“Justine” Is a Coming-of-Age Novel for the Tamogotchi Set

Forsyth Harmon's illustrated novel vividly evokes late-'90s adolescence

Justine by Forsyth Harmon
Justine by Forsyth Harmon

Perhaps it’s not surprising that even the prose in illustrator Forsyth Harmon’s debut novel Justine is deeply imagistic. Reading this short, powerful story feels like wandering through a museum exhibit about teenage girlhood on Long Island in the summer of 1999.

Narrator Ali and her friends feed their Tamagotchis, watch boys skateboard in parking lots, and pore over glossy fashion magazines to learn how they’re supposed to look. They have little language with which to describe the burgeoning class awareness, family dysfunctions, eating disorders, and repressed queer desires they’re trying to navigate, and so Harmon’s minimalist drawings emote for them, opening up more paths to understanding than the text alone can provide.

I sat down to talk with Forsyth Harmon about Justine and her larger project of examining the relationship patterns that recur in our lives even as we get older, how unprocessed trauma might drive these, and whether they are in our power to change.

Preety Sidhu: This story takes place in the summer of 1999, when teenagers were obsessing over glossy magazines and playing with Tamagotchis, rather than buried in cell phones and social media. What drew you to writing about this era? Did you find anything particularly liberating or constraining about writing a story set in this time?

Forsyth Harmon: I was drawn to writing about the time because it was an important time in my own life. For me, writing is very much a process of dredging and examining my own experience and processing it after the fact—in this case many years after the fact. 

You might guess that based on the novel and the drawings, because I do think of this as a project of minimalism. I liked the constraint of not just 1999, but a few weeks over the course of the summer. It was fun to see what I could do within a very short period of time at a very particular time in history when, you’re right, we weren’t dealing with everyone having the internet yet and being super instantaneously connected, which does change plot structures. 

It was also fun to, through research, dig really deeply into some of the things that I wasn’t as familiar with, even as someone who lived through that time. It was fun to do research on ’80s and ’90s hip-hop, which I had some understanding of. I really did love De La Soul—as a Long Islander you don’t hear the town of Huntington called out in rap music that often, so it was an important album to me. But it was really cool to gain an understanding of the Native Tongues movement, because Ryan’s character was so familiar with it. And to go down the rabbit hole of the Kings Park Psychiatric Center, although not specific to that time, and skateboarding tricks, fashion.

I was someone who as a teenager received Vogue, for instance. So what I did was order a bunch of old copies off of eBay, and re-immersed myself in the fashion of that period and was surprised by how many of those images had really emblazoned themselves on my mind. I remembered them so acutely. That was an interesting experience too, digging into that time capsule.

PS: It had a very similar effect on me, because I was a high school sophomore in 1999. I forgot how much magazines were a part of everything. The ones that had imprinted on my mind were also resurfacing as I read. I wonder if you think there are aspects of how these teenagers engage with each other that could only have happened in that era?

FH: I think it might be pretty universal to the age. The different accessories of adolescence change, but maybe their relations are dictated more by place than by time. There’s the really obvious things, like there are a lot of parking lots on Long Island. People spend time in basements because most of the homes made in Long Island have basements. Kids learn to drive early there, so there’s a lot of driving around in cars. The ways in which they come together have to do with the geography and the community. And, probably, some of it is dictated by class.

PS: That’s actually my next question! Ali is attuned to markers of social class throughout the book. When she hooks up with Ryan, she thinks she’ll never tell anybody because he’s “a dirty, drug dealing cutter.” Though when Ryan’s possible girlfriend confronts her about it, she notices the big diamond earrings, and BMW key on the yacht club fob, and the designer nail polish. It occurs to her after going to a party with Justine at a fancy house that they live on the wrong side of the tracks. How do you see social class as functioning in this particular group of friends? Do you see it as a factor in the other self-destructive behaviors—the eating disorders, the drugs and alcohol, the shoplifting—that they also engage in?

FH: They live in a community where displays of wealth are applauded, but having direct conversations about class is avoided and forbidden. Ali doesn’t have—she doesn’t have language for a lot of things—but she doesn’t have language for this burgeoning ability to distinguish around class. She notices objects and a lot of that is dictated by what she learns in the magazines. She has a sense for wealth geographies through neighborhoods. Those are two ways that she has some language for understanding those distinctions.

They live in a community where displays of wealth are applauded, but having direct conversations about class is avoided and forbidden.

She—and not just her, many people her age, or beyond her age—derives a lot of her sense of self-worth through comparison. Throughout the book, you can constantly see her stacking herself up against someone else or two other people up against each other and trying to figure out where she exists within this hierarchy, whether or not she’s aware of that. For Ali, class functions that way as well.

Whether I think it’s a driver in the self-destructive behaviors? I don’t know. These kids are also relatively well off, compared to a lot of other communities. Ali has a lot of relative privilege—she’s white, she lives in a pretty good safe neighborhood, she goes to a decent school. I don’t know that I would make that direct connection between class and their problems, any more than I would for anyone else.

