I picked up Yumi Sakugawa’s There Is No Right Way to Meditate when I was having trouble sleeping, the result of both real-world anxieties and my phone’s bright screen keeping me awake. It’s a slim book, but I’d spend a full ten minutes on a single page. After ruminating on the many layers of thought and feeling each image would evoke in me, I found myself—and I mean this as the sincerest compliment—sleeping deeply for the first time in months.
You might not know Yumi Sakugawa by name, but there’s a good chance you’ll recognize her work. The 31-year-old artist wrote weekly comics on The Rumpus starting in January 2013, and before that, her comic for Sadie Magazine, “I Think I’m In Friend-Love With You” went viral in fall 2012. The vulnerable, bittersweet story resonated with the softer side of the internet and became her first book.
Her illustrated self-help books Your Illustrated Guide to the Universe (2014) and There is No Right Way to Meditate (2015), originally published as a zine, soon followed. Sakugawa released Ikebana—the story of an art student who transforms herself into a living floral arrangement—last fall, and collaborated on the zine Mind Songs with the poet Taleen Kali, the sequel to zine Body Songs, which the pair premiered at L.A. Zine Fest earlier this year.
“I think I love the challenge of capturing a specific shade of emotion… then making a comic around capturing that very ambiguous but also specific frequency of the heart,” the artist told me over the phone from her home in Los Angeles.
Yumi Sakugawa is herself a bubbly, warm presence, but she speaks in a way that evokes her work: with a goal of mutual understanding. Her style is focused on eliciting powerful yet ambiguous emotions with only the most delicate strokes. She credits the suggestive minimalism of the “black-and-white rush paintings that you find in old-school Chinese or Japanese culture” as a major influence.
Historically, comics and graphic novels have been popularly associated with male creators—and white male creators, at that—but the indie web comics community has come to allow a broader spectrum of artists to thrive. And like a lot of well-known indie comics creators, Sakugawa's work is deeply engaged with her identity. Over Memorial Day weekend, a series of her drawings called "FASHION FORECASTS" will be featured at the Smithsonian Institute’s CROSSLINES, a culture lab on intersectionality. “Essentially, [I'm] using futuristic, utopian fashion design as a lens to explore Asian-American identity but also gender, sexuality, community, sustainability, spirituality, and future technology," Sakugawa told me in an email.
Make no mistake, she's a busy woman: I spoke to Sakugawa while she was preparing for the L.A. Times Book Festival. Alongside guest lectures at universities and personal side projects, she’s working on PRETTIER SMARTER BETTER, which she describes as a completely illustrated "DIY lifestyle book for young women" based on the how-to guides she used to do for WonderHowTo.
While the main character in “I’m In Friend-Love With You” may take the form of a one-eyed monster, Sakugawa readily acknowledges that the story is her own. “I feel like for most of my twenties, because I didn't have such a high self-esteem, I always projected my needs, my desire to be understood and loved, onto other people,” Sakugawa told me. “I didn't have a strong sense of self, and so it was this really long process where I learned more and more to really love myself and to empower myself and to really feel myself as a human being, as an artist.”
So why the monsters? “I think I needed that distance because if I made that exact same comic where I drew myself, a twentysomething college student, an Asian-American woman who had this friend-crush on this guy, I just would have been too self-conscious about drawing myself. It maybe would have been too painful in some ways,” she said.
But also, by using a “mutual template,” rather than a human character of a specific demographic profile, the story “gives other people the space to project their own experiences,” Sakugawa explained.
As a self-help book author, Sakugawa practices what she preaches. She makes sure to meditate daily, so rest assured that the meditation techniques described in her book There Is No Right Way to Meditate have been tried and tested.
“I just finally realized that if I don't meditate in the morning, it really throws off the rest of my day, so it's a grounding practice that I just absolutely have to do. I see it as brushing my teeth or taking a shower,” she said.
Looking at her work as a whole, I wonder if that’s why the rhythm of her comics allows for space and blankness, with beats that encourage the reader to take a moment. “I think the idea of space is really important to me, whether it's a literal blank space in a drawing or a silent space where dialogue or action isn't really happening,” she said. “…[Otherwise] you're telling viewers what to say and feel, which I think gives people a disconnect.”
Sakugawa has also come to understand the importance of creating space for herself—on Instagram, she’s taken to sharing less “polished” one-panel comics, guided by her intuition.
“If the work is honest, whether or not it's ‘perfect,’ then it's already done,” she said.
But in spite of—or maybe because of—her tendency towards introspection, she’s not one to act like she’s done growing. Far from it. A screenwriter friend recently told her about an exercise that author Danielle LaPorte once described at a writing conference: Your profession is one thing, but what is your “true business?” This question led to a personal revelation for Sakugawa.
“Even though I tell people ‘I'm a comics artist, I'm an illustrator,’ really what I love doing is being a mindful healer,” she said. “Whether it's through stories or through self-help books, I love giving people the space to be fully present in whatever they are reading from me… being fully present to find their own inner strength and space to heal themselves.”
Sulagna Misra is a freelance writer who lives in the New York area and the small hovel http://sulagnamisra.com. You can find her on Twitter at @sulagnamisra.