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Learning about my mother, and myself, through 2017’s most intimate manga

My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness reaches across miles and cultures

The cover of Nagata Kabi’s My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, a manga distributed in the US by Seven Seas Entertainment. Nagata Kabi

My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness is an autobiographical manga, written and illustrated by Japanese author Kabi Nagata, that has garnered a notable English-speaking audience. That's a big deal for an independent, small creator.

While the manga is primarily a story about coming out and accepting yourself, it’s a fantastic telling of family structure and societal expectations in Japan facilitated through outdated values. Through chronicling her struggles with mental and physical health brought on by depression, up to realizing how her sexual preferences came to manifest, My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness is intimate and honest in a way that differs from the traditional Japanese telling of the adult experience.

There are aspects of Nagata’s story that many young adults may identify with, but her upbringing is distinctly and uniquely Japanese, and that is why her memoir speaks so deeply to me. Before reading her manga, I had never engaged with a piece of media that I could fully relate to. I thought my experience was niche, but Nagata managed to speak to me in a way no one has ever been able to before.

Whereas Nagata grew up in a homogenous Japan, I went through adolescence in America. I had no Asian-American community growing up, and found the connection to my heritage through my mom. When it came time to form my identity as a young adult, I took from my parents what I held as “normal” and internalized it. Nagata did the same, especially when it came to how her parents (and my parents) thought of depression, work ethic, and sex.

In Japan, seeking the approval of your parents in both your professional and personal life is a giant part of one’s identity. If you aren’t doing it for yourself, you’re doing it in the hopes of being recognized. In the manga, Nagata expresses how there are two versions of herself: There’s the version that lives to please her family, and then there’s the version that longs to please herself.

Published under a penname, Nagata divides her background into chapters that each delve into a different aspect of her life. In Chapter 2, “The Prequel,” Nagata brings the reader to the forefront of this cultural norm: “For me, my parents’ opinion was everything,” she writes. “I wanted my parents to approve of me. I wanted them to accept me, even if I didn’t try hard enough. That was my sole driving force.”

From what I understand of Japanese work culture, the concept of earning a salary is one step closer to being an adult. It means that you’re making “real” money that can in turn be spent on “real” expenses like rent. Not only that, but having a salary means you’ll be OK financially. What parent would want their child to worry about money? It’s a sign of success. Many high school students jump straight into the workforce after receiving their diploma (and thus the concept of the salaryman is born).

Nagata is a departure from this tradition, and instead tells her mom that she’d like to draw manga professionally. When her mother retorts with “Why?,” Nagata becomes discouraged. “After that, my parents continued to be all ‘salaried employee, salaried employee,’” she writes.

As I read through Nagata’s memoir, I was most moved by her struggle with depression. When I was a teenager, I lacked the vocabulary to express how I was feeling. If I decided to break out the word “depression” in front of either of my parents, they would grow confused, and insist that I was just “sad.” Just as I had no frame of reference for my pattern of depression, my parents couldn’t understand the sickness that I held, because it was invisible.

Mental health is something that wasn’t talked about in our household. It’s partly a mixture of cultural upbringing and being raised in a society that encourages us to suffer silently with invisible wounds. After being convinced that I was sad and not depressed, I went through the rest of my teenaged years thinking that it was normal to be closed off about my emotions. I never saw my mom cry or talk out her feelings, so that’s what I internalized.

It took some time, but eventually I unlearned what I had compartmentalized and sought out a therapist. Mom once asked me why I “suddenly decided” to go to therapy, and when I told her about the positive impact it’s had on my life, I found it hard to read her expression. “Good,” she said, and resumed what she was doing.

The constant in my life has always been my mom and dad. I want to be acknowledged by my parents so badly that it affects my sense of self to a point where nothing I ever produce will ever be good enough until they explicitly tell me so. My identity hinges on the approval of my parents. While Nagata illustrates the part of her that acts on her own behalf and the part of her that lives for her parents as two people vying for control, I struggle to dissociate the two parts of my nature. It’s something I’m gradually working on dismantling.

