Harmony Becker is a recognizable name to many comics readers as the artist behind George Takei’s award-winning graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy. Becker’s new book is Himawari House, which she wrote and drew.
The story began as a webcomic on Tapas called Himawari Share and tells the story of a group of language students in Japan. The book explores what led the characters there and details their adjustment to the country. The book is also striking for how Becker depicts language and language learning in a striking way that echoes trying to learn a new language and being surrounded by conversation one struggles to understand.
It’s a beautiful and thoughtful book that manages to be as funny as it is profound, and Becker was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book.
To start, how did you come to comics?
When I was a kid, my sister and I read a lot of manga, and we would make our own comics in sketchbooks. We were each other’s only reader, but we’d take it very seriously, writing each other fan mail and inserting little Q&A sections every couple of pages. Around high school my focus switched to getting into the animation industry, but when that didn’t pan out I came back to making comics about five years ago.
Where did Himawari House begin for you?
It was the end of 2016 and I had just finished posting Anemone and Catharus to Instagram, where it got a lot of really good feedback. I was starting to feel more comfortable in comics and wanted to try something longer form. I thought I ought to write about something that I was passionate and knowledgeable about, so I decided to write about language learning.
As you were starting to think about this story, did you always know that this would be the story of multiple characters coming together, with different concerns and points of view?
Yes, I think so! I started by brainstorming a bunch of different themes I wanted to explore, and I ended up sort of attaching a theme to each character.
Did serializing this story on Tapas affect how you told the story or thought about it?
I was uploading two pages a week on Tapas, and didn’t have much of the whole story written besides a vague outline. I would write each chapter as I was drawing it. That differed a lot from my process when I started to approach it as a graphic novel. I wrote the entire rest of the script before moving on to drawing it. That was initially very daunting but a lot less stressful ultimately than the seat-of-the-pants approach I had when I was serializing it.
You have a scene early on where one character admits to not knowing where Singapore is and the others go, “Americans!” – which most of us who have studied and spent time abroad know that look and can hear that tone in our heads. I kept thinking of the old saying that one will never feel more American than when one goes abroad.
I feel very uncomfortable speaking in English when I’m around a lot of non-Americans. I hear the flat, loud vowels and the mushy consonants so strongly. I wonder if that’s part of the reason I like to learn other languages, so I can take off my accent for a while. I’m sure it happens no matter where you’re from, though – you become aware of parts of your culture you didn’t pay attention to before, as they’re thrown into relief by the contrasting culture that surrounds you.
I had a really interesting experience when I lived abroad for the first time. I was in Korea, and I found myself in a lot of situations where people expected me to act Korean. It was incredible to be thrown into a context where all the social rules that I had taken for granted as the laws of the universe were suddenly completely irrelevant and I had to memorize a new set of laws of the universe. It was very mind opening, even as I was having to create a new, sometimes more limited version of myself.
I wonder if you could talk a little about finding the right way to write the text and try and convey accents and this struggle to understand the many languages.
It was a process that evolved as I was writing it. In the webcomic Tina and Hyejung’s accents aren’t really phonetically spelled out, that was something I decided to include later on. At the beginning, the subtitles would always be smudged out if the characters didn’t understand the word, but later I thought about how sometimes you’ll hear the word without knowing the meaning, so I started including that phenomenon a bit starting in chapter 4.
Communication and language are so key and this is a story about characters who struggle to understand each other and themselves. Or, in a sense, one could say that it’s about being in our twenties.
Communication is something that everyone struggles with, isn’t it? Even among people from the same cultural and linguistic context, we all have different understandings of the same things, depending on our generation, our background, and our personal experiences. Himawari House itself was born out of the frustration that I had when trying to tell people about what it felt like to immerse myself in a new language. It wasn’t an experience I could convey fully using words alone.
You’re coming off of They Called Us Enemy. What was it like working on that book and seeing the response to it?
I had never worked from a comic script before – or collaborated with other writers before – so I learned a lot. I also learned – the hard way, after overdoing it early on and having to finish the rest of the book while in a lot of pain – about the importance of rest and taking it slow in order to protect my health!
I think I was really spoiled to have They Called Us Enemy as my first book. I was not prepared for how big of an impact the book would have, and I feel really grateful to have been a part of it.
What was the overlap between drawing They Called Us Enemy and making the webcomic Himawari Share? Do you think that the two influenced each other?
I had been working on Himawari Share for a little less than a year when Leigh Walton, our editor, saw my work at Comic Arts Brooklyn. I think it might have been the style and content of Himawari that led him to think I might be a good fit for They Called Us Enemy, which I started work on a little less than a year later, right around the same time Himawari got picked up by First Second. When I came back to Himawari after finishing They Called Us Enemy I had a lot more experience and had streamlined my process a lot, and I applied a lot of changes to Himawari based on what I had learned. I switched from thumbnailing and writing at the same time to writing a script beforehand, and switched from doing a mix of traditional and digital to going fully digital.
How did you end up at First Second and for people who read it online, did you change anything for the print edition?
It was an introvert’s dream come true! I was at Toronto Comic and Arts Festival in 2018, wracked with anxiety about networking, and Kiara Valdez, who would become my editor, stopped by my table and picked up my business card. We didn’t even exchange words at the time, but she emailed me a couple of months later with an offer from First Second.
I redrew the first six chapters digitally and added a couple of pages here and there, so there’s some pretty noticeable differences!