Updated: Sep 24
I have been ensconced in my apartment for the past two and a half years, with very few outings for anything but shopping for groceries. Despite this semi-hibernation my collection of graphic novels has continued to grow. There are very few books about fictional superheroes, or events of fantasy. My interest is in themes pertaining to social justice, broadly defined- biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, history, and historical fiction. Three of my recent favorites are: The women who changed art forever: Feminist art- the graphic novel, The hookah girl and other true stories, and the Oishinbo series.
The women who changed art forever: Feminist art- the graphic novel by Valentina Grace and Eva Rossetti (Laurence King Publishing, 2021). This book is about the art and lives of 4 important modern artists: Judy Chicago, Faith Ringgold, Ana Mendietta, and the Gurrilla Girls. Although I can think of other important women artists, I cannot find fault with the selection of the authors, because these stories are not just about their art, but their challenges and successes in standing up to a male-dominated art world that has too often ignored major voices and talents because of their gender. This strong and important book is an excellent resource to introduce young artists, women, and men to work that has had a significant role in both the art world and society as a whole.
Another recent favorite is the semi-autobiographical The hookah girl and other true stories by Marguerite Dabaie (Rosarium Publishing, 2018). Dabaie tells her very engaging story as a Palestinian Christian living in America. The chapters are short and read like short stories, each one expressing a vivid experience of old and new world cultures, the collisions and resolutions caused by being a new immigrant from a far-away land of conflict. But this is not about that land of conflict, but of trying to celebrate her culture and community in a country that does not readily accept them. Chapter titles such as The Hookah girl, Th true Arab experience, Domestic Goddess, Textiles, The stealth Arab, and Folk medicine weave together a tapestry of old and new, far, and near, providing the reader with a fine introduction to Palestinian culture and community.
These two excellent books mirror many of my other books about conflicts and struggles in communities and cultures culture around the world, important stories to read and learn from. It is the third book (or series of seven books) that has captured my attention in a different way that I found to be engaging, educational, entertaining, and fun. Although there is conflict, it is not about war, or strife or racism- it’s about food in a cultural setting, specifically traditional Japanese cuisine. Oishinbo by Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki (VIZ Media, 2014) is a 7 volume Manga, originally published in Japan, translated into English, and read right-to-left like a Japanese book. The premise of the story is that a Tokyo newspaper is celebrating its 100th anniversary by assigning one of their writers to research what defines a fine traditional meal. The author is a slacker, but with an encyclopedic knowledge of the finest Japanese food, where it is made, the ingredients and the people who prepare it. Each of the 7 volumes focuses on specific dishes such as: Fish, sushi, and sashimi; Ramen and Gyoza, and Sake. Each book has the writer traveling to remote areas of Japan, rooting out the finest ingredients, chefs, farmers, fisherman and others. But there is more than just food here.
There is conflict, the primary one is between the main character, Yamaoka Shiro, and his father Kaibara Yuzan, Yuzan is an artist and founder of the Gourmet Club (for Japanese food), as well as being a very nasty person towards his son. Both are experts on Japanese cuisine, but when the two encounter each other, frequently at food tastings, they berate and insult each other with comments about the food. Yamaoka’s girlfriend (another writer), and the cast of other characters are called in to broker a cease-fire until the next meeting. Like the pickled ginger used in Japanese cuisine (sushi) to cleanse the palate between dishes, I found this book to be an excellent way to learn about another culture that I’ve been aware of (and a fan of) outside of war and strife.
It has seemed to me that one of the many problems that face humanity is that many (if not most) people lack understanding of different cultures, communities, and people, and do not have clue about them. This problem (understatement), breeds ignorance, fear, and hate (yeah, I know, we already are aware of this). But it is important to chip away at these walls and learn about others outside of situational aspects of that define their lives and try to learn about others as people. I’ve long believed that one of the best ways to learn about different cultures and communities in the kitchen and in meals. We sit (or stand), break bread, tortillas, pitas, injera, gyoza or anything else, and chat, enjoy and learn. It can’t hurt and is sure a lot of fun. We need more books like this! (BTW, Oishinbo also appears in other media, such as Japanese television).