Chris stood quietly in front of the mirror. The pain he'd felt only a short while before transformed into a dull heat that warmed his face and body. He had never looked at himself this closely before. Chris swept away his bangs that covered his right eye and placed it behind his ear. He stared at the roundness of his face; his eyes tapered slightly upwards at the corners were red and puffy. His left brow made swollen by fists reminded him of when he used to pull on the skin of his eyebrows to make it protrude like the male actors he saw on television. His ears were large and fleshy, and stuck out a bit, but they weren't ugly. According to his aunt, his ears were signs of good luck. He looked at his lips which were full, pink, and chapped, but now they were more brown than pink. The blood he had tasted earlier when he was struck in the face was dry now.
He licked them.
He never liked his lips.
"Fag Lips," kids called him.
But now staring more closely, he saw them differently. They were largish and matched the largish features of his face. He looked at his shoulders which were slightly rounded and then at his hairless chest that barely rose out slightly and then softly sloped inwards near his sternum. He stared at his nipples which he always thought were pink, but now discovered were brown with tiny bumps. Lowering his gaze downwards past his stomach along the strands of hair that trailed towards his pelvis, this hair densely collected itself at the bottom; this hair was coarse, thick, and curly unlike the hair on his head, which was soft, thin and straight. His penis which looked like a deflated balloon sat near the center of this pubic hair nest. He paused for a moment and stared at it, blaming this body part for all of his sadness. He lowered his gaze, staring at his thighs which looked strong, but were now covered in scrapes and bruises, past his knees stopping at his feet.
He scanned his body.
His arms were thin, but he could see by the shadows cast from the light hitting them the musculature underneath. The cuts along the inside of his forearms were less visible now. Scraping against the pavement seemed to erase them. His hands were smallish and his fingers thin. Leigh called them lady fingers after the cookies they both liked to eat.
The above is an excerpt from a graphic novel that I'm writing and illustrating. I've kept quiet about it for some months now, but wanted to share some of what I've written because I'm nearly finished writing it. I have no experience in sequential art except for some of the very few random editorial commissions I've received throughout my career, and previous to that, a comic that I didn't quite finish drawing when I was 8 years old. Comics have been something that I've fallen in and out of love with since I was very young, for whatever reasons. I'm not sure why this has been the case, but at this point in my life it's something that I'm becoming very interested in. And sometimes wanting to do something creatively if it feels right, when it feels right, can be reason enough.
There is an obvious intimidation factor that carries with it. I'm a list-and-rules guy, so having no experience with comics is incredibly daunting insofar as my being unsure how to lay out the panels in a way that tells the story not only logically, but rhythmically as well. Still, it's a venture that I've chosen to explore.
I’m almost forty years old, and whenever I feel less than, I call home.
I’ve been living in New York now for almost 9 years.
How fast time has flown.
I still remember the day I arrived, the moment I was on the highway entering Manhattan with only 2 suitcases. Although I did have more things, I shipped them to my good friend Yuko, who received them for me; they were 5 small boxes filled with books and (self) promotional postcards.
My family and I moved to Canada when I was very young. We fled from Mozambique, Africa during the mid 1970s because of civil war. I have no memory of living there, but I imagine it was a beautiful place because Bob Dylan wrote a song about it,
“I like to spend some time in Mozambique
The sunny sky is aqua blue
And all the couples dancing cheek to cheek
And when it’s time for leaving Mozambique
Just say goodbye to sand and sea
You turn around to take a final peek
And you see why it’s so unique to be
Among the lovely people living free
Upon the beach of Mozambique.”
I don’t know when this song written, or what city Bob Dylan was writing about, but it must have been before the revolution because when we left, we never looked back. Most of my family’s possessions were taken from us, and when we finally arrived to Canada via Portugal, we had less than – much less than – almost nothing, if compared to what I have now.
When I was young, I used to be jealous of my friends. I remember going to their houses and seeing how much stuff they had. And then, when I went home, I was confused why we didn’t have those same things too. I used to feel embarrassed about the house that I lived in, and the car that we didn’t own. I used to wish that things could be different; that we could have more than we did.
My mother and father would always acknowledge to my brother, sister and I, the things we didn’t have, but not in a forceful or negative way, rather they did it graciously because afterwards they would remind us about the importance of family, of having a home, and good health. As a child, I never engaged with these comments much – I didn’t understand, nor did I ever really appreciate their words. But nowadays, as I grow older I’m beginning to find meaning in them.
So much of my life has become wrapped around my career, my ego and my money; all the superficial things that make me feel important, that make me feel like a true New Yorker. Here, currency is currency, but so is knowledge, beauty, one’s social circle, awards, and one’s position in his/her industry. But when things don’t go as planned, and when cracks begin to form, I call my parents; and then after a few minutes, my anxieties fall away.
I called my parents today because I was feeling less than. At almost 40 years old, I still have financial woes, I have uncertainty about my career, and I continue to make what I feel are wrong decisions. I have a lot of questions to which I don’t know the answers, and so I call my family when these feelings arise not because I believe they can answer my questions, or solve my problems for me, but because I know they will remind me of our past, and bring into light those things in my life that will help me feel more than.
Two nights ago I sat in a restaurant alone and had an arugula salad with beets and goat cheese, lamb chops with mint chimichuri and chana masala, and an apple cheddar crumble for dessert and two glasses of red wine. This was my dinner to celebrate the life of my grandmother who passed away on Sunday; my private act of ancestral veneration to her.
She was my mother's mother, my Poh Poh. I say my mother’s mother because in Chinese culture, there are so many names to describe each member of one’s family. For example, my father’s mother is called Ah Mah, and his father is my Yeh Yeh. My mother’s father is called Gung Gung, and my aunt who is her sister, is Ah Yee. Their sons and daughters (my cousins who are older than me) are called Bui Goh, and Bui Jeh. The list of kinship goes on and on depending on who’s side of the family I am speaking about, and also their age in reference to mine. But I’m digressing. This entry is about my Poh Poh.
