On Being Yukiko – a graphic novel
When acclaimed artists Jeff Chiba Stearns and Lillian Michiko Blakey decided to pool their considerable talents to create a graphic novel for young readers, expectations were bound to be high. Both are established artists with disparate and distinctive styles who have used their art to explore their sense of identity as Japanese Canadians and their relationship with the world.
On Being Yukiko doesn’t disappoint. The book is effective in blending Stearns’ cartoony Hapanimation, which covers the modern-day elements of the story and Blakey’s mixed media realism, which covers the historical elements. The resulting book is friendly and accessible, while telling an important story.
On Being Yukiko is structured as a conversation between 12-year-old Emma and her ba-chan (grandmother), who tells Emma the story of how her great-great grandmother Maki, a Japanese picture bride, arrived in Canada at the turn of the 20th century. The book gently addresses important themes like intergenerational relationships, intermarriage, systemic racism and the need to fight for social justice, using the graphic novel format to great effect.
Over the course of the book, Emma, who identifies as a quarter Japanese, develops a deeper appreciation of her own Japanese Canadian identity, as well as those who came before her.
Aimed at middle school and junior high students, On Being Yukiko is a wonderful introduction to a wide range of issues surrounding identity, race, belonging, and more.
Bulletin Interview: Jeff Chiba Stearns + Lillian Michiko Blakey
First of all, congratulations on the release of On Being Yukiko. I’m sure it’s been all-consuming for a long time. Now comes the fun part – promoting it! But before we get to that, maybe we can go back to the beginning. How did this book and partnership come into being?
Lillian For over a decade, I had been producing artwork which told our family story of expulsion from British Columbia in 1942 and the hardship we had endured in Alberta. My goal was to educate mainsteam Canadians through art, about the injustice and hardship we had suffered, with dignity and perseverance, as well as giving validation to the Issei and Nisei that their stories are important. In 2017, I had developed an illustrated version of my grandmother’s journey to Canada. But I wanted an animated version for school children. I contacted Jeff Chiba Stearns because I loved his film, One Big Hapa Family, and he had a kind face on the internet.
Jeff replied immediately and our collaboration began. Because Jeff is an artist as well, I wanted him to have an equal part in the work. I proposed a graphic novel because I know that all children love this form of literature. Jeff was ecstatic with the idea of combining our art; with the relationship between a Hapa girl and her grandmother; with a story within a story which bridged the past to the present to the future; and with Emma and her friends introducing current racial tensions and finding interest in their mixed identities.
Jeff is a kindred spirit, despite the huge gap in our ages, so we have never had any disagreements.
Jeff Aw thanks Lillian…you can’t see it but you’re making me blush with all your kind words!
I love the fact that your creative partnership is in many reflective of the post-war community itself. You’re multi-generational, multi-racial, and separated by thousands of kilometres, yet bound together by a shared history and heritage.
Jeff Yes, it really amazes me that Lillian and I had never met prior to her reaching out. Lillian mentioned to me that even though she had family in Vancouver, the last time she was on the West Coast was back in the 70s…before I was even born!
Even though we had never met, I was familiar with her artwork. I had seen her painting Reiko, Alberta, 1945, which is in the permanent collection at the Nikkei National Museum. I love the composition of that piece and how powerful the painting is through its simplicity. Lillian doesn’t know this, but I always secretly wished I had that painting hanging on a wall in my house. So when she reached out to me, I was definitely excited to pursue a collaborative project!
As Lillian had mentioned, we had originally thought about doing an animation. Animation is a lot of work and I was pretty burnt out from filmmaking after promoting my last feature length documentary, Mixed Match. As an escape and since having children, I’ve actually begun focusing my creative pursuits on the literary arts by writing and illustrating children’s books. Over the past couple years, I’ve created two kids books, Mixed Critters and Nori and His Delicious Dreams. So when Lillian proposed a graphic novel, it immediately sparked some excitement for me. I grew up reading and collecting comic books and always had a dream of creating my own one-day. Thus, this seemed like the perfect opportunity for an intergenerational collaboration between a Sansei and a Yonsei to tell a truly intergenerational story that covers five generations of a Nikkei family in a graphic novel format!
Given that you live in different provinces to begin with, I don’t imagine your workflow changed that much with the pandemic.
