• Tsunami Hee Ja

Confessions of a Heartfelt Story Hoarder

Updated: Mar 22

There’s a lot of madness out there. A lot of fear, a lot of anger, a lot of grief. These are crazy times we are living in, and perhaps things will get worse before they get better (but hopefully not).

As people choose or are forced into self-isolation, I find not much has changed in my daily schedule. I work from a home studio, communicating with clients remotely, so it’s business as usual here (albeit a bit slower), but I can feel something pawing restlessly within me that has nothing to do with being trapped indoors.

Faced with real cause to be afraid my priorities have been shifting, and even though I’m still scared of basically everything, I suppose I am feeling somewhat less terrified of being disliked or criticised online than I am of so many other things now. If seeing people screaming over a packet of toilet paper has taught me anything, it’s that the feelings of strangers are inevitably sometimes toxic, often irrational, and definitely not within my ability to control. As a chronic asthmatic with a regrettable history of upper respiratory tract infections (“oh, change of season is here, hello spring – I’m sick! Now summer – I’m sick! Autumn – sick! Winter? Best believe I’m sick!”) I know I’m not going to be in great shape if I catch the latest plague. I’m not imagining anything so dramatic as my own imminent demise, but it makes you think, you know? What would I regret not doing the most if for whatever reason I shuffled off this mortal coil earlier than I’d planned? Well sh💩t. That’s easy. I wish I’d shared my comic. Not my little weekly slice-of-life snapshot silly, although that’s taken me a surprising amount of courage to do in itself. No, I’m talking about the 1000+ page behemoth I began in 2009, a bit over a year after my second son was born, and which I finished in 2013. I dedicated four years of my life to drawing it, picking away at the project for a couple of days each week and any stolen hours I could add to my tally between keeping house and raising two young sons. I turned down social invitations, stuck to self-imposed schedules and implemented a drive and determination that I had never achieved before or have managed to replicate since. I was possessed by my need to make this story happen! And at the time I had every intention of finishing it, taking it to a publisher, or even self-publishing the thing myself if I had to, but when I finally completed that last page, put my pen down, and walked away from it, I never returned to finish my task. I never digitally scanned a single page or typed a word of text. Instead I looked around myself bewildered, as if emerging from a fever dream only to realise that nothing I had just accomplished could amount to anything - not here in the waking world of reality. Why?

Let me backtrack a bit and try to explain...

I am an interesting product of a bygone era. Born in the early 80’s, I was exposed to almost two solid decades of media programming that encouraged me to fall in love. Not just with a person, but with the idea of love itself, in the most cliché nineties rom-com way imaginable. I grew up watching (and rewatching, because there were only two channels available to us where I grew up, so buying your favourite VHS tapes was a matter of course) films like “Pretty Woman”, “Mannequin on the move”, “Sabrina”, “While you were sleeping”, “10 things I hate about you”, “She’s all that”, “Clueless”, “Pride and Prejudice”, and the list goes oooooooon. When I moved to Adelaide for university, I had my first introduction to manga, and went gaga for the shiny visual delights of shōjo romance. If you have ever read any of these you will understand the addictive ridiculousness of their tension building but often problematic tropes, but at the time I noticed none of the issues, only the big pretty eyes, the incredible artistry, and the simmering chemistry of prettily drawn people. So inevitably, when many years later I set out to draw my own manga comic, I was influenced by everything that I adored about these comforting old friends. And that is what they had become to me, during my own periods of loneliness and heartache. They had offered solace, hope, and companionship when I felt utterly lost and unlovable. And I felt that way a lot. Not many people who aren’t adopted will understand the emotional baggage that comes with being adopted, and fewer still are likely to relate to being an international adoptee from an Asian country raised in a very rural, very white town. It’s always an uncomfortable topic to discuss. I don’t like to appear ungrateful, because I am so grateful to be here! You would not believe how grateful I am! And I can and will assert time and time again that I was raised by the best parents in the world and that they love and value me immensely, as I love and value them. Nonetheless, these cheerfully palatable facts existed alongside innate feelings of inferiority, alienation and abandonment as I grew up, struggling to assimilate in a place where I didn’t quite fit in. These feelings were nobody’s fault - they were just there. Knowing that I had inherited the life I was living because my mother and father couldn’t conceive their own child, and understanding that the woman who had given birth to me hadn’t wanted to keep me were inescapable truths that seeded themselves early in my emotional fabric. Along with the internal struggle to decode my identity (not Asian enough to be Asian, not white enough to be white), these echoes of perceived inadequacy made me desperate to feel wanted. And even more than that, to be chosen.

