Reviewing common themes in three novels and memoirs that explore mental illness in women: My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata, Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, and Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.
Kabi Nagata’s My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness begins in a racy love hotel. It takes less than two pages to realise that this manga only looks racy. Instead, we follow Nagata as she narrates the journey of coming to terms with her mental illnesses and her attempts to recover from them. Nagata’s autobiographical manga is illustrated in a beautiful two-tone palette that manages to make the main character (Nagata) charming. The story, however, is not about her charm.
The manga is an account of Nagata’s decision to move on from her yearning to please her family (more on this below) by doing something for herself and trying to awaken her sex drive. Nagata is very frank. She doesn’t hesitate to graphically depict the violence that comes with suffering from a mental illness. She doesn’t hesitate to draw naked bodies that are scarred. She doesn’t hesitate to bring attention to these scars. But what’s interesting is how she doesn’t hesitate to speak of her family either. One would assume that writing or drawing, in a memoir, about family who is likely to read what you’ve written would make you not write about them. But Nagata’s family’s presence is essential to her story. And not because they’re immensely supportive.
Nagata identifies her drive to be a good daughter as one of the reasons for her not putting herself first. She strives to be everything that her parents want her to be. She wants to get a job and pay bills and prove she’s a worthy daughter. For the longest time, she lets herself believe that being this ideal daughter is what she wants, slowly coming to terms with the fact that this ideal is at the root of her mental illness.
Another reason she identifies for her illness is her need for physical affection. Specifically, from her mother, or someone who feels like a mother, or someone who would make her feel like she’s being mothered. It’s the lack of fulfilment of this need from her own mother, who perhaps doesn’t understand or think of physical affection in the same way, that leads Nagata to search for and consequently discover that she’s not alone in this longing.
In this context, Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? immediately comes to mind: it’s another autobiographical, illustrated, queer story that explores the extended effect of not receiving attention and affection from the mother. Both Bechdel’s full-length graphic books, also memoirs, deal with the relationships she shared with her parents (the first being Fun Home, about her father). The similarity of themes explored in Bechdel’s work and in my Lesbian Experience with Loneliness goes to show that, indeed, Nagata is not alone.
Oftentimes, Nagata’s craving for affection manifests itself in ways that are exasperating for the reader to witness. She clings to her mother’s calves, sits herself in the space her mother leaves in the back of a chair, has a fascination with her mother’s breasts, and even on occasion chases after her — all while her mother remains resolutely indifferent.
This need for physical affection and touch is also brought to attention in Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith. Sue Trinder’s first few days away from her (adoptive) mother, Mrs. Sucksby, all discuss how she’d like to be in her arms, falling asleep in bed, smelling her, or some such. And while Fingersmith is fiction, this attachment to the closest mother figure is again a reminder of Nagata not being alone in wanting to be physically close to her mother. Sue’s relationship with her mother, however, is very different from Nagata’s. While Nagata’s mother doesn’t appear to be fond of her daughter’s clinginess, Mrs. Sucksby actively seeks physical affection with Sue, going so far as to continue to share a bed with her grown-up daughter. In this novel, Sue’s character does not follow the same trajectory as Nagata’s or even Bechdel’s, but has an altogether different relationship with mental illness.
My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness takes on the attachment that Nagata feels with her mother, dissects it frankly, speaking even of a sort of innocent sexual interest. Nagata is unflinching in her observations about herself and those dear to her. This honesty only makes it easier to help Nagata come to an important realisation through the community she finds via her writing: the knowledge that she is not alone.
Bechdel, Alison. Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama. Boston: Mariner, 2013.
Nagata, Kabi. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness. Translated by Jocelyne Allen.Los Angeles: Seven Seas Entertainment, 2017.
Waters, Sarah. Fingersmith. London: Virago Press, 2002.