(Drawn & Quarterly, 2021)
Published almost exactly a year after the debut of her comic, Sweet Time (2020), Weng Pixin’s wonderful follow-up, Let’s Not Talk Anymore, is a spectral tapestry of mothers and daughters. A book of historical memory in the guise of a child’s scrapbook, Let’s Not Talk Anymore traces a matrilineage: the artist’s great-grandmother, Kuān (宽 or “wide”); her grandmother, Mèi (妹 or “little sis”); her mother, Bīng (冰 or “ice”); the artist herself, Bǐ (or “beautiful); and the artist’s imaginary daughter, Rita. Spanning the years 1908 to 2032, the artist paints a picture of her ancestors, herself, and her imaginary daughter, each at the age of 15. Carefully woven, the interlocking narrative fibers are tightly intertwined. The connecting thread for these intergenerational stories is the invisible labor of sewing, gardening, drawing, and painting.
The emphasis is on the visual, rather than the narrative. Important genealogical information comes rather belatedly. In the year 2032, Rita flips through a family album. She comes across a photo and reflects upon Kuān’s 1908 voyage from South China to Singapore: “Was it in a boat? Or a large ship? What did the vessel look like?” Expository information on the artist’s matrilineage unfolds across six panels: including Kuān’s arranged marriage due to poverty and lack of work, her husband’s control over her pregnancies, and that, “She did not have the pleasure of telling anyone what her favorite flowers were (they were the chrysanthemums). She grew to quiet her voice, just so she could survive.” Outside a window, a bee pollinates what appears to be deep red hibiscus flowers that are not fully opened. Gardens and flowers bookend Let’s Not Talk Anymore, with images of baskets and tapestries acting as section dividers.
In the endpapers, a butterfly pollinates an orange flower. The book is in landscape orientation like a flipbook, and as the reader flips the pages, the butterfly flaps its wings and flutters across the image. The sequence is interrupted by two paratextual inserts—a photograph of the artist’s mother, Bīng, and the artist’s photo and bio—only to end with the butterfly landing on to another flower. The butterfly and the bee, forever in flight, are metaphors for productivity, but also women’s reproductive and material labor. (In an earlier section, Mèi is sexually assaulted in a leafy field by an outhouse, after repairing articles of clothing, underscoring the danger also present in women’s labor.) The cycle of growth and regeneration cannot be stopped. The women silently work, and the work is passed on. The fact that Rita’s existence is imagined mediates the artist’s melancholic ambivalence toward this familial inheritance, represented here as a photo album. This is not to suggest the book is devoid of optimism or positive male figures: the artist’s father acts as a mediator or translator between the emotions of a mother (Bīng) and daughter (Bǐ). Certainly, Rita registers a kind of resilience, but that does not discount everything that has come before. Eerily, the specter of women’s labor looms in the image: silently reading, Rita sits crisscrossed on the floor next to balls of yarn, emblems of domestic labor suggesting that she, too, is working to knit in some capacity.
Midway through the story, a small, single-masted wooden boat sits on a calm sea, beneath a surreal, softly swirling blue-green sky. The image is divided into nine frames, as if looking through a window. The ship is centered in the panels; the horizon line breaks the three panels just above the ship, and the area compromising the still ocean occupies the lower six panels. Kuān’s ghostly utterances, “How many days has it been?” “I wonder what this new land looks like,” “Mamma,” and “Please be well, Mamma,” are scattered across the nine panels. The ship figures the trauma of migration, but the comics page registers Kuān’s trauma through understated design and bright colors. The image is subtly emotive: it evokes the sadness of maternal separation, as well as a melancholic disposition toward what is to come.
What makes Let’s Not Talk Anymore so fascinating is that the comic pages are paintings. (Drawing is the typical medium of comics.) This shift in style and representation marks a quiet but important intervention for the art of comics. If comics are a medium dominated by men and men’s stories, Pixin points to a way out of narrative and historiographic blindness. Let’s Not Talk Anymore is historical testimony, but not through a graphic method of pen and ink. Instead, Pixin materializes history with the mixed media of poster paint, oil pastels, and watercolor, crafting an intricate, subtle, and affecting book.