Was this a sick, narcissistic fantasy that ultimately contributed to my unsuitability for actual healthy romantic relationships with others? Yeah, well, maybe, but I am describing the unflattering angles of my psychological history only as a means for qualifying the inevitable perversion of what I eventually created… That is to say, back when I drew this story, I was a hot fracking mess. My work is therefore not a healthy picture of what rational love is or should be. It does not reflect my current views about relationships or the way people should treat each other. When all is said and done, it is nothing more or less than the self-comforting tantrum of my very soul after years of internally begging the universe to help me feel whole somehow. A manifestation of my wish to feel truly, deeply, passionately necessary to somebody, which at that point in my life, I hadn’t ever truly believed I was. And yes, now I am capable of waxing lyrical on the virtues of self-love and learning to value yourself without focusing on the emotional validation of others, but this was before I had figured any of that out. In fact, immediately prior to starting my comic I had been having therapy sessions to treat a particularly long waltz with my old enemy, the black dog. Beginning this project was a recommendation for my mental health from a kindly psychiatrist (“do something for yourself”), so perhaps in the end, one cannot expect it to be a picture of good sense or realistic expectations. Still, when I emerged from my feverish five-year race towards finishing that manga manuscript, I realised very quickly that social awareness of what constituted romance had evolved dramatically. For the better of course, but in case you can’t quite remember the point at which rom-coms went completely out of fashion, this was about that precise moment. The world had done a complete one-eighty on these types of outdated love stories, not so much as suddenly disliking the things as outright hating them, and with good reasons to justify this long overdue repulsion. It just made sense that love-pests had gone from being adorable-underdogs to disgusting-creeps-who-can’t-take-a-hint in a heartbeat, and hey, I call fair! Very fair. A girl has the right to tell a guy to get lost and have her wishes respected, obviously, but what was my entire comic based around?

Ummmmm…… Yeah, awkward. And so, with a heavy heart I locked my shameful art-baby away, and told myself that maybe, one day before I died I’d do something with it. I’d start a new project. Another comic that was more progressive – that really meant something, and then after years of successfully creating good stuff maybe I would be forgiven if I pulled out the old relic with a tongue-in-cheek, “Look at this ol’ thing I did back when I was starting out – what a laugh!”

But instead I became ever more afraid of offending or falling short with anything I created. Maybe because it does something unhealthy to an artist – locking creativity’s blessings and the resultant fruit of your own earnest labour away as though it’s some sort of freakish abomination. My secret story became what I felt I had always been - not good enough; something to be ashamed of; an embarrassment. Which was hard, because despite all of its flaws and unintentional ugliness, that story was undeniably a part of me. Within it is captured the blind, misdirected optimism of a kamikaze love-fool. So flash forward to the present day –where I find myself wiser, but also markedly more cynical. And here I sit at my desk amidst modest piles of other people’s instructions. Briefs for this job and that job. An image to advertise someone else’s business, a portrait to commemorate another person’s special event, and even illustrations for someone else’s story, and I am thinking this:

With the state of the world as it is, why are 1000+ pages of work that I poured my heart and soul into just sitting in a cupboard, mouldering away unread by anyone but myself? Well actually, some of it was also read by my ex-husband, so yeah, that’s how much has changed since I put the poor darling into storage (my manga that is, not my ex, but he's doing just fine in case you're wondering). Of course when I set out to create my graphic novel, I hoped people would like it, and that I would receive positive feedback, because I loved what I was creating. Now, over a decade later, all I really want is to fulfil my original goal of mental wellness; to relieve the burden of life a little by putting my feelings outside of myself. Now that everything seems to be falling into chaos around us, surely I have the least reason to care if what I’ve created is good enough… Sending fiction, poetry, art, videoed performances, and all of the wonderful and manifold manifestations of our creativity into the lives of others is a means of fighting despair in the face of collapse and uncertainty. And I don’t want to just tip my hat to those that continue to share their work with the world. I want to stand amongst them (metaphorically of course, because social-distancing is imperative now), even if I’m hiding right at the back of the group with my hoodie pulled up. Finally, at the end of this long rambling post I come to the point. I’ve cracked open the cupboard and awakened my slumbering tomes. When I reread the pages within I laughed, and I cried, and I felt embarrassed, but also fiercely proud that I had made something that required so much of myself. I am going to share my comic online soon. It’s not progressive or clever or anything new. It is problematic (actually very wrong in places), and very much a product of its time as well as my time before it...

It is honestly a disaster, but it’s my disaster, and actually, I am a disaster and we are all experiencing disaster! So since we are stuck at home together (though thoroughly apart), I invite you to read it if you would like (and internally mock it if you must), but I beg you, in this and in everything you do - please be kind. Stay safe and stay well, gentlefolk! I’ll aim to post at least half of the first chapter tomorrow night, so stay tuned if you are interested. Love, Tsunami Hee Ja. 19 March, 2020.

PS. Did I mention it is embarrassingly awful? *sigh* Well, you’ll see. UPDATE! Well, this is embarrassing. I have discovered that typesetting and removing construction work on the scanned pages is taking a lot longer than I had anticipated. Because it was originally drawn with an old dip nib the line work is kind of fine and scratchy, and clean-up is proving a lengthy process. Also, I have realised I can add a bit of background tone in places to make it look slightly nicer, so I've decided to give myself the weekend to see if I can't polish the art up some before "publication". Apologies - I know I came in all guns blazing with promises of "I'm posting half a chapter tomorrow!" Now instead I'll predict a Sunday night drop. For better or worse my comic will be shared, but gee, it's waited this long to see the light of day. I may as well spend a couple of extra days establishing my standard for the entirety of its online aesthetic. Stand by! Tsunami Hee Ja. 20 March, 2020.

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