A Long Journey for Memory: MariNaomi’s I Thought Your Loved Me

MariNaomi (they/them) is the award-winning author and illustrator celebrating publishing their latest book, I Thought You Loved Me. Told in prose, collage, and sequential art, the narrative explores queer culture, feminism, race, class, sex work, and the flawed nature of memory. In this Gen-X Graphic memoir, MariNaomi works to uncover a long-lost best friend she can no longer remember but can’t let go.

Through journal excerpts, letters, conversations with friends, and cross-country travel, MariNaomi pieces together lost memories from a lost friendship in an attempt at catharsis. The reader follows in real-time as the author unravels her mystery, examining the expectations of friendship, the unreliability of memory, and the struggle to let go.

Recently MariNaomi sat down with publicist Michele Karlsberg to discuss the book and more.

Michele Karlsberg (MK): I Thought You Loved Me has had its own journey over the last year. Do tell us about your book’s travels.

MariNaomi (MN): Oh gosh, it’s been a lot! My weird little art book was initially picked up by a queer press, but by the time it was almost ready to go to print, a lot had changed. Specifically, glossy paper was scarce, and costs were through the roof, and they could no longer afford to print my book. They asked if I wanted to wait until prices dipped, whenever that would be, or if I wanted the rights to my book back. I took the rights back, and Fieldmouse Press swooped in to save the day. Rob Clough, one of the three founders, was an early reader (and blurber!) of the book, and he believed in it so much that he convinced his cofounders to take a chance on me. They set up a Crowdfundr, raised what they needed to print it, and all seemed well. Until the shipping got delayed! And then the book got stuck in customs for like a month! I went on the first legs of my book tour without actual books to sell. I got by, doing readings, signing bookplates, and making ebooks accessible for folks waiting for their copies, but it was rough. 

Eventually, with the generous help of Jeff Trexler of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, we got my books out of customs. Hopefully, the rest of my tour will go smoothly.

MK: I Thought You Loved Me is a memoir and meditation on friendship, separation, memory, and forgiveness. What made you want to recreate this part of your life, and why was now the time to do so?

MN: By the time I sat down to write this book, I’d been struggling with forgiving my ex-friend for decades. I was finally done with feeling mad and sad and ready to let go. The thing is, I didn’t know how, so I turned to art. I wasn’t sure where the story would go or if it would even turn into a readable book, just that I had to do it. I tell folks that, had I had a therapist at the time, I probably wouldn’t have made this book.

MK: Which physical piece of your history did you initially collect for this memoir? 

MN: When I was ready to get to work, I was surprised by how little I could remember of my relationship with my ex-friend, aside from our tumultuous ending. We’d been friends for over a decade, a formative time in both our lives, so it was surprising that she could just vanish from my mind like that, not unlike how she’d disappeared from my life. I didn’t know what else to do, so I went through my old diaries, agendas, calendars, letters, photo albums, and so on, searching for proof of our lives together. I gathered it all in one place and then looked over it carefully, making note of each mention of her and transcribing parts that felt relevant. It was meditative, putting it all together, but instead of solving any mysteries, it seemed to bring up more mysteries. Such as, who were some of these other people I had forgotten? What else was I misremembering? It was a can of worms, or Pandora’s Box, to be more romantic. Once it was open, all hell broke loose for me emotionally.

MK: What drove you to write and draw a graphic memoir? Why did you choose to use collage, prose, and comics?

MN: I’ve been expressing myself through autobio comics since the nineties, but I’ve always loved other kinds of art–painting, photography, collage, and so on. But those other mediums weren’t always accessible to me because they were hard to do and were extremely limiting in terms of what materials I could use. Until I started using Procreate on the iPad with the Apple Pencil! Suddenly, it was super accessible to make collage out of my photos. Once I got the hang of using the iPad, I knew exactly what kind of visual narrative I wanted to make.

MK: The theme of letting go appears throughout the book, specifically concerning previous workplaces, friendships, lost loved ones, and memories. What was the most challenging part about making this book?

