Our Friend is Here! An Interview with Reimena Yee, Author of Séance Tea Party; On Making Comics, Ghosts, & Growing Up

Our Friend is Here! An Interview with Reimena Yee, Author of Séance Tea Party; On Making Comics, Ghosts, & Growing Up. Illustration of Sprout the sparrow, wings out wide and showing off Reimena Yee as a own wearing a flower and skull crown.
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Sprout is stargazing tonight when you visit the Pond.

You find them lying on the grass, a tiny bird in a field of green, looking up at the sky. Their eyes brighten as they see you approach.

“Oh, hello friend! You made it today!” Sprout sits up and smiles at you. “I’m so glad you’re here. We’re expecting a very exciting guest today, and I’d love for you to meet them!”

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At the mention of a guest, a soft breeze picks up — gentle at first, and then stronger. As the leaves rustle, from beyond the canopy of trees overhead, you hear the flapping of wings. A sooty owl emerges, starry as the night. A wreath of orange roses adorns their head, with a few skulls peeking through the flower crown. The owl flies down to join you and Sprout on the grass.

“Right on time!” Sprout exclaims happily. “Friend, this is Reimena! She’s here to talk to us about her newest book that’s coming out next week.”

Sprout hops closer, and confides in a quieter voice, “Xiaolong told me that she cried for a whole morning reading it!”

You chuckle, and sit down on the grass next to Sprout. Curiously, you also ask them about their stargazing while waiting for you.

“Oh! Yes, I was stargazing.” Sprout says sheepishly. “The book that we’re talking about today is about what it means to grow up, and I was thinking about when I was a fledgeling before I came to the Pond. But that’s a story for another time. Let’s welcome our guest!”

I love comics. I think they’re a brilliant storytelling format, and I’m always so eager to devour graphic novels in a way I rarely am with more prose-heavy stories. They’re such an accessible medium to return to over and over again — I’d honestly argue that a lot of my own formative reading experience was shaped by warm, sticky afternoons spent cramming down local comic serials by the bundle. I’m sure comics have led many more people to reading too, just like it did for tiny 7-year-old me.

And friends, Reimena’s comics are incredible. I’ve known about Reimena’s books since she first published The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya through a partially crowdfunded platform, and I’m constantly awed by all the incredible stories she tells through her art. Her comics are smart, heartfelt, and filled to bursting with lush and evocative imagery. It’s such a delight and honor to have her at the Pond today, and I’m so excited to share this conversation I had with her about her upcoming middle-grade release Séance Tea Party next week!

Are you ready for a little ghost story?

Summary:

Lora wants to stay a kid forever, and she’ll do anything to make that happen… including befriending Alexa, the ghost who haunts her house. A middle-grade graphic novel about growing up that’s perfect for fans of Ghosts and Making Friends . Growing up sounds terrible. No one has time to do anything fun, or play outside, or use their imagination. Everything is suddenly so serious. People are more interested in their looks and what others think about them than having fun adventures. Who wants that? Not Lora. After watching her circle of friends seemingly fade away, Lora is determined to still have fun on her own. A tea party with a twist leaves Lora to re-discovering Alexa, the ghost that haunts her house — and Lora’s old imaginary friend! Lora and Alexa are thrilled to meet kindred spirits and they become best friends… but unfortunately, not everything can last forever.

Goodreads | Indiebound | Bookshop | Blackwells


Author Interview: Reimena Yee

Sprout: Hello Reimena! Thank you so much for joining us today here at the Pond! For anyone just now discovering your work, could you tell us a little about yourself?

Reimena: Hello hello! So, I am an author-illustrator, which means I write and draw my books, and can do those separately if I am asked to! I am also an urban owl, visiting from the tropical, dusty city of Kuala Lumpur.  I like to make pretty books about spooky things. I also love hunting for desserts and fun foods.

Sprout: Where did the seed of the idea behind Séance Tea Party sprout from? What drew you to the whole theme of ghosts and growing up, and how did you think to weave them together into a single narrative?

