Do you love graphic novels as much as we do? The Ladies Finger brings you another of our special reading lists, this time of graphic novels by women of colour. There are retellings of epics, stories about caste and race, difficult and quirky childhoods, rekindling old family bonds, a boy who turns into a girl when splashed with cold water, and, it goes without saying, the existential and the absurd. Dive in!
1. Tina’s Mouth: An Existential Comic Diary by Keshni Kashyap, illustrated by Mari Araki
Indian-American author Keshni Kashyap’s book is premised on a rather complex concept within existentialism. Shunning the usual tropes that accompany a multi-cultural identity and upbringing, Kashyap’s Tina reflects on the cliques in her school, her chaotic Southern Californian Indian family and is “on a first-name basis with Jean-Paul Sartre, the result of an English honours class assignment to keep an ‘existential diary’.”
2. Kari by Amruta Patil
Kari describes herself as a loner, a floater, and a boatman. She has no burning issues besides Ruth. “They were inseparable – until the day they jumped. Ruth, saved by safety nets, leaves the city. Kari, saved by a sewer, crawls back into the fray of the living.” Having found allies in Angel, Lazarus, and the girls of Crystal Palace, she bears witness to loneliness, decay, underdog success, and slow-burning death in Smog City. Sometimes intense, sometimes eccentric, but always tender, Kari, published in 2008, is Amruta Patil’s first graphic novel.
3. (H)afrocentric by Juliana ‘Jewels’ Smith
In an attempt to educate her students about race, class, gender and sexuality and challenge the pre-conceived notions surrounding these areas, Juliana ‘Jewels’ Smith ends up writing a hilarious comic strip about four disgruntled undergrads of colour and their adventures at the fictional Ronald Reagan University. Meet radical black feminist Naima Pepper and her apolitical drummer brother Miles, who were raised in the same household but grew up ‘frighteningly different’. And their best friends, the stud, lesbian, mixed Indonesian and Black Renee Aanjay Brown and self-identifying Chicano Elizondo ‘El’ Ramirez, who join them as they navigate through their neighbourhood and identities.
4. Nylon Road by Parsua Bashi
Described as a blend of Persepolis and A Christmas Carol, Nylon Road is the memoir of Iranian author Parsua Bashi and her struggles while growing up under Shiite Law. Bashi was born in Tehran in 1966 and moved to Switzerland in 2004 after a divorce. She was forced to leave her daughter behind, as under Iranian law at that time, a woman asking for a divorce had to give up custody rights. Her memoir is narrated from Switzerland in the present day. The story is triggered by a little girl she suddenly sees one day in her kitchen. She realises that the little girl is herself as a child, and this leads to several flashbacks, a literary device that serves the memoir well, as it helps her tell a complicated, difficult story with humour and ease.
5. Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni (writer) and Moyna Chitrakar (illustrator)
Drawing upon various folk and oral traditions, with magnificent illustrations from Moyna Chitrakar, Samhita Arni retells the epic from Sita’s perspective. While traversing through different traditions, Arni discovered portrayals that were a long way away from the “ideal woman and wife” version of the character that she knew as a child. She considers Sita’s refusal to prove her ‘purity’ once again and return to Ayodhya, as a powerful moment: “Through the ages, many have been uncomfortable with that ending – is it a tragedy? Why, when Ram comes back to her, does she choose not to return? Over the years I’ve thought about this. I don’t think that decision needs to be seen as a tragedy. I believe it affirms Sita. She emerges as woman in her own right, with her own mind, making her own choices.”
6. Ranma ½ by Rumiko Takahashi
Ranma ½ is a Japanese series by Rumiko Takahashi, one of Japan’s most popular Manga artists, which tells the story of a teenage boy named Ranma Saotome. Ranma is not a boy all the time: a curse transforms him into a girl whenever he comes into contact with cold water. The series follows Ranma as he dodges several obstacles in his quest to get rid of the curse. Takahashi was determined to break her usual habit of writing female protagonists, but wasn’t comfortable writing a male one either, which is why Ramma ended up being half female and half male.
7. Shemurenga by d’bi Young
‘Shemurenga’, a term coined by the Zimbawean feminist Shereen Essof, is a spin-off on the word ‘chimurenga’ which means revolutionary struggle. Shemurenga, the black supah hero of the story, is chosen by the Great Council of Ancestors to protect Earth. She is one of nine elements and is determined to fulfil her destiny, find the other eight elements, and prevent the villain Ropoden from unleashing greed and destruction through patriarchy, deforestation, racism, imperialism, child abuse, and war. Written by the Jamaican-African dub poet d’bi Young, the comic features herself as the titular Shemurenga. It was illustrated by the Ugandan media group Klan of the Kings.
