Tina Malhotra's journey through a high school existential crisis was difficult. Bringing her world to life was just as wrenching.
Author Keshni Kashyap and illustrator Mari Araki spent four years working on the graphic novel Tina's Mouth: An Existential Diary, which was published in January. Kashyap was trained as a filmmaker and Araki is a surrealist painter. The pair had to teach themselves the comic form while melding the book's substantial text with some 1,000 drawings.
"I'd rather kill myself than do another graphic novel [about Tina]," Kashyap says flatly. "It was so hard to do." Besides, "The world is such a rough place right now. I don't really want to write about privileged teenagers anymore."
Tina's Mouth appears to be a story about a 15-year-old in a prep school, but Kashyap's story and Araki's drawings are full of inside jokes for discerning readers. For Indian Americans, it is refreshing to see absurd immigrant situations committed to paper. (Tina goes to a family party in "ill-fitting Indian clothes of three fashion seasons ago.") For Angelenos, Southern California is broken down in a locals-only kind of way. A classmate visits the Hare Krishna temple off Venice Boulevard and comes back wearing a bindi, and Tina describes modern existential hell as "a tract house in Newport."
And for Indian-Americans who grew up in Southern California, reading Tina's Mouth is like revisiting the teen years in a way that is so much more satisfying than reruns of My So-Called Life, Daria or Saved by the Bell. Tina nails the typical adolescent attitude on Southern California's Little India: "It's really not some colorful place like white people would like it to be, but a series of shops and restaurants just off the freeway. It's the most boring, ugly place on earth. I try to avoid going at all costs."
Kashyap says her goal was to move beyond "typical immigrant child questions. The whole thing was to make it as specific and authentic as possible."
Tina's Mouth is not a story about culture clash or coming to terms with dual identity. It has no mangoes or spices or memories of Indian monsoons. Kashyap and Araki deal with those pesky "Indian" questions -- "Are you going to have a dowry?" and "What does the dot mean?" -- right up front, as they swirl around Tina in different fonts, until she gives her ultimate answer: a flip-off.
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Which seems natural for Kashyap, who is frustrated by too-familiar tropes that pervade stories about Indian Americans. The author, in her 30s and living in New York, spent half her childhood in Palos Verdes, where she went to a prep school much like Tina's. Kashyap has secular, cosmopolitan and, at times, brittle parents, she explains, which helps contextualize her disdain for sentimentality and tired dissections of bi-culture upbringings.
Still, Tina's Mouth is about the more universal aspects of identity. It is a teen love story, a best-friends-forever tale, a coming-of-age semester complete with a first kiss, high school caste system and inspirational teacher. Krishna just happens to make a few appearances.
Kashyap and Araki discuss Tina's Mouth at 7 p.m. on Mon., Feb. 6, at USC's Doheny Memorial Library, Room 240; free with RSVP at sait.usc.edu/spectrum.