Comics & Graphic Novels Interview

There’s More Than Meets the Eye with ‘Sanpaku’ Creator Kate Gavino

If you grew up in a Japanese or Chinese household, the idea of ‘Sanpaku’ sounds really familiar. If you or a member of your family had ‘sanpaku eyes,’ which directly translate in Japanese to “three whites,” it means your eyes have white space above or below the iris is visible. In my household, as in many very traditional Asian households, to have sanpaku would mean you’d be cursed or carry around some bad luck. Only trinkets from the Buddhist temple, or whatever religion the family believes in, would protect those who had sanpaku eyes. Fortunately, I was one of the lucky ones in my family to not be “cursed” with sanpaku eyes.

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Unfortunately, in Kate Gavino’s new graphic novel Sanpaku from BOOM! Studios, her protagonist, Marcine, has to deal with the idea of having ‘sanpaku eyes’ and the whole ideology behind it. Marcine is a young woman who becomes obsessed with the idea of Sanpaku and sees it everywhere, including her grandmother/lola, several classmates at her Catholic school, and even mentions John F. Kennedy, who, we all know, died tragically young. Set in the mid-1990s, Marcine goes through the motions of trying to fix her sanpaku and being a tweenager.

We got to chat with Gavino, who recently moved to Paris, over Skype about her book and how as an Asian American artist growing up around that time, she could relate to Marcine’s story and Gavino’s own thoughts of Sanpaku.

NOC: So, how’s life in Paris?
KATE: I definitely miss lots of things in New York, especially the food, but other than that, I get to live in a very beautiful city. I’m currently learning French, so it’s an adventure here, so I’m happy with that.

That’s awesome. Well, congrats on the upcoming release of your book.
Thank you so much.

It’s so good. You’re of Filipino descent and we are celebrating Asian August, we need to know, where did you come up with this idea?
So, when I first found out about the whole concept of Sanpaku, I was in college. I forgot how I ended up on the Wikipedia page for Sanpaku, but I just found it on Wikipedia. I was immediately fascinated by it. I ended up reading the book that is mentioned in my book — You Are All Sanpaku by George Oshawa. I just thought it was so weird and fascinating that I had to write a short story about it. So, Sanpaku started off just as a short story for my writing workshop, and I continued to write it and rewrite it until after college. I decided to turn it into a graphic novel. The setting is definitely inspired by my own childhood in Houston, Texas, and my own relationship with my grandmother. So, I just put those two things together, like my own childhood plus this really crazy Japanese idea of someone’s eyes being a telling sign of where their life is going.

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With so many ’90s references, like the pop singer Selena, why did you choose this era? Why did you choose this time versus the current era?
So, the story set in the year 1995. Part of [the reason] was because that was the time when I knew Houston the best, because later I moved to New York for college. I knew that it was important for me to set the stories primarily in Houston, Texas because one, there’s a huge Filipino population there. Houston has one of the biggest southern population of Filipinos. So, I wanted there to be a community of Filipino people, primarily older Filipino women who Marcine would hang out with a lot. Also, I knew 1995 was important because that was the year Selena died. That was the year that the Houston Rockets won back-to-back championships. So everyone was crazy about living in Houston. It was also pre-internet. You know, there was internet, but it wasn’t as pervasive as it was now. So, Marcine couldn’t just go online and Google what a macrobiotic diet was. So, I wanted to make things a little bit harder for her or at least force her to go to a library instead of just looking things up on her phone.

I notice you included a lot of Filipino cultural aspects to it, just like Catholicism and sainthood. Did you really experience that? What made you come up with Nurse Vilma for Sainthood?
Well, growing up in Houston when Selena died, that was a huge event for the community because everyone loves Selena. She was from Corpus Christi, Texas. I remember because this was around the same time that Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died and there was a lot of talk in the Catholic community about them becoming saints. So, when Selena died, there is also the same chatter about wanting her to be turned into a saint as well. Even though, it was kind of like a common knowledge that her family were Jehovah witnesses. So, I was always fascinated by the process of how you become a saint, like you have to prove that you can perform miracles and then the pope has to approve everything and, because of that, like I’ve always just been interested in the saints in general. As for the Vilma storyline, that’s completely made up, but I wanted there to be a cause for the older Filipino women to get behind. I also wanted her to be a nurse because Filipino nurses are like one of the biggest reasons why there are so many Filipinos in the U.S. in the first place. So, even though that storyline was completely fictional, it contains lots of things that are very important to my experience.

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Did you put yourself into the characters? Marcine is very quiet. There’s even a comment about her being quiet, which is a stereotype of an Asian character. I’m glad that Marcine mentioned that as well. Did you see yourself a lot in Marcine or do you see yourself a lot in Kip or Anna?
Oh, Marcine is definitely based on me as a kid, except I kind of made her the idealized version of who I wanted to be. She’s definitely more bold and impulsive. As a kid, I was definitely an indoor kid who was in my own feelings at the time. So, I think the main difference between me and Marcine is [that] she actually acts on her feelings because she will do something like start shoplifting or go around trying to cure people of their Sanpaku. That’s definitely much more bolder than I ever was as a kid. But yeah, I did think it is important to make her a quiet character because I’ve always found that the people who don’t do the talking and aren’t the loudest are usually the people who are thinking the hardest about what their actions are. I just find that a lot more interesting. I think whoever is the loudest and the brightest will inevitably get everyone’s attention. But, I tend to pay more attention to the quiet ones.

