Himawari House breathes a breath of fresh air into the contemporary graphic novel genre. I have never come across a multilingual graphic novel so it was really refreshing to see Harmony Becker seamlessly incorporate English, Japanese, Korean, and Singlish in her work. I loved that the English equivalent of whatever was being said in Japanese was imperfect, or incomplete, to convey a specific character’s ‘limited’ knowledge/understanding of the language.
We follow Nao, a Japanese-American young woman, over the course of a year that she spends at the Himawari sharehouse in Tokyo. Nao longs to reconnect to her Japanese heritage, but soon after arriving in Tokyo is made to feel like an outsider, an American, a ‘foreigner’. Growing up in America she was also made to feel like an outsider, with her white peers taunting her for the way she looked, for the food she ate, etc.
In going to Japan Nao hoped to find that which she’d been so yearning for, a place to belong to. Thankfully for Nao, she’s not alone in her attempts to master the Japanese language and understand/adapt to Japanese customs. She bonds with two other girls staying at the Himawari sharehouse: Hyejung, who is Korean, and Tina, who is from Singapore. The three study Japanese at language school, find part-time work, explore the city, go to festivals, share meals together, etc. The story has a very slice-of-life feel that really gives us an impression of the characters’ everyday lives in Tokyo. Additionally, Becker gives us insight into the girls’ pasts, and we learn more about Hyejung and Tina’s lives prior to Tokyo, what led them there, and what made them stay.
I loved the friendship and their moments of bonding together, and I found myself really liking Hyejung and Tina. Now, Nao was harder for me to like. Which is weird given that—to a certain degree of course—I understood her longing to belong, and what she says about feeling more American in Japan and more Japanese in America made me think of how I feel, and I am made to feel, like a foreigner both in England and Italy (tiny violin playing in the background). But she had this very binary way of looking at things and her understanding of everything was very…dare I say, American? I could see why she was frustrated by the way Japan is portrayed and spoken of in the West, and her anger at the kind of white people who think that because they watch anime that means they speak Japanese or know all about Japan (there is this hilarious video on youtube that makes fun of this type of person) but the idea that a country or a language belongs only to those who have lived there or have parents who were born there, well, it makes me a bit sad I won’t lie (i am definitely more in line with jhumpa lahiri’s way of thinking).
Maybe I am being too sensitive about this because I am living in a ‘foreign’ country…I don’t quite know. Also, while she does usually specify that she dislikes white people who playact being Japanese, I thought she was a bit insensitive towards Tina and Hyejung, especially when she complains about being seen as a foreigner (or seems to see this word as inherently negative) when both of them also are foreigners and will undoubtedly experience xenophobia for not being Japanese. I don’t know, I just didn’t like her that much. Then again, maybe I am being a bit hypocritical in disliking her…boh.
Anyway, despite not really liking Nao, I still loved the friendship she forms with Hyejung and Tina, and I did appreciate the characters’ conversations on language, belonging, and identity.
The romantic subplots were a bit too heteronormative for my liking (don’t @ me, there was some good queer potential here). I’m glad the author didn’t couple up everyone at the house but still…I wish the focus could have remained on the friendship between Nao, Hyejung, and Tina.
While I wasn’t wholly enamoured by Becker’s art style, her illustrations generally strike a good balance between being cute and simple, and she usually conveys really clearly the characters’ various states of mind.
All in all, this is a good read and I look forward to reading more by Becker. If you are looking for a coming of age graphic novel exploring the realities and complexities of being a young adult, specifically of living abroad, well, look no further. The story has many moments of lightness and sadness, and the ending is rather bittersweet. Becker captures the experiences of feeling like a perpetual outsider, the difficulties in learning and adapting to another culture (or a culture that is you consider yourself part of but did not grow up in), and of making your own way into the world, even if it means leaving your loved ones ‘behind’. And of course, the multilingualism at play here is just chief’s kiss. More of this, please.
My rating: ★ ★ ★ ½
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