Reimena: It came from this drawing I did for fun in 2016.  I didn’t think much about it until 2018 when my agent suggested I make a pitch for Random House Graphic. Suddenly I had to go look around for ideas for kids books (I usually make comics for older readers). I saw the drawing again and thought, hey those characters are pretty solid. At the same time, I was at that stage in my young adulthood when my friends and I were coming to terms with our life after university, progressing to Grown-Up Things like getting a career and becoming a so-called proper adult. We were nervous and uncertain, afraid to move on while knowing that aging is inevitable.

I also thought about myself when I was 11 and 12. I remember being left behind as my peers and friends grew up around me. They were moving on to interests like teen idols and music on the radio and romantic relationships. Meanwhile, I was still playing-pretend, going on adventures, doing the things I had been doing for years prior. I remember being afraid that I’d lose an important part of who I was if I made that leap to teenagedom. And here I was again, as an upcoming university graduate, watching my friends finally experience this fear. Oddly enough, this time, I wasn’t afraid of losing myself or my youth. I was afraid of the risks that come with understanding that adulthood is freedom, a new era when I can finally embrace who I aspire to be.

All of this became the material for Séance Tea Party. I hadn’t seen a book for kids or young adults that addresses this anxiety of growing up, growing out and growing old — at least, in a future-forward way that acknowledges that change is inevitable and that there is joy in becoming older.

Sprout: I’ve always admired how much care and detail you pour into all your art, and Séance Tea Party is such a warm, whimsical world to spend time in. Are there any little easter eggs that you put in the book that hold special meaning or resonance to you personally?

Reimena: I hid some of the characters of my webcomic, The World in Deeper Inspection, in the background. Try to find them all!

Sprout: In the novel, the protagonist Lora’s character growth is signified by her choosing to express herself through a witchy aesthetic—realising that she too could wear dark lipstick is such a big and wonderful character moment for her! I really love how much this empowers young readers to not be afraid to experiment with their presentation, even if it can feel embarrassing or revealing. How much of this experience was autobiographical for you?

Reimena: I had an interview with Avery Kaplan of The Beat that discusses this scene too! I didn’t realise it’d be so impactful, since it’s only two pages. It’s kinda autobiographical in a way, though that character moment happened much later in life for me. All throughout my childhood and adolescence, I had a neutral relationship with my body—I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it. A large part of why I thought like this was my refusal to link my identity (my personality, spirituality, self-worth) with my body.

As a teen, there’s this phenomenon when the body becomes all that you are; when anything you do to your body is subjected to approval/rejection by the media, peers, teachers, parents, strangers and even yourself. I didn’t want to participate in that, so I ignored doing anything to myself—fashion, makeup, hair, skincare—as a form of self-preservation. I only started reconnecting with my body in the last 5 years, when I became an adult and was able to do things on my own terms. I dyed my hair, bought clothes I liked, tried makeup, put on tattoos… and I now “feel more like myself on the outside”. I still have a neutral relationship with my body, but it’s more active, dynamic. It’s an expressive space I inhabit that changes and grows over time. 

And I think this experience is all part of growing up. Knowing that whatever you do doesn’t have to be an acceptance or rejection of society’s values. And that makeup, fashion, whatever, are tools that you can use in our own terms. I have a mini-comic discussing my experience here.

Sprout: Okay, so if you could like, rewind time and go back to when you were Lora’s age—back while you were still personally growing up yourself—what’s one thing you would tell your younger self?

Reimena: “Don’t worry too much about exams. I mean, please keep studying, but life will always be more flexible and forgiving than school.”

Sprout: Now I’d love to talk to you a little about your craft! I honestly think the sheer amount of work that goes into comics is vastly underestimated in the current literary landscape, as someone who’s dabbled a little in comic-making myself. Could you give our readers a 101 on your basic creative process for crafting a graphic novel?

