LGBTQ Manga Book Club: My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness

LGBTQ Manga Book Club: My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness

Happy Pride Month! Here is the second installation of the online monthly LGBTQ Manga Book Club: My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata! The manga is available in English from Seven Seas Entertainment in paperback or digital as of June 6th. Nagata illustrates how her mental illness, employment struggles, and desperation for affection led to hiring a lesbian escort in this autobiographical manga. Be warned it contains depictions of self-harm, disordered eating, and sexual content.

Background Information

My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness began as a series of essay manga strips (drawn traditionally and uploaded as photographs) in 2015 on Pixiv.net, a Japanese website where users share their illustrations and creative writing. Among English-speakers Pixiv is mostly known as a source of Japanese fanart, but original works such as Nagata’s can be found as well. Her manga grew popular online and was later published with cleaned artwork by East Press, known for publishing LGBTQ essay manga. The English edition is published by Seven Seas Entertainment, translated by Jocelyne Allen and adapted by Lianne Sentar.

Nagata followed My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness with Solo Exchange Diary, serialized in the digital edition of Hibana (the same manga magazine as Coherent Cats favorite Shimanami Tasogare) on Pixiv and collected into one volume. An exchange diary is a notebook shared between friends who alternate writing entries, like pen pals within one book, but “solo” means Nagata writing with herself. Solo Exchange Diary is another autobiographical manga about her life after the publication of MLEWL, told through diary entries between herself.

Further Reading

Discussion Questions

  1. What are your overall thoughts on the book? How did reading it make you feel? What chapter or moment stood out to you? What do you think of the artwork?
  2. Nagata discusses her mental illness throughout the book, describing and analyzing its impact on her life. What kind of issues does she deal with from other people? From herself? What did you think of her depiction of mental illness?
  3. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is a memoir. How did this affect your experience of reading it? Would your experience have been different if it were a fictional story?
  4. What did you think of Nagata’s exploration of sex and sexuality?
  5. What do “childhood” and “adulthood” embody to Nagata? Do you relate?
  6. Parental approval weighs heavily on Nagata’s mind. What barriers to mental health do parents pose that the rest of the society doesn’t?
  7. Nagata looks at the role of art and stories in her life, both as a creator and a fan. What is the power of art and stories to you, whether you make it and/or consume it?
  8. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is classified as “yuri” on the Seven Seas website, Pixiv, etc. Do you think it fits within the genre of yuri? Why or why not?
  9. Any other thoughts?
  10. Any discussion questions you have for fellow book club members?

You may answer as many or as few questions as you like. Feel free to leave your comments on this post and/or the Goodreads group! For July the LGBTQ Manga Book Club will start discussing Rica ‘tte Kanji?! by Rica Takashima, which is available to read in English for free online. Discussion will indefinitely remain open for My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness and past books.

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2 thoughts on “LGBTQ Manga Book Club: My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness

  1. 1. I loved this book! Intensely! Not only do I think that it’ll be a top 2017 favorite, but it’s definitely become an entry on my mental list of all time favorite manga. When I was reading, I kept thinking, “Yes! Yes! YES!!!” Nagata’s experiences are very different from my own and yet her anxieties, self-awareness, and of course, loneliness all struck a nerve with me. There’s not a single chapter I dislike in this book. It all just comes together amazingly so it’s difficult to choose a moment that stands out. There were two parts though I was especially struck by: First, when she reads up on the effects of domestic violence on children and relates. Second, when she researches sex and anatomy information online. I liked those bits because it was very telling about the power of available and accurate information. Not just on a pragmatic level, but also the emotional validation and personal insights one can gain. I think it’s a very relatable feeling learning and having those moments, especially nowadays.

    As for the art, I already rambled about it on Twitter but I adore it. Her style is simple but very expressive. Her ideas and story feel very alive because of her art. The cuteness I think allows a lot of accessibility. The heaviness of MLEWL isn’t lightened exactly, but the themes are easier to process than if it was illustrated in a rich, dark, brooding way. I suppose it just feels like reading a diary.

    2. With regards to others, she struggles a lot with how misunderstood and invisible her struggle with mental illness is. Most people seem to regard her as lazy and immature even though she tries her best, which just exacerbates her depression and anxiety. She gets some support from her doctor and the hospital, but the people most important to her, her parents, perceive her mental illness as a moral and personal failing. This sort of feeds a cycle, where because others dismiss or disapprove of her, her self-hatred and self-efficacy get worse, and that then feeds others’ negative perception of her. Mental illness is tricky because it’s essentially a problem that feels like your own fault when it isn’t and it gets worse when you can’t get any consistent and useful help. It’s inherently unreasonably and self-destructive and because it’s so nebulous, it can appear to be just be akin to a bad personality or lack of “trying.” Nagata’s portrayal of herself illuminates this contradiction, particularly the effort it takes to even appear even adequately healthy and functional within society. Her details of her neuroses are specific to her, which achieves this sort of universality of showing the illogical weirdness and deep impact of mental illness.

