I serendipitously came across author Keshni Kashyap and illustrator Mari Araki's young adult graphic novel Tina's Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary (Houghton Mifflin, 2011) on the shelf at the library and greatly enjoyed reading it this week. It's a great addition to the world of Asian American graphic novels and combines a familiar narrative of American teenage life with tongue-in-cheek and subtle insights into the specific aspects of an upper-middle class, Indian immigrant community. (See also stephenhongsohn's review earlier in the community.)
The novel takes the form of a class assignment for sophomore Tina Malhotra. For her existentialism seminar, she is writing a diary to reflect on who she is and what it means to be. Tina addresses her journal to Jean-Paul Sartre and often comments on what she is learning about existentialism in class. At one level, the novel is humorous in its exploration of a teenager's grappling with the philosophy of existentialism, which in many ways resonates with the disaffectation of adolescence even if its more complex vision exceeds simple teenage angst. The main narrative arc is about Tina's abandonment by her long-time best friend Alex, who finds a boyfriend and starts hanging out with a fashion-obsessed, superficial crowd. To compensate for her sudden loneliness, she dives into new friendships and activities, including spending lunchtime with Su Ming and free period with Hollis. She also lands the lead in the school play, a stage version of Rashomon. Throughout all of these changes, she also falls in love for the first time with a boy at school named Neil.
What I liked a lot about the novel is its humor about being Asian and different in a predominantly white, upper middle class Southern Californian prep school. Though she has lived there her whole life and knows all the kids in her K-12 school, she still sticks out sometimes as an alien. When she talks to Neil, he asks her about Buddhism and nirvana, assuming that she knows about such Eastern things simply because she is Indian. In other ways, though, her sense of ethnic identity is also about how her family spends time with the Indian American community in the area beyond the boundaries of their immediate neighborhood. The novel's exploration of these parties and friendships that exceed the usual social formations based simply on neighborly proximity is a revealing look at how ethnic immigrant communities create social networks.
This novel was heavier on the text than other graphic novels, and it certainly reads differently from more visually-oriented graphic novels. But I liked the dynamic between text and illustration, with the drawings often adding layers of meaning not explicit in the words.