Lillian The book has given both of us creative focus and a goal which transcended the isolation of the pandemic. Perhaps even because of Covid-19, we wanted to tell an uplifting story which we hope will survive throughout time, rather than becoming mired down in the depth of darkness. The book is a result of our love of sharing our past with generations of children, both diverse and of Japanese heritage. I can’t believe that we produced the book in a short six months, which included diverse field-testing, research and validation from many Issei and Nisei who actually experienced the forced removal from their homes. We thank all of the many Japanese Canadian organizations across Canada and individuals who supported the pre-publication financially. We are also amazed at the media coverage we have been receiving, especially since no-one has held the book in their hands.
Jeff This was really the perfect COVID project. Being able to be home with my family and focused on being creative was really special. I work out of a home studio anyway, so not much changed for me. I really enjoyed focusing on drawing everyday. It was such a great creative outlet for me and really helped keep my mind off of all the doom and gloom happening in the world.
Also, Lillian and I began the project with zero funding and we weren’t worried on making money. We just wanted to create an amazing story that could inspire the generations to come. With nothing else going on, the timing was perfect. Lillian and I communicated solely through email. We’d have the odd call here and there but mainly we’d share work back and forth online. It was a really fun challenge to blend our unique and very different styles together in a way that was cohesive and appealing. It was a great exercise in visual storytelling.
It wasn’t until recently that we’ve actually seen each other’s faces. Through all the Zoom presentations we’ve been doing for On Being Yukiko we’ve now been able to connect ‘face to face’. It’s actually been amazing to be able to present together with Lillian, with us being so far apart! So if there’s one silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that we can now be united through online presentations and connect with participants from around the world.
You have very different styles and it was interesting to see how they worked so well together in the context of this graphic novel. What unifies them is the underlying story. How did you go about generating the story and the text that flowed out of it?
Jeff The historical part of the story is based on the true-life story of Lillian’s family and was previously captured in her picture book, The Picture Bride. She had already created over 60 amazing mixed media illustrations for the book telling their grandmother Maki’s story of coming to Canada as a picture bride, relocating to Alberta to pick sugar beets during WWII and then being exiled back to Japan after the war ended. It’s an unimaginable story of hardship and sacrifice.
Therefore, this presented a really unique way of creating. We knew we had to have a current story to explore mixed Japanese identity so Lillian constructed a rough script of a grandmother telling her family’s story to her granddaughter. I also worked really hard on the dialogue between our main character Emma and her middle school friends as they discussed their mixed identities. I was then able to take the rough script and edit and rework the dialogue and story page by page. I literally, drew one page at a time, from start to finish, as I refined the story through the blending of Lillian’s illustrations and my new drawings.
I would never recommend anyone working this way but I loved this straight ahead approach. It was exciting not really knowing how many pages the book would be or really how the story would end until I got there. I thought it would be 48 pages but it ended up being 56. Some days, I would average completing a page a day or even two or three.
There’s a lot of history jammed into a mere 50-plus pages. I enjoyed seeing a number of familiar, historical photos woven into the story. Was it hard to strike a balance between keeping the story going and fitting in, not only historical facts, but content like residential schools and other injustices?
Lillian Being a former education consultant in Antiracism and Equity in the Curriculum, my primary goal has always been to enlighten teachers that, while Canada is the best place to live, we have less than a pristine history caused by the exclusionary attitude of colonialism. A “white-washed” history denies the presence and contributions of many peoples to making Canada what it is today. It separates people of privilege from those they deem less valuable. I want all diverse people to be proud of who they are. There are many “teachable moments” in our book which invite children to participate in the history of Canada in the future. This book offers many layers of introspection, not only for Japanese Canadians but for all Canadians. While Canada is a great place to live, there is still much work to be done to give diverse Canadians their rightful place in making Canada a Utopia for the future.
Jeff I’ve been creating media that focuses on multi-ethnic identity since my first animated film, What Are You Anyways?, in 2005. Most of my work is identity related and is often based on my own experiences being a mixed Japanese Canadian. My 2010 feature documentary One Big Hapa Family explored the high intermarriage rate within my Japanese Canadian family after my grandparent’s generation.
Over the years, I’ve attended multiple critical mixed race studies conferences, lectured around the world on multiracial identity, sit on the advisory board of the Hapa Japan Festival and even started a multi-ethnic cultural arts festival in Vancouver, Hapa-palooza, that celebrates all facets of being mixed. Fun fact, I actually learned about the Hawaiian word hapa and how it was being used to describe mixed Asian and Pacific Islanders from a copy of The Bulletin back in the early 2000s.
