Keshni Kashyap gives voice to Indian-American teen angst in “Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary”

By Michael Aushenker

Angsty Indian-American teenager Tina (left) hangs with Jean-Paul Sartre in an inventive graphic novel by Keshni Kashyap (right)

Angsty Indian-American teenager Tina (left) hangs with Jean-Paul Sartre in an inventive graphic novel by Keshni Kashyap (right)

When it comes to graphic novels created by Asian-Americans, there are a handful of artists working in alternative comics who come to mind, but they are primarily men —Adrian Tomine, Gene Luen Yang and Jason Shiga among the most prominent.

Female Asian-American voices are far less visible.

Enter filmmaker and new mother Keshni Kashyap, the creator and writer behind “Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary,” which chronicles the angst-ridden teenage world of 15-year-old Tina, an Indian-American girl attending private school in a posh Southern California neighborhood.

Kashyap, who speaks about her work on Tuesday at Loyola Marymount University, is unabashed about the fact that “Tina’s Mouth” reflects her Indian-American upbringing. And while there is no ostensible mention in the book, she said the backdrop is firmly set in her native Palos Verdes.

Kashyap didn’t read comics growing up, but picked up “Persepolis” during the tail end of graduate school. The landmark two-book graphic novel that depicts Persian cartoonist Marjane Satrapi’s coming of age during the chaos of the Iranian Revolution found a huge American audience, even inspiring a 2007 animated feature.

Unlike Satrapi, however, “I don’t draw at all,” Kashyap said. “I’m not a comic book artist, but I had a very specific take.”

Once Kashyap decided to create a comic, she needed an illustrator. So she drove over to Art Center College of Design campus in Pasadena and headed to the student cafeteria. A student suggested Kashyap get in touch with his friend, a woman from Osaka named Mari Araki who had time off from school.

With illustrator Araki, Kashyap realized her concept as a short story and managed to get their comic to Anjali Singh, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt — the very same editor who had acquired “Persepolis” for the North American market.

Singh liked the comic but requested something longer. So Kashyap and Araki knuckled down and set upon expanding their collaboration to 256 pages. Kashyap decided to dramatize Tina’s troubles by having no less than Jean-Paul Sartre appear opposite the angsty teen.

“I needed a device to tell the story, and I never wanted the book to be overtly about race,” Kashyap explained. Having taken a class on Existentialism — a “half-dead philosophy,” she said — Kashyap settled on Sartre.

“You think of Camus but you don’t get a visual image,” Kashyap said. Also, she liked the comic possibilities of depicting the French philosopher “with two eyeballs that were facing in different directions.”

Currently living in Japan, Araki spoke about the collaboration during a joint interview with Kashyap for The Nervous Breakdown website in 2012: “I’ve been in love with Indian culture and its art, so I was excited to work on this project,” Araki said. “My intention was to communicate Keshni’s voice while adding some subtle twists, humorous notes and a bit of fun as well.”

Kashyap had initially advertised for an illustrator on Craigslist, but that yielded a lot of submissions featuring female characters “with big boobs,” she said. While Kashyap wasn’t consciously gravitating toward collaborating with a woman of Asian heritage, “I felt weird about working with a white guy on my teenager coming-of-age story.”

“I was drawn to [Araki’s] work because of her style. I fell madly in love with her paintings, and I still am. It’s an original combination of sadness and whimsy. And there was a darkness,” she said.

The women worked together at coffee shops and at Kashyap’s parents’ house in Palos Verdes.

Upon its 2012 release, “Tina’s Mouth” landed on Entertainment Weekly’s Must List and garnered positive reviews in the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly and other periodicals.

Oddly enough, their publisher encouraged them to bypass comic book shops and conventions while promoting “Tina’s Mouth.”

“The book doesn’t really appeal to comic book readers; it appeals more to young adults” was the thinking, said Kashyap.

She also made the Hollywood rounds with a prominent producer eager to develop the story for television, but the concept tanked.

“The book was a very quiet story where not very much happens. The feedback that we constantly got was that it’s too soft,” Kashyap said. “I think there’s truth in what they’re saying. It’s very hard to sell and to even make something that’s very soft.”

Kashyap was invited to speak at LMU by associate professor Stella Oh, who chairs the university’s Department of Women’s Studies. Oh has written and published think pieces about Mine Okubo’s “CITIZEN 13660” and two seminal Asian-American graphic novels: Tomine’s “Shortcomings” and Yang’s “American Born Chinese.”

“It’s an emerging field right now in academia,” Oh said of sequential art. “It’s not just looking at comics and graphic novels as a new niche. It’s asking, ‘Can a graphic novel deal with notions of race and gender in a way that a novel can’t?”

More than two years after finishing “Tina’s Mouth,” Kashyap has been working on a novel and various screenwriting projects while caring for her 19-month-old daughter, Inika. But she hopes to collaborate with Araki on a second graphic novel — a format that wasn’t easy to adapt to, but ultimately won her over.

“It’s a way to tell really subtle stories in interesting ways, but it’s deceptively easy,” said Kashyap, who looks at her inexperience in comics as a strength rather than a weakness.

“I think I bring an outsider approach to the work,” she said. “It’s always going to be something outside the box.”

Keshni Kashyap discusses “Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary” at 10:50 a.m., followed by lunch 12:30 p.m., on Tuesday at Room 1000 of LMU’s University Hall, 1 LMU Drive, Westchester. The talk is free and open to the public, but RSVP to stella.oh@lmu.edu.

michael@argonautnews.com

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