Exploring a Specific, Lonely Psychic Wound: A Conversation with Yumi Sakugawa

A fellow illustrator, Jade Johnson, once commented to me that the Los Angeles-based artist Yumi Sakugawa seems to lead an enviable life, that she appears to move through the world with a great sense of intent. The earliest work of Yumi’s I saw was her much-shared 2012 comic of a furry cyclops’ deep yearning for platonic intimacy, I Think I Am in Friend-Love with You. The story appeared on the web in many small dense panels, but when Yumi brought it to book form, each panel took up one square page, letting the work breathe. Her ever-growing stack of works from Adams Media, St. Martin’s Press, and Retrofit Comics include Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe, Ikebana, There Is No Right Way to Meditate, The Little Book of Life Hacks, Fashion Forecasts, and even sets of digital iMessage stickers (and heck, I’m still leaving a lot out!). As Yumi’s site describes it:

FASHION FORECASTS explores the possibilities of a not-so-distant future where fashion can be intergenerational, Asian American, divine feminine, environmentally conscious, community building, ancestor worshipping, and possibly bring you closer to enlightenment. Originally printed as a limited edition zine for an art installation of the same name at CrossLines, a culture lab curated by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific Center in the historical Smithsonian Arts & Industries building in 2016, Fashion Forecasts also includes photographs from the exhibition, new fashion forecast drawings, fashion advice, and a comic essay on fashion as mindful meditation.

I spoke with the ever-intentional Yumi by email.

ANNIE MOK: You put out a large volume of work at a consistent pace, much of it centering around the day-to-day habits that one can take up to better center one’s heart and mind. What is your daily routine like, and how do your work habits fit into it?

YUMI SAKUGAWA: I start my mornings almost always the same. I leave a bowl of water on my altar as an offering to my genius and light a bit of dried sage to acknowledge the local nature spirits. (I learned those daily rituals from internet witch Carolyn Elliott's online course INFLUENCE, a highly recommended experience if you are into witchiness, magic, and manifesting your desires). I meditate for about twenty minutes and do three pages of stream-of-conscious writing, a daily activity recommended in Julia Cameron's creative workbook The Artist's Way. And then after that, it all depends on whatever is going on in my life at the moment. Sometimes I have a bunch of freelance projects going on, sometimes I am traveling out of town for events, other times (like now) I am in-between projects so I am mostly spending my time working on finishing a new book proposal. Because I am restless, I like to break up my work days with yoga, or hiking, or work dates with other freelancing friends. And also since I mostly work alone, I make a point to schedule in friend time and community time on a regular basis because meaningful human interaction is oxygen, not a luxury. These days, I'm a big stickler for the very boring and basic principles self-care: adequate sleep, eating healthy, regular exercise, seeing friends.

From your breakout work I Think I Am in Friend-Love with You on, you’ve established a visual style, always dependable and identifiable but never calcified, always alive and breathing. What led you to develop your aesthetics, and who may have influenced you in that process?

This sounds self-deprecating, but because I am incredibly impatient, my brain is just not wired to create art that requires precision, impeccable linework, excellent technical skills, and lots of concentration. So yes, there is some inherent impatient laziness in why I settled into this current loose, simple style with lots of empty spaces that has become characteristic of the work that I do. I also remember reading an interview with a cartoonist many years ago who said that you should think of your comic-creating style as your own handwriting, something that just comes out of you in this intuitive way, and so over the years I've embraced a style that feels loose and simple, as though it is my own handwriting but happens to be in narrative drawing form. I also always keep in mind what I heard from a visiting art professor during my art school days: the more empty spaces you have in your work, the more space there is for the viewer to put themselves in to create more intimacy in the relationship between the viewer and the art. So there is also a desire to consciously have empty spaces--whether they are visual or narrative pauses--in order for the reader or viewer to catch their breath and sit in the stillness, even if it is for an extra second.

The influence that immediately comes to mind is Japanese Superflat artist Aya Takano whose kawaii, surreal, sci-fi loose aesthetic I still absolutely adore and admire. Going further back, probably the scraggly drawings of Tim Burton because I was a huge nerd for The Nightmare Before Christmas in my teen years. Going even further back to childhood, I definitely love the loose, simple aesthetic of the shojo manga series Chibi Maruko-Chan written and illustrated by Momoko Sakura.

Your books like Your Illustrated Guide to the Universe and There Is No Right Way to Meditate take up a first-person tone seen in some self-help type of works, but you avoid easy answers and acknowledge the pain and difficulties of living. How do you balance a search for peace with a drive to stay realistic?

