beginning, Tina’s Mouth was never meant to have overt political elements.
LS: Growing up, what was your experience of desi literature and how has that experience influenced your own writing?
KK: My mom always read a lot of ‘desi’ literature such as Rushdie, Roy, Manto, Tagore, Naipaul so I was exposed to it growing up. I always loved reading and I’ve always written. So maybe on a subconscious level there was a message…Certainly, while I was of college age, India went through a sort of literary boom where the West suddenly took note and gave generous book contracts, awards etc., the sort of boom that maybe Africa is going through now. That increased my exposure too. That said, I also watched a lot of MTV growing up. I think what I do now is influenced by such a pastiche of things!
LS: Who was your audience when writing this book? Your 15 year old self? Today’s 15 year old South Asian/second gen immigrant girls who might be encountering similar angst? Or something much broader?
KK: It’s a personal story, so in a way – yes, I was writing for my fifteen year old self but also my 30-something year old self. I always wanted it to work on a few levels.
LS: The book is about a young girl finding herself, but also her own sexuality, a theme that has not been explored much in YA literature about South Asians. As I was reading, I was reminded of Rakesh Satyal’s BLUE BOY. How do you think male and female coming of age is different and the same in our community and as expressed in literature?
KK: ‘Coming-of-age’ really depends on what circumstances you grow up under. Yes, boys and girls grow up with different pressures and needs. So do gay people and straight people. A lot has been made of ‘coming-of-age’ as a genre, but my feeling, really, is that ‘coming-of-age’ stories are simply about people who experience personal growth. That can happen sexually, spiritually, emotionally and physically. And it can happen at any age.
LS: I read that Amar Chitra Katha comics, the ubiquitous mythological comic books of India, were a constant element of your reading childhood. Can you talk about the influence of that, perhaps, on this, your first book?
KK: Well, I read ACK’s like gangbusters when I was a kid. I think it certainly affected my ideas of beauty growing up in a pre-9-11/pre-Obama America. I certainly think that ACK’s are extremely effective, immersive storytelling. They really work. So, maybe they played a part in my interest in film and comics and creating thoroughly immersive worlds. What happens, I think, when you grow up in a multicultural society like I did where there are a lot of different influences, you don’t know exactly how and what has affected you in what way (was it MTV, ACK’s, John Hughes or Rabrindranath Tagore??) Perhaps a combination of everything….