Well, since researching this and there is a community that really believes in Sanpaku. Do you believe in it, especially after researching it?
I think, in the end, I don’t believe in the aspect of Sanpaku where they think that if you have Sanpaku that means there’s an imbalance in your body or you need to change your lifestyle. But, I definitely think it’s an interesting concept to just research just because it is based on very tangible things like changing your diet will obviously change you physically and eating healthier will change your state of mind as well. I think the parts that Marcine focuses on — it’s a mark of a weird thing in your sexuality or that you’re doomed to a horrible death — I think those things might be a little exaggerated. But, I’m always hesitant to immediately discount something just because it’s like strange or foreign. So, like anything, I think there are things worth taking away from it. But also, I know more of the extreme things are a little harder for me to believe in.

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I was reading about the Lolo in the story and how he lived a crazy life. I need to know if you based him off your Lolo. Was any of this true? His playboy lifestyle?
It’s definitely fiction, but I think his personality is [similar]. The personalities of Lola and Lolo are definitely inspired by my own even though the exact details are fictionalized. But, they definitely are the reason why I wrote this book and I wanted to honor them in this fictional way, at least.

I noticed some Asian Easter eggs throughout the book, like the shrimp chips and Sailor Moon. How important was it to make sure that you added those special Asian quirks into this book?
Yeah, I’m really happy you noticed. That’s kind of a graphic novelist dream for people to notice those tiny details. But, it was important to include those details just for my own entertainment and just because I knew that having this specific brand of shrimp chips I ate as a kid would entertain me and, maybe, my own family. So, if other people get it, I think that probably adds to their own experience. When I read books, I’m always excited when I see small details that are specific to me as well. But, I definitely had a very specific experience growing up in Houston, Texas and I wanted those tiny details to exist as well. There’s also like a lot of very specific Texas details as well. So, really, those small things are really for my own entertainment and for people who grew up in the same community,

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What I notice in the book because it has a lot of cultural aspects to it were the Filipino culture and also the Japanese idea of the Sanpaku, then there are some Chinese characters added in the book as well. Did you learn anything while making this book about your own cultural identity? Other Asian identities as well?
I think one thing that I felt during the entire creation of this book is [that] I really didn’t want to get anything wrong about my own culture as well as other people’s culture. And, just having to do that itself made me realize how ignorant I was in the first place about so many things. The fact that Marcine learns a lot about her Lolo and Lola’s lives. I had to do a lot of research about what the Philippines was like in the ’30s and ’40s. When you’re Asian American, you always have that thing where you’re scared of not being as fluent in your home country — the Philippines in my case, because I grew up in the U.S. So, I was always trying to treat those sections really carefully because I grew up in the U.S., so I am not 100 percent familiar with what it’s like in the Philippines, besides going there with my family on vacation and stuff. So, because of that, I wanted to be extra careful when I was writing about the Philippines. When I’m trying to write a character who’s Filipino, I just want to be careful about that, and the same for anything related to Japanese culture as well. So, if I had to do Japanese characters, I knew that it wasn’t just the same thing as drawing lines. I want to make sure that I did it correctly. And, a lot of that is just like checking your sources and then asking people who are experts in that field to check you as well. So, just always having people to check your work makes me feel a little bit better about portraying things that I’m not 100 percent familiar with.

What do you hope that readers will get from your book and the story of Sanpaku?
I think what I want the most is for readers, if they’re adults, to kind of remember the time when they were 12 years old and confused and eager to find any kind of set of beliefs to cling onto because they were in the process of questioning their own beliefs. I really wanted to write about a young girl because I always find the stories of women and young girls to be the most interesting. A lot of the times people will discount the thoughts or the actions of a young girl just because of their age. And, I have yet to read a story about a young Filipino girl in the U.S. I know that’s very specific, but I really just wrote this story for myself because I wanted to see a part of my own life in a graphic novel. I know you do not have to be a young girl or a young Filipino American girl to relate to this book, but I just wanted a part of my own story to be out there. So, if someone else can find something relatable in that, then that’s, kind of,  [what] I would consider I’ve done my job correctly.

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When I was reading through this and I was read about Lola and her friends, I instantly thought of my Filipino friends’ families and the Tagalog accent. Did you have these voices in your head whole creating them?
Yeah, especially for anything said by Marcine and Lola. I definitely had my grandma’s voice. Growing up, I pretty much learned Tagalog from my grandmother. So, whenever I speak it, I, pretty much, speak it like an angry 80-year-old woman. So, that’s kind of like how I read Tagalog and I speak it as well. The parts of the older women are my favorite parts to write, because that’s kind of the voice I knew very well. It was just from based on my grandmother and her friends and I think that it definitely formed the way I shaped the dialogue as well.

I really enjoyed the graphic novel. It definitely reminded me of my aunties and what they consider “good luck” and “bad luck” regarding Sanpaku.
I’m so glad to hear you liked it though. I feel like a lot of people from Asian cultures will find something that they can relate to in some way in this book.

 Thank you so much for your time.
Thank you. It was great talking to you

Sanpaku will be released on August 21 from BOOM! Studios. You can pre-order it here and catch her on her book tour!