By Leonardo Faierman
Along the years as we age, many of us pass through a replenishing sieve of friendships, loves, and acquaintances. The most significant north stars that guide us prove, at times, impossible to claim in the moment; their drifts are surreal, placement perplexing, and they seemingly vanish when we exit the room, only to appear in later years, if at all.
MariNaomi‘s new graphic novel I Thought YOU Hated Me attempts to reconcile that distance and explore the elusive but crucial childhood friendship, complete with its questioning romance, vulnerability, and shame. The central character – who is an all-but-insistent representation of the author – draws a breadcrumb trail from childhood to present-day middle-age, punctuating this time-line with very short one-page vignettes or images, memorializing the development of a friendship with a rather brash, apparently talented, and charmingly idiosyncratic girl named Mirabai.
On a first read-through of this relatively short book, I took a lot of my own baggage along for the ride. This is because I can relate to that kind of quasi-romantic “crush” that appeared throughout my own childhood and young adulthood; that yearning, envious, shameful, magnetic, yet protective motivation to an individual. Sometimes this materialized as a strange sense of ownership, a kind of claim on a person in deference to their beauty or style or imagination, as if one wants it for themselves. Their reflection of your confederacy becomes its own kind of affirmation, implying that you might yourself share in their impressive aspects. Mari, much like myself, seems to spend her younger years swirling in a conflicted self-esteem maelstrom, and Mirabai sometimes plays the part of an anchor, which is incredibly valuable.
Sometimes Mirabai is cruel, or joins in others to denounce or re-situate Mari’s damaged sense of self-worth; this is itself also valuable and feels true. Both of these types of reflections inform the author’s developing identity, lending the notion that Mirabai presents a kind of talismanic familiar, and in Mari’s modest forms of worship to her, her own sense of self hardens and becomes more real. Their home-life differs fundamentally, their contrasting success at attracting a romantic partner is, well, as you might expect, but their talents materialize into their futures as you might (or might not) expect.
I Thought YOU Hated Me feels like a conversation with the reader, and a second reading of the book allowed me to distance myself (a little) from my own experiences to attempt a more objective evaluation. I find the art style a little distracting, especially its decisions to occasionally render full bodies, or just character faces, from page to page. The “splash pages” often fare better, in the way that they render an entire scene and its background objects, and they make the entire book feel somewhat reminiscent of Matt Groening’s Life In Hell series, although this story is largely absent of humor.
At the risk of spoiling the story, I want to make special mention of what I think is its most profound detail: the large spans of time in later years that often separate the two main characters. On one page, Mari speaks to her father after not having seen Mirabai in a long time. She muses that she might reach out to her estranged friend, but the next page is simply the words “Seven Years Later.” Essentially, she never did reach out, until eventually prompted by a mysterious LiveJournal post.
Craig Thompson’s Goodbye Chunky Rice explores the loss of friendship in a much more fanciful and beguiling way, detailing the experience as a surreal and symbolic journey, and it’s admittedly one of my most favorite comics of all time. MariNaomi’s story is less concerned with dazzling the reader here, which makes it more confrontational and queasy. Some might say it’s more honest as well, though I’ve always been of the mind that fiction can be more truthful than non-fiction. And maybe it’s a strange insistence on my part that the memories and moments presented here are entirely autobiographical (although the inscription helps bolster this claim), but they feel real, and voyeuristically mundane at times, like diary entries.
That this tone is maintained on every single page is evidence of a confident creator, and the experience as a reader is intimate and ultimately fulfilling. There are many aspects of the narrative that gel with my own path of maturity, as well as my attempts to deconstruct or assert the significance of various snapshot-moments and friendships. While it seems so fractured on first blush – in the manner that it crystallizes minutes or years on a single page and with equal intensity – this summarization presents what I believe are our own conjured narratives, and even if you disagree with this, you’ll still recognize the point of view. Purchase it, read it, then read it again.