    At points, she also shows how the oppression of living as a woman, as a lesbian, complicates her mental illness, which is something that I think doesn’t get enough attention in these conversations. She never quite addresses her issues in a clear way, neither giving diagnosis labels nor medication brands, but focuses on her visceral thoughts and feelings, along with her specific behaviors. I think it makes the work more relatable and it becomes less about the perils of specific mental illnesses and more about her personal struggles of being mentally ill as a whole. Lastly, I think the relieving effect of tenderness and kindness is shown very well. I think Nagata realized the power of being shown even conditional but kind acceptance from someone else that she couldn’t really find after high school.

    3. I think that it had a huge impact. Again, I felt a great deal of empathy, even for this mismatched situation. It’s indescribably uplifting and moving to find someone else struggle in ways you can relate to. If it was a fictional story, I think its power would be different. Obviously, an artist even expressing those feelings in a sympathetic light, even in a fictional context, would’ve been powerful but it wouldn’t have quite that same sense of relatability and honesty. Fictional and real (and in between) stories always possess a different kind of catharsis. One isn’t better than the other, but they both evoke different connections.

    4. It sounds distanced and cold to say “interesting” but maybe that’s the best word I have? There’s so much I could talk about really and it’s difficult to know where to start. One moment that stood out to me was her self-awareness in realizing that her memory of her (first) escort experience was morphing into something erotic and arousing, even though it was so awkward and anxiety-filled in reality, and so she feels the need to record her experience as it actually was. It’s a very insightful look into how sex is portrayed and understood by so many, as sexy and erotic and easily so, that it even affects people’s own interpretations and memories, when real life sex can be so much more complicated, depending on the person. So much other media about sex completely glosses over that messiness and complexity in favor of eroticism. Really, there’s so much more I could spend on this question so I’ll stop here.

    5. Initially, adulthood for Nagata seems to be behaving as a “proper” member of society as her parents want and expect. It’s being functionally independent but tied to their wishes. Thus, it’s impossible to achieve and she feels childlike, desperately seeking her parents’ approval and yet being unable to adequately fulfill them. For Nagata childhood embodies both a kind of safety and despair. When she was in high school, her life was peaceful, but as an adult, once she had to meet society’s expectations of adulthood, she crashed. Thus, she longs for her previous comfort in childhood in the face of a harsh, unforgiving adulthood but these feelings also tie her down and make her feel hopeless. Basically, the expectations of what an adult should be, from her parents and society, weigh her down, making her feel helpless and stagnant like a child.

    However, once she decides to hire an escort, it’s a change in agency. She does something for herself and only herself. Nagata is not completely cured of her feelings of immaturity, inadequacy, and anxiety, but she feels in control. This has a domino effect of making her reframe adulthood to her own wishes. Independence is still a part of it, but it’s on her own terms, not her parents. She finds direction and validation through other things.

    I think this is a very universal struggle. Many people don’t “feel” like adults, despite their age, achievements, and knowledge because of how out of control or weighed down their lives feel. Adulthood in essence becomes a billboard ideal of control and agency, when what constitutes adulthood can be much more nuanced, even traumatic. Childhood also in turn becomes an ideal of safety and comfort, even though that can be just as complicated for people, particularly for those who feel their childhoods were cut short or tainted in some way.

    6. Parents are just so personal. It can feel like parents are the ones who really see you and thus, they see each and every flaw. They’re supposed to be your caretakers during your most formative and vulnerable phases of your life. So when parents dismiss or hurt you because of mental health issues, it feels like a deep, personal attack. It can make you question your own perception of yourself, whether you have problems or you’re just lazy. So they can instill shame and self-hatred, often unintentionally, that prevents people from seeking help because if their parents don’t understand or care, then it must be the child’s fault.

    7. I think art and stories have a lot of power, which is evident by my rambling. I mean, we run a media blog, of course we think it’s important. I empathize with Nagata, that when you find great art, it moves and changes you, even if that just means it makes you cry. Stories can do a lot of things for people, both negative and positive. I know that some stories significantly contributed to me finding myself, to validating my existence in many ways. And on the flipside, when I couldn’t find myself, or when images of my experiences were flat or noxious, that void affected me in ways that I couldn’t comprehend until I was older, whether it was self-realization or finding representation much later than I wish I had. There’s many other ways to talk about art and stories’ effects on people (I think the bit on her experience with sex education and BL affecting her understanding of sex is really well-articulated), but in relation to MLEWL, that’s the most relevant for me.

