Smash Pages Q&A: Robin Ha

The creator of “Cook Korean!” talks about her latest graphic memoir, “Almost American Girl.”

Robin Ha’s graphic memoir Almost American Girl came out earlier this year, and it’s a stunning work that recounts not just her own childhood, but her mother’s life in South Korea and why they emigrated to the United States.

For those who knew Ha for her book Cook Korean! which began life as a cooking blog, to spend time with how she draws, with the ways that she plays with color and tone, is to understand just how good an artist and storyteller she is. And reading the two books together make it clear that she’s just begun to show what she’s capable of doing.

I reached out to Ha recently to talk about the book and her career, about trying to make projects that are very dissimilar from each other, and trying to focus on the emotion of the story.

How did you come to comics?

My mom introduced me to her favorite Korean comics when I was a little girl. In Korea reading comics is such a common thing. There are a lot of rental stores just for comics and I went there after school every day and borrowed dozens of comics. That’s how it started.

You have rental stores? Do you not have a library system?

We have libraries, but there are so many comic books – literally millions of volumes. There’s still a little stigma against comics in Korea by parents who don’t think comics are educational, and they would rather have their kids read books and not comic books. So if you go to libraries they have mostly educational comics, but you would go to these rental comic book stores, which would be wall to wall, layer upon layer of bookcases of comic books of all genre, and you can borrow a copy for like a dime to read it there or bring it back a week later.

I know that you went to the Rhode Island School of Design and worked in illustration, and I’m curious about your career  and how you ended up making comics.

I always wanted to be a cartoonist. But RISD didn’t have cartooning as a major  so I majored in illustration. After I graduated I moved to New York. It was hard to find a job as a cartoonist, so I found a job in the textile industry. Then I worked at Polo Ralph Lauren doing fashion illustration for three and a half years but I was never really satisfied with those jobs. Some people can work full time and come home and make comics but I couldn’t. I had this epiphany that I had to try comics one last time before giving it up. So I quit my normal job – which I don’t really recommend. [laughs]. I had friends who were professional cartoonists so  I started sharing a studio with them and just being in that environment with other professionals was really helpful. They pushed me to do my own thing. They helped connect me with small gigs. 

In the beginning I was a work for hire cartoonist drawing other people’s scripts. I was fortunate enough to draw Fantastic Four and Doctor Strange, but I didn’t grow up with these superhero comics so I wasn’t that excited with the kind of story that I was hired to draw. So I started writing my own comics and one of them was Almost American Girl. I was able to find an agent and she shopped it around but everybody rejected it which made me almost give up pursuing my career as a cartoonist. During this time I had a blog on Tumblr as a fun side project where I posted Korean recipe comics every week.   It became popular and got attention from a cookbook publisher who offered me a cookbook deal. This was completely out of the blue. I have no culinary background so I wondered, “who am I to write a cookbook?” But I recognized this was a god given chance for me to make a comic book. So I pushed aside that fear and made the book – and it became a New York Times bestseller. I became “known” in the publishing industry with Cook Korean! so when my agent shopped the memoir around again, I found a publisher almost immediately. And that is the story of my career. [laughs]

How long have you been working on the memoir?

I started working on it around 2014. Then I took about a year break to work on Cook Korean!. Right after Cook Korean! came out, I got a book deal for the memoir and started working on it again. I think overall I worked on the memoir for two and a half years.

In the past few years, the conversation around identity and belonging in this country has changed. I’m curious about what it was like, sitting down to draw the book in a different country, in some ways, than when you first conceived of it.

I never thought of this project on a macro level. This is just my personal story. But given the changes in the last three-four years in America, I am super glad to have the chance to tell my story. Every immigrant story is different, but it’s also universal. I think anybody who wanted to be something other than what they were born with must go through similar challenges. I hope that my memoir can shine a light on the struggles of immigrants. People come to the states with high hopes for their lives and they want to do their best to achieve it here. I want people to understand that.

This moment forces the book to be political.

I can only hope that my book will be a window into what it’s like to be an immigrant to this country and help people to become more empathetic and understanding of people from different backgrounds and ethnicities.

This isn’t just your story, but also your mother’s story. You wrote about this a little in the afterward, but I remember thinking at one point, getting your mother to open up was probably the hardest part of making the book.

