MariNaomi - Queer graphic novelist confronts censorship

  • by Michele Karlsberg
  • Tuesday July 2, 2024
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author MariNaomi
author MariNaomi

MariNaomi (They/Them), a renowned cartoonist, experienced the banning of one of their books. Confronted with censorship, they advocate for freedom of expression, visibility for comics and artistic rights. Their efforts have made them a significant figure in the fight against book banning, inspiring others to stand up for their creative liberties.

They created The Cartoonists of Color, Queer Cartoonists, and Disabled Cartoonists databases and are still maintained by them as a way to spotlight marginalized comic creators. The databases are used by booksellers, librarians, academics, editors, book publishers, event organizers, readers, and more.

MariNaomi are the creative force behind numerous acclaimed works, including "Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume," (Ages 0 to 22, Harper Perennial, 2011), "Dragon's Breath and Other True Stories" (2dcloud/Uncivilized Books, 2014), and the extended edition of "Turning Japanese" (Oni Press, 2023).

Their comics have reached global audiences, being translated into French, German, and Russian, and their art has graced prestigious institutions such as the Smithsonian and the de Young Museum. MariNaomi is a prominent figure in the literary community, having toured with Sister Spit and cohosted the Ask Bi Grlz podcast.

Despite facing challenges themselves, including the banning of some of their work, MariNaomi continues to inspire and advocate for underrepresented voices from their home in the San Francisco Bay Area. MariNaomi's essay gives us some insight about their activism journey.

"A Cowardly Activist"
It was a Monday, and I was driving 400 miles to organize my first protest. As I traveled I-5S past almond trees, super blooms, and endless doomed cows, my mind conjured things that could go wrong: What if no one shows up? What if Nazis show up? What if people get hurt? The only things keeping me from a panic attack were veins full of escitalopram and indignation.

As a youth, I loved crowds. I savored the excitement of being packed among bodies, embraced by humanity, dancing at parties, festivals.

I especially loved protests, which not only surrounded me with like-minded people, they let me yell in public, vent my frustration, add my voice to the fray, which on its own never seemed very important. I felt part of something bigger, which we all are whether we feel it or not. But it felt good to feel it.

The longer I've been around, the warier I've become of crowds. I can't say exactly what did it; the Pulse nightclub shooting perhaps? At some point, I decided that crowds were no longer for me. By 2017, I was so nervous about protests, I had to take a propranolol so as not to freak out at the Women's March.

The pandemic made it worse. I watched from my phone as folks gathered to mourn George Floyd, wanting to join, but terrified of COVID and even more terrified of anti-Asian violence. I watched impotently as my friends marched against genocide in Palestine, fearful for their safety. When did I become such a coward?

More passionate
It's not that I've lost my passion. At 50, I'm even more passionate than I was at 20. But I've figured out ways to be effective that don't put my body in harm's way or trigger anxiety.

I've donated time, art, and money to charities and crowdfunds. I've been involved in animal rescues and environmental conservation.

In 2014, I created the Cartoonists of Color database to counter excuses I kept hearing from comics gatekeepers when they didn't include people of color in their rosters. I followed it with the Queer Cartoonists database in 2015, then the Disabled Cartoonists database in 2018.

Recently, I joined Authors Against Book Bans, a grassroots organization created to disseminate information about what's going on in the book-banning sphere, which has gotten out of control. Members can add their names to the cause and leave it at that, or they can get more involved.
I chose to get more involved, and accepted their invitation to become California Chapter leader.

My first day in this role, I learned that the conservative-majority Huntington Beach city council intends to privatize its library, and its first order was to remove books with "sexual content" from the children's section. This included books like "The Big Bath House," which city council candidate Chad Williams called a "pedophile's dream." A book about bathing? Really? This was happening in my beloved California. I decided I had to go there, fear of crowds be damned.

I reached out to local authors. I reached out to groups with similar interests. To avoid counter-protesters, I asked that nothing be posted on social media until after the protest. I picked up folks as I passed through LA. We came armed with bottles of water, handmade signs, and hope.

Connecting community
The protest was outside a City Hall meeting, where community members and authors were given a chance to speak their minds. We were there to make them feel safe to dissent.

When we arrived, a local activist was setting up a table featuring books that had been removed from the library's kids' section. Time passed, and more protesters showed up; folks I'd invited, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends. The mood was of camaraderie, outrage, and trepidation. We made videos for social media. We connected with the community and talked about book banning. Occasionally a person in a MAGA hat scurried by.

A police officer came by to make sure we were following the rules. As he spoke, his eyes picked through the books on the table. They lit upon Everybody Poops and his previously stern expression broke into a smile.

"Oh hey, my kids love that book!" Then he realized. "Wait, this is what they're taking off the shelves?!"

Until now, I wasn't sure I'd made the right choice to come, but this moment of humanity made it worth it.

After we left, I was later told, counter-protesters arrived with their own display of mature books they claimed had been removed from the kids' section. But the locals weren't fooled.

"I come to the library all the time," one was heard saying. "I've never seen these books in the children's section."

Even later, one of my friends said a photo of the protest he'd posted on social media started conversations in his DMs. Folks didn't realize this sort of thing was happening in California.

We didn't stop the ban. The privatization will probably still happen. But we showed our support, we empowered folks to speak up, and we started some conversations. Not bad for a cowardly activist!

Michele Karlsberg Marketing and Management specializes in publicity and marketing for the LGBTQ+ community. This year, Karlsberg celebrates 35 years of successful campaigns. v

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