Reviewing commonly occurring themes in three novels and memoirs that explore queerness and mental illness in women: Kari by Amruta Patil, My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata, and Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel.
Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama is the companion piece to Alison Bechdel’s previous work, Fun Home. Both are graphic memoirs exploring Bechdel’s relationship with each of her parents. However, Are You My Mother? also recounts Bechdel’s struggle with her mental health, and details her desire to understand her own psyche. The book is not a sequential narrative of illness and recovery, but of Bechdel’s attempt to come to terms with having an unaffectionate mother when she was growing up.
The book begins with Bechdel trying to find the right words to tell her mother that she is writing a memoir about their relationship. The memoir is, in parts, about this mother-daughter relationship, about Bechdel’s journey with mental health and psychotherapy, and about the process of her writing Are You My Mother? It immediately brings to mind Kabi Nagata’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, which is another autobiographical memoir, featuring a lesbian protagonist suffering from mental illness.
Both Nagata and Bechdel explore recovery through the process of writing. Nagata makes it known that writing is itself a way out for her. She tries to find things to write about, ultimately turning to her own experiences. When she runs out of ways in which to push herself to write and recover, she creates situations for herself to live through. Bechdel, on the other hand, shifts from past to present to dream. Her religious note-taking becomes useful in accurately representing her mother, all while being self-critical and analytical as well. Bechdel is compelling for the incredible self-awareness with which she narrates her own breakdown.
Bechdel revisits memories and dreams from her childhood, almost always involving her mother, that left long-lasting impressions on her. All chapters begin in an ambiguous dreamscape (much like that in Kari), where Bechdel, as she undergoes psychotherapy, tries to rationalise events from her childhood as reasons for her behaviour as an adult. Despite regularly visiting a therapist, Bechdel invests significant energy studying and decoding her own behaviour and emotions, for instance, interpreting and applying Donald Winnicott’s theories of child psychology to events from her own childhood.
In contrast lies Amruta Patil’s Kari. While Are You My Mother? and My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness try to explain and analyse mental illness by diving into the past, Kari simply narrates events from her daily life that are ordinary, but also leave her distressed. The only memories that Kari talks about are those that she spent with Ruth, her ex-lover. Unlike Bechdel and Nagata who linger in events of the past, Kari is firmly founded in the present. Kari does not try to come to terms with the past, necessarily; she prefers instead to move on.
From accepting mental illness to reconciling oneself with past events, all three protagonists approach their motivation to go on differently. Bechdel, however, brings to attention an important fact of recovery: there is no definite way about it and that ‘progress’ is not always linear. Recovery and coming to an understanding of the self is a continually evolving process, one which requires several steps and a lot of care. She takes us through her own confrontations, the determination with which she sets about trying to get better. She obsesses and tries and teaches herself psychoanalysis. In the work she puts into understanding herself and moving towards a more holistic self, Bechdel inspires.
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.