Artist/illustrator Harmony Becker made her name in part with They Called Us Enemy, her 2019 collabo with George Takei that eventually won an Eisner award. Now, she’s going it her own with her debut graphic novel.
Himawari House is a YA-centric graphic novel that follows “three foreign exchange students and the pleasures, and difficulties, of adjusting to living in Japan.” It’s a poignant tale of friendship and immersion based on Becker’s own experiences as living in Japan and learning the language as a half-Japanese person. If you liked They Call Us Enemy, Becker clearly steps her game up with Himawari House.
Ahead of today’s release (November 9), we caught up with Becker via email, where we talked about working as both the writer and artist, her love of YA audiences, learning Japanese, and much, much more.
AIPT: What’s your elevator pitch for this book/project? Do you think it’s all like “X meets X”?
Harmony Becker: I always struggle giving an elevator pitch for Himawari House because it isn’t very “X meets X”! Basically, Himawari House is a multilingual graphic novel about three international girls living together in a share house in Tokyo. The story follows them over the course of a year as they experience the joys and struggles of recreating themselves in a new country and a new language.
AIPT: This book’s basically your solo debut. What’s it like going it alone? And what’s it like balancing the work of both writer and artist for a project?
HB: It’s interesting, because it was after I started the original Himawari House webcomic, Himawari Share, that I got approached to work on They Called Us Enemy, which was created by a team of four. So when I came back to Himawari House after having worked on that book, I had all this experience working with other writers as a foundation to draw upon for my own work. When it was still a webcomic, I didn’t write scripts beforehand, but I realized how much easier it is to change things in the script before drawing, and incorporated that into my process.
It’s both really exciting and scary to work alone, because I have total control, and I also have no one else to blame if I don’t like the finished product, haha.
AIPT: The book, at least in part, is based on your own experiences. How do you remain so open and forthcoming regarding something so intimate and/or personal, and how do you balance fantasy and real-life?
HB: I think a lot about the idea of communication. I could have a long conversation with you about all these experiences I had, about everything I learned, and how eye-opening it was for me, but there’s so much that gets lost in the telling. There’s no perfect medium to put yourself in another’s shoes, but I thought that if I wrote this book, maybe I’d get a little closer to conveying those experiences accurately to other people.
The idea of things being personal or private is also really interesting to me, how we create these platforms where it becomes more acceptable to share a part of yourself that you can’t convey in a conversation. That’s what really draws me to art and music and storytelling, connecting with people on these different planes. Maybe we don’t have anything in common and maybe we’ll never meet in person, but maybe we’ll recognize something deep within each other in words on the page, on the screen, or in a song. Anyway, I think I dwell within this sort of fantasy plane most of the time, so it’s very exciting to feel like I can bring people with me here, hehe.
AIPT: Were there any sort of books or stories that helped you cope during your experience in immersing yourself in the Japanese language and culture?
HB: I started getting really into Japanese dramas and music when I was going through a really difficult time in my life. I had terrible self esteem and really bad depression, but I’d watch these ridiculous fluffy dramas and feel so much lighter, stuff like Nodame Cantabile, Kimi wa Petto. I think learning Japanese was almost like an escape from myself in a way. The edges of the language, the way you relate to yourself and other people in Japanese culture, are so different from the United States, and it almost felt like a chance to be a completely different person.
AIPT: Why write to a YA-centric audience? Is it because they’re more eager or willing to engage with these works? Maybe because you’re able to help influence and shape their subsequent preferences for art/culture?
HB: Those are all really great reasons to write for a young adult audience, but I actually didn’t really think about it so much while writing. I get really self-conscious and tend to overthink and become insincere and flat when I feel like I need to create work for anyone besides myself. It would be incredible if someone could engage with my work that way, but to be completely honest, I wrote this book for myself and my younger sister. We used to draw comics for each other when we were kids and every couple of pages we’d leave a little blank space for the other one to write in their comments and questions. I think we also are very similar so I felt that she’d be the person who would relate the most to the things I was writing about.
AIPT: What are some of the challenges for you when learning Japan and living/visiting there? What about any unexpected upsides or things of that nature?
HB: One challenging thing is that there are so many rules, for so many very specific situations, that you can’t possibly prepare for all of them beforehand. Compounded on that was this self-imposed need to prove myself as one of the insiders, as being “really” Japanese, so I’d get incredibly upset with myself every time I committed a social faux pas or someone realized I was foreign after talking to me. I think it was the process of writing this book that allowed me to realize and process that feeling, which was both painful and really healing.
There’s so many things that I love about Japan. Everything is clean and organized and smells good, there’s so much care and attention to detail and beauty everywhere, people are considerate of each other, the food is delicious, the culture is complex and weird and interesting. I can’t really put it all into words, but I suppose that’s part of the reason I wrote this book in the first place.
One thing I didn’t expect is how much I constantly think about death every time I’m there. I think it might have something to do with the fact that there’s so many earthquakes. It’s like the Earth reminding you that life isn’t as solid and unshakeable as you might convince yourself it is–it’s actually a very fragile thing that might be upended at any moment.
AIPT: The book got me thinking about just how important language is to the immersion process. Is that hard to demonstrate in the course of a graphic novel?
HB: It was a challenge! Our editors and designers were such troopers, dealing with so many multiple fonts in different languages in varying shades.
In a graphic novel, you don’t get the dimension of actually hearing the language spoken, which definitely changes the way you experience it. There’s a couple instances where I had to switch up the subtitles to sound out the foreign words rather than translate them, as the characters occasionally would deliberate over one word that they didn’t know the meaning of. I think it would be a lot of fun in the future to make Himawari House into some kind of series or movie, and explore different ways of showing comprehension (or the lack of) with the added dimensions of sound and time.
AIPT: Was it a challenge balancing three protagonists or main characters? Why’d you opt for this specific configuration in developing the book?
HB: I suppose it was a matter of picking one sort of overarching theme or idea that I wanted to explore with each character–for Nao, that’s mostly her relationship with her cultural identity.
Hyejung’s arc mainly deals with her past and how that relates to her present. Tina’s arc follows her difficulty in reconciling her inner, private world with the real world and the people around her.
I also really like stories that explore the richness and depth of many different people rather than allowing just one person to have dimension–of course, I didn’t flesh out every single character that appears in the book, but I did think that having multiple protagonists was a good way to explore that idea.
AIPT: What are some other books, films, shows, etc. that influence your overall approach as both a writer and an artist?
HB: In terms of writing, Honey and Clover by Umino Chica was a massive influence. The narrative flow and tone of Himawari House was largely modeled on the way she blends together melancholy, humor and sweetness.
From an artistic perspective, I was really inspired by the works of Aki Irie (Gunjou Gakusha), Kanna Kii (Harukaze no Etranger) and Kiyohiko Azuma (Yotsuba&!). I am also really influenced by 2D animation–when I was younger my dream was to work at Studio Ghibli or Disney. I think it was specifically Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas’s approach to drawing emotions on characters with a lot of care and empathy that had a big impact on my work. And of course everything that Studio Ghibli puts out is fantastic–the attention to detail, the complexity of the themes explored, the gusto for life that bursts out of the screen–all of that inspired me immensely as a kid, and continues to influence my work to this day.
AIPT: Why should anyone pick this book up?
HB: The experiences I wrote about in this book expanded my world view. I hope that anyone who reads it can experience that same expansion and excitement about the world around them, even if just a little bit. Also, read this book if you like languages, heartbreak, friendship and crying.
The following pages are courtesy of Macmillan.
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