SAM NAKAHIRA is a MFA candidate at the Center for Cartoon Studies and a 2019 graduate of Grinnell College. She writes about things that interest her: food, pop culture, comics, history, and observations about her daily living. Her comics have been published by the Rumpus, Whetstone Magazine, and Asian American Writers’ Workshop. She tweets @samnakahira, and can be found on Instagram and at her website.
ON PEANUTS AND BUDDHA
Since I was a kid, I read a variety of comics. I started off with newspaper strip comics like the Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes, and I also read the entire translated Astro Boy series. I was lucky to have a mom who happily bought me comics that she thought I might like. These newspaper strips did not directly inspire me to create comics. As a teenager, I was nurturing this secret desire to become a novelist since I am a big reader and lover of novels. Entering high school, I discovered the huge collections of free online manga on my first laptop, so I got exposed to longer narrative comics. I soon found Osaka Tezuka’s Buddha, which blew my mind. His manga made me feel so many emotions, and I think that was the moment I realized that not only novels, but comics could tell amazing, inspiring stories about what it means to be human. So, I wanted to draw and create stories that made readers feel the way I did when I read Buddha.
I have always enjoyed drawing. My art style of cute, cartoon-like human figures with finely inked, delicate cross-hatched backgrounds borrows more from manga than Western comics. However, it is hard to say what influences me specifically that came from Japanese manga and what came from Western comics. Today, many American graphic novelists start drawing and creating comics after becoming inspired by reading manga and watching anime. I think there is a probably a mutual flow of influence in comics creating between Japan and America that it can sometimes be hard to define what is Japanese and what is American comics.
ON THE HISTORY OF FOOD
I did not think about combining my interests of comics and history until college, when I found that I enjoy learning about hidden histories in America, especially Asian American history. Studying underrepresented groups such as Japanese Americans in California had a huge impact on my identity and how I see America as a nation shaped by people of color. Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do was a particularly strong inspiration for me, as it educated readers on Vietnamese American history through a compelling personal story. Seeing other people combining comics and history helped me envision a creative path that I felt I could take, too.
I’ve always wanted to create a graphic novel, but I never had a good story in mind until I started researching the history of Japanese American farmers and food retailers for my Mellon Mays Fellowship. I thought that creating a historical comic could present my historical research with a more human, relatable story, but with the same complexity as my academic paper. I luckily stumbled upon Nina Ichikawa’s essay, “Giving Credit Where It is Due,” in a food studies anthology called Eating Asian America. Ichikawa argued that Asian Americans have made American food and produce healthier and stronger, but have not received credit for their historical contributions. This idea of giving credit where it is due was so inspiring, especially because her essay referenced many hidden histories of Asian Americans and their roles in foods I thought were not related to Asian Americans at all.
The most mind-blowing part of her essay was when Ichikawa referenced Bill Fujimoto as being the first food retailer to source produce to Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and other California cuisine chefs in the Bay Area. Being a big fan of California cuisine, I was curious and began researching more about Mr. Fujimoto, as well as other Japanese farmers and food producers who had a connection to California cuisine but have not received attention for their roles. Something I did not expect, but was happy to learn, was that these Japanese Americans were all ahead of their time, fostering farm-to-table, seasonal ways of eating and growing food before it became a movement in America. Today, their seasonal produce influences what local chefs serve on their menus.
ON ROOTS AND UNTOLD STORIES
Taking my research and turning it into comics, something visually creative, has engendered a more meaningful connection to my Japanese American roots than just writing an academic paper. I value historians and intend on furthering my education in the history discipline, but I also realize that comic novels may reach a different audience and do so in a way that is more accessible to a younger generation. So, I believe there is synergy between comics and history, and I would not be surprised if more undergraduate, graduate students and professors start using this medium to communicate dissertations and their research.
In the future, I am hoping to continue working on a graphic novel that extends on my comic about Bill, but deals more broadly on the history of Japanese American farming and food retail and how WWII impacted this field. Asian Americans are a very diverse population with very different cultures and histories. Whether they are Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Filipino, or others, a commonality between the different groups is that in the United States, they have many untold stories and histories.
Want to be considered for The New Comics? Send work to Comics Curator Keith McCleary via the Entropy submissions page.