MN: The hardest part was not knowing where it was going. With the exception of the diary comics on my Patreon, I don’t usually make work for public consumption until my emotions have settled and I have perspective. In fact, I often tell students to wait in these instances. But the thing was, my emotions weren’t exactly settling, even though decades had passed. I was maybe getting used to them, and I was definitely tired of them, but they were still very much there. It was grief, I see now. I was grieving my friendship and grieving my trust in people, which I lost a lot of after she exited my life. 

So yeah, dredging up all this old, but not healed, trauma was pretty hard. Luckily, the art-making was pure joy, which balanced it out nicely. Or at least made it tolerable.

MK: You identify as a “gender agnostic bisexual biracial bi-genre banned comix maker”! How has the Banned Books movement affected your work?

MN: My book Losing the Girl was banned in the Katy, Texas, school district for having queer content. At least, that’s what the article in the LA Times said. It was strange since Losing the Girl was the first in a trilogy of YA graphic novels and was the only book without queer content! (The queer stuff appears in books 2 and 3.) I’m guessing that the woman who got it banned didn’t read it—of course, she didn’t—but saw that am queer and then made assumptions. 

Obviously, I’m upset about the book banning, but I’m grateful that the LA Times wrote about it. The article created new interest in the series, which the pandemic hurt. It kind of revived my career.

MK: With this being Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, what message would you like to share with the Asian writing community and other BIPOC writers?

MN: We have to all stick together! When we see fascists or fascist-adjacents (same difference) coming for an underrepresented group, we must hold each other up. We can’t just wait until they come for us. Don’t believe that “model minority” BS. That’s just another way white supremacy pits us against each other.

We also have to lift each other up and make room for one another. There’s enough space for all of us to thrive!

MK: Countless people worldwide benefit from your work behind the Cartoonists of Color Database, the Queer Cartoonists Database, and the Disabled Cartoonists Database— free online resources you founded in 2014 and continue to maintain. Tell us more. 

MN: I started the Cartoonists of Color database while researching an article about people of color in comics. There was practically nothing on the internet about us in 2014—a stunning void. So I turned to social media and crowd-sourced and started making a list. Once the list was at around a hundred, I was blown away! I had no idea there were so many of us, yet the industry treated us as if we didn’t exist. I remember thinking, “Someone should make a database of all these people,” and instantly realizing that I was the one with the spreadsheet. It had to be me, or else nobody would do it. So that’s how it started. Then, once I figured out how to do this thing, I used the technology to create the Queer Cartoonists database, then in 2018 (I think), the Disabled Cartoonists database. I can’t believe I’ve been doing this for almost ten years! I had no idea it would go on for so long when I started it. I figured I’d stop once it was no longer needed, but I still see panels and juries made of all-white folks (just this year at the Eisners, in fact), and…well, it’s still needed.

Currently, there are 1,668 creators in the Cartoonists of Color database, 1,521 in Queer Cartoonists, and 225 in the Disabled Cartoonists. It is free for a creator to submit their profile and free for anyone to use, with no ads or any sort of income. I pay for it all. My reward is hearing about all the folks who populate their library shelves, bookstore shelves, panels, juries, exhibitions, galleries, and anthologies with creators from the database. It’s extremely satisfying to know I’m making a difference in the publishing landscape, but I think there’s still much more to come.

MK: Current project?

I’m just working my butt off trying not to let I Thought You Loved Me get lost in the noise! I’m doing a lot of touring this year, and it’s about to get better now that I have actual books to sell. I hope? There’s a complete list that I’m always updating on my website.

Coming up, I’ve been working on a short comic for the NY Department of Education. I’m also writing a collaboration with Trung Le Nguyen for Little Brown–a middle-grade graphic novel about non-binary J-pop stars befriending a tween and showing her the magic of finding one’s community and sharing one’s art.

I’m also eager to do more collage narratives! I have an idea, a sort of horror-memoir (whereas I Thought You Loved Me has been called a “mystery-memoir”) about some bad juju I encountered during the darkest days of the pandemic. But my therapist says it might be too soon for me to tackle that trauma? Hmm, maybe the book won’t get made. And maybe that’ll be okay. 

Related: Happy Mental Health Awareness Month!