Writer Keshni Kashyap and cartoonist Mari Araki join forces to tell the fictional tale of Tina, a teenage girl from Indian descent living in South California. Tina has a special assignment for her existential class. She has to write a diary of her life using Jean-Paul Sartre as the basis of her inquiry. Tina is conflicted about her identity, her friends, the boy she has a crush on. But through her journey, she identifies her mouth as a way to reach out inside of her own self and finally find how to be.
I like books like this one because they offer a view of someone’s experience, whether fake or true, that we don’t get to hear much of. Tina’s world is quite interesting and it rightfully captures the sense of being of an entire cultural community that has moved to Southern California from India and is trying to adjust to the new host country. The parallels in Tina’s world touch on the Diaspora of people from other places such as Iran and Pakistan. The story is often the same and the clichés very similar. They left their countries to make their lives better. Many of those who have moved are the better educated ones. Their children however, have to struggle to achieve levels of excellence that do not burden non-immigrant Americans the same way.
Although the difference in Tina, her Indian origin is the launch pad of the story, it quickly gives way to what it is to actually live this way. Tina has limits about how much Americanization will occur, how much she permits both her parents’ cultural heritage to influence her life and vice versa, how much she allows her American culture to change her. It is a constant conflict.
Part of Tina’s quest may seem superfluous. She does not have real problems. She is a privileged girl who contemplates existentialism because she has enough time to do so. The Tina we meet does not rebel against doing chores around the house or overbearing parents. She uses all her energy analysing the power structures of her world, such as the cliques at school. In that sense, Tina’s “problems” are those of a rich young girl with too much time.
However, discounting Tina’s existential quest would mean that the lives of teenage girls have no values, especially when they are from immigrant communities. Compared with Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Tina has no real conflict that are life threatening. There is nothing political about the world she lives in except for the politics and the power relationships she observes around her. Yet her story is as entertaining. There is a lot of discussions about how teenage girls see themselves and what kind of media is used to describe their world. In a sense, even if written by adults and probably loosely based on real facts, this is the kind of book that would please any young girl in search of herself.
Even an adult male can enjoy this book. I really did. This is a world which is foreign to me, even when I was a teenage boy. I knew about the cliques, the shifting friendships, but much of it was beyond my understanding. I just wasn’t a girl. So I find this book quite refreshing and entertaining. There are comparisons to Persepolis and even to J.D. Salinger. I don’t like those comparisons. Tina’s Mouth, while quite a entertaining and insightful is not that kind of literature. It does not break any walls. All is proper and nicely wrapped up. Is it because the world of a teenaged Indian-descent American girl often is as quiet and reserved, or is it because Kashyap preferred to focus on her conflict-free life?
Visually, Akari’s work captures perfectly well the story written by Kashyap. Araki went beyond just creating a standard panel-based comic book. She experimented in the visual storytelling to an extent that’s usually reserved for full cartoonists that plot their work, as well as draw them. It’s not easy to create such work as collaboration.