PS: I got the sense that they’re not shoplifting because they need this stuff? They’re shoplifting because it’s forbidden so it’s a thrill, and maybe they want more than they can get with money?

FH: That’s right. They really bought into this matrix of longing and want to be—to put it bluntly—worthy of the wealthy white gaze, wherever they fall within that system. They do these things, even though it’s not based on need, and they’re so wrapped up in it that they have no consciousness of people who actually need these things. That’s not how the system around them is built. They’re built not to see that, only to see what they don’t have. And they act accordingly.

PS: All of these forbidden things seem like bonding rituals, or to be doing them together seems like part of the glue that keeps this group together.

They really bought into this matrix of longing and want to be worthy of the wealthy white gaze, wherever they fall within that system.

FH: Yeah, what is it about that? I was never a Greek system person, but what is it about the hazing? I don’t know if I have any insights about that.

PS: Although most of Ali’s sexual encounters on the page are with boys, there are hints that her feelings for Justine might be sexual as well, for example in the dream when Justine taps her shoe and warmth surges up her leg to her groin. One of their first encounters involves Justine teaching Ali the difference between cucumbers and zucchini “without once insinuating male genitalia,” which I read as a potential hint at queerness. In your mind, were you thinking of this as a queer relationship, even if the desire is really repressed or sublimated? Or were you looking more to explore the contours of obsessive female friendship, even without that element of sexual attraction?

FH: The sexual attraction is definitely there, that was a part of my intention. I do think that it’s—for both of those characters, especially Ali though—so repressed. That’s why it does come up in these really quiet ways throughout the book.

There was, to be transparent, one more explicit sex scene that was removed prior to publication. There were two concerns around it. I hadn’t thought of either of them myself, but when they were brought to my attention it really interested me. One was the adult gaze on minor activities and the other was—you may remember the scene that could have led to this—that Justine was quite a bit more drunk than Ali, and it didn’t put Ali in a very favorable light that she might take advantage of that.

But that piece is definitely there, and different readers have both read it as being there and not read it as being there. I was really thrilled to see it come up on Oprah’s LGBTQ list, because that was my first indication that there were readers who were seeing it that way and it was very much my intention that they did.

PS: You’ve illustrated books for other people before illustrating your own debut novel. In what ways was the process different when engaging with your own text?

FH: All of the projects I have worked on have felt quite different, in terms of the process. In The Art of the Affair with Catherine Lacey, which is about chains of relationship between artists and writers, we worked together to co-curate the content. Beyond that, it really was as simple as drawing portraits of those aforementioned. It’s a pretty direct translation of the text, if we think about images as translation.

To repress your physical appetite is also to repress your sexual desire, often the two are inextricably linked.

In Melissa Febos’s Girlhood—coming out at the end of March, very excited about it—I drew chapter frontispieces for each essay. That was different in that I was—this is probably the wrong metaphor, but—sifting through silt for gold, like image gold. I was reading each essay and looking across essays for images that would be representative of the material and flow nicely as a piece. There was a bit more artistic freedom in what I decided to represent.

In my own work, when I started this project, the images actually came more easily to me. I started doing a ton—they were actually full-color watercolors at the time—of these ’90s objects that came up, to borrow from the book’s subject matter, like vomiting up all of these images. That is how I first wound up creating the world of the characters and the writing. The more intense and constant writing came after that. After revising and rewriting, I saw that the images needed to be remade. The writing became more minimal and streamlined. I moved away from the watercolor images that I had initially drawn as a kind of mood board and toward the more spare black and white style of images that you see in the book.

PS: I’m so impressed with how this story makes fat-free strawberry yogurt so viscerally disgusting by the end, and feel more like a drug than any of the actual drugs the teenagers are doing. How do you see this shared eating disorder as fueling the relationship between Justine and Ali? It’s a thing that sets them apart from other friends even, the thing the two of them have together. Or does connecting primarily over this type of forbidden thing point to their failure to connect in deeper ways?

FH: Yes, to all of it. They connect in self-hatred and self-destructiveness and, although this is true almost everywhere, they are growing up in a specifically conservative, misogynist suburb. They are both at an age where the world starts treating them differently in a more visceral way, as women or burgeoning women. I can think back on my own experience as a teenager with an eating disorder, like maybe I don’t want a part in this. Maybe I would not like to make this transition to womanhood, maybe I’ll just step aside. That’s one part of it, outside of the really obvious answer, which is Kate Moss. That’s there too, obviously. The European beauty standard looms pretty large in this book.

You did bring up the repressed queer desire piece. To repress your physical appetite is also to repress your sexual desire, often the two are inextricably linked. Melissa Broder talks about this in a very different way, but around a lot of the same issues, in Milk Fed, which just came out and which I really recommend. There’s a piece of this desire between them that—not that they need help repressing it, but—it’s further repressed by the repression of their own bodies functioning.

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