The Spring 2017 Manga Guide My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness Vol. 1
What's It About?
Kabi Nagata is about to have her first sexual experience at age twenty-eight with a lesbian escort service. She can't quite believe she's at this point, and looks back on the past ten years at her struggles with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, cutting, and uncertainty about her own worth as a human being. All of it leads up to her writing this manga, and the journey is one that is both recognizable and upsetting in this brutally honest autobiography. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness was originally a web manga by Kabi Nagata on Pixv before being published in book form. It will be released in June by Seven Seas, retailing for $13.99.
Is It Worth Reading?
My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is one of the most powerful manga I have ever read, and it all comes down to Nagata Kabi's openness and honesty. Her illustrations tend to be simple, but they do such a good job of conveying her emotional state throughout her life. Her cartoonish representation of herself looks so sickly and miserable through so much of the manga that, when she finally reaches a better mental place by the end of it, you can immediately see the difference despite the simplicity of the design. There's no flowery language or poetic metaphors, just straight-forward descriptions of her feelings that don't leave room for interpretation. Nothing feels exaggerated because there is no need to exaggerate it, merely being accurate is so much more effective. Her blunt admissions of feeling unworthy of happiness, of sneaking off to binge-eat at work, of wanting to die simply because it seemed to be the easiest option available, are harrowing.
The most amazing thing about Kabi's journey is that it isn't unique in the slightest. Her tale of dealing with depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, desire for parental approval, and repressed sexuality is so common that many passages of the manga are immediately familiar. But the fact that these issues are so common is what makes Kabi's essay so valuable. In the end Kabi freely admits that she had no idea what she was experiencing at the time, particularly when it came to her sexual desires, and she was only able to understand it in hindsight. Like so many others who deal with these issues, once she began seeking out information related to her feelings, she was able to deal with them more effectively. The revelations that lead to her turning her life around, on some level, seem so simple and obvious, but the reality is that to someone in such a bad place, they seem impossible and unimaginable. Hearing that others deal with the same problems helps to rob them of their oppressive power – no one is alone in dealing with depression or anxiety, and the more people understand that, the better off they will be. The manga is such a compelling read that tackles so many mental health issues head-on, it wouldn't be surprising if it started showing up in college courses.
Reading My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness was like being punched in the gut, then having a kind stranger care for my injury before treating me to ice cream. Being taken through Kabi's life is often unpleasant, yet completely worth the insight it provides if nothing else. It's a reading experience that shouldn't be taken lightly, but it's ultimately a very positive and inspiring one.
My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is a brutally honest autobiographical story that is presented more like an illustrated journal than a story with a plot from start to finish—but it makes for an utterly engrossing read. Although the title and cover might make a reader think it's mostly about a woman exploring her sexuality, that's only a part—albeit an important part—of the overall story. This manga is unflinchingly honest in its depiction of severe depression, to the point where it might need a trigger warning for those with the condition, although it can prove a positive experience to read about another person with similar thoughts and anxieties, too. Nagata gives herself no quarter, laying bare her thoughts of uselessness, hopelessness, and loneliness for all to see—and no topic is too personal, including hiring an escort for sex (as a virgin) and her own quasi-incestual feelings toward her mother. (Although to be clear, her unhealthy relationship with all of her family is more largely based on a desire to please them versus their complete unsympathetic inability to even acknowledge their grown daughter has a serious mental illness and is unlikely to meet their expectations of living what they think is a “normal” life.)
My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is a more universal story than it might initially appear to be. You don't have to be depressed to share her feelings of never finding your “purpose,” of not being able to find that love, acceptance, and happiness you think others find much more easily. At the same time, it's a stunning portrait of what goes through the minds of those with mental illnesses and those seeking to find love and acceptance through whatever means they can think of. While Nagata isn't miraculously cured of her negative feelings by the end—nor would anyone with mental illness be—she does change, and not necessarily how she expected to. She even admits that sex alone wasn't the answer (although that doesn't stop her from hiring the escort service again later) and that even achieving her professional dreams—publishing a manga—doesn't fill the hole inside her. The fact that she recognizes that seeking her strict parents’ approval is actually working to lower her self-esteem is a significant breakthrough, though, and the reader is left more hopeful by the end. This manga is a must-read for adults, particularly those with a sense that something is missing from their lives.
To a degree, My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness comes with all the trigger warnings. But that's really on the surface – yes, the author/protagonist discusses her suicidal thoughts, how and why she cut herself, and her own tortured relationship with her identity, but the way she does so is less about detailing horrible things and more about trying to relate to us as readers. Her experiences as a queer woman, as someone suffering from anxiety and depression, or even just as someone who can't quite find a place in the world are all very realistically portrayed. There's nothing fancy about anything in the way this manga is presented; it's just Nagata explaining how she came to be the person she is, and there's a lot of value in that.
In some ways, this is a very difficult book to write about. “Raw” is a good word for it, although it doesn't really encompass the scope of the story. It can also be reassuring in that Nagata makes it point to say that these were and are her real feelings and experiences, and that for most of her post-high school life (that is to say, when we're supposed to magically become “adults”) she felt like she was the only person who felt the way she did, like a child looking down on an adult party from the top of the stairs. If you've ever felt that way, or struggled with parental expectations of what your life should be like, or even just wondered if maybe sex wasn't something meant for you, this book can make you feel less alone. It also manages to avoid most of the pitfalls of fiction written along the same themes, such as the ever-popular YA torture novel. Because Nagata isn't necessarily writing this for anyone but herself, the manga is devoid of condescending reassurances or manufactured happy moments. Nagata's extra chapter lets us know that even though she's improving, she's still struggling, and that in itself is an improvement over “message” novels.
Despite its title, this isn't strictly an LBGTQ book. Nagata muses about the paucity of sex education, the misconceptions about our bodies and sex that we get from fiction that are never sorted out until it's too late, and how parents are not always equipped to understand that what brought them happiness and security won't necessarily work from their children. Those are universal issues; they're merely brought to us in the voice of a woman who is attracted to other women. (She does mention that she's not comfortable being called “woman,” but refers to herself that way in the book. Non-binary is perhaps not a designation she's familiar with, and I honestly don't know about gender neutral pronouns in Japanese.) In any case, My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is about a human being's experience being different from what she perceives as the “norm” and how she learns to begin to accept that. If you ever need reassurance that you're not the only one who has ever felt that way, this book is for you.
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