Something I have to remind myself again and again is that self-love is not conditional. So my self-worth is not defined by my creative output (a hard one for artists and creative people), my level of success, how responsibly I live my life, and so on. So these days I am finding peace in the fact that at the end of the day, I don't have to work hard to earn my own self-love or receive love from others. I don't have to do anything to deserve love. I don't have to create another work of art ever again to feel peace, happiness, compassion, and love. I can have my hard days, my hot emotional mess days, my incredibly petty and irrational days, my totally stressed out and not knowing what the future holds days--they are not reflections of my inherent value as a human being. No matter what, I am fine exactly as I am in this present moment. And knowing that makes me fully show up more in work, relationships, and life without being attached to the outcome, because regardless of the outcome, I don't have to prove my worthiness to anyone or to myself. And there is a lot of peace in really believing in that no matter what the external circumstances are.

You often collaborate with other artists in different mediums, such as your recent book with Danielle Leduc Mcqueen, I Choose You (Every Day & Always), the interdisciplinary art installation Fashion Forecasts, and your 2015-16 poetry zines Mind Songs and Body Songs with Taleen Kali. In fact, we made a sketchbook watercolor painting together at the Brooklyn Filipino-run Mountain Province Espresso Bar once, with you doing the linework (of some rabbit people in a room) and me coloring. In indie comics, of course, there is the dangerous idea that the work must be produced by a “solo genius” to be “pure,” and your work implicitly pushes against such notions. What does collaboration bring to you and your work that you might not always be able to reach in your solo work?

It's funny you bring up collaboration because I used to not like collaborating! I am still picky about who I choose to collaborate it, and when I do, I enjoy the freedom and relief of not having to do everything completely on my own. There is a kind of wonderful surrender in having a specific role in a larger project, and not being attached to the outcome because it is beyond your control. Not to mention the exposure that art receives that expands beyond my usual audience and community.

Also, with something more large scale like my art installation Fashion Forecasts, which was part of a greater pop-up art exhibition curated by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center in 2016, collaboration makes me appreciate how the scale of the work I create can be expanded beyond the scope of my own individual efforts in this really exciting, wonderful way when talents, abilities, and visions of multiple people come together.

Your 2014 minicomic Never Forgets explored relating to immigrant parents through the metaphor of a young elephant woman who gets plastic surgery to better assimilate into American society, which comes to her as a great relief but brings many possible problems as well. I think of Michelle Zauner of the band Japanese Breakfast and her gut-wrenching New Yorker personal essay "Crying in H Mart", in terms of how complicated and difficult a diaspora experience can be. How do you wrangle with these questions and concerns about Asian-American identity through your work?

Usually, there is a desire to explore a specific, unsettled feeling in my heart: a specific, lonely psychic wound of being the daughter of immigrant parents, of being fluent in a language and culture that is not of my lineage which separates me from the rest of my family tree. And so then I find myself asking what this wound exactly is, how can it be described so that other people sharing my experience can viscerally understand it on an emotional and cellular level, and what is the healing and the medicine that this wound needs. And so creating the medicine--whether it comes in the form of a short comic story exploring Asian American identity or co-facilitating a workshop with other Asian American witches specifically for Asian American women--is my way of acknowledging that yes, these subtle and not-so-subtle wounds are real and not imagined and multilayered; they need to be expressed, and there needs to be a way to heal them, whether it is inventing our own paradigms and world views and rituals, speaking out loud what feels murky and undefined, or simply telling our own stories from our own perspectives for our own communities without pandering to a mainstream audience.

Fashion Forecasts concerns itself with the liberating qualities of personal style, and the political nature of how one presents themselves to the world. How do you decide what to wear? What questions and reflections go into how you make your aesthetic into a sort of public work of art, as is a path available to us with some thought and effort?

I had a comic essay that I never finished that was supposed to go into the book that explores my own intuitive process for choosing the right outfit. I see the daily choice of choosing your outfit as a mindful creative practice in honoring your own intuition and feelings and desires of that particular moment in time. I am looking for the right combination of colors, patterns, shapes, and textures intersecting with external factors (the weather, the season, the particular occasion the outfit is for, etc.) that creates a resonant "yes" in my heart--and sometimes it is a matter of the right lipstick shade or the right accessory that is the difference between a good outfit and a transcendent outfit. I don't necessarily always go out of my way to do this-- because I work from home, I oftentimes default to my daily uniform of tank top, loose pants, and a denim jacket--but some days and events or my own simple desire to put in the extra effort on a particular day call for calling in intuitive magic to summon the perfect outfit. It can be very personal and even spiritual-- to consciously choose the avatar you wish to present to the rest of the world. And because you begin to recognize the resonant "yes" in your heart when you wear the right outfit that gives you that feeling of wearing powerful energetic armor, then you begin to recognize that same resonant "yes" feeling in other aspects of your life--how you decorate your living space, how you create your artwork, who you spend time with you, how you spend your time, the experiences and activities and stories that really speak to your heart. And then all these little micro-moment decisions of resonance add up to you practicing powerful agency in how you wish to manifest your life, on your own terms, speaking to your own personal and sacred desires.