[laughs] I understand her apprehension, but I think in the end she was proud of the book. She doesn’t really say much, but I can tell that she was happy with how she was portrayed in the book. For every character, including myself, I want to show all sides of them. I don’t want anyone to be a complete villain or a complete hero. Everybody has made decisions with the best intentions that cause a lot of grief to others.

Your mother is complex, but she is this really inspiring, hardworking, passionate person. And you really give a sense of what she went through as a single mother and why she left South Korea.

She is the hardest working person I’ve ever known in my life. I certainly have a lot better perspective of her life now as an adult than when I was little. I didn’t understand why she was doing all these things. At one point in the book I asked, why can’t I live as a normal person? But I understand that wasn’t an option.

As she opened up and as you made the book, did you build a different relationship with her as an adult?

I don’t think we ever tried to have a different sort of relationship on purpose. I mean, she’s my mom. I have changed so much since I was fourteen – as anybody. Thankfully. Our perspectives are very different now. Being a woman in this country has shaped my understanding of what she’s done in her life. We’re always evolving together. I wouldn’t say I would have done the exact same thing if I was in her shoes. I probably would have told my kid, we’re moving. [laughs] But I do understand why she did the things that she did.

I have both your books here and the pages look very different – the linework, the coloring. You approached them very differently and could you talk a little about the choices you made for Almost American Girl and how you wanted it to look.

Cook Korean! and Almost American Girl are very different books and have different purposes. For Cook Korean! I wanted to make it  clear and informational and easy to understand. The top priority is to relay information so I drew in a style that was simple, colorful and direct. Almost American Girl is a book with a story and a lot of emotion and it’s a much more complex book. I tried to use all the tools I could think of as a cartoonist to tell the story the best way I could. I cared a lot about the colors in the book. For example if I’m drawing a flashback I used sepia tone so people know it’s a flashback. If I’m dreaming and interacting with cartoon characters, I made it brighter and more fantastical and dreamy. I was pretty conscious of drawing the characters in a way that’s realistic, but not too realistic. This is my personal preference, but when the drawing is very elaborate and realistic, I feel like that can be a little bit of a barrier to the emotion of the story because you’re paying so much attention to how realistic the drawing is. I wanted to strike a balance between being descriptive, but not too elaborate that it takes you out the story.

I did like how you depicted English dialogue as you were learning the language.

Thank you. Comics are great because you can tell a story in such a multidimensional way that’s not possible in another medium. I had a lot of fun trying to figure out how to convey those problems I used to have.

I’m glad you had some fun. You seemed to enjoy yourself artistically making the book.

I did. It was challenging but it was definitely a good time for me to stretch my muscles as a cartoonist.

How did you decide on the title and what does it means for you?

Coming up with the right title for this book was a big challenge. When I was pitching the project it was called “Why Oh Why Alabama” but my editor didn’t like the title. I gave her a dozen new titles over two years of working on this memoir but we both weren’t sure of any of them. I couldn’t think of any more new titles. Then my editor suggested, what about “All American Girl” or something like that? I was like, I am not an all American girl. I will never be an all American girl. What about Almost American Girl? I will never be 100% Korean or American. I like the fact that I’m not one hundred per cent anything. And we both agreed this is the perfect title for my memoir. I wonder if anyone actually fits the definition of “All American Girl” anymore. Even within American culture there are so many different ways of living. 

After making two very different books, but especially after making a memoir, have you started thinking about what’s next? About what you want to do?

I have another book contract with the same publisher and have started working on that. It’s going to be YA fiction and there’s a lot of action and some fantasy and it’s going to be completely different from all my previous work. This book is a lot closer to the books I used to read as a kid. When I wanted to be a cartoonist, this was the kind of book I envisioned myself to be drawing. I never planned to be a cartoonist known for a cookbook or a memoir. It’s great that I did it and it was a lot of fun, but I would like to write a lot more fiction in the future. This book is YA but I have fiction ideas for adult books and kids books. I imagine every book I make will be different. Just doing one book means it takes like two years of my life so I can’t imagine doing one book after another that looks exactly the same and has exactly the same theme and audience. That would be way too boring for me. 

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