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Lovers' (Memory) Lane

San Francisco-based artist MariNaomi is the daughter of a Japanese mother and an American soldier who traveled to Japan in the late 1960s to teach English. They met, fell in love, and had a daughter in the early ’70s. MariNaomi grew up on the West Coast and became a comics artist—but first, she had the romantic ups and downs of an American teenager and young adult. She details her experiences with both men and women in the new book Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Résumé, Ages 0 to 22, out now from HarperPerennial. The engaging memoir details MariNaomi’s outlook growing up and discovering who she really is in this world. 

How does it feel to get this all out on the page? Is it therapeutic? 
It has definitely been a cathartic experience. I used to tell those stories to new friends or lovers, but once I set the events “free” by putting them on paper, I stopped recounting them to people. My goal is to one day put everything meaningful and funny that has happened to me on paper. Maybe at that point, I’ll no longer have anything of interest to say.
You begin the book with a very funny dedication to your parents. Have they seen the book yet? 
Yeah, I sent them an advance copy the moment I got one. Much later, last month actually, I was visiting them in Japan and my father admitted that he was going through it very slowly. And my mom put it down after five pages. It was just too hard. Once I got back, though, my dad read the rest (I don’t think my mom intends to read anymore, which is just fine by me). He was surprised and disappointed by some of the contents, but was super-supportive nonetheless. They’re good people.
The book only covers your romantic history up until the age of 22. Why stop there?
When I started the project, I didn’t have an end point in mind. But I had to stop somewhere, lest it become a never-ending story. When Francis and I broke up, that was such a turning point in my life, so it made sense to end it there. Of course, real life just goes on and on and on. Until it doesn’t.
How long did you spend working on Kiss & Tell?
I started in 2003 and it’s finally coming out now, 2011. A long time!
When you finished the book, was finding a publisher for it difficult?
It was a much smoother process than I’d thought it would be. I’m sure that’s all thanks to my agent doing all the work, and probably protecting me from all the rejections the book got. What was difficult for me about the process is that I’m an instant-gratification type of gal, and the process of publishing a book involves a lot of waiting around for the next step. The time between the contract being approved and getting into my hands was the most painful. But I know what to expect next time, so that’s good.
For me, one of the most interesting and illuminating parts of the book is the section on Brady—who breaks up with you for being too young. And then you hear about him kissing an even younger girl. Oddly enough, though, you got a new perspective on that whole time some 20 years later, when he got in touch with you and filled in details you didn’t know about. What was it like to get that information after all that time, especially regarding a time you describe by saying, “This messed me up for many years to come”?
I was surprised when he said that. It made me consider that maybe there were more internal forces at work there than external. It was also a good reminder that jumping to conclusions as a result of gossip can be damaging.
Aside from Brady, did working on this book give you a new way of looking at your past or any new ways of resolving how you felt about it? 
Oh, definitely. I had to contact quite a few exes while I was working on the book, so as to make sure I was getting the story straight, or to fill in the blanks. And it soon became clear that my story was not necessarily their stories! When I was young, I thought the world revolved around me (not really, but sort of). But upon researching my own past, it hit me again and again that things I’d taken personally often had nothing to do with me.
Which one of these romantic interludes and relationships was the hardest to delve back into?
The story about my first love, Jason, was difficult, when I initially started writing it. I had just learned of his possible death, and when I first read the script out loud to my writing group, I broke down crying. It was also tough writing “The Blackout,” which is mostly about my relationship with my parents. We get along great now, so it was painful to dig up the past and revisit it. I felt retroactively guilty for putting them through all that, although really, I can’t imagine how else I might have handled it. So no regrets!
Conversely, was there one that turned out, upon reflection, to bring back happier or sweeter memories than you had expected?
Not really happier, although looking back on certain incidents, it’s far easier to laugh at them now, and especially laugh at myself. So it’s not about realizing how happy I was then, it’s more about being relieved that I’m past the hard times, and happy that they brought me to this place where I can appreciate them from afar. Not saying that I didn’t have happy moments back then, I just never forgot them.
As much as this is a deeply personal story for you, it’s also a larger book about a period of time in our culture—it’s a very telling look at young-adult sexuality in the late ’80s/early ’90s. And then it’s a clear look at life in the Bay Area at that time. Did you see the book as a cultural snapshot of a time and place?
It wasn’t really intended to be that way, but I think it was inevitable. If those stories took place now, there would be smart phones and email and abstinent teenagers (ha, ha). But like many fact-based creative endeavors (books, photographs, movies), there’s really no way to erase that date stamp from the story.
Kiss & Tell’s plainspoken honesty about sex and sexuality is really key to what makes it so warm and readable. What have you found readers’ reactions to the story and your search to, as you call it, “decode your sexuality” to be?
I haven’t gotten a whole lot of responses yet, since it’s so new. A number of people have called the story “shocking,” though, which I find confusing. I assumed most teenagers and young adults have had similar experiences—not all of them, but I’d think there’s at least something in there they could relate to.

There was one review I read the other day where the reviewer seemed like she was judging my lifestyle, not my book. I suppose I should gird my loins for a bunch more of those…. 

But on the other hand, last night a friend of mine from the olden days got her copy of the book. She was featured in some of the stories, and apparently it brought back old memories and made her nostalgic. That made me smile.
What are you working on next?
I’m doing another graphic memoir, one that starts where Kiss & Tell ends, only it’s not focused on romance. It’s about me finding my cultural roots, or attempting to. I’m also working on a young-adult graphic novel that may or may not involve an alien abduction. We’ll see.