8. This is Suki! by Manjula Padmanabhan
Suki, a free-spirited urban Indian woman, was created by Manjula Padmanabhan in 1982 and published in the Sunday Observer. Coming at a time when anything other than political cartooning was unheard of, Suki reflecting on the absurdities of everyday life understandably baffled readers, so much so that they sent as many as sixty indignant letters to the editor. As writer Arul Mani remarks in a review of the book, “Its themes take it some way beyond its time—how a woman may go solo and still live and have fun, the resilient presence of the absurd in the everyday, the daily subsidence of conversation into tennis-match aggression, the habitus that urban Indians build within the English language even as they lose mother tongues and multilinguality.”
9. Nana by Ai Yazawa
The Josei manga Nana is the story of two girls, both named Nana, and the bond that evolves between them despite their contrasting personalties. Nana Osaki is a member of a rock band which has acquired small-town fame. Her fellow band member and boyfriend Ren moves to Tokyo but Nana, strong and independent, refuses to follow him to Tokyo and stays back to cultivate her talent. Nana Komatsu, on the other hand, is the polar opposite. Dependent and impulsive, especially in matters of love, she follows her boyfriend and his group of friends until before becoming roomates with the other Nana by sheer coincidence. A beautiful friendship develops between the two as they chase after fame, recognition, love, and happiness in a new city.
10. Aya of Yop City by Marguerite Abouet
Aya of Yop City, a series of six volumes, was originally published in French between 2005 and 2010, and later translated into English. The plot, loosely based on the author’s life in Côte d’Ivoire, follows the life of Aya, her friends and relatives. A compassionate, well-meaning person always offering a helping hand to her friends and the community, Aya also has an independent streak and snubs the social diktats meant to discipline women, giving the series a light-hearted, warm and vibrant tone.
11. Exilia: The Invisible Path by Cecelia Sofia Pego
This graphic novel follows the journey of the character Exilia as she embarks on a dangerous quest after being expelled from her sisterhood. It combines the forms of graphic novels and story books and uses images rather than panels. It also deploys ink, oil paints, and water colour to bring to life the dark, mystical thriller saga.
12. Bhimayana by Durgabai Vyam, Subhash Vyam (illustrators); Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand (writers)
This graphic novel calls upon the Indian public to question why Dr B.R. Ambedkar has been reduced to a statue who is largely remembered as the maker of the India’s constitution. Published in and hailed as a must-read masterpiece the world over, Bhimayana uses breathtakingly beautiful artwork to raise uncomfortable questions about caste that have been conveniently buried for far too long.
13. Little White Duck: A Childhood in China (2012) Na Liu
The story follows the lives of two girls: Da Qin, Big Piano, and her younger sister Xiao Qin, Little Piano, live in China in the 1970s. Their lives are on the brink of a massive change, as the nation grapples with the aftermath of the passing of Chairman Mao. The unfolding of this new era is presented through the lens of the girls’ childhood. At the very beginning they witness their parents mourning the death of their grandfather, only to later gauge that it was Chairman Mao, that grandpa, who had died. The eight short stories are based on the author’s life, and are illustrated by the author/illustrator Andrès Vera Martinez.
14. The Color of Earth trilogy by Dong Hwa Kim
A Bildungsroman set in rural Korea and executed in the Manhwa form, this book is the story of Ehwa and her widowed mother as they run the local tavern. As the girl grows up watching how their neighbours and customers treat her single mother, she realises they are a deeply isolated pair. Ehwa tries to come to terms with this fact while her mother falls in love again and eventually, this opens her up to the possibility of love in her own life. The author Kim Dong Hwa claimed that Ehwa was the result of her attempts at imagining her mother’s youth.
15. Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya
This Japanese shōjo manga series tells the story of Tohru Honda who is forced to live in a tent after her mother dies in a car accident. She soon finds a better place to live, the house of her popular classmate Yuki Sohma and his cousin Shigure. While staying with the Sohmas, Tohru realizes that the Sohmas have been cursed. When they are under duress or are hugged by a member of the opposite sex, they change into their zodiac animal. Tohru agrees to keep their secret but the Sohmas are changed forever when she sets out to break the curse.
16. Ouran High School Host Club by Bisco Hatori
Bisco Hatori’s Ouran Highschool Host Club is a light-hearted rom-com that follows Haruhi Fujioka and her inclusion into a six-member male club. Haruhi is a scholarship student in Ouran High School, a prestigious academy. One day, she stumbles on a secret host club where male employees gather to entertain female clients. Dazed by the scenes unfold before her there, she knocks over an expensive vase. Compelled to repay her debt, she volunteers as one of the members for the the host club. Her gender neutral attire, short haircut and ambiguous facial features dupe everyone into believing she is a boy, leading to several amusing incidents.
17. Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan
In modern-day Tel Aviv, Koby Franco, a young taxi driver, and Numi, a young female soldier, search for clues to unravel the mystery surrounding the death of a man – estranged father to Koby, and lover to Numi. This is Modan’s first graphic novel and it is not solely the suspense thriller that its plot suggests. It reflects on the impact of politics and war on individuals and their family ties, which are almost fully eroded but still continue to endure, and the absurdity and beauty of human relationships.
18. Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories by Mari Naomi
Dragon’s Breath is American author Mari Naomi’s graphic memoirs, composed of short autobiographical anecdotes about love, friendship, her favourite grandpa and running away from home. She scours through her memories to present us with simple, fleeting ones, those which are often eclipsed when we return to the serious businesses of our lives, but those which essentially define us as human.
19. jobnik! by Miriam Libicki
This delightful novel takes you on a journey Miriam Libicki, a woman of Israeli origins based in the US, who casts herself as a secretary at an Israeli Defence Force base during the 2nd Intifada (the Al Aqsa Uprising). It is a coming- of-age story of sorts about a woman who is thrust into the world of war without ever having to directly participate in combat. The truth about war and its gruesome and horrific consequences are portrayed through witty lines and humorous cartoons.
20. Mushishi by Yuki Urushibara
Mushishi is an unconventional manga series set in ancient Japan, which is portrayed as an isolated country. It follows Ginko on his adventures as he tries to protect people from the effects of supernatural beings called ‘Mushis’ – primitive life forms that are invisible to most humans. Ginko spends his time touring Japan studying the nature of Mushis and curing people from illnesses and phenomena caused by them.
21. Drawing the Line: Indian Women Fight Back, edited by Priya Kurian, Ludmilla Bartscht, and Larissa Bertonasco
This anthology of the work of fifteen young women was the outcome of a workshop titled ‘Graphic Girls’ which was conceived as a response to the December 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey, that launched a long overdue dialogue about sexual violence and gender. In her introduction to the book, Nisha Susan, one of our founding editors, notes that the artists in this anthology aim to broaden the conversation beyond the horror of rape to “talk about work, pay, love, marriage, disability, caste, sex and everyday sexism.”
22. Monstress by Marjorie M Liu and Sana Takeda
The creators of this comic combine their American upbringing with their Japanese heritage to create an amalgamation of fantasy fiction and cartoons which would appeal to a significantly older audience which is set in an alternate history in matriarchial Asia of 1900s.
23. The Black Butler by Yana Toboso
The Black Butler is a manga series that follows the life of thirteen-year-old Ciel Phantomhive. After losing his parents in a fire, Ciel is captured by a mysterious institution, put through excruciating torture, and then inducted into a secret organisation known as the Queen’s Watchdog, tasked with solving crimes in London’s underworld. After a month Ciel returns to ‘normal’ life in the aristocratic Phantomhive household along with a butler named Sebastian Michaelis. They appear to have a normal master and butler dynamic but there is a dark undercurrent to their relationship that makes this a dramatic, riveting story.
24. Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi
Embroideries is a beautifully crafted graphic novel that examines the sexual politics in post-revolutionary Iran. It explores the lives of Iranian women from three different generations through stories of love, sex, and life which are narrated by the author’s grandmother and her friends.
25. Forget Sorrow by Belle Yang
In her graphic novel debut, Chinese-American author Belle Yang pens a memoir that depicts her father’s early life and her relationship with him. While she recovers at her parents’ house from an abusive, stalker boyfriend referred to as ‘Rotten Egg’, she gradually becomes bonds with her father. While listening to his ancestral tales of struggle in early twentieth century China, she comes to terms with the enormous depth and breadth of her cultural heritage.
26. A Bride’s Story, by Kaoru Mori
Kaoru Mori’s A Bride’s Story is a historical romance manga. Set in Turkic Central Asia, it chronicles the life of a young woman, Amir, who is married off to a boy much younger to her. The story follows Amir’s attempts to live up to the expectations of her new and old families, adjust to community life, and locate herself in a society that is too quick to define her role for her.
27. This One Summer, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki
This One Summer is a graphic novel on growing up. It’s about Rose, who goes with her mother and father to a lake house in Awago Beach. Rosie’s friend Windy is there too, but the summer is different because her parents keep fighting. Rose and Windy then find themselves with new problems when they try to find distraction from the family drama.
28. Sarah: The Suppressed Anger of the Pakistani Obedient Daughter, by Ayesha Tariq
This book was written and illustrated by Ayesha Tariq as part of her university thesis. It’s about Sarah, a 17-year-old girl from a conservative urban family. Sarah always does as she’s told, to keep her parents happy. The book captures her bottled up frustrations, but towards the end of the book, her anger is about to explode.
29. MFK, by Nilah Magruder
This graphic novel is about Abbie, who wants to scatter her mother’s ashes on the mountain range called the Potter’s Spine. She wants to get there, and then live her life in solitude, but everyone she meets wants to either go with her on her quest to Potter’s Spine, arrest her, or blow her up.
Did you just think of another irresistible graphic novel by a woman of colour that’s not on this list? Write to us at fingerzine <at> gmail <dot> com.
Thanks to Aditya Mani Jha for the last three suggestions.