Written and illustrated by Harmony Becker
Becker’s webcomic, Himawari Share, comes to print in an immersive graphic novel that explores cross-cultural identity and the power of language to separate and to unite. Nao, born in Japan but raised from early childhood in the United States, spends her gap year in Japan trying to reclaim the culture she pushed behind her in order to fit in with her American friends. While attending Haseda Japanese Language Institute, she lives in a shared residence with other Asian born housemates, who are similarly using Himawari House as home base to put distance between themselves and personal and family pressures. Having felt perpetually marginalized in America, Nao feels equally marginalized in Japan, struggling now with a language she once abandoned and questioning whether she even has a right to fully claim her Japanese heritage.
Readers are tossed into the deep end of the pool, immediately drawn into Nao’s exhausting navigation of transactional dialogues with strangers, inscrutable signage, and the heavily accented English of her housemates and Haseda teachers—armed only with vague memory of her mother’s speech and translation apps on her phone. Becker is nothing short of brilliant in capturing aural confusion in a print medium. Nao’s search for her new residence is a gem of cringe-worth comedy, as she struggles to ask a bystander where Himawari House is located while standing directly in front of it and its clear signage—in Japanese characters. Things get worse. Each housemate Nao meets presents a fresh linguistic challenge: Tina, from Singapore, is adept at rapid fire Singlish; Hyejung, from Korea, falters in Japanese; Shinichi and brother Masaki, from Japan, respectively speak very fast or not at all. Speech bubbles track the speakers’ language choices and idiosyncrasies in Asian language characters, Asian transliteration, and English speech; blurred lines (and there are many) are interjected when stretches of address go by too quickly to process, building a window into the listening and the speaking experience of communication.
Manga mashes with Western comics convention, and chapter headings reference Japanese phrases, lifestyle trends, festivals, and slang sans translation. This may sound like heaven to YA Japanophiles with a storehouse of contextual background, but they might want to put smugness on hold. Nao and her non-Japanese housemates have some sensitive but pointed debate over how far rights extend for Americans—or indeed, for themselves—to self-swaddle in a culture not entirely their own. Backstories for the Himawari housemates are sensitively developed to parallel Nao’s need to discover who she is and what she wants, but the particulars of the circumstances that drove them to and keep them in Japan, extend the discussion of embracing a new homeland beyond a Western/Eastern binary. There’s no easy resolution to Nao’s search for identity but she returns to America with a clearer understanding of her mother’s heartache at losing much of her own culture, and of her own determination to move freely in both spheres.
Betty Bush, Reviewer