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Tag Archives: motherhood

Narratives about Mental Illness, Family and Unreturned Affection

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.

ON TOPIC: THE DADRI LYNCHING, DALITS AND FOOD/FARMING AUTONOMY, THE POLICING OF REPRODUCTION/MOTHERHOOD, U.S. MILITARISM AND THE MEDIA, WORKING-CLASS PEOPLE AND LITERACY

Regarding the recent Dadri lynching, Tarun Vijay of the BJP attempts to convince us why the lynching was un-Indian and un-Hindu.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta rebuts:

“Lynching a person merely on suspicion is absolutely wrong,” Vijay informs us with all sincerity. It is almost as if lynching is fine so long as it is not based on mere suspicion. It is saying, in effect, that if Akhlaq had actually been guilty of eating beef, it would have been fine to lynch him...[he says] differences [are] tantamount to provocation to murder.

If you read one thing from today's On Topic, read this. Gautam Bhan writes on Kafila -

Mohammad began to die a long time ago. When violence against particular bodies becomes legitimate, becomes a series of “misunderstandings,” it is not violence at all. It is the order of things. It is not prejudice but probability. Beef, property, a panchayat election, love jihad, a job, an argument, a WhatsApp message – these are not causes, they are just modes. The last circuits in a motherboard whose pattern is set in place.

Mohammad began to die at least as early in 1992. When we speak of his death in September 2015, it is already too late. The violence is not his death. The violence is that his body lost its right to be murdered because it has slowly been stripped of its life, bit by bit, for years.

Rural farming collectives run by Dalits reduce dependence on, and therefore subjugation by, the upper castes:

What is really remarkable is that Dalit girls are leading some of these agitations. In February last year, Sandeep Kaur, a 25-year-old diploma holder in computer applications from Matoi village in Sangrur, floated an Ekta Club along with a group of 10 Dalit girls. They launched a two-month long agitation, and managed to convince the Dalit families of Matoi of the need to bid collectively for the land..."Now we don't need to beg upper caste farmers for even cattle fodder. This land is enough to feed cattle of all Dalits in Matoi," says 45-year-old Amarjit Kaur.

Unwanted, unneeded hysterectomies performed on marginalised Indian women without their informed consent show the intimate connections between modern medicine and patriarchal, class, and caste oppression:

...women reported going to private hospitals in Gulbarga or cities close to the border in Maharashtra and Telangana complaining of lower abdomen pain or menstrual irregularities. The doctors would tell women that their uteruses were damaged, swollen, had worms, were stained, or had turned green or black. The women in Chapla Naik said that doctors had told them that the uterus “kharab hua” (Hindi for “had gone bad”)—and had to be removed...“Others who are educated can look at the report and say this operation has to be done for this kind of pain. What do we know? If someone tells us to get an operation done, we will get it done.”

A report in Vantage about tuberculosis and the pregnant body:

The 30-year-old told me that she had never had a regular menstrual cycle since her periods first began when she 13 or 14 years old. She was married soon after. “When I got married and came to Mumbai, I realised that my sister-in-law was getting periods every month. I had no idea we were supposed to get it every month. I have been taking medicines to treat this problem. Socho—Think!,” she said. Soon after, she began visitng several doctors...to try and understand why she was not able to conceive. More often than not, she would be faced with condescending practioners who did little to help her predicament. “My neighbours taunt me and say I am not able to bear a child. My family also scolds me sometimes, out of love,” she said, before adding, “They are bound to say some things to me, aren’t they?” After she was finally diagnosed that day, she told me that she hoped her disease would not infect others in the house, even though the doctor had informed her that extra-pulmonary tuberculosis was not infectious.

Should Virginia Woolf have had children? Rebecca Solnit questions why women who devote their lives to things other than birthing and raising children are subject to constant interrogation:

People lock onto motherhood as a key to feminine identity in part from the belief that children are the best way to fulfil your capacity to love...[b]ut there are so many things to love besides one’s own offspring, so many things that need love, so much other work love has to do in the world. While many people question the motives of the childless, who are taken to be selfish for refusing the sacrifices that come with parenthood, they often neglect to note that those who love their children intensely may have less love left for the rest of the world.

An app that tracks American drone strikes is banned from the Apple App Store for being "crude".

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera reports on the suspected U.S.-led bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan...

...and the Intercept reports on U.S. media sources' obfuscation of the U.S.'s role in the bombing:

In its own special way, the New York Times has been even more craven [than CNN]. Its original article on the attack opted for this bizarrely agent-less formulation: [Airstrike Hits Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan]. Some airstrike, traveling around on its own like a lost tourist, ran into a hospital in Afghanistan.

This article engenders conversations in the office. U.S. centric, but interesting:

...academic Marxism tends to view working-class people abstractly, leaving college-educated revolutionaries unable to speak plainly to anyone outside of academia. As soon as they step out of school, they discover that no one understands a word they speak unless they speak plain. This further deeps the idea that revolutionary theory is not for the working classes. These college educated revolutionaries have fundamentally accepted, in a-historical terms, the profound devastation of the working class... It is accepted as eternal that working class people cannot read, do not like to read, do not like to think, etc. This ignores the fact that the weapon of theory has been vital to oppressed people's liberation, from illiterate slaves risking their lives to learn how to read, to Malcolm X discovering the power of knowledge while sitting in his prison cell.

A conversation between Angela Davis and Toni Morrison on the importance of literacy, and public access to reading material (through libraries that are available to marginalised classes, in prisons, in rural areas) in the revolution.

See you next week! Or whenever we get around to the next On Topic.

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