Sleeping While Standing is an autobiographical and illustrated collection of stories based on Taki Soma‘s past. Each chapter describes a different event in the tumultuous life of the Japanese-American, Hugo Award-nominated artist. The stories are often uncomfortable with hard-to-discuss topics; from substance abuse to childhood trauma.
A graphic novel memoir on trauma may sound like an unusual read, but it works. It’s personal, immersive and soberingly real. Each chapter allows us to peek into a different memory. Every single memory adds a little bit more to Soma as person, and her journey. One perfect example is Soma’s favorite chapter, ‘Toys’. It delves into Soma and her older brother Shige’s unequal presents and treatment growing up. While Shige gets a fun birthday party, Taki is told she has too many toys. In four pages, Soma explores how gender stereotypes affect young girls negatively, causing them to feel inferior to their male counterparts.
All that said, ‘Toys’ does have a happy ending. Soma finally receives a prized gift along with some much-needed validation after years of feeling second best. The artist admits she still has that present – this chapter’s drawings add to that cathartic moment. Knowing that every story means so much to its author further enhances the strength of her work. There is just something about imagining how this little girl grew up; her journey from then to now – someone finally able to effortlessly and powerfully open up about the tougher parts of her life.
The novel reads so fast that a hundred pages fly by in less than an hour. Instead, what it leaves behind is this odd, bittersweet taste. It’s almost as if you’ve just come back to an empty home after a long trip abroad. I suspect this is due to the speed and power with which the memoir plunges you in. It wastes no time gently easing the reader into Soma’s dynamic and traumatic life. You start to read, and one page in, you’re inside her world. From there, you have to figure out the details by yourself. In a sense, this is what real life is like. As this novel is a compilation of true-to-life stories, this approach works well to solidify the themes showcased in Sleeping While Standing.
Dialogue for this graphic novel reads well and feels natural. Of course, when you recall memories of events, it’s tough to make them sound unnatural and scripted. It’s interesting to see how well Soma resists the temptation of overexplaining her various misadventures. The many unknowns actually work very well here; having the complete details of every single story might actually ruin the beauty and power of these accounts.
Speaking of power, there are two types of it in Sleeping While Standing. It’s in how we’re just “dropped” in the middle of each recollection; it’s in the many little details left for us to figure out on our own. Much like with a memory, you can’t clearly remember every detail; every reason why, every backstory, or every intention. Similarly, there are jumps in time between the chapters – time moves both forwards and backwards. These blank spaces and jumps through time are what make the magic happen.
Visually, some chapters feel a bit like when you wake up from an incredibly vivid dream. It’s like those hazy memories of the night you want to recollect later. So you quickly sketch up what you remember on a napkin or a receipt. The art style is rough around the edges here and there. In this sense, you can feel the emotions through her drawings. Even though the illustrations aren’t always perfect – given the fact that many of the recollections are from her childhood – it still adds a bit of authenticity to the comic and the stories told.
Interestingly, each different story comes with its own completely different aesthetic; new colors, fonts, drawing style, and page arrangement. While this is very effective on a chapter-per-chapter basis, it does make the anthology feel a bit mixed up and inconsistent. But then again, whose memories come in neat, well-arranged, and perfectly stylized boxes? Our past is like a scrapbook; each recollection bares a different palette, a different scent, and a different feeling. You can tell her choices are always intentional. In that sense, deciding to make each chapter so different from the previous is understandable.
This graphic memoir will hit close to home for many. Whether you’re an artist, a woman, Japanese, or an immigrant; if you have family troubles, childhood trauma, substance abuse issues, mental health or physical health issues. After reading it, you might feel a tad less alone or misunderstood in your struggle. In fact, I recommond any young adult going through a tough spot at the moment give this a read. Taki Soma says that recreating her traumatic memories helped her heal from them. Well, reading this novel may very well help you do the same. Knowing that someone else who has gone through so much and has still managed to come out on top, might easily restore your hope and your belief in your own strength.
If you’re after a deeply personal and visceral memoir that will speak to you; make you feel things and possibly even force you to face your own trauma…You should certainly check out Sleeping While Standing. Oh, it’s also funny as hell.
Want a little bit of hope and inspiration? Interested in seeing the journey of an individual through the hardships of life? Sleeping While Standing is a beautiful read and it’s available on Avery Hill Publishing now! Share with us any of your personal experiences (if you are comfortable doing so) on Facebook or Twitter to help bring hope to other people too.