Nagata manages to sum up the majority of my cultural disconnect through glimpses into her family life and examining the relationship she has with her family — more specifically, her mom. Later on in the manga, Nagata mentions that she hates her mother but admits that she was the catalyst of awakening her sexuality. It’s not that she’s sexually attracted to her mother — at one point, Nagata comes to the realization that she was very attached to her mom physically as a child.

In the prelude, Nagata finds herself at the library after climbing out of another depressive cycle caused by bad mental health. Out of curiosity she reaches for a book about mental illness in children and is shocked upon finding a section that hit close to home — the book describes young boys who were overly affectionate toward their mothers. “I might have gotten bigger, but I clung to my mother.” She writes. “I even wondered if I’d been the model for the picture.”

This is where our experiences differ, but it made me realize: I cling to my mother, much like Nagata clings to hers. I mean that very literally. As an adult, I always find myself latching on to my mom in some way or another. I don’t remember being incredibly attached to my mom when I was younger, but as I grew into adulthood and examined the relationships that my American friends had with their mothers, I noticed a glaring difference.

The American moms I knew were very hands-on and expressive in their declaration of love and affection. Above all, moms and daughters hug. I can’t remember the last time my mom held me. I’ve thrown myself at her plenty of times just to be dramatic, but if you asked me sincerely to think of the last time we embraced of her own volition, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.

Because I’m self-deprecating, I’ll joke about how my mom doesn’t say that she loves me. She’s not cold or uncaring. The last thing I want to do is imply that I grew up unloved. I’m the person I am today because of the way I was raised. But it was confusing to grow up differently.

We have this thing that has turned into a running gag: I’ll go up to my mom and wrap my arms around her sometimes. Instead of relaxing under my touch, she remains rigid. I’ll press my cheek against the side of her face and squeeze her very gently. “I love you.” And instead of responding the way I always hope she would, it’s the same, bored sigh: “Oh. OK. Thank you.”

I often wonder if I cling so much to my mom in the attempt to find some common ground with our cultural differences. My mixed heritage has shaped my perception of self, especially when it came time to form an identity independent of my parents. I’m proud that I can speak Japanese, but I can’t read or write it. I will gladly explain the concept of bath culture but couldn’t tell you about the political climate. A large part of my identity hinges on the fact that I’m Japanese because it’s something that I’ll always have in common with my mom.

The way Nagata captures responses as influenced by cultural upbringing is fantastic. This is evident in the first chapter, when Nagata is sent home by a doctor and told to “take it easy” so that her mental health may recover. Upon finally telling her mother about what her long-standing depression felt like, and that she’d be resting at home, her mom responded: “I thought you were on a break this whole time.” We then see a shocked Nagata, eyes wide with a defeated expression to signify to us the disconnect between mother and daughter.

That kind of dry response is what I’ve come to expect from my own mom as well. It isn’t a lack of empathy … to be honest, I’m not sure what it is. But for the longest time, I just thought this was normal. I didn’t understand that culturally, because my mom and I are different, the way we understand the world is not going to be the same. Age and upbringing are also contributors. In hindsight, this sounds like a very silly realization to have. But this was my norm.

And her norm was passed on through her parents as well. Her parents never expressed verbal love for her or her sister. “My dad has never said it,” My mother tells me over a cup of green tea. “I don’t think he will, even before he dies.”

“What about Oba-chan?” I ask. “Did she ever tell you that she loved you?”

She leans back in her seat to think it over. “No.” When asked why, she shrugs. “I don’t know. It’s not in our culture.”

I think they operate under the “show, don’t tell” mentality when it comes to the language of love. We talk about how Japan as a society still values tradition, but wonder if that’s changed. “I’m almost 60,” she says. “Maybe this generation is different.” As I take away her cup, I mention the dynamic between Nagata and her mom in the manga. Very simply, she replies: “That sounds like us.” And she’s right.

By the end of the manga, Nagata learns to let go of parental expectations after coming to the conclusion that living as her true, authentic self is much better for her mental health. The steps it took to get there were long and took years of self-reflection, but breaking free from those shackles has no doubt improved her sense of self. I don’t have a perfect relationship with my mom, and perhaps I never will. But My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness has given me something else: an open and honest conversation with myself.

Emma Kidwell is a writer on the web. She makes games and constantly forgets to give out bardic inspiration during D&D sessions.