Asian American author and cartoonist Harmony Becker illustrated George Takei’s acclaimed graphic novel They Called Us Enemy, before writing her debut graphic novel, Himawari House, which originated as a webcomic called Himawari Share. The book tells the coming of age story of a Japanese American girl reconnecting with her Japanese heritage while spending a year at the Himawari sharehouse with other language learners in Tokyo. PW spoke with Becker about her inspiration for the novel, her experiences that made their way into the novel, and what readers can expect from her next.
Can you tell us a bit about the inspiration behind Himawari House?
I wanted to write about something I knew. And I wanted to explore something that maybe wasn’t a super common experience. One experience I’ve always had a hard time relaying the depth of is how intense the immersion experience [into a foreign language] is. I moved to Korea for a year and a half. My mom is Japanese. I just thought ‘what do I know a lot about,’ enough that I could do a long-form story. And I thought ‘language learning is something I know a lot about.’ How can I combine all of these elements into one thing that will be longer than one chapter?
Western media has a habit of displaying accents in a negative way, but your graphic novel treats accents in a respectful way and not for comedic effect. What was the thought process behind avoiding that stigma around accents?
It was an interesting process because I didn’t realize at first how much as Asian Americans we’ve internalized that showing an accent on television is offensive. And even if we grow up hearing them and the people in our lives have accents there’s still a bit of a stigma to having one, [such as] people not taking you seriously. I remember when I was in Korea and I would speak in Korean my family would laugh at me a lot. I’m not trying to be funny. I’m just trying to talk. But I think having that experience made me realize, the accent really affects the ways other people see you. At first when I was doing it as a webcomic, I didn’t put in accents that much. But I decided that I really wanted to do something along the veins of what Zora Neale Hurston did in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
The visual [of garbled language] took a while to come to because the design team and I experimented with several ways of visualizing that feeling. In my webcomic I would just scribble over it. When we were putting it out for print we tried a couple of different options. There was one point where I had fake letters that kind of looked like Japanese form, but we ended up going with the garbled kind of glitchy feeling.
I find accents to be part of real life and it was interesting to realize [how accents also affected this work] throughout the editing process as well. There were a couple of people who raised concerns that Hyejung and Tina speak in accents. They thought it might be offensive to some people. I hate being offensive and don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. And of course, I can understand that people sometimes have a visceral reaction to accents. You just automatically think you’re being made fun of as an Asian when you hear an accent. But it’s a reality. And the fact that we don’t reflect that realistically is something that I’d like to see changed. I also especially love the Singapore accent. It’s so cute and I just love it.
Himawari House is filled with many specific Asian references, from snacks to media. There is even a part where one of your characters refers to herself as ‘miso soup.’ Were there any instances you drew from your own experiences that made their way into the pages of your book?
That was actually a real thing that happened, except she wanted her name to be Oatmeal. One of my Korean friends came to the U.S. for the first time and my friends and I asked her ‘what’s your [American] name?’ At first she wanted her name to be Harry like from Harry Potter and we told her ‘I don’t know if people are going to go for that.’ And she said, ‘OK, what about Oatmeal, I really like Oatmeal.” [Laughs] I was like, ‘I don’t think that’s going to work.’
But you kind of see people’s opinion of you shift once they realize that you don’t speak as well as they thought that you did. The instance that’s coming to mind right now is the bit where Masaki and Nao go out to eat udon and he asks her what air quotes mean. It’s very difficult to explain what air quotes mean to people from countries that don’t have a lot of sarcasm. Just having to explain the concept of sarcasm is really hard.
What can you tell us about what you are working on?
I’ve been writing recently but I don’t know yet what form the finished product is going to take. Ideally, I would like it to be an animated movie but I have no prior experience with that, so we’ll see. As of now it’s kind of a magical realism story about a Japanese and a Mexican girl living in Mexico City. But it’s still very much in the early stages. Hopefully if I talk about it in public enough it’ll drive my motivation to keep working on it and not abandon it. But I have a couple of other graphic novel projects coming up that I can’t talk about yet.
Himawari House by Harmony Becker. First Second, $24.99 Nov. 9; ISBN 978-1-250-23556-5