Saturday, February 16, 2019

My Solo Exchange Diary volume 2 leads Nagata Kabi to new insights (Manga Sort-of-Review)

My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness is one of the greatest manga/graphic-novels of all time. It was a profound reading experience and I recommend it to everyone.

My Solo Exchange Diary (published by Seven Seas) is the two volume sort-of-sequel to MLEWL. Volume 2 came out this week and I devoured it. However, unlike my normal reviews which are actual critical reviews, I feel that doing a critical review of a work that is part memoir, part personal recovery process, and mostly focused on the devastating impact of mental health would be rude.

So instead, this will be a discussion of volume 2, but please know from the onset just how much I support Kabi-sensei in her personal and artistic journey and as a personal sufferer of extreme mental health challenges (and the parent to a child with the same, and a child of a parent with the same) this is a very powerful story on that level as well.

Where MLEWL was split between mental health and sexual awakening and coming-out, My Solo Exchange Diary volumes 1 and 2 were largely focused on Kabi-sensei's mental health challenges (and essentially exclusively so in volume 2) as she works to emerge into the new found light following the publication of MLEWL. Volume 2 of My Solo Exchange Diary is told in the same minimal, sketchy, doodley art in pink and black ink. It is also episodic in a way that MLEWL wasn't.

Two central, but interrelated experiences dominate the story: Kabi-sensei's work to reconcile and rebuild her relationship with her family and her several inpatient hospitalizations for mental health. One of the most powerful moments comes when Kabi-sensei realizes that all the anger and hate she had for her family (vivid in MLEWL) was completely misplaced. She recognizes her inability to receive the love they were always giving and begins to take it all in. Through this, she begins to spend more time at her parents house and less time in her new apartment.

Sadly, her blooming relationship with her family also plays at least a part in her downward spiral which leads to the hospitalizations. She regresses to a degree, but also starts to see how she's been a burden to her family and perhaps more critically, how she has directly hurt them with her actions and with the way she framed their story in MLEWL.

We get several instances of self harm in this volume mixed with a birthday party and time with a friend. We see Kabi-sensei at work and struggling to find creative voice amongst her debilitating mental health. Her accidental solo visit with a grandmother is one of the smallest but most beautiful moments in the volume. She also dives further into her alcohol abuse, which appears as a form of self-medication, and leads to some really pitiful moments such as waking up repeatedly in a bed she has wet due to being so inebriated. What it must have taken Kabi-sensei to share so much tragedy and pain and to reflect so much on herself in these three books. Volume 2 is filled with so many moments of profound growth amongst its pain.

By the end of volume 2, Kabi-sensei finds herself out of the hospital, trying to get through each day by doing something for someone else (rather than being so locked in her own head), and questioning how she is portraying people in this very volume prior to publication. While not ending with any real resolution (because there is no resolution in an ongoing life), there is a satisfactory conclusive feel that still leaves the door open for Kabi-sensei to develop future memoirs should she desire to.

If you loved My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness, then you will want to follow Kabi-sensei in My Solo Exchange Diary. But if you haven't read either, please go back and read MLEWL. That is essential reading.

My Solo Exchange Diary works as a slightly more subdued continuation without the gripping immediacy and stunning originality of the earlier work. I pray for Kabi-sensei, and am grateful for what these three books have given me. Seeing her journey in print, both as a gay woman discovering herself in adulthood and as someone suffering from debilitating mental health challenges, has helped me to feel less alone, more understood, and hopeful that through her work that society itself can begin to have a place for all of us.



  1. Fantastic review / discussion of this work - I just bought and read this yesterday, and was delighted to see you writing about it the next day :)

    This was a fantastic, painfully honest book. There are some real gut-punch moments in here (her mom's reaction to first reading My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness), her drinking too much, etc. But her turning to books to help with her depression really impressed me - not only did she learn to focus outwards instead of inwards by reading "Healing Even Serious Depression in Two Weeks, What If..." by Taizo Kato, but she very roughly sums up the book for the reader, like she's consciously floating out a life preserver to her readers who are struggling. I thought it was very inspiring, and she seems to be in a much better place in her journey. I'm hoping to be able to read more of her stories (the bonus chapter at the end, of one of her fictional manga stories, was really cool to see).

    1. I too hope she's moving in a better direction. If I'm not mistaken, this was published in 2017 in Japan, so I'm curious if she's doing okay now. It was awesome to see a bit of her artistic style in the extra chapter at the end. It's so different than the "mainstream" that gets translated over in the US. Is there more artistic diversity in the larger Japanese mainstream or does that get explored more in doujinshi?


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