That’s certainly not because I’m the kind of person who takes any excuse for a hug, despite all claims to the contrary from lecherous charlatans or so-called “best friends”. I want a hug because, despite this book’s cartoonish appearance, it pulls no god damn punches.
Written and illustrated by Nagata Kabi, this manga is an autobiographical journey through the author’s experiences with unemployment, depression, chronic illness, virginity, and… well, the list continues. The structure of the story is not a typical series of acts, from setup to development, climax to conclusion; instead, it’s simply an account of Nagata’s life, divided into chapters based on revelations and experiences she has had. Some parts of Nagata’s life are glossed over, while others are explored in intense, moment-to-moment detail; you might find Nagata mentioning entire years of her life in passing, before going into a detailed monologue about the anxiety she felt over one specific moment. It’s a story that’s scattered, tangential and inconsistent: which feels like a perfect fit when going from page to page. It makes you feel like you are part of a conversation with the author, rather than just listening to a generic autobiography – and it’s why I read the entire thing in one sitting. In My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, the reader is not only the reader, but a friend being let in on the secrets and inner thoughts of a woman with a lot going on in her life, wondering if you can relate to her. And honestly, I can. I think a lot of other people can, too.
The art lends to what the author is saying rather perfectly, too. Nagata recounts long wanting to be a manga artist, and it’s easy to see why. Silhouettes in this story are distinct and clear, and every character recognizable – the only character who doesn’t have a consistent shape is Nagata herself. While she’s still instantly recognizable in every single panel, there are moments where she loses her form – moments of anxiety, depression, self-consciousness or sadness might cause her shape to melt like butter on a frying pan, sagging as the tears on her face visibly distort her head. Not only are you gaining insight into Nagata Kabi’s mind, but you are also seeing an expression of her soul: visual cues and imagery displaying a sense of hopelessness and sensitivity, right up until hope blasts into the book with a ray of bright light. The colours are an important part of this too: the white pages act as the comic’s negative space and the black acts as outlines for the characters and objects. It’s the pink that sells the art in this book though; it draws attention to each and every panel in a different way, from the sea of pink surrounding a lonely, isolated Nagata, or the pink splash of a sex worker slowly closing in to take up Nagata’s whole vision, losing her in a sea of intimacy that she was experiencing for the first time.
Now that I’ve brought up the subject of sex, what really surprised me about this book is its honesty – both about Nagata’s experiences with sex and desire, and her perceptions of them. Surprisingly, the book doesn’t discuss sexuality all that much, and her sexual preference is more of a backdrop to the story, rather than taking much time in the spotlight. It certainly plays a role, of course: from the way she perceives sex and porn with both men and women, to whether or not she views herself as a woman, to the issues she has with her mother… but more than anything, her largest desire is one to be held. “Loneliness” is the key word in this manga, and it’s prevalent in every panel, every action, every monologue. It’s why Nagata spends half the story recounting her life in a nebulous blur, and the other half pouring meticulously over her whirlwind of repressed sexual desires bubbling to the surface, expressing themselves in any way they can. Everything that happens within the book connects to that central idea of loneliness: to be loved, to be welcomed, to be held. That feeling is perhaps never more relevant than just before Nagata meets a sex worker, when she’s waiting at a train station. A thought goes through her head during that moment, and while it’s small and understated, it’s one of the most emotional pages of the book. It still sticks with me.
If you’re looking for a story of escapist fiction, this isn’t the book for you. Hell, if you’re looking for a story at all, this isn’t the book for you. My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness reads like a confession: opening it feels like opening a person’s chest, exposing their beating heart to the world. It’s soft, it’s red, it’s delicate, but it’s filled with blood and life… and that’s about as far as I can go with the heart analogy before it gets weird. I think I can honestly say that this is the most honest and genuine book that I’ve ever read in my life. When you finish the book – the precursor to a series called My Solo Exchange Diary – you’ll have felt a rollercoaster of emotions, but the feeling that stands out the most is hope. Hope for Nagata, of course, but also – if you’re going through something and have nowhere to turn but the pages of this manga – hope for yourself.