On queer visual expression and storytelling in Lee Lai's Stone Fruit and Tove Jansson's Moomin strips.
[Because I’ve advertised that I’d write about some books, I also need to caution that these are not book reviews but personal essays. As a “reviewer” let it suffice to say you should follow all leads and read the books yourself.]
Lee Lai might have been one of my favorite cartoonists before I even read what she’d written. We became friends when we met through Elisha Lim at TCAF, I wanna say…in 2014? 2015?
It will be peculiar to be my friend if you’re an artist because it actually just so happens that I am only friends with the best artists in the world. This is a matter of fact. I am not saying I only befriend great artists. No that would be awful and pretentious. No. I am bananas. I’m making a more ludicrous claim: that by being my friend, you are by essence now the greatest artist in the world. I’m not even saying I give you anything to make you good at what you do. I’m not a patron or benefactor. I am saying that for some reason, all of the artists I’m friends with, are, or become really fucking good at what they do. I’m not being just a superficial cheerleader, either. I am authentically blown away, astonished at the quality of work yielded by those whom are intimate enough to call me friend. I cannot stress this enough. If we are friends, real friends, don’t worry about whether are an amazing artist. You are.
The question here is really less about artistic acumen, but about how we define friendship. To me, you are a friend if you always pick up the phone.
I sometimes wonder if my confidence in you is what makes you talented. I don’t meant to presume that I have any access to your talent, or the ability to make you stronger in your artistic practice. I’m no teacher, I’m no mentor. I’m not trying to take credit, but I wonder if my psychic enthusiasm and morale for your work may contribute just enough of the right energy in the universe necessary for you to take things to a level of achievement. It’s always important to have a strong advocate. I know my advocates are the only reason I am alive. Knowing you have confidence in me also helps.
Now. I am trying to write something about Lee Lai’s books, or her latest book at least, but it’s couched inside of a personal essay about friendship and my grandiose sense of attribution, because Stone Fruit by Lee Lai is such an exemplary book about psychic enthusiasm and morale in a deeper existential sense. In a queer narrative, an existence is informed by our community, by these very fickle but ultimately unfailing friendships and our unflinching faith in the presence of each other. What makes the book astonishing is that on top of the thematics of love and friendship and family, the line work and art are so subtle and simultaneously, so wild. At a level of draftsmanship that would be extremely important to traditional reviewers of art, Lee Lai still surpasses most. We have our cake and we eat it, too. Together.
The book is about the relationship between Bron and Ray, and the relationship between them and little Nessie whom they babysit a few days a week, whose mom is Ray’s sister Amanda. Stone Fruit is an exposition of queer visual language and imagination.
A queer story would be burdened with responsibility and be anchored in truthfulness, verisimilitude. Stone Fruit isn’t so much a queer story by those rules, but a queer visual exposition. Yes, it is also absolutely a queer story—Ray and Bron are queer characters. But what’s as important to note in these characters identity traits are their social attributes (Asian, working class, female, trans), and the personal reflections of their realities. The book begins with the queer elders taking Nessie out to the park, and they are depicted as cute monsters. Purple hues and dark silhouettes overwhelm scenes indicating dreamscapes and chambers of anxiety. When you’re pulled back into “the real world” the figures appear frozen inside micro-gestures with the precision of a lithograph. Ray wakes up with a phone instead of Bron, ambiguous stains insinuating multiple other interiorities, awkward hugs with estranged family.
I happened to also read the Moomin comic strips at the same time as Stone Fruit. My god. They are so similar! What a beautiful convergence of books to read within the same breath. After you read enough Moomin, you realize that Tove Jansson was writing allegories about friendship and love and (chosen/found/made up) family. It’s clear as day she was also using a queer visual language. Like Lai, Jansson negotiates within the ecosystems of family as a balanced system of advantages and disadvantages, rather than rights and wrongs. Silly nonsense transpires, some of it fully mischievous, but what are you going to do? Kill off the characters that annoy Moomin? Of course not. They would just come back as an absurd family of giggling dust bunnies.
It’s funny that it took reading Stone Fruit for me to realize how radical Moomin is. I think Lee Lai must be the psychic energy I needed to make Tove Jansson the amazing artist she is now that I love her work. I think you are the most amazing artist in the world, friend.