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 Loneliness, My 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.
Aoki: Was there a particular event or conversation you had with someone that made you feel like “I have to draw this story?”
Kabi Nagata: There's nothing in particular of that nature. It was just this, kind of, obviously, I was really stuck working on fiction, so I just kind of figured why not write about myself?
Did you ever have a moment when you realized that it was getting a lot of attention or that it was something very special?
Seeing the reactions on Twitter, I guess it was not so much that it was something special, but it was something that really resonated with people.
Did that surprise you that your story was hitting a note with so many people?
I wouldn't say it was so much a surprise. I was just really happy.
How did you decide to go from it being an online only story to a printed book? Were you approached by an editor or what did they say to you?
Actually, a lot of publishers got in touch with me. I got a lot of emails from publishers and so just from among those publishers who emailed me, I just chose.
Why did you pick your publisher?
[They] seemed like the ones who are going to put in the most effort in editing and make it a real proper book.
Did you feel nervous though because it's going possibly to a place where your relatives and your friends could see it and read it more easily?
No, at the time I was just so focused on getting it out into the world. I was just really happy that it was happening.
Is there anything in your work that you feel any regrets about or that you wish you had depicted differently or said differently?
Yeah, there's a lot of things that I would have done differently. Lately I'm really careful when I'm writing and I'm really conscious of what I'm drawing. But in the beginning, like how I portrayed my family. I do regret that.
As I'm reading My Alcoholic Escape from Reality, I'm noticing that you've kind of come to terms with a lot of things with about your family. It sounds like you've kind of come to a place of peace with it. Is that so?
I really have come to think like, 'Wow they really do accept and value me.' It might be more of like a situation of just time healing it and resolving the issues.
How is the everyday Nagata Kabi different from the manga version?
We're actually not that different at all.
Do you have any advice that you would give to other people who draw memoir comics?
It's really hard for me to draw these things and I don't know how to resolve that pain that comes with drawing. I did really hurt my family in the beginning and so I guess I would always keep in mind now is to make sure that what I'm creating isn't hurting anyone…I try to balance that and honesty as best as I can.
You mentioned that it's hard now, you know, to draw this work. What makes it very hard?
I guess it would be the Nagata Kabi character. That line between the two of us is hard to manage and so that's really a struggle has that changed over the years that shows up in my manga. With my early works with My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness and My Solo Exchange Diary, it was actually easier for me back then. Now it's become a lot harder lately. I struggle with it a lot more.
You continue to draw stories through what sounds like a lot of personal and health problems. What keeps you going and where do you draw your strength from?
I don't really draw on anything for like, motivation or anything like that. I just get really anxious if I don't draw so I draw.
I was reading your latest book that's coming out in English from Seven Seas. It sounded like you had a lot of personal breakthroughs, like you came to some really meaningful realizations. Was drawing the stories helpful in reaching those realizations or was it something else?
It comes from before I start drawing. I was kind of looking at myself, facing myself, and realizing these things or I'm reading these different things and coming to these understandings.
This is a little weird question, but I wanted to ask all your previous books were pink, but this book is orange. Why is that?
I sent like a note to my editor in the Kanto region they looked at it and thought it was orange. Then they came back to me for approval and I was like, yes that's fine. But my next book went back to pink.
Oh, so why pink?
When I first put the comic up on pixiv, I did it in pink. But that was just because there happens to be a pink pencil crayon on my desk and so when it was published as a book, we kind of ended up talking about it. We're like, okay let's just keep going with the pink and so from there it just kind of happened.
One thing that stood out about My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness was that you talked about your discovery of your sexual identity. Over time as you your health declined that took a back seat. Will you be revisiting that topic?
Actually, the newest book of mine that's come out in Japan is about exactly that. It's kind of a story about my desire for marriage or just wanting to love and be loved. So, it's me kind of doing things and thinking about these kinds of things. It's called Wandering Warrior Nagata Kabi. My editor actually thought it up for me.
Since you published that My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness in 2016, has the Japanese public perception of lesbian couples and lesbian marriage changed? How has that affected you?
I don't really have that really clear grasp or understanding of my own sexuality or my own identity in that way, so for me there hasn't been like a really big change.
Do you consider your book a yuri book?
I'm fine with however people want to think about it. Whatever they want categorization they want to put it in, but for me personally it's not like I set out thinking, 'I'm going draw a yuri book.'
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.”
The actual events depicted in My Alcoholic Escape from Reality was between 2018 and 2019. Now a couple years later, and there is a pandemic. How are you doing now?
I'm happy to say that although my liver is not great, it's kind of in a bad place, but my pancreas is doing totally fine.
Have your reasons for drawing changed?
I guess the sheer force of will that I had when I started out drawing has probably decreased.
You shared one of your stories that's not a memoir comic, which is Chika-chan's Depression. Is there a little story behind the story?
I originally debuted with fiction in a magazine so when I was making my debut, this [story] didn't make it to publication. But when I was talking with the My Solo Exchange Diary editor and showed it to them, they were like "Okay let's put this in," and I got the approval to go ahead and draw it so that's how that happened.
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.