Author Kimiko Tobimatsu and illustrator Keet Geniza have teamed up to create Kimiko Does Cancer, a timely graphic memoir exploring the unexpected cancer journey of a young, queer, mixed-race woman. This week, Kimiko joins us on The Chat to talk more about the book.
The Toronto Star has high praise for Kimiko Does Cancer: “The best graphic novel autobiographies provide insight into the lives of remarkable people and Kimiko Tobimatsu’s story, complemented by the highly skilled art of Keet Geniza, is a particularly special privilege for us.”
Kimiko Tobimatsu is an employment and human rights lawyer by day. Kimiko Does Cancer, based on her own experience, is her first book.
Keet Geniza is a Filipinx-Canadian illustrator and comic artist. Born and raised in Manila, she moved to Toronto in 2006 and has since immersed herself in zines and comics as a way to document her struggles as a queer immigrant woman of colour. Kimiko Does Cancer is her first book.
Trevor Corkum: Kimiko Does Cancer explores the aftermath of your diagnosis with breast cancer at a young age. What influenced your decision to tell the story through a graphic memoir?
Kimiko Tobimatsu: It was actually an avoidance tactic! I hadn’t read many graphic novels before embarking on this journey and I naively thought that it would be a way for me to tell my story without a lot of emotional overlay. I thought I could simply lay out the facts with short, cheeky commentary. Working with illustrator, Keet Geniza, I quickly learned that telling the story well meant getting into the messy emotions.
TC: In part, the book explores how being a queer, mixed-race woman affected your experience—everything from how you navigated the health care system to the lack of kinship you felt within mainstream cancer support groups. Can you talk more about the isolation you experienced as you moved through these spaces, and do you see signs that these systems are changing to become more inclusive?
KT: The mainstream cancer narrative tends to prioritize the voices of straight, white women. There’s also a peppy attitude that is pervasive, as if cancer is something long behind them. The peppiness hides the ways that, for many people, the side effects of cancer don’t go away.
It was such a different culture and community than I’m normally in. For example, I wasn’t getting to hear people talk about breast cancer and gender identity as a queer person. I wouldn’t say the mainstream has changed much, but there are a lot more smaller groups doing things differently. It makes me hopeful.
TC: To create the memoir, you worked with graphic artist Keet Geniza, who brings your story so vividly and wonderfully to life. What was it like to work in such close collaboration with Keet on the project?
KT: Keet is an exceptionally talented artist and storyteller. I feel immensely grateful that I got to work on this book with her. Keet was instrumental in bringing out the emotion of the story. She would send me lists of questions about my experience or a specific event and together we’d incorporate that into the narrative.
Both of us being queer and Asian, there was a lot that Keet just understood without me needing to explain. Keet has also been affected by cancer in her family and so intimately understood things like hospital environments and meetings with doctors.
TC: One of the areas you explore in the memoir is the challenge of working through so many relationships—with family, with friends, with partners—while still looking after yourself and taking the time you need for self-care. How have your friends and family responded to the memoir? Did anything about their reactions surprise you?
KT: The thing about memory, of course, is that it’s not static or objective. Two people in the same place at the same time won’t necessarily remember an event the same way. When I was in the thick of things, there were ways that I felt unseen and other ways I was knowingly isolating myself. Because of this, there was a lot in the book that was a surprise to friends and family. But they’ve taken it in stride and been incredibly supportive.
TC: The book comes out in the midst of a global pandemic, where so many folks are struggling to balance wellness and the demands of everyday life. What has it been like to launch and promote your memoir during the pandemic?
KT: It certainly looks a lot different than what we envisioned. We were at least fortunate that the book was released several months into the pandemic and so a lot of festivals and events had already adapted to this new virtual age. We definitely miss not being able to interact with readers, writers and artists in person, but we’re rolling with it as best as possible.