Reimena: Oh, the labour is definitely underestimated, though I feel that misunderstanding comes from a lack of education and transparency regarding the comics-making process. I’ve spoken about parts of my process on my blog and on Twitter, and even documented the process from start to finish. (There’s a Twitter thread for Seance Tea Party). 

For the basics, my process begins as soon as I am committed to an idea. I spend a lot of time developing the story and characters in my head (the Onion Method of Outlining). Once I obtain a strong outline and a good sense of the book’s soul, I move on to the second part of the Onion Method: developing its visual voice. That means thinking about what I want the comic to look like, and designing its own particular visual language (character design, worldbuilding, motifs, etc). This is before I make the first draft, by the way. 

Later, I write the manuscript, which is similar to writing a novel, but with less attention paid to language. In comics, the script is only one part of a larger process, and is ancillary to the art-making. So I focus less on making pretty sentences, and more on whether the story works, if the characters are well-defined… Afterwards I proceed to the most time-consuming and labour-intensive part of making comics: doing the art. The art is done in four basic stages: thumbnails, sketches/pencils, final visualisation, and lettering. Each stage can be its own blog post, haha, but I want to say that it’s during the art-making when a comic’s story emerges as its most realised and truest form. It’s a shame when the craft of comics art is treated as secondary to comics writing by the industry, when in reality, when we talk about the process, it’s the other way around.

Sprout: Do you have any comics that you would recommend to people looking to bulk up their comic reading? Any format—webcomics are great too!

Reimena: For more like Séance Tea Party, I’d recommend The Tea Dragon Society series (Katie O’Neill), This Was Our Pact (Ryan Andrews). and The Magic Fish (Trung Le Nguyen). For anyone who wants to know what I really love and the kind of comics I read, try Beauty (Hubert and Kerascoët), The Property (Rutu Modan), Just So Happens (Fumio Obata), The Arrival (Shaun Tan), Aya of Yop City (Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrierie)  and Through the Woods (Emily Carroll).

Sprout: One big comic project you have in the pipeline right now is a very ambitious retelling of Alexander the Great’s life and legend! I am so beyond excited for this from all your documentation of your process so far. Is there anything you can tell us about it yet?

Reimena: Ah yes, the thing that’s consumed me for almost two years! So this is my new passion project. It’s the 21st century retelling of the Alexander Romance, a 2000 year old global literary tradition which recounts the (half-true) life and legendary adventures of Alexander the Great. I’m very excited about this particularly because of the breadth and diversity in the material, which spans multiple civilisations and time periods, and how it’ll be retold through a perspective that is modern, postcolonial, queer and female (all big firsts in the Alexander Romance literature!). I’d say this book will be me at my most unfettered, as a writer and an artist. It’ll be up as a free webcomic sometime in the next year hopefully. Stay tuned!

About the Author

Reimena is a strange and fancy illustrator and graphic novelist based in the dusty city of Kuala Lumpur. She is the creator of the webcomics The World in Deeper Inspection, and the Eisner and Mcduffie-nominated The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya. In her free time, she co-runs the Southeast Asian comics collective UNNAMED, a resource-sharing and networking hub that organises panels, workshops and more.

You can find Reimena on her Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and website.


Sprout the sparrow holding onto and looking down at a book.

And that’s all the time we have for today, friends! I really, really hope that our conversation with Reimena today has motivated you to pick up some of her work — I have so much love and respect for the stories that she weaves, as well as the work that she does daily to make the process of creating comics accessible to aspiring creatives!

Please consider adding Séance Tea Party to your Goodreads, and get yourself a copy of the ghosts and the feels when it comes out on September 15!

4 thoughts on “Our Friend is Here! An Interview with Reimena Yee, Author of Séance Tea Party; On Making Comics, Ghosts, & Growing Up

  1. Fascinating interview! It does seem like it’s hard to have a healthy relationship with our bodies as teenagers. Either there’s the push to mold it to fit societal expectations or, as Reimena discusses, we reject any connection to it as a form of defiance. I think I also tended toward the rejection path.

    Like

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