It’s not often that a graphic novel debut heralds the emergence of a storytelling talent the way Lee Lai’s Stone Fruit (out now from Fantagraphics) does. Her new graphic novel digs deep into its characters with both subtle moments and bravado flourishes, sharp dialogue and sweeping watercolor washes. It’s the first book-length narrative from an artist whose journey starts in Melbourne and Montreal, and grows from assorted mini comics to a graphic novel that’s garnered glowing reviews and was named one of the Most Anticipated LGBTQ Books of 2021 by Oprah Magazine.
I first encountered Lai’s work on a table at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival in 2017. Immediately struck by the lush art, I picked up some of her gorgeous hand printed minicomics—but when I got home I realized the artist hadn’t signed them. Luckily, her style was so distinctive that I was able to track her down via some of her other online work.
“That’s very in character for the way that I make comics,” Lai, 28, laughs when reminded of the TCAF incident while talking over Skype from her Montreal studio. “Stone Fruit is the first time I've published anything with a commercial publisher.” Lai’s switch from mini comics to longer stories took a while because “I wanted to get my skill level to the degree that enabled me to make hundreds of pages.”
Lai’s eye catching mini comics were all about the unspoken tensions of mostly queer relationships, things said and unsaid that lead to actions based on uncertainty and anxiety. It’s a theme brought to a fuller realization in Stone Fruit which follows a queer couple, Ray and Bron, and their siblings as they deal with the messy meaning of family. Ray and Bron find joy in their time with Nessie, Ray’s young niece, who loves playing with her “weird queer aunties.” But tensions with Ray’s sister (and single mother), Amanda, spill over into the couple’s relationship. When Ray and Bron eventually separate, Bron returns to her own family, only to find them struggling with their religious beliefs and her trans identity. Both Ray and Bron eventually find a deeper connection with their sisters – but Lai’s unsparing narrative leaves no room for a tidy ending.
When she started work on it, Lai’s story focused solely on Bron, Ray and Nessie. “I wanted to write a story about play [and childhood] in the context of the larger experience of depression and harder things,” she says, including “supporting someone who is going through a difficult time with mental health.” Initially Lai was more connected to Ray, who struggles to understand Bron’s emotional issues. “I wanted to show how she has to reckon with the idea that she can't fix somebody, which was something I was chewing on in my own life.”
But as the story was being written, it kept growing “and I got interested in more of the characters,” including questions of motherhood and sibling relationships. Neither Ray nor Bron’s parents are articulate about their emotions, a common thread in the real world, Lai found. “I'm surrounded by many examples of people growing up with parents that don’t really give them an easy time to be humans. They plan to be nothing like their parents but at some point they have to confront [the effects of their upbringing].”
While much of the book is dialogue, there are also wildly visual passages in which Bron and Nessie’s play times turn them into wild monsters, a visual contrast to the more inhibited and inexpressive relationships depicted in the book. While the monsters are a great visual metaphor, Lai started it as a drawing challenge “to draw things more playfully and loosely” since so many of her mini comics dealt with heavy topics.
Lai’s powers of observation and ear for realistic but dramatic dialogue were honed by her years working in the restaurant industry, listening to friends, and even attending writing workshops. “I’m surrounded by people who talk in very transparent and heavy hitting ways. Looking further back, I had two parents who treated me and my sister [as older] from an early age,” she recalls. “The kiddie table wasn't really a thing.”
She’s also been working on writing as its own discipline, a somewhat unusual move in the world of indie comics. Lai recalls advice she received from a colleague: “You can get away with bad art and a good story more than you can get away with good art and a bad story.” While mentioning names would be “bloody rude, I've got a lot of [graphic novels] where I don’t [rate] the art but I love the story—they captivate me in a way that beautiful things never did, even though they impressed me.”
Developing as a writer was hard work. “I didn't really think I was able to write because I was too fixated on making the drawings look nice,” she says, but a few years ago she entered a screenwriting class, which required her to write a script over the course of the year. It was the first time she tried to write a script without pictures and the workshop included sharp critiques from the participants, who “read my work without the pictures to trick people or distract or support the work.” With people judging her writing as writing for the first time, she received valuable advice, but she notes this process isn’t common among her cartoonist colleagues. When she mentioned to her editor at Fantagraphics, publisher Gary Groth, that she was workshopping her latest project, “he said he's never really heard of cartoonists showing their work to anyone before it's more or less done.”
Lai grew up in Melbourne, Australia, where the creative comics scene is strong but the industry is still emerging. She was always a voracious reader, but a slight case of dyslexia made comics an easy way to devour even more stories. As a teenaged art student, she got into the local zine scene and discovered cartoonists like Dan Clowes and Craig Thompson. Later she discovered the comics published by Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly, and heard about their bookstore, which carries a wide array of graphic novels. These actually inspired her move to Montreal. “I'd never been out of Australia before but I decided to book a plane ticket to North America and went to Montreal just to have a look at the D&Q bookstore there,” she says.
As a trans Asian-Australian cartoonist, Lai negotiates many subcultures at once but found a welcoming community in Montreal. “There's a huge queer Asian community in Montreal, and a general goodwill and welcome between trans people and between different Asian and political subcultures. Moving from across the world would have been a very different experience if there weren’t these support systems in place.”
Although the number of queer comics and trans creators is growing, “there's still not many of us, and there's not many books that have trans characters where the story isn't really about that. I always get extremely excited when there are queer or trans characters and the story isn’t about having some gigantic revelation about identity and staring into a mirror.”
Her next graphic novel is “moving slowly, as they do, but it's called Cannon. I'm trying to work out ideas about anger and the lethargy and tension of long-term friendships. I think with the comics medium, there is something about pictures and writing together that helps you figure things out, and a lot of comics are autobiographical because of that. For me, fiction really helps me work through things and write in a way that feels honest and emotional.”