Archive for March 20th, 2013

March 20, 2013

Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki, Tina’s Mouth

This was fun. From this weekend’s column:



“To be honest, Sartre, up until last week I did not have the slightest interest in the meaning of my existence”.

Tina Malhotra is the youngest member of her family, and attends a prestigious, and expensive, school in California. “Prestigious” here means the sort of school where it is normal to take a class on existentialism. Philosophy isn’t that interesting to Tina, though, until a particularly disastrous period in her school life when her best friend grows overly absorbed with a new boyfriend and leaves her behind. Tina has no one to have lunch with, an unrequited crush, and has never been kissed. Perhaps writing a diary addressed to Jean-Paul Sartre will help her to figure things out.

Describing itself as “an existential comic diary”, Tina’s Mouth, by Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki, chronicles the events of one semester in Tina’s life. These include the end of her oldest friendship, her first kiss, and varying degrees of family drama. The “comic” part of the equation (though it’s also frequently a very funny book) is provided by Mari Araki’s illustrations.

Like most people reading this, I have never attended an American High School. I have (again, I suspect, like most people) watched far too many teen movies, and read far too many teenage books, and recognise all of the tropes. So it’s sometimes hard to tell how far Kashyap and Araki’s depiction of Yarborough Academy is authentic and how far it is specifically intended to invoke these tropes. There’s certainly an awareness of, and a willingness to play with the tropes of the high school story; the cool teacher who smokes pot, the charming, unattainable crush, the terrible secrets and betrayals heard in the girls’ bathrooms, and the division of the student body into ridiculous cliques. So we have “hippies”, “cheerleaders”, and “skaters” (are there really still skaters?), but there are also “pseudo-intellectual-future-art-school-hipsters”, and anti-racism clubs featuring white boys with dreadlocks. The back jacket of the book describes Tina as a “wry observer” of those around her, and this is sometimes true. But often Kashyap’s satire is light-handed, allowing the reader to see the absurdity of things and behaviours Tina takes for granted. This is certainly true of the many sections in which Tina’s Indianness comes into play; when the mother of a friend refers to her as “my little six-armed goddess”, or the boy she has a crush on expects her to teach him about Buddhism, it’s far more effective than the more explicit list of silly questions people ask about her heritage that she provides at the beginning of the book.

One of the things that makes Tina’s Mouth work is the matter-of-fact way in which Tina’s Indian origins are merged with other aspects of her life. The book never makes a particularly big deal about the fact that Tina once had a crush on Lord Krishna, or that her sister, whose last boyfriend was a German architect, must fight off Pinky Aunty’s matchmaking her with doctors. An old story about Krishna’s mother Yashodha seeing the universe in her son’s mouth comes up over and over. No book deserves credit merely for avoiding a lazy stereotype, but so many books make this cultural difference the site of angst that this approach comes as a relief.

It’s probably clear from all of this that despite Sartre’s presence Tina’s Mouth is not a book that engages deeply with philosophy; though there’s a throwaway conversation about Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and a scrawled “Die Camus # ❤” on the last page. It manages not to be too precious with its references, which is really the most one could hope for.

Araki’s art is charming and detailed. In one scene, as an increasingly drunk aunt lectures Tina about feminism, philosophy, and the superiority of European (as opposed to American) men, Tina’s mother’s increasing disgust at the smoke from the aunt’s cigarette is never alluded to by the narrative, but becomes the focus of interest for this set of panels. These are real people, and the book never lets us forget that.