After all this work on mixed race identity, I knew that with On Being Yukiko, we had to explore the main character, Emma’s journey, navigating her own mixed identity and having her discuss these topics with her friends. It was really important to capture this authentic voice, which is a true testament to the intergenerational story we crafted for this graphic novel. Lillian provides the voice of her family’s history while I was able to capture the current mixed kids’ voices. To do this, I wanted to take advantage of the dialogue that was happening around us with the Black Lives Matter movement and other injustices happening in this day and age and in the past.
Were there any challenges working on this book together that maybe you didn’t anticipate?
Jeff Surprisingly, creating the graphic novel was a really smooth process. Working with Lillian was a dream! I’m still amazed that we could finish a project like this in half a year. Although, with the support of so many Japanese Canadian associations, we wanted to make sure that the book was accurate with the overall Japanese Canadian historical experience. To do this, we sent the book out to over 50 reviewers at various stages of drafts.
Some of the reviewers were librarians, Japanese Canadian community leaders and activists, and most importantly, youth! It took months and many hours to sift through reviews and make revisions. This was definitely the biggest challenge, taking the time to revise and edit to make the book the best book possible. We consulted with staff at the Nikkei National Museum and Landscapes of Injustice team. In the end, I’m extremely happy with how the book came together and very excited that this will be a hugely important resource to teach kids about Japanese Canadian history and identity.
Was there anything that surprised you about working on this book together?
Lillian I was really surprised to find that Jeff is just as obsessive-compulsive about perfection as I am… maybe even more. It was so wonderful to work with Jeff, who pushed so hard to make the book the best it can be. He is a supreme diplomat in honouring the voices of everyone who volunteered factual information. He is the best person to have developed this book with me. I am SOOO lucky!
Jeff Aw, thanks Lillian! Again, you’re making me blush.
I think it’s crazy that in this day and age, we were able to craft something so visual through a completely virtual process and never having ever met in person. Lillian was so open to this creative collaboration and accommodating to my creative input and decisions. It was such an enriching and inspiring process for both of us.
I’m always hesitant to work with others creatively because I’ve been making projects for over 20 years mainly on my own. Plus, I’m an introvert at heart and a bit of a control freak. Lillian is such an inspiration and really helped make this process enjoyable for me as an artist and collaborator. I now look forward to getting the book in the hands of youth and adults around the world!
What’s next for the two of you in terms of things you’re working on?
Lillian I think we will be very busy promoting this book for the foreseeable future. I am developing a cross-curricular, integrated curriculum model which I hope to present to school boards once the pandemic is more controlled. Yesterday, I received an invitation from the Japanese American Memorial Pilgrimages for Jeff and myself, to present On Being Yukiko in the incredible online initiative TADAIMA II next year. Jeff and I took part this summer in this global Nikkei community venture which provided over 365 programs in 65 days with over 100,000 participants from many countries.
Jeff We will definitely be busy promoting On Being Yukiko. With most of the programming being moved online, we’ll be offering many author talks and presentations across Canada and the US. With the support of the many Japanese Canadian associations who helped sponsored the book, Lillian and I will be partnering with them to deliver workshops and talks in 2021 so keep a lookout for those.
Up next creatively, I have some funding to develop a feature length documentary on the Vancouver animation scene. After creating On Being Yukiko and moving into writing and illustrating children’s books, I definitely want to keep a foot in the literary world. I have a children’s book series on mixed identity that I’m currently developing and look forward to pursing next year! I also think I want to make more graphic novels…maybe an On Being Yukiko 2?
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Jeff Lillian and I are really excited to share On Being Yukiko with all readers. Even though the book is aimed at pre-teens, after initial review, people of all ages, have told us how much they enjoyed reading the book. Many elders have told us how much they wished they had this book when they were growing up. Some grandparents even told us that they read the book together with their grandkids and loved the process of discussing the story together. It’s so cool to think that this is probably the first time in years that many of these elders have even picked up a ‘comic book’! That means so much to us.
We had Joy Kogawa read an early draft of the graphic novel and she said it was beautifully told and illustrated and a gift to Japanese Canadian history. This kind of feedback makes us realize how important it is to keep sharing our stories and inspiring and educating future generations about the Japanese Canadian experience through all our generations…and that knowing our history can help inform our own identities.
Order a hardcopy of On Being Yukiko at www.meditatingbunny.com/store and keep an eye out for the graphic novel to hit bookstore shelves in 2021. Learn more at onbeingyukiko.com