THE NAO OF BROWN: A HAFU HEROINE
By Amanda L. Andrei
Above: Glyn Dillon displays his debut novel,
The Nao of Brown, at the Small Press
Expo in Bethesda, MD recently.
Glyn Dillon stands in a corner of the booth, carefully dipping his brush into a palette of watercolors. The din of the Small Press Expo (SPX) roars across the floor of the Bethesda Marriott Hotel as attendees and artists mingle in a sort of literary farmer’s market, where comic books are eagerly purchased and everyone seems to know their neighbor. Dillon continues to paint—his way of autographing his debut graphic novel, The Nao of Brown.
The Nao of Brown follows the story of Nao Brown, a hafu (half-English, half- Japanese) young woman. Our heroine works at a vinyl toy shop, meditates at the West London Buddhist Center, falls in love with a washing machine repairman—and suffers from pure obsessive compulsive disorder. Instead of typical forms of OCD such as hand-washing or counting, Nao’s compulsions take no observable form. Instead, she is plagued by thoughts of violence, fear of herself, and constant doubt of her actions.
The inspiration for the character started with a name. Introduced to a friend’s girlfriend named Nao, Dillon remarks, “I loved the fact that it was pronounced the same as ‘now,’ and I thought it would make a great name for a character.” In fact, Dillon originally began writing the graphic novel from the perspective of Gregory , the repairman with whom Nao falls in love. “Nao just kept getting more interesting until I realized it wasn’t his story at all, it was hers,” he admits. Dillon also drew the inspiration for Nao’s OCD from experiences his wife suffered as a child and teenager.
Nao’s ethnic identity plays a crucial yet subtle role in the story. Raised by an English mother and growing up with an absent Japanese father, Nao certainly feels more Western than Eastern, but there is a tentative curiosity about her Asian side that she begins to explore throughout the novel. She brings back “designer” toys and children’s stories from Japan as inspiration for her own illustrating career. She uses meditation and calligraphy at the Buddhist center to calm her OCD episodes. And most laudably, when a first date conversation borders on racial and gender offense, Nao firmly, swiftly and charmingly refutes the offense while graciously sharing her own mixed heritage and knowledge of Japanese culture. As Dillon says, “I wasn’t trying to tackle any real issues of ethnicity, it’s more symbolic of the over-arching duality in her life.” Whether intentional or not, Dillon has given us a great gift—a strong, complex, mixed-race character who transcends more than ethnic issues.
Dillon’s interest in Japanese culture and comics started when he was a child. He cites the 1980s TV miniseries Shogun as an influence for his interest in Japan, and also relates how his older brother started professionally drawing comics at the age of sixteen. “This had a big impact on my little self, and I wanted to draw comics or make films from about the age of six,” he relates. Additionally, other influences on Dillon’s work include artists and authors such as Hayao Miyazaki, the writer and director of the Academy award-winning 2001 film Spirited Away, and Katsuhiro Otomo, author of Akira, the highly successful 1980s manga series set in post-apocalyptic Japan. “For me, there’s a strong seam of beauty that runs through all Japanese art and design,” Dillon explains.
This seam of beauty is evident in Dillon’s art. Penciled and watercolored by hand, the pages glow with a lush realism, even in their darkest moments. The ever present motif of red can either anchor or engulf the reader, but always provides a vibrant glimpse into Nao’s life. And of course, nothing is more vibrant than Nao’s expressions. Some of the most beautiful panels in the book are snapshots of her: flattered, puzzled, giddy, thoughtful. These moments are golden—for Nao and the reader.
Covering more than 200 pages, The Nao of Brown is an impressive piece— the result of three years of hard work. Dillon admits that he would wake up at 8 in the morning to help see his son off to school, then start work an hour later. Between drawing and helping with his family, he would often stay up until 3 in the morning, seven days a week, to complete his work. Would he do it again? “If I do another book, I’ll be trying to avoid that one-sidedness as much as possible,” Dillon says.
SPX is still buzzing, but Dillon is completely zen. He finishes his watercolors and stamps the back of the book with an inkan signature seal. Holding the midsection of the book open so that the ink can dry, he smiles and hands the book to a fan. Inside is a profile of our hafu heroine, contemplative and serene. She looks steadily through the penciled panel, gazing beyond the here and now.