The Transformative Joy of A Good Breakup
Lee Lai's graphic novel "Stone Fruit" follows a queer couple as their relationship falls apart
Lee Lai’s Stone Fruit is the kind of book that stays with you. Since I finished reading it, the graphic novel has been lingering in the corners of my mind, sticky and sweet as a nectarine. It’s a book about family, breakups, queerness, childhood, sisters, and healing, but most of all, Stone Fruit is an act of playfulness. It’s a promise that playfulness and joy can be found even in the face of great difficulty. The combination of Lai’s feral illustrations and the painfully honest emotions that guide the story create a delicate balance of lighthearted, magical fun, and real, complicated problems.
Stone Fruit follows Ray and Bron, a queer couple who’ve been together for years, as their relationship ends. The pair spends two days a week watching Ray’s niece, Nessie, while her mother, Ray’s estranged sister, works. When Ray, Bron, and Nessie are together, they enter a world of childhood and play and imagination that the three of them have built together. However, as Bron becomes more concerned with reconnecting with the biological family she left behind, Ray and Bron’s relationship falls apart. Separately, Ray and Bron must deal with the pain of their breakup and mend their complicated relationships with their biological families.
Lai’s graphic novel is a story of grief and loss, but also of rebuilding and healing. The characters in Stone Fruit struggle and mess up, but they’re always trying to be better. Over Zoom, I talked to the National Book Foundations “5 Under 35” honoree Lee Lai about transformation, playfulness, and My Neighbor Totoro.
McKayla Coyle: I noticed that one of the major themes of the book is transformation, and especially the way that queer spaces facilitate transformation. Do you believe that the transformations in the book could only have happened in queer spaces?
Lee Lai: There are spaces in the book other than queer spaces, and I was looking to explore the tensions between and inside both of those spaces. I set the book in a timeline where the characters have been in an exclusively queer space for a second, but the queer space that they’re in is quite small and insular, and pretty stuck. If I’d written the story earlier in the trajectory between the two partners, the queer space that they’re running towards, or rushing into, would have felt a lot more expansive. It would have been a more joyful book in some ways.
But I’m a bit sick of the queer escape story, and the coming into queerness story. Like, I’m not coming into queerness any more myself. I’ve been doing the thing for my entire adult life. I wanted to show a story where they’re double-backing on themselves a little bit. They’re leaning back into straight straight spaces, the family spaces that they were pushing away from earlier, to figure out what parts of themselves they left behind and the connections that they have with their family. A big part of my adolescence was that initial struggle to get away from origin family narratives, and then hitting a certain age and realizing that, actually, those things still exist in my body. I need to still give them some worthwhile consideration.
MC: I have a sister who I’m super close to, so I’m very tuned in to sister relationships. This book is dedicated to your sister and it’s all about sisters—almost every major relationship in the book is sisters—which I love. How do you feel that sisterhood is different from other relationships, or more pertinent to your work?
LL: I like joking that I love a good breakup. I love the transformation that can come out of it. I love change, as much as I’ll be kicking and screaming when it’s happening in my own life. The thing that’s interesting about sister relationships is that, I haven’t been estranged from my sister or any biological family member, but I think there’s something interesting about how they don’t actually stop being your family, even if you don’t talk to each other. I mean, I think that there are absolutely exceptions to that, which I can’t speak to. But there is this weird indispensability aspect to bio-family.
I think it’s interesting that sisters and siblings can really bring out your fucking worst because you’ve known each other your whole life, and you really know how to piss each other off. You have such a clear picture of someone’s personality and the flaws that they’ve hustled to get away from and all the skeletons they try to push into the closet. But there’s also a sense of safety and familiarity in the fact that you can’t kick them off the bill, so to speak. You can’t make them entirely go away. For me, there’s a sense of belonging in knowing that I have a sister. Even though she lives on the other side of the world now, there’s something anchoring in just being able to say that I have a sister and that she’s got me. That’s a relationship that is constantly going on and that we’re constantly getting to know each other.
MC: Nessie’s world is only ever accessed by Nessie, Ray, and Bron. What did Ray and Bron’s ability to access this world mean to you?
LL: One of the things I knew I wanted to include in the story was play scenes where Ray and Bron and Nessie get to have a real time together. I wanted to show their play as a coping mechanism, particularly for Bron. She’s having a bit of a rough one outside of those spaces, so she’s using those spaces for escapism. I thought it was an interesting responsibility for Ray to be the initial gateway to Nessie for Bron.
There’s a scene where Ray tells Bron that maybe she needs to spend some time on her own with Nessie, and Bron can’t come. I had a few people give me feedback that that was a really heartbreaking moment for them as as non bio-family members to kids in queer situations, because they’re constantly scared that someone is to restrict their access since they don’t have biological legitimacy to that kid. Those play scenes were a chance to up the ante of the ways in which Ray and Bron value spending time with that kid, and the ways that they can access certain kinds of freedom in themselves.
I also wanted to create problems between people that didn’t involve anyone acting like an asshole. I think when someone’s really acting like a jerk, the conflict resolution is relatively straightforward. Someone asserts a boundary or sets a standard, and then the other person checks themself and we move on. But conflicts where one person is genuinely just trying to get their needs met and it’s not suiting the other person, that shit is hard. It continues to be hard. It’s more interesting to me.
MC: Since there’s this theme of transformation, I feel like there’s also a theme of bodies. Ray and Bron both need and want to leave their bodies often. When they spend time with Nessie, they’re able to leave their physical forms, or have freedom from their bodies. What do you think that Ray and Bron are offered in their feral forms that they aren’t offered in their human forms?
LL: I think they’re offered sensation. When I’m dissociated and I’m struggling to get out of my body, I can’t experience a lot of sensation. But there’s such a joy in coming into the body and experiencing sensation. It means, on the flip side, you experience heaviness and pain and illness and all the undesirable parts of having a body. And for some people, that’s chronic stuff. But being embodied means you get to experience all of your senses more.
I’m discovering more and more that there’s no limit to how much sensation you can experience if you’re willing to pay attention. That’s something a lot of people feel nostalgia about in their childhood, their ability to experience so much sensation. To be enthralled with dust in the air, or tasting a watermelon, or sticking your feet in pebbles. All of those things become really big, and they come with a lot of excitement and stimulation and pleasure. As an adult, being very preoccupied and busy, you get out of touch with experiencing sensations as much as you can. There’s something very childish about trying to take the time and hone in on sensations just for the sake of it.
MC: I guess in a sense they’re becoming more embodied when they’re these beasts, instead of becoming less embodied.
LL: It’s kind of both, maybe. There is escaping involved in that kind of play, and there’s a kind of hysterical momentum they get into, too. I think there’s just multiple ways of being in the body. It’s complicated. It changes a lot for me when I’m in company versus when I’m alone, and I don’t think either of them are better or worse, or more or less legitimate. I think they’re just worth paying attention to.
MC: It seems like sometimes this transformation—or play—is a good thing. Nessie is able to indulge in her imaginative side and engage with Ray and Bron as equals, and they all have a world that they can escape to. But sometimes this expectation of transformation causes pain. Like how Ray wants really badly to be everything to Bron, and how Bron wants to be transformed, but isn’t always sure how to do the work. When do you think transformation crosses the line from being a good thing to a painful thing?
LL: I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive. The transformations in my life have been excruciating, all of them, and they’ve definitely been good. I love a good breakup and I’ve hated every breakup I’ve been through, whether that’s with friends or with partners or with anyone who I had closeness and intimacy with. I’ve gone through all the changes I’ve gone through, mostly kicking and screaming. But in retrospect, they’ve been very good for me, and they’ve probably been good for the relationships I’ve been in. I don’t know how much good change there is without pain and discomfort for some or all of the parties involved.
To make it a literal thing, transitioning as a transformation for me was mostly quite joyful, but it does also come with a ton of physical pain, and a ton of pain around how it changes the way I walk through the world and the shit that happens because of that. I’m a big fan of change, but I think it’s always angsty, I don’t think anyone’s very good at tolerating it.
MC: I’ve seen a lot of people talk about how there’s moments like that in Studio Ghibli movies, where it’s just quiet. Kind of like letting you pause with the story for a minute. One of the most poignant moments to me was this panel at the end where Nessie is waving to Ray and Bron. There’s no words, but it’s such a nice moment where they’re together and they’re having this moment of connection.
LL: I learned a lot from cartoonists who do pauses in books and have panels without any dialogue in them. Do you know Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw? There’s so many great panels where one person just blinks or gestures with their body in some way, and they’re such good moments for the read. It’s a wonderful read because of those moments.
MC: I’ve seen a lot of people talk about how there’s moments like that in Studio Ghibli movies, where it’s just quiet. Kind of like letting you pause with the story for a minute. I really respect taking time to let the emotion of the moment sit. I don’t think enough people do that.
LL: Speaking of Studio Ghibli, I definitely drew a lot from My Neighbor Totoro. When I watch that film, I can’t stop thinking about the animators who have to draw their clothes rippling in the breeze slightly while they do nothing. That’s hundreds of frames while they have this moment of pause. They have to draw that moment of pause. There were so many times drawing this book where I was like, “Oh, do I really have to put this panel in? It’s not serving the story.” I had to remember stories that I’ve enjoyed where it really does serve the story to do that extra bit of labor in order to have a moment.
There’s this phrase that I wrote down when I was first getting into comics because it really did it for me at the time. I think it was like 17, and it was after reading Craig Thompson’s Blankets. That book really rocked my world, and so I got online and read every interview Thompson ever did. He said the term “sensuous comics” and that really did something in my brain, so much so that I wrote it on a Post-It note and stuck it on my wall. I think those kinds of pauses really help with sensuality in stories, and in comics, particularly, because I’m looking at a page and it’s all these panels and so my eyes just swallow it all up in one go. Having panels that make me chill out for a second is really helpful. When I’m reading stuff or watching films, if the balance is right between a story that’s pulling me along and then those slow moments, it’s fucking compelling. I feel fully arrested by it.