Take The Fox, At Least: An Interview with Nivedita Sekar

Nivedita Sekar is an animator and cartoonist with a whimsical, heartbroken edge to her storytelling. She has a new comic out through ShortBox called Your Mother’s Fox, a 36-page color comic about a woman on a melancholic American road trip astride an ancient magical fox.

Sloane Leong: I did a little research into your web presence and it looks like you work more frequently as an animator. Can you tell us a little about your creative history and how you got into comics? 

Nivedita Sekar: Oh man, I'm definitely one of those people who are bad about keeping up a website, but yes, I work as an animator! I studied animation during undergrad, so that’s baked into my professional and personal work.

As for how I got into comics, I was a huge reader as a kid, and would read anything I could get my hands on, including comics. My parents loved Tintin and Asterix & I consumed a lot of Indian folk-tales via comics. And I remember the first time a comic really captivated me: there was a volume of magic knight rayearth (by clamp!) in a box of second-hand 10¢ library books that I’d brought home. I’d never seen anything like it. And actually, pre-really having a ton of access to a computer, I didn't even realize there was more to the story for a year or two. But that volume was enough. A story of girls slipping into another world, caught up in someone else's war! I loved it instantly. Even so, I think it took me a long time to think of comics as a thing that I could make.

Speaking of girls slipping into another world, your ShortBox comic Your Mother’s Fox feels like it’s the other end of that genre, a girl slipping back into reality from a fantastic realm. Can you talk more about the genesis of this story? 

Oh, I love that description, I hadn't thought of it like that. The idea came to me awhile ago -- a thought that I wanted to make a road trip narrative where the 'car' is a giant fox. I think the idea sparked from a fairytale motif of a helpful, talking fox, that might let you ride its tail for transport (see: "The Golden Bird" by the Brothers Grimm). From there it was mostly figuring out a world that made sense with the idea, and a character who wanted something that might be fulfilled by travel. And then, practically speaking, I was taking a mini-comics class taught by Patrick Crotty (at SVA) and figured it was as good a time as any to try to execute it.

I love the threads you pull from classic fairy tales to weave into your own work like your really moving comic on your Instagram based on East of the Sun, West of the Moon!

I feel like road trip stories are a classic American genre but one that mostly features adventurous young white men. It’s cool to see the lead character in your story, a young brown woman, upend that convention. How does her identity play into this story?

Ah thank you! The Instagram comic is very much actually a fairytale and was a ton of fun.

I mean — 100% the “freedom of the road” belongs to those safest in America, right? If you can walk on the highway hitchhiking, if you can sleep in your car or camp by yourself... There’s a bravura in being a woman alone (especially a brown woman) and I’m certainly drawn to accounts of solitary travel from perspectives outside the usual. And given all that, it felt only right that my main character have someone to travel with, someone big and old and more sure-footed.

And of course her identity plays into so many aspects of the story. It’s a bit of a diaspora narrative, I think (to use the term loosely) and — not that it’s made explicit in the text — there’s some tension over her sexuality. And she’s seen immediately as an outsider, or a curiosity, in some towns.

She doesn’t interact with many people directly beside Fox and her mom over the phone. There’s a palpable sense of deep social alienation there but also feels countered by the use of second-person narration, which I find is a bold creative choice. What drew you to use that perspective in your narration? 

Hm! I feel like at some point I fell in love with using “you” and now it feels like a solid way to... build immediacy and intimacy, without sacrificing a certain lyrical quality I love. And I am using the writing in a fairly interior way— it’d be difficult to sustain second person for long, in a story with many characters, I think. I’ve used it in most of my comic work.

Honestly, at this point, it might be a crutch; maybe I should branch out.

I really like the aggression of it putting me in the characters place! Could you talk a little about the personal significance of this story? Who is the Fox to you?

Phew, asking the tough questions!

I don’t really have a single answer for you, or even one that comes immediately to mind.

Not to be too abstract, but I often thought of the fox is as a dream. The American dream, maybe, or even more specifically, my parent’s early dream of who I might be. A dream that belonged to just them, that served them well, that shaped me in many ways. A dream that I wish were mine.

When I started the story, I thought I was going to write a pretty light story. A quest story! A road-trip! A grumpy, giant fox.

That’s definitely how Fox comes across, as something that helped fulfill someone in another more fantastic story. This character is trying to walk the same path to fulfillment as her mother did, with Fox, but she only finds her expectations left unmet. 

You said you read a lot of Indian folktale comics growing up, how do you think your culture has influenced your work, if at all?

Hm! I mean, it’s hard to untwine from who I am. I think being exposed to those stories showed me how incredibly diverse world-making mythologies could be.

In terms of my work, I don’t think it shows up directly. As much as I love those stories, I don’t know how much of a claim I have to them. I’d like to one day feel familiar enough to incorporate them, but I think I have a lot more learning to do before that.

How has your work in animation affected your sense of storytelling within the medium of comics? 

So many ways! Some good, some bad. I often think of the visual aspect of comics in terms of actions happening, and I very much like drawing as if I were working out the frames in a moment of animation. This can be helpful, but I also think it can be restricting. Sometimes I’ll take forever to put down a scene, since I want to show every little action. and I often feel like my paneling is hindered by being staged by my animation-oriented brain, when comics are way more flexible than that.

But it’s not all bad, cinematic language can be so powerful.

Totally. What other projects are you working on now or have planned for the future?

I’ve been slowly chipping away at a longer comic, retelling & expanding on Hansel & Gretel. And I’ve got a project in very early aughts, working with Zainab [Akhtar, Short Box publisher], super happy to continue working with her! I’ve got some smaller ideas I’d like to work on, but I’ve also got a day job, so it always feels like personal work is on the slowest of slow burns.

Last question! What sustains your desire to tell stories in this medium? What keeps you drawing?

Both drawing and writing are very pleasurable! I love the immediacy of it, how instantaneous it can be to put down words and images and find a natural path between the two. It twists right into the heart of what I’m trying to get at with storytelling. And I think the story is what sustains you if the drawing or writing become frustrating or unrewarding.