Nagata Kabi’s Latest Book Tackles the Cost of Writing Nonfiction

A Nagata Kabi book is not unlike a Bo Burnham special: a compellingly personal bit of art that leaves you slightly terrified that you should be calling into a crisis hotline on the artist’s behalf. Nagata shot to acclaim in 2016 when her autobiographical webcomic was published in a printed volume titled My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, which went on to win a Harvey Award; she followed that up with the two-volume My Solo Exchange Diary in 2017, and My Alcoholic Escape From Reality in 2019, but that third story is only now making it into English translation. While it retains the rawness of its predecessors, it also showcases how Nagata has begun to hone her craft as nonfiction artist.

To maintain the tenuous allegory for a moment longer, Reality bears some broad similarities to Burnham’s recently released Inside. There’s a two-year gap between it and her previous annualized books, and while the content still deals with heavy subject matter, the terrifying urgency of that suffering has been replaced by the slightly firmer hand of someone who’s begun sorting through something like coping mechanisms. Things are still bad, but it feels like the tools are there to dig out. On a selfish level this makes Reality an easier read than Loneliness and Diary, both of which I had to put down frequently just to roll around in a fit of second-hand anguish.

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My Alcoholic Escape From Reality

Nagata’s descriptions of the overwhelming sea of anxiety, depression, and isolation that have varyingly steered her life are infamously raw stuff, and at its worst it can feel almost like being held hostage to the work out of fear for the person behind the script. Long before the concept of the parasocial was used to describe creator/audience relationships on social media, it had a place in the world of nonfiction. I in no way mean to imply Nagata’s work is cynically attempting to exploit the audience — in fact, its utterly unvarnished and terrified sincerity is one of its strongest points—but I could always understand why some people felt too exhausted to engage.

Reality, by contrast, is explicitly about Nagata’s struggles to grow as an artist as well as a person. She’s hit smack in the face by the issue that confronts every nonfiction writer at some point: that often the people in the author’s life don’t appreciate being made into characters for the reading public. Overwhelming guilt drives her to switch from dabbling in fiction to pursuing it exclusively… only for mental health struggles to tank her work schedule and aggravate her developing issues with alcohol.

Much of the book is about wrestling with accusations that nonfiction is somehow easier or less creative than fiction, and the results of that soul-searching are evident in the manga’s technical achievements. While Nagata’s characteristic use of negative space and simplified character designs still dominates, there’s also a handful of carefully deployed detail-heavy panels and boarding that show a honed understanding of how spatial layout works to convey emotion. The feeling of a breakthrough unfolds silently long before those sentiments appear in a word bubble. By the end, I felt like I’d rediscovered what made following an artist across their career exciting. While this still won’t be a book for everyone, dealing as it does with severe trauma and illness, I can highly recommend it to anyone who’s ever had even a passing interest in Nagata’s work or nonfiction manga. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take another two years to get her next book in English.

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Vrai Kaiser

Vrai Kaiser is a tired trans media critic who likes vampires, queer shit, and bad movies. Follow their freelance work on Twitter @writervrai or their study of trash media @trashpod.

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