Reviewing commonly occurring themes in four novels and memoirs that explore queerness and mental illness in women: Kari by Amruta Patil, My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata, Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, and Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.
Kari is a fictional graphic novel, set in what the eponymous protagonist calls ‘Smog City’. Although she uses colour sparsely, Amruta Patil’s dark palette compliments the tone of the book, and her illustrations bring life to a dull and suffocating city. The novel begins with the attempted double suicide of Kari and Ruth, a lesbian couple. Ruth is saved by safety nets and leaves the city, while Kari lands in the sewers. Ruth moves on; Kari survives to resume daily life in Smog City. The drawing on the novel’s first page echoes Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait The Two Fridas (1939) bringing to attention the intimacy of the relationship between Kari and Ruth. Not the same person, but not separate.
After this fall, though, Kari is presented to us as a single entity, without Ruth — but Kari herself struggles to come to terms with this separation. Her alter-ego, ‘Danger Chhori’, takes on the responsibility of unclogging sewers, as a way of repaying the city that saved her, and perhaps also as a metaphor of the process of her recovery. The reason for the attempted suicide is not explicit, but the novel lets us in on the facets of Kari’s life that trouble her — one of which is the pervasive heteronormativity in the city.
In the novel, Kari’s roommates and their boyfriends, her co-workers, and her parents insist on how normal the act of settling down with a man. Kari’s mother warns her that all women want to get married, and Ruth will too. Her roommates suggest that she date a man to get over Ruth. Her co-worker asks if she is a ‘proper lesbian’. And yet, despite all this, the novel never suggests that Kari’s illness is due to her homosexuality. Until not very long ago, it was a common belief that homosexuality caused mental illness (madness, back in the day — though cultures often persist in making this connection today. The biological, psychological and external factors that cause mental illnesses are dismissed, and the sexuality of the person is instead held responsible. Further, across different parts of the world the pseudoscience of ‘conversion therapy’ is still administered to those who are suspected of not being heterosexual, employing those methods that are otherwise used in the treatment of other mental illnesses.) However, Kari manages to pin the toxic heteronormativity of Smog City as the reason for its protagonist’s illness, not her attraction to the same sex.
Two other graphic novels/memoirs featuring lesbian protagonists, Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? and Kabi Nagata’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, tackle a similar issue. Bechdel dismisses her homosexuality as a possible cause for her mental illness/psychic conflicts very early in her novel. Nagata does not linger much on the topic of her sexuality. Her preoccupation with other incidents in her life, however, suggest that she doesn’t believe her attraction to women is what makes her ill.
Although not a graphic novel, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (major spoilers ahead) also grapples with this idea. Sue Trinder doesn’t spend much time agonising over her attraction to Maud Lilly. None of the problems they face are because of their relationship. Even after Sue has been outed and begins to notice how differently her caretakers at the asylum treat the other inmates, Sue doesn’t believe that she’s mad. Apart from the betrayal she feels at having her sexuality used as a ploy to declare her insane, it doesn’t become the reason for her questioning her sanity (major spoilers end).
Kari is special for not only being one of few graphic novels with a lesbian protagonist, but also for not shying away from confronting its straight readers with their complicity in creating a heteronormative world. Patil treats Kari and Ruth in the same way that she treats the heterosexual relationships in the novel — without embellishment. Yet, she manages to bring attention to the stark differences in which their relationship is treated by others. Where Bechdel and Nagata’s works only imply the effects of a majoritarian heteronormative society on their queer protagonists, Kari explores this explicitly and does so successfully and sensitively. In this, it reflects movingly on the reality of being different in a city that only prescribes to the conventional.
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.
Patil, Amruta. Kari. New Delhi: Harper Collins Publishers India, 2008.
Waters, Sarah. Fingersmith. London: Virago Press, 2002.