From Friend-Love through your illustrations for I Choose You, you often focus on protagonists who are puppet-like alien-seeming creatures, or recognizable animals like rabbits. What draws you to creating these fantastical characters? Are there specific influences in comics or other storytelling mediums that inspired you to work with such fauna?

I don't feel this way with all my stories, but I generally feel this compulsive need to make many of my characters look non-human and simple as possible because I like the idea of creating a blank, almost neutral canvas for my human readers, so that they can project more of themselves and their own personal experiences onto my characters.

For example, I don’t think Friend-Love would have had as much viral appeal if I made the characters look like what my personal experiences of friend-love were based on. More realistic and autobiographical visual signifiers (an Asian American college-age woman in friend-love with an Asian American man) would have been tied the narrative down to a very specific age, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, geographical location, and other identifying details, which would then made the story very specific and singular to my particular experience, and perhaps created more emotional distance to many of my readers. Because the characters were non-human, readers got to put more of themselves into the story.

I was really excited when several asexual readers told me that reading Friend-Love helped them in giving them a reference to describe their sexual identity to themselves and to others, and I don’t think that could have happened if I used more traditional, realistic-looking human characters in my story.

As for specific influences, off the top of my head I immediately think of Sanrio characters and their very non-emotive character designs. And I'm sure there's some subliminal influence from compulsively reading the Perry Bible Fellowship web comics during college. Generally, I don't like to make my characters visually emote too much; less is more for me.

Your books, Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe and There Is No Right Way to Meditate especially, concern themselves with the joys and the pains of living. I’m sure many of your readers have turned to your books in times of difficulty, as I sometimes have. Has art-making helped you through troubles in your own life? And besides this ground that you’ve covered in the books themselves, what would you say to readers looking to get through hard times?

I've made a lot of art over heartbreak and periods of uncertainty, but when I'm at a really, really, really low point in my mental health I've found that the last thing I want to do is make art, even if it's just for myself and it has the potential to help me process things. Once I am on stabler ground and I am out of emotional survival mode, then maybe art can help with easing the transition, providing a creative outlet, and perhaps giving more clarity to the changes and challenges I am going through.

For readers looking to get through hard times, something I don't quite emphasize as much in my self-help books that I want to say right here is that you should never feel like you have to go through difficult things alone.

Something I've been reminding myself is: make a habit of asking yourself what you need, don't shame yourself for needing and wanting things that give you comfort, and if this need requires the company of others, don't be afraid to ask your support network exactly for what you need. There is a lot of alone time assumed in the mainstream idea of self-care (taking baths, meditating, adequate sleep, giving yourself a pedicure, etc.), but having human connections is not a luxury, it is oxygen.

I've been getting through recent difficulties in mental health precisely because I am consciously scheduling a lot of time with friends and community. You simply cannot thrive without meaningful human connections, and those human connections are exactly there because they can support you and lift you when you need it the most.

You’ve worked for large companies like Adams Media, small presses like Retrofit, and self-published. What are the pleasures and limitations of working in different scales of publishing?

When I was still printing the zine version of Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe, I had to buy packs of a specific type of glittery card stock that I liked to use for the covers (the material was so long it had to be divided into two separate zine volumes), and then I had to drive about 40 minutes to a mom and pop print shop to drop off the card stock after submitting the printing order, and then I had to drive to that mom and pop print shop again to pick up boxes of my zines, and then I had to drive far again to drop off these zines to various independent bookstores and businesses who wanted to buy my zines to stock their stores, or mail them to readers who bought them through my online store, or lug them around in my trunk or suitcase for zine fests and comic festivals.

As much as I enjoyed the personal touch of self-publishing, it was a relief to translate the material into published book form, where I had to do absolutely nothing in terms of distribution and now enjoy the fact that my books are sold in many stores, many cities and towns and states and countries, far beyond the scope of what I can do on my own.

That being said, I still love the immediate gratification of working on a short-term self-published zine, though I don't do it as often as I used to. I also enjoy the flexibility of working with small indie presses like Retrofit Books, where I get to enjoy the editorial freedom of creating unfiltered work for a more niche audience like a self-published zine but have way more resources (color printing! Full bleeds!) and distribution than doing it about my own.

What’s next for you as an artist? What possibilities excite you right now?

I am working on a new book that I won't say too much about other than the fact that it is about Asian American identity and it has a very science fiction slant. And after having been so territorial about my alone time for so long, I'm open to possibilities of collaboration, teamwork, group effort--a multitude of voices coming together for a common longterm goal. I don't know what that looks like yet as far as career and art projects-- do I need to work in TV and film? A futuristic think tank? A scrappy start-up? --but after being a solo entrepreneur for so long, I'm hungry for the group dynamic of exchanging ideas, brainstorming as a team, and creatively contributing to a greater cause. And these new opportunities don't necessarily have to be related to comics and publishing. I'm so just hungry for more human connection and less solitude! So I'm excited to exercise that part of my brain and heart that I know is there--dormant, ready to be activated when the timing is right.