In Tobimatsu’s graphic memoir, Kimiko Does Cancer (Arsenal Pulp, Nov.), the young, queer Asian-Canadian lawyer navigates a breast cancer diagnosis and the “cancer warrior” support group culture.
What drew you to the graphic novel form for your memoir?
Well, I don’t have a creative writing background at all—I didn’t even think of myself as creative before starting on this project. I just wanted to detail what had happened, myself not fitting into the mold of a traditional cancer patient. I wanted to share some of my experiences, but without too much commentary. Not understanding comics fully at the time, I thought, “We’re just going to draw exactly what happened.” I had stick figures drawn. And, what I thought was going to be a zine of 20 pages became a graphic novel, as Keet Geniza, the illustrator, pulled the emotions out from me. Her father also had cancer, and has since passed; she knew what it was like to navigate the medical system. We had a synchronicity.
Your memoir brings up the disconnect you felt when it came to the “kick cancer’s butt” narrative that you found in support groups—could you talk a bit more about that?
I think cancer organizations get too much money! First of all, even within cancer programs, there’s too much focus on treatment—and not enough on prevention. Then there’s funding coming from corporations that are probably also contributing to the causes of cancer. And I think part of the reason is that everybody has been affected by cancer in some way, so it flattens the narrative; we don’t have to get into these messy decisions, because there are fewer complicated emotions around cancer than, for example, homelessness or lack of clean drinking water on Canada’s reservations.
What do you think drives that phenomenon?
Illness is simple for people to throw money at; and images like women and children without hair open people’s wallets, which also gets at gender norms. And though I’ve benefitted from support groups personally, more money could go instead toward focusing on the disparities in health care—who is getting diagnosed early on and who isn’t, for example. We can complicate the fund-raising model.
What are some of the comics that inspire you now?
There’s Mariko Tamaki, who has written great queer stories and is mixed as well—and also Georgia Webber, who wrote Dumb, about her losing her voice, which has a lot of parallels to my memoir. There’s great, diverse stories coming out that I’ve turned to, and this burgeoning field called graphic medicine, which is a niche area, where both patients and doctors share their experiences with the medical system and disability. Comics don’t get enough respect, and I hope we are moving in the direction of readers taking them more seriously.