Hybrid Interview: Tommi Parrish
In our hybrid interview series, we pair an author Q&A with a critical essay about one or more of their books. We’re happy to share this conversation between Tommi Parrish and Erin Vachon, who also essays about Parrish’s sophomore graphic novel, Men I Trust. —CRAFT
Essay by Erin Vachon •
The opening panel of Tommi Parrish’s brilliant graphic novel Men I Trust—out now from Fantagraphics—centers a clothesline, laundry drying in spare daylight. Parrish populates the world with bodies soon enough. Eliza is a single parent and poet, scraping together money working at a deli. Sasha has just moved back home with her parents after struggling with mental illness. Men I Trust follows their fledgling relationship as they each navigate queer desire while healing individual trauma. In vibrant color and character-driven scenes, Men I Trust troubles expectations of fulfilling relationships as Eliza and Sasha wander through a lonely, hypercapitalist world, fumbling their way through intimacy. As I devoured page after page of Parrish’s deeply nuanced book, I kept flipping back to that first clothing illustration, chewing on the complicated ways their characters lay themselves bare before each other in their awkward attempts to connect.
Parrish’s work wrestles with characters who are trying their best to be good humans, and to become even better. Eliza trudges back and forth to group therapy for support, and Sasha leans on her parents for comfort after illness. But what happens when these care systems fall short? When therapeutic verbiage becomes a vacuum, devoid of meaning? When the mother advising you to “put your energy towards being healthy” is also wounded, causing harm with her gestures of consolation?
Men I Trust is incredibly preoccupied with the permeability of boundaries and how we draw lines between ourselves and other people, teasing out the exact moments when care tilts over into toxicity. When Sasha paws through Eliza’s cupboards and makes tea on their first introduction, she frets, “I, uh, hope that isn’t weird ~ it’s Bengal Spice!” Two full mugs steam in the panel, suspended. The reader must sit with the question too: is it weird? The novel’s project is to trace these edges, upping the stakes each time, examining the lines that blur exchanges of desire, abuse, parenting, housing rights, addiction, and sex work, just to start.
Boundaries have explicit repercussions beyond the immediately personal, so the subtle shifts between new friends, potential lovers, or parents and children often play out on a macro scale. When a real estate mogul sends drunk texts to another character begging for nude photos, his misogynistic entitlement finds direct purchase in a television interview. Rationalizing his evacuation of the homeless population from his building, the tycoon argues: “Have you ever been cheated on? / And here we have all these people cheating the system. Not giving back.” Parrish wisely cues for a commercial break, demonstrating a full network of pulled strings, motivated by shared financial and emotional interests. Parrish follows the manipulation of language in private conversations and public stages with rigor and compassion.
If the book critiques the way that hypercapitalism divides us, Parrish’s art tenderly feels out an affective economy on each page. Subtle gestures flesh out deeply funny panels in awkward misalignments between the characters. When one leans in to kiss another, they receive an embarrassing thumbs-up in return. Yet Parrish reveals the pleasure and joy in the cringe-worthy. Their work argues for honoring these liminal emotional spaces above all else, just like the roadsides and metro stops that demand room for these unexpected intimacies.
When confronted with questions of discomfort, Parrish usually navigates us toward answers that land someplace in-between. Eliza parrots support group rhetoric, fluent in the literature of therapy, driven to be a good mother after unhealthy adult relationships. But navigating the never-ending pressure of single parenthood results in Eliza reproducing codependency in the relationship with her child. Parrish’s writing shines because their characters exist in context, a product of personal history and crushing societal structures. At every turn, Men I Trust rigorously critiques the myth of hyperindependence while warning against codependency. If Eliza emotionally isolates her child to satisfy her own need for love, Parrish illuminates the brutal reality of financial isolation: skipped child support and debt collectors calling. Above all, Men I Trust critically engages the limitations of our support systems, while holding out hope that we can ultimately learn to care for ourselves.
Parrish’s artwork does heavy lifting, creating a hidden language underneath the text. With so much of the graphic novel spent in intimate conversation, the illustration plays subtle tricks, situating and shifting metaphors over their characters’ shoulders from panel to panel. There’s poetry in Parrish’s art, particularly in its relationality, the way image shifts from panel to panel. In Sasha’s first visit to Eliza’s apartment, she gushes, “I just think it’s really cool, you know, what you’ve built, the life you’ve built.” A framed painting hangs on the wall. A sun rising over a tