Q. What was the inspiration behind the book?
KK: 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.
MA: I have always been in love with Indian culture and art and this was a project that I was really inspired and excited about; a mix of India and US. I’m Japanese from Japan. But, I’ve also lived in the U.S. for many years. So I understood the multi-cultural aspect of it. Also, in my paintings, I look a lot at self-exploration, so in that way, I understood the existential questions.
Q. Why don’t you deal more directly with Tina’s Indian heritage?
KK: I just wanted to write Tina’s story, really, and be very true to who I felt she was. I didn’t think she 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.
Also, to be honest, I 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. Of course, those are interesting stories, but I grew up in a much more brittle, international, secular, non-traditional family who thinks about things like longing and homeland in ways that I haven’t quite seen yet in the majority of diasporic Indian writing – certainly Indian American writing. I’m still figuring that out.
Q. How much research on existentialism did you do?
KK: I did take a class in highschool on existentialism and I remember loving it. I never kept an existential diary though, so I didn’t know exactly what I was thinking about then. To research Tina’s Mouth so many years later, I did – in a streak of great ambition – try to read Being and Nothingness by Jean Paul Sartre and quickly moved to re-reading Sartre’s plays like No Exit, The Wall and Nausea which are easier to digest. I also read a bit about Sartre himself, trying to understand how and why he would appeal to Tina. I felt that the answer lay in his unabashed mandate to live an authentic life; that an authentic life is earned instead of bestowed or even learned and that authenticity actually builds better societies.
Q. The story is told through the eyes of a fifteen year old girl. How did you channel existentialism through the mind of a teenager?
KK: Tina’s fifteen, so she could only understand existentialism the way she understood it – she would never have had the patience to read Being and Nothingness. The most useful bit of help I got was when I reached out to my now-retired high school existentialism teacher, the amazing Jim Parkman. I sent him a page of questions and he wrote me this hilarious and beautiful break-down of the basic tenets of existential thought and some of the obvious differences between say Sartre and Camus, who were rivals. He also had a lot of funny points (and brought up some nice memories) about teaching existentialism to a room full of fourteen and fifteen year olds.
MA: They are basic questions about existence that Tina is asking. Of course, I understood them because I was also fifteen and I felt that I was searching (still searching) for mine. Also Tina’s one of those strong edgy girls and I liked that. But, my job was to get Keshni’s point across, so it was also about us having conversations.
Q. How has your work in film informed the book?
KK: In many ways. When I read Persepolis, I fell in love with the form. It made a lot of sense to me. What appealed to me the most is that you can make comics almost novelistic in a way you can’t with film. In general, images have more power than words – especially in our society. And when you put words and images together, they aren’t easily miscible. They fight with each other. The creativity of the graphic novel form really allows you figure that puzzle out. As nerdy as this sounds, that’s what drew me to the form –playing with that puzzle. Of course, it’s also a lot of fun to write a book and work with an illustrator. It’s like making a movie, but you’re only two people and you have no one to answer to but yourselves.
Q. What was the process and how did you and Mari work together?
KK: It was my favorite part of the process. It took four full years to make this book, though we were doing other things as well. I wrote the script and then Mari drew and we worked and re-worked. We had to constantly come up with new solutions to problems, which was difficult but fun. ‘It takes a lot of mash to make whiskey’ and Mari was incredibly patient. The book has close to a thousand drawings and that is only a fraction of what she originally drew. It’s honestly some of the most fun I’ve ever had was sitting around at a table for hours on end working with Mari. We even went to Vegas when we were finishing the first draft and locked ourselves up for three days at Paris, Vegas which was a great place to work for a short period of time.
MA: It was definitely my favorite part too. We just kept going back and forth. Making things more specific. Doing layouts together, fixing emotions, changing the way a character looked. Becoming close to Keshni, made it easier for me to understand and connect with Tina and the story.
Q. How do you think that this book is different from other graphic novels?
KK: Mari is a surrealist painter and I’m a filmmaker by training with roots in art and experimental film. Neither one of us ever really set out to write comics. And, we never tried really to do anything but make the story work. So, physically, it looks different from the average comic book. I also think the most obvious difference is that the book is writer driven as opposed to illustrator driven and that is uncommon, Neil Gaiman and Harvey Pekar being the most obvious and brilliant exceptions.
Q. What are you doing next?
KK: I am working on a novel, a collection of stories and a script. All set within similar environments as Tina’s Mouth. Mari and I have another graphic novel we’re working on that has nothing to do with Indians! It is set in L.A., however.
MA: I am working on paintings at my studio in LA and working on commercial illustration work. I’m also looking forward to illustrating Keshni’s next story.