Dendo: One Year and One Half in Tokyo, by Brittany Long Olsen, is a self-published illustrated diary of her 2012-2013 service as a missionary in Japan. Olsen drew a page every day of her mission. That makes for a sizable book and an in-depth look at missionary life, from the MTC to the final trunky moments. This granular reporting means that Olsen could not skip over the unproductive or stressful days to get to the inspiring stories. The result is a fascinating mixture of frustrations and small miracles. Olsen tells her stories very honestly, and although she writes with charity, she fully expresses the personality clashes that can occur within companionships. Her drawings are simple but charming, skillfully illustrating the inner lives of the missionaries.
Excited about the book, I emailed a series of questions to Olsen, and she agreed to answer them. Here is our conversation.
Could you tell me about the process of making the book? You present yourself in the story as writing a daily illustrated journal, which becomes a topic of conversation within the mission, some of which are apparently made public on a blog.
I started my mission journal on day one of being a missionary, so all the events were recorded in real time (give or take a few days when I fell behind). It did become a topic of conversation with other missionaries as word got around Tokyo that I was drawing my journal–there were even times when missionaries meeting me for the first time mentioned that they’d heard about it, which was always a funny way to begin a conversation. I think it was noteworthy to other missionaries partly because it was a unique way of journal keeping and partly because they were amazed by my dedication to make time for it every day. The missionary schedule allowed me about an hour of free time at the end of the day, so I brushed my teeth quickly every night to spend as much time drawing as possible. I would say that it took me about an hour per page from initial sketch to inking.
My mother maintained my missionary blog for 18 months. As I finished journal pages, I would take photos of them and email them to her along with my letter to the family each week. Mostly it was my extended family and friends reading the blog, but I later found out that other missionaries’ parents were reading it too.
What do you think your motivation was for turning drawings into a continuous narrative? When did you decide you wanted to publish the work?
I don’t think I ever consciously wanted to make a continuous narrative because all my comics up to that point had been more slice-of-life style. But because the themes of my daily journal pages were so similar over the course of 18 months, it naturally formed a story of its own. There were many journal pages I could have removed from the final book because they interrupted the “story arc” or otherwise didn’t exactly fit in the sequence, but I wanted the book to be an accurate representation of what missionary life was like for me, and I wanted to make sure every single day had a journal page. I don’t remember exactly when I decided I wanted to publish my journal, but it was sometime during my mission as other missionaries expressed interest in seeing the finished product and I felt the desire to share my experiences with a general audience. Often while making the journal pages I’d forget that it might be published–keeping a journal this way was therapeutic in dealing with difficult circumstances just as much as it was a method of record keeping. I wonder if some parts are too personal because I wasn’t keeping that general audience in mind. I guess my decision to include those more personal moments in the final book goes back to my desire for authenticity to my experiences.
Did you work digitally, or did you use more traditional media and scan it in?
I worked in a spiral-bound sketchbook, and while on my mission I penciled each page before inking it (I used a Pentel pocket brush pen and some other Japanese brush pens). Photos of the pages were sent home and put on a blog weekly, so I wanted the pages to look as finished as possible. When I returned home to the United States, I scanned in all the pages and began cleaning them up in Photoshop. I completely re-did the lettering with a font made from my own handwriting so that it would look more consistent and clean. I also added grey screentones in Photoshop to give the finished book more depth and a more polished look.
There is a long history of missionary literature, including novels and memoirs. Were you aware of any previous literary descriptions while you were creating the book? Have you ever heard of anyone else illustrating their mission experience?
I knew I wanted to be a missionary for many years, so I had quite some time to read books from other returned missionaries as I prepared to serve. However, these were mostly how-to books that taught missionary skills with anecdotes found throughout. I never actually read another published missionary journal, and I still haven’t because I just haven’t gone looking for them, though I’m sure plenty exist. Once I began looking for a publisher for my book, I researched other illustrated missionary journals, and it seemed to me that I was the first person to ever keep an LDS missionary journal this way. I thought its uniqueness would be a selling point to publishers, but I was wrong–it being such a unique book was what made publishers turn me down, thinking of the limited audience they expected would read it. They might be right, but so far it has been extremely gratifying to hear back from my limited audience of people who served missions in Japan and (like me) love anything Japanese.
What artists and/or storytellers have inspired you?
I read various autobiographical webcomics throughout college, but the first long-form graphic journal I remember reading was “Burma Chronicles” by Guy Delisle. He spent over a year in a foreign country describing his interactions with the people and how his fascination with the culture affected his life. Although each journal entry described unique experiences, the entire book formed a cohesive narrative that left me with a distinct impression of the country. It was about a year after I read “Burma Chronicles” that I left on my mission, and it was on the back of my mind as I kept my journal. I admired the way Delisle painted a picture of the country and the natives so that readers completely unfamiliar with the culture could share his experiences. I knew I wanted to do that in my book.
Stylistically, artists who have influenced me most include Bryan Lee O’Malley (“Scott Pilgrim”), Faith Erin Hicks (“Friends With Boys”), Vera Brosgol (“Anya’s Ghost”), and Lucy Knisley (“French Milk”). These artists work primarily with fictional graphic narratives, but I’ve been reading their books for years, and their influence can definitely be seen in my artwork if not my storytelling style.
Did you see larger themes and narrative threads emerging from the seemingly random daily work?
