by Harmony Becker
“The storefronts and signs, once faceless strangers, now greet me like new friends. Every new word I learn lifts the fog around me a little more, revealing the colors and shapes of the world around me.”
Nao’s family left Japan for California when she was young, but in many ways her heart remained behind. Recently graduated from high school, she decides to spend a gap year in Japan, trying to regain the mother tongue that has largely slipped away from her growing up in America, and feeling the pressure to assimilate. She moves into Himawari House, where she meets Tina and Hyejung, who have come to study in Japan, and Masaki and Shinichi, two Japanese brothers who also live there. For Nao, Japan was once home, but now she feels just as cast adrift there as Tina and Hyejung, an adult with the language skills of a young child. Together they navigate life in a foreign country, taking their first steps into adulthood cast free of the expectations they left behind at home.
Harmony Becker is the artist of the Eisner Award-winning graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy, by actor George Takei. Himawari House is her solo graphic novel debut. Nao’s cultural background reflects Becker’s, and she also studied abroad in Korea, adding a depth of realism to her fictional take on these experiences. The story takes place over the course of a year, and is a series of slice-of-life chapters capturing different seasons and experiences. The sensibility mixes Japanese manga style with the Western graphic novel tradition. Becker employs grey scale art that adapts to the seriousness of the scene, becoming more cartoonish or exaggerated in funny moments, or when the characters are overwhelmed by their emotions and resort to humour. The visual depiction of spoken language is also masterfully handled, conveying both the struggles of codeswitching and the increasing mastery the characters experience through immersion.
Although the through-line of the graphic novel is in English, Himawari House is a story as multilingual the characters who inhabit it, incorporating Japanese and Korean. Many scenes are rendered in multiple languages. Even English is not just one singular language but a multitude, articulated in the different accents and dialects of the various characters. Hyejung’s English, learned in Korean, is different from the American English Nao speaks, but for them it is still a more comfortable common tongue than Japanese. In Masaki, we find a character who is uncomfortable speaking English, but who reads it well at an academic level, demonstrating that there are different types of fluency. Tina, meanwhile, speaks Singlish with her family, something that none of her housemates realize until they overhear her on the phone one day and realize it is different than the way she speaks English with them. Communication is complex and multifaceted, and never to be taken for granted, but love in all its forms can stretch across language barriers.
Though all three girl travelled to Japan to find themselves, perhaps the most important thing they find is one another, and the home they build around their common experience. They laugh and cry together, supporting one another through cram school, crappy customer service jobs, crushes requited and unrequited, and unexpected bouts of homesickness as they come of age in a world completely different from the ones they grew up in. If finding our place in the world is hard, it is made easier by finding the people we belong with.
You might also like Two Trees Make a Forest by Jessica J. Lee