    I don’t really write or draw a lot creatively, but it’s a form of catharsis. Even mundane things I won’t show anyone can be satisfying. I find it’s best when I try to push yourself but in kind ways. You should push yourself to better express your own vision and ideas, not just because you’re not as good as others. And I think when you put something out into the world, it can form connections. Like I said, I think art and stories can move and change people. Though, it’s also not bad to simply aim for an emotional response, to be fun, or silly, or sad in a satisfying way. That still takes work and it’s always nice to feel like your work affects people in the way you intend it to.

    8. I’m not 100% sure? My experience with yuri as a genre has been mostly romance stories (whether drawn out or short) and slice-of-life established couple bits (usually very short and sometimes even memoir-like). Either way, the tone of these stories have usually been relatively light a d fun. Even the more dramatic or angst-filled yuri manga that I’ve read still had happy endings with relationship-based closure, much like a romantic drama or comedy. Obviously there has been more tragic and bittersweet stories throughout the genre, but even those tend to be focused on themes of incredible love and infatuation.

    MLEWL is very different in this regard. Nagata explores lesbianism, but it’s less about a specific relationship, and more about her emotional and mental self-exploration. Her experience with the escort is important, that’s the catalyst and point of her making this manga, but the intimacy is complicated by her own issues. The climax of Nagata’s story isn’t so much about having a relationship, or even a sexual experience, but about stepping towards self-actualization. Hiring an escort is just as much of a stepping stone as her struggling with self-harm, working part time jobs, examining her feelings towards her parents, and drawing this manga. If “love” is to be considered a theme of MLEWL, it’s self-love.

    She also doesn’t hit the more usual cliches about the taboo nature of being attracted to women (though it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine that being an issue with her parents’ expectations of an ideal adult). In other words, unlike My Brother’s Husband, homophobia is not given focus but I think that doesn’t make it any less of a work with lesbian themes.

    Maybe this can be an expansion of the perceptions of yuri, if it’s defined as stories with lesbian themes. Maybe it doesn’t have to be about romance and sex, but also include manga and anime just about being a lesbian (or WLW). After all, Nagata doesn’t compartmentalize her attraction to her women as a separate issue, but examines it as intertwined with her anxieties around intimacy. It’s definitely very different for the genre and that’s exciting.

    9. Oh, no haha. I’ve already written way too much at this point.

    10. If anyone else is just interested in discussing a topic not mentioned in any of the other questions, I’d be happy to see those thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This took me much longer to write than I anticipated. I wanted to dig deep into this amazing manga. It ended up longer and more in-depth than what I wrote for MBH not because I prefer this manga, but because I wanted to be more thoughtful than before.

    1. I completely loved it! Nagata’s art is incredibly charming and dynamic. She conveys maximum emotion (disappointment, despair, frustration, confusion, realization, hope) in minimal lines, and through her art masterfully crafts her life into a story. It’s “anticlimactic” in such a satisfying way. Nagata tells it in medias res knowing the escort “climax,” and after all her personal problems laid to bare you may think it will “cure” her. When the manga actually reaches the love hotel, their time together is stiff and awkward. It was meaningful to Nagata for taking control of her life and propelling her manga career, but not the earth-shattering sexual release she expected. Her art keeps the blunt simplicity of before rather than drawing those scenes erotically to take them at face value. I’m also guilty of building up expectations and ending up disappointed, but I’ve learned to take things as they are and not put pressure on everything to be life-changing. The everyday should be accepted and celebrated, not unlike how proud Nagata was to reach a “normal life” through sleeping and eating consistently. It was comforting to read someone else learn this.

    Without getting too personal, more than that hit close to home: job-hunting struggles, having to learn about sexuality through fiction, feeling worthless, psycho-analyzing yourself, etc. Beginning on the loss of structure through school or childhood to suddenly find herself part of unforgiving adult life immediately drew me in, having experienced that myself as well as all my peers. It was heartening to read someone be open about such issues, as well as eye-opening to the experiences we don’t share.

    2. Nagata’s depiction of mental health is so blunt, particularly when describing her disordered eating or self-harm, but intimate. The authenticity reminded me of reading Hyperbole and a Half. Her mental illness manifested in adulthood, but she had no support system and especially not from her parents. Rather, more pressure was put on her for not meeting expectations and she continued to see herself as a failure. Internally she’s desperate for meaningful connections and approval, but harsh criticisms from others block her from such. The impatience from other people stems from ignorance of mental illness. In contrast Yuka, who could also be looked down on by society for being a lesbian escort, is incredibly patient and reassuring with Nagata.