What’s most interesting to me as I’ve gone back and edited my journal pages for publication is the arc of my personal development. I go through periods of confidence, then doubt, then more faith again; times of hopelessness, joy, disappointment, excitement, and homesickness all appear in cycles that are almost predictable. I’m sure this happens with every missionary and indeed throughout a lifetime, but it seems so much easier to track in a journal like this where my cartoon facial expressions complement my written record of daily life.
I think the over-arching theme of the book is found in my developing relationships with people. Being loving, tolerant, selfless, and patient came easier as time went on. A lot of content at the beginning of the narrative is introspective and often selfish, but by the end, the general trend is outward. If nothing else, being a missionary taught me how to care about other people, and I hope that comes across in my journal.
While relationships with members and investigators constantly came up, your relationships with companions seemed to be the dominant theme in most months. Was that a conscious decision?
I didn’t consciously decide to focus on companions, but it seemed natural to do so. I was with them 24/7 for months at a time, whereas most other people I developed relationships with I only saw once a week for an hour or two. I got to know those women very well, so ups and downs in our relationship were a much bigger deal to me personally. I learned the most from them and grew the most learning how to work with them.
Generally, you portrayed your times with Japanese companions as more difficult than when you were with North American companions. It seems to have been a mix of personality and culture clashes. What were some of the cultural differences that made working with Japanese the most difficult for you? And to balance that out, what were some cultural differences that you appreciated?
I think that individual personalities made more of a difference in whether we got along than nationality or culture. I had one Japanese companion who became my dear friend, and one American companion I simply clashed with about almost everything. However, it was generally easier to get along with American companions because we spoke the same first language. We could really communicate from heart to heart, and it was easier to tell jokes and laugh together when there wasn’t a language barrier. The ability to communicate more naturally took those companionships up a level from business-like to friends, which made a difference in the quality of our work too.
About half of my companions were Japanese, but I didn’t really notice a trend among them by which I could identify specific personality traits that were inherently “Japanese.” Among members and Japanese people in general though, I was always struck by the politeness, hospitality, and generosity shown to me. Although strangers may not have been friendly, they were always kind, and I also noticed how humble the people were. I hope those influences rubbed off on me after 18 months. My time in Japan definitely increased my appreciation for gift-giving!
If there were any negative character traits I saw among the Japanese people as a whole, it was a general mistrust of Christianity. One of the most common problems I ran into was when a woman would be interested in coming to church but her “hantai” [opposed] husband would forbid her from investigating Christianity. I’ve heard that some of it could be attributed to some radical Christian terrorists in the 1970s, but it always surprised me that so many people weren’t even curious to hear about it, especially when they weren’t devout in their own religion. That was a very frustrating part about being a missionary—not that the people listened to me and rejected what I had to say but that they couldn’t be bothered to listen.
[I am not aware of any radical Christian terrorists in Japan in the 1970s, Brittany is perhaps referring to the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attacks in 1995. Aum Shinrikyo was a doomsday cult that eclectically mixed various Buddhist believes with new age and Yoga ideas. Their murderous attacks have caused the Japanese public to be skeptical of religion in general, particularly unfamiliar religions. Church growth in Japan has definitely slowed in the years since those attacks.-AH]
I noticed in your portrayals a lot of reactions by sisters to the appearance of other sisters. Some of the Japanese sisters seem to have been drawn to (and some jealous of) what they saw as the “beauty” of some of the white Western sisters. Conversely, early on in your mission, the “cuteness” of Japanese women seemed to be something about them that appealed to you. Do you think that these reactions came mainly from the language barrier making it difficult to get beyond surface appearances at the beginning? Or is there a kind of racial fascination that goes beyond that?
It’s funny that you point this out because I didn’t even notice that this was so prominent in my journal! I think that part of it was definitely the language barrier on the part of American missionaries. We may not have known how to approach women and convey the love in our hearts for them, but we knew words for praise and admiration of their “kawaii” clothes and hairstyles. I think it’s also just an inherent part of the way women relate to each other. Much more than men, we are aware of each other’s styles and frequently envious of them. I bet you would find that in any culture.
I do think there’s a “racial fascination,” as you said, that’s much more evident on the part of Japanese people. Their in-person exposure to people of different races is very limited. I could turn heads just by walking down the street as a white woman, and often when Japanese came out of my mouth as I introduced myself, I could tell the listener was floored. You don’t really see that in America because we’re so accustomed to our “melting pot.”
Even after I became comfortable with the language, my admiration of the Japanese people didn’t seem to change. I attribute most of that to being there as a missionary. I was constantly striving to be filled with love for them, so every new person I saw made me excited to get to know them. I still do find Japanese people very cute! I don’t think I would ever want that fascination to go away.
I appreciated how you showed moments of faith and recognition of miracles, as well as moments of disappointment and feelings of futility. I was especially taken with the panel where you talked about how you were not surprised that people who lived up in the mountains, surrounded by beauty, would feel little need of an organized religion. Could you comment on writing that panel?
Many times in Japan, I was made aware of my “foreign-ness,” especially my foreign religion. Although we were there to teach about a universal God who loves every person on earth, sometimes the organized and, admittedly, Western nature of the LDS church felt so backward to the Japanese way of life. On that particular day, my companion and I were in a rural part of the countryside where exposure to the Western world was probably very limited. The people had small but cozy homes with few modern conveniences, and I imagined that they were perfectly satisfied. They prayed to their ancestors, the seasons changed, and they had food to eat, just as their family had for decades. What would they gain from reading foreign books and singing American hymns and driving an hour to sit in an old church pew when their family temple was right in the backyard? I could definitely empathize with those Japanese people even though my heart yearned to teach them all the wonderful things that they could gain.
Thank you Brittany!