Q&A: Harmony Becker, Creator of "Himawari House"

Becker’s YA graphic novel follows a year in the life of five young adults from four countries—the U.S., Singapore, Korea, and Japan—living together in a student group house in Japan.

Harmony Becker’s YA graphic novel Himawari House (First Second) follows a year in the life of five young adults from four countries—the U.S., Singapore, Korea, and Japan—who live together in a group house for students in Japan. The story is told mostly through the eyes of Nao, a Japanese American woman who spent her early childhood in Japan and wants to reconnect with that part of herself, although some parts are told from the points of view of the other two women: Hyung, who is from Korea and Tina, who is from Singapore. The two male roommates are Japanese brothers, one of whom speaks English well, and one who has more difficulty. The experience of speaking a second language in social situations is one motif that runs through the book.

Becker started Himawari House as a webtoon on the Tapas platform, but she took a break to illustrate George Takei’s memoir, They Called Us Enemy. SLJ talked with Becker about the creative process of both books and what she learned along the way.

SLJ: How much of Himawari House is based on your own experiences?
Himawari House is based more on real emotions than real experiences. I've had similar experiences and encountered people who inspired some of the situations in the book, but all the characters and plotlines are fictional.

I know that Himawari House was initially published on Tapas. How is the graphic novel different from the online version?
When I started Himawari Share, the original webcomic, I was drawing each page on paper, scanning them one by one, and adding screen tones in Photoshop. I had a vague chapter outline for the whole story, but the first six and a half chapters were originally written as I was drawing them. Himawari Share got picked up by First Second just about at the same time as I was starting work on They Called Us Enemy. So by the time I was done with that and came back to Himawari, I had all this experience working on a graphic novel that I then applied to my own work. I redrew the first six chapters digitally, changing bits here and there, and wrote out a much more structured script.

How did working on They Called Us Enemy influence your career?
It basically launched my entire comics career. I managed to quit waitressing completely and focus on comics full time, which was a dream come true.

How was working on someone else’s story different from making a graphic novel that you wrote yourself? What did you learn from it?
It's very different! I feel more vulnerable when I'm also writing as opposed to illustrating someone else's story. I learned a lot about research, which is maybe the most time-consuming aspect. WithThey Called Us Enemy it was solely visual research, but with Himawari House, I also had to do research for the writing. I learned a lot of technical things for streamlining my process and keeping ideas organized. I did have to put Himawari House on hold while I worked on They Called Us Enemy—which is funny, because in between chapters 7 and 8, I drew an entire graphic novel, and my approach changed drastically.

Why did you choose to have the dialogue in Himawari House shown in English and Japanese or Korean, depending on the language actually being spoken? Do you speak all three languages?

I do speak all three. I just really love languages and the ways they affect people, the way they act, their relationships with each other, their relationship with themselves, etc. There's no word for "I miss you" in Japanese or Korean. The closest thing to conveying that very specific emotion is something like "I want to see you" in both languages, which is similar but not quite the same. A lot would have gotten lost if I had just written out Japanese or Korean dialogue in italicized Englishit's almost a kind of erasure. I wanted to convey the full flavor of trying on a new language, not always being quite certain if the words fit you, discovering new ways to express emotions you never had words for, all those experiences that you only really get when you learn a new language.

I was very interested in your comments about the characters’ accents at the end of the book. Can you expand a bit on why you had them speak with distinct accents?
I think I had recently watched an American movie with a lot of Asian characters who all spoke perfect, unaccented English, save for one character who served as comic relief and had a strong accent. It made me kind of angry—you only get to be taken seriously if you speak perfectly? It reminded me of when I was in Korea and people would laugh at my Korean when I wasn't trying at all to be funny, and how frustrating that was. I wanted to show off the unique flavors of accented English without turning it into a punch line or a freak show.

Capturing accents and dialects in written words is difficult. How did you do it?
I wanted to be clear about the differences between the different accents—how a Korean accent differs from a Japanese one. What grammatical differences are there between Singlish and Korean English? I would listen to the people in my life and pay attention to their accents and syntax. I realized that sometimes people would take the syntax from their own language and apply it to English, so what might sound broken to someone who only spoke English would make perfect sense if you translated it word for word into Japanese, for example. I also got a lot of help from my friend Janelle, who translated all the Singlish phrases in the book.

You tell some of the story from Hyejung and Tina’s points of view, and they each have their own storyline. That must have made the book more complicated. Why did you decide to do that?
It was a combination of two things: wanting to give less precedence to the idea of a main character and wanting to explore several different plotlines at once. I like stories that have an ensemble cast and remind audiences that no one person is any more important or complex than another, so I wanted to try doing something like that.

Will there be a sequel?
I'm not planning on a sequel for Himawari House. I wanted it to be sort of a snapshot of these characters at this specific time in their lives. If it were to continue, it wouldn't have the same flavor or tone as Himawari. I think it would be something completely different.

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