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The Art of Pain: My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness Creator Kabi Nagata

by Kalai Chik,

Harvey Award-winning manga author Kabi Nagata made her first on-screen North American appearance at the virtual Toronto Comic Arts Festival. Her works include My Lesbian Experience with LonelinessMy Solo Exchange Diary, and most recently My Alcoholic Escape from Reality. During the panel, she shared personal details of her time writing the different series. Joining Nagata was Deb Aoki of Publisher's Weekly, as well as the panel interpreter and English translator of Nagata's works, Jocelyne Allen.

Nagata rarely makes public appearances, but she shared intimate anecdotes about her experience writing and drawing her famous series. One of the most surprising facts from her work is that when she found out about her first manga, My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, had won a Harvey Award while she was in the hospital. It happened to be her second day at the hospital when she found out about the news and told the panelists that she was in “pretty bad shape” at that time. In fact, she didn't have a moment to bask in the joy of winning because her stomach hurt so much that she couldn't tell if she could be happy. At the same time, she also shared she wasn't able to take the time to rest as she was working on “another work of fiction” that hasn't been released yet.

Following the discussion of her work, the panel dove into Nagata's history before writing her online series as well as her relationship with her family. She mentioned there was no specific motivation driving her to write her stories, but since she had worked in fiction, she figured it was best to base the story on herself. Although she never expected the response she received from international fans, she was “really happy” that her stories resonated with people.

Nagata then spoke on the beginnings of her work, starting with how she chose her publisher. At the time, many publishers reached out to her, but she ended up choosing the one that would put “the most effort in editing and make it a real proper book.” She was so happy her stories were getting out into the world that she didn't think about the reach and exposure of her manga to her family and friends. Looking back, Nagata reflected that she would have done her work differently, particularly her portrayal of her family.

The panel then moved onto discussing her latest work, My Alcoholic Escape from Reality. Luckily, she has reconciled with her family and believes they “accept and value” her. At the same time, she mentioned it might've been more of like a situation of time healing and resolving the issues.

Then, Aoki asked Nagata on how “everyday Nagata Kabi” is different from her manga version. Nagata succinctly answered that she there's no difference. Though, she admitted it was hard for her to draw these stories, and she didn't “know how to resolve that pain that comes with drawing.” Unfortunately, in the process of creating her manga, she hurt her family in the beginning. Now, she makes sure to be conscious of her portrayals so that she “isn't hurting anyone,” but still finding a balance between truth and honesty as best as she can.

Regarding Nagata's challenges, she admits the Nagata Kabi character is the hardest part to write. That fine line between the real life person and the character is “hard to manage.” The struggle changed over the years and is shown throughout her manga. In her earlier works, My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness and My Solo Exchange Diary, she says it was easier for her to balance back then. Though now she struggles with it a lot more.

When asked about her personal breakthroughs, Nagata spoke to her self-reflection as the primary reason. The realization comes before she begins drawing: she takes a good look at herself, reflects, and comes to an understanding. She confesses her motivation to draw stems from an anxiety from not drawing rather than any other incentive. Switching gears, the panel shifted towards the colors of Nagata's manga series. Her latest book happened to be orange rather than pink. Originally, her editors in the Kanto region thought the cover looked like orange. Then they asked for her approval, to which she agreed. However, her next book went back to pink.

The reason why her first book was pink is more mundane than one might think. When she originally put the comic up on pixiv, she colored the pages in pink. Rather than pink's significance to My Lesbian Experience's content, the color was chosen because of a pink pencil crayon on Nagata's desk. Once it came to publishing her comics as a book, she and her publisher decided to keep going with the pink color.

Jumping back into My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, Nagata was asked about revisiting her discovery of her sexual identity within the context of her book. Because her health declined, the exploration took a back seat. Coincidentally, Nagata's newest book in Japan is about exactly that. It talks about her desire for marriage, wanting to love, and be loved. It's called Wandering Warrior Nagata Kabi, based on a suggestion from Nagata's editor.

Since it's been 5 years since the original publication of My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness in 2016, Aoki asked Nagata if the changes in Japan's public perception of lesbian couples/marriages have affected her. She answered since she doesn't “really have a clear grasp or understanding of [her] own sexuality or [her] own identity in that way,” she feels as if there “hasn't been a really big change.”

Because of the title and discussion of identity and orientation within the book, some readers perceive My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness as a yuri book. Nagata herself doesn't consider it one nor was that her intention, but she's fine with whichever category readers want to put it in.

It goes without saying that fans of Nagata are highly concerned for her health and well- being given the autobiographical nature of the darkest, private moments in her life. When asked about her health, she answered that she's happy to say her pancreas is doing fine, although her liver is “not great.”

Wrapping up the panel, Aoki asked Nagata if her reason for drawing changed, given the pandemic. Nagata acknowledges the original “sheer force of will” that she had when she started out drawing has probably decreased. Her older, non-autobiographical story Chika-chan's Depression didn't make it to publication until she managed to convince her editor to put it in with her second book, My Solo Exchange Diary. The fictional comic was her first to debut in a magazine.

Ending the panel on a humorous note, Nagata replied that she'd be “really happy if fans didn't expect too much” from her and that she's thankful for all the support behind her work.

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