My Poh Poh was an exquisite cook. When I think of her, I can taste her delicious food: Ke Mah squares, Gok Jai croquettes, Churng Fun rice noodle rolls and sweet Dan San egg twists. During her visits to our house she would always bring one, if not all of these goodies. I remember that she laughed a lot, and sometimes tried to speak through her laughter, which would make me laugh even more. In her broken English, and my broken Cantonese we managed to understand each other. She also loved knitting. Every Christmas Poh Poh would knit her grandchildren sweater vests and cardigans and sometimes even small bells with glitter that we would pin onto our Christmas stockings. I never paid too much attention to these gifts as a child, and received them as any good grandchild would with a thank you, “Doh jeh,” and then would secretly hope for toys the next year.
I began knitting a few days ago. My choice to do so coincided with her passing. I don’t know if this was a conscious decision, but each time I held the needles and yarn in my hand, I would think of her. My grandmother is part of a group of strong women in my life who I had (and continue to have) the privilege of knowing: my mother, my aunts, my grandmothers, my sister, my cousins, and some of my parents’ closest friends. Their strength is not the kind that is expressed in how much space they take up in this world, how much they’ve achieved, or how loudly they speak, rather it’s one that is connected to a person’s resilience and persistence to continue. These women are oftentimes overlooked not only because of the superficial stereotypes associated with Chinese women of being delicate and soft spoken, but also because their male counterparts were outwardly more authoritative. The lessons they taught me were embedded in daily tasks, ones that seem to have a diminished level of importance nowadays: the craft of cooking, cleaning, sewing and knitting. I spent much of my time with these women, with my Poh Poh, throughout various stages of my life sitting alongside of them learning through household rituals the importance of family, respect, hard work, forgiveness, and humility.
Several months ago I was commissioned by Penguin Books, India to illustrate a well very known story with a long historical meaning: the Kama Sutra written by Vatsyayana, and translated by A.N.D. Haksar. I knew immediately that this was something that I wanted do, although I didn't have a clue about its content other than it being a book about sex. As I began reading, I realized that the story was more than a sex manual, but rather a guide to living a virtuous life; there were sections in the book which were devoted to family life, arranged marriages, and the qualities of a rural gentleman.
The Kama Sutra has been done many times over, and so it was tricky for me to consider how to participate in this historical dialogue through my artwork. I did a lot of research, puling up images (especially from the past) of drawings and paintings of the Kama Sutra. Many of them showed couples, or more, having sex with their genitals exposed. Moreover, there was a kind of statue-like expression in these characters faces and gestures. I decided at that moment that I wanted for the figures that I drew to have more emotion, and to suggest that they were enjoying sex; for me sex can be playful, lustful, and even funny.
As I read through the book, I realized that much of it was rooted in metaphor, using plants, and animals analogously with sexual positions and the various roles that one might take-on while having sex. As a result, I decided that this would be my approach on how to illustrate the book, using these metaphors as a cohesvie tool to help communicate the concept of sex. Haksar's translation was incredibly poetic and I wanted to try my best to keep the spirit of it intact. As much as sex is about body contact, it's also about the mind, and so there was opportunity to try to come up with ways to suggest genitals and sex without showing "too much." It was also challenging to try to address gender roles in my images because I wanted all of the characters regardless of whether they were "top" or "bottom" to be sexually empowered. I allowed the text to inform my decision of who was on top. One such illustration is about the best spots to kiss. The Kama Sutra describes areas on the body such as the hair, cheeks and eyes and thighs that pertain to a woman's body. To me, this suggested that the woman was the recipient of this kiss.
Fortunately I had the privilege to work with an opened-minded and talented art director who in turn had the freedom to allow and trust me to explore illustrating this book. We knew that we wanted 50 images to appear within the Kama Sutra and for them to be presented in a contemporary way. It was important that I kept the images lush, and colouful, and to encourage the veiwer to respond firstly to the superficial qualities of the picture and then notice the narrative, or concept afterwards. Sex for me is about participation, the lead to one's climax, and being in control of one's body - for it to be satisfying means that it needs to appeal to all parties involved, and so with this book I made sure to consider the way in which the viewer might read, or participate with the images. I was very conscious about how the drawings related to each other, and how they related to the edges and gutter of this book. The illustration entitled, "A Woman's Itch" above is a good example of this. I was inspired by an image that Istvan Banyai did for Playboy years ago, which showed a zoomed in composition of a woman thumbing through the pages of a book that lay on her lap. For me, this was the epitome of an erotic drawing, because although the viewer could not see the folds of the vagina, the way in which Istvan drew the pages suggested just that. I wanted my images to have sex with the viewer's mind, and to titillate him or her in a non-lascivious way.
I need to give some shout outs because this project took a lot of energy, and time. As much as I loved the process, and as much as this is one of my favourite projects in my career thus far, it was incredibly daunting also, and so I needed some help. Illustrating the Kama Sutra lasted for about 7 months from start to finish, and I was very fortunate to have received some help. Thanks so much to Johnny D, Isaac G, and David G for helping me meet my sketch deadline. They were The Saints that turned some of my chicken scrawled thumbnails into tighter drawings that the designer could read, and place into a layout, and then submit to his team and to the editor. Also, a huge thanks to Gavin Morris, art director at Penguin Books, India for allowing this to become a true collaboration, creating an creatively expressive design, and for our 6:00am calls to and from India. And finally thank you to Rymn, Carrie, and Stephanie (my agents) for hooking me up with such a spectacular opportunity.