    It sadden me to look at MLEWL and Solo Exchange Diary on Amazon.co.jp and see one-star reviews that call Nagata selfish, unsympathetic, etc. I’ve felt that about other comic memoirs that shall not be named, but I can’t understand coming away feeling that for this manga. They’ve completely missed Nagata’s point on the difference between “can’t try” and “being lazy.” This distinction speaks to me because I’ve internalized my avoidance and struggles as laziness to berate myself. They look the same but while Nagata “couldn’t try” due to mental illness, others thought she was “being lazy.”

    4. Like mental health, her depiction of sexuality is so authentic and thoughtful. Nagata realizes that by vying for her parents approval she shaped herself into an ideal child, repressing her true self including her sexual desires. She longed for any physical comfort such as hugs, but specifically wanted to be sexual with women. Although the manga doesn’t go into it, I think it’s safe to say such an experience of being “clueless” to one’s desire for women is characterized by Nagata being a lesbian due to heteronormativity. Her thoughts on sex and sexuality are more internal, rather than focused on desire for individuals. The introspection gets Freudian, such as pondering if her fixation on her mother’s breasts was a regression to infancy (oral fixation). I’m not a fan of Freud, but psycho-analyzing yourself lends itself to Freudian psychology. I would agree with him that Nagata’s sexuality and mental health are linked: her yearning for security and acceptance wasn’t being met by anyone, much less a sexual partner. Sexuality was what she had neglected and denied the most, so facing it head-on became the key to her self-actualization. Though it may not be for everyone, sex was focal in her journey to self-love.

    5. To Nagata being a child means following one’s parents and an adult being true to yourself and being accepted, though it took her a while to develop that definition of adulthood. This is the kind of adulthood I wish more people could respect. When she mentions manga submissions during a job interview I thought “wait, when was she making manga??” The fact she didn’t mention making manga feels like she didn’t recognize that as “work” at the time, but to me (someone whose creative endeavors have stagnated from mental illness) drawing regularly and submitting to publishers are amazing accomplishments. She had been taught to only see having a “job” as productive, when actually she was creating and putting herself out there. I can understand this, as I also find myself thinking of my retail job as “real” work and not my personal projects (such as organizing this book club). Real success is being proud of your work and feeling other people understand and respect it, no matter what it is. In a better economic system this could be financially rewarding too, but yeah.

    6. Nagata’s desperation for parental approval motivated her to job search, sleep and eat consistently, save money, etc. rather than do them for herself. The parent-child relationship is supposed to have a structure, which is comforting in uncertain adulthood. However, Nagata’s parents disregard her efforts and insult her. They don’t recognize her best efforts as filial piety, and their structure is strained. The intimacy of parents is a double-edged sword: they provide shelter and attention, but they’ve observed her all her life and thus compare her to when she was “better.” The lack of positive feedback only aggravates Nagata’s loneliness and desperation for affection. Ideally Nagata could’ve become independent earlier to no longer be pressured and stifled by her parents, but society doesn’t have the accommodations for her mental illness or respect for her artistic skills to do so. Living with or without her parents comes with its own hardships, which leads to seeking an escort as an alternative for agency and affection.

    7. I believe stories can be incredibly powerful and impact a person’s life, for better or worse. In Nagata’s case, her knowledge of sexuality coming from BL gave her unrealistic expectations and real sex left her cold. It’s more common to criticize mainstream live-action pornography as misleading, but it’s worth pointing out that niche erotica like fanart can do the same. I admire and appreciate Nagata’s introspection on where her preferences in fiction came from and how they in turn shaped her real life, and I recommend others do the same. I like her clarification that glamorized depictions of sex aren’t inherently bad, but that lack of sex education will make you take them at face value. MLEWL isn’t aiming to be educational, but I think that aspect could be helpful to readers in understanding their sexuality. Reading this manga made me think about relationships with success and family, not unlike when Nagata reads articles about child abuse. It comes full circle!

    8. Genres are abstract, and more about marketing and audience (community, interpretation, categorization) than artistry. Most people associate yuri with fictional schoolgirls, but to others it means any lesbian-related manga. I can see how the latter suits this manga, though if I were describing or recommending it I wouldn’t use the word “yuri” since other elements (autobio, mental illness, webcomic) are more compelling to me. I think it’s also interesting how Nagata doesn’t have a history with yuri (she says she never checked out girl x girl stories) but is now part of the genre due to being a lesbian. I don’t know what to think of others calling MLWEL a “reclamation” of yuri because of that. See, with genre I end up talking more about conversations around the manga more than its actual content… Still, I would be happy if labeling MLEWL as yuri led “typical” yuri fans to reading it for a change of pace.

    9. The financial and critical success of MLEWL in the West makes me so happy. Nagata truly deserves it and everyone should read this manga. I hope it will lead to more LGBTQ essay manga coming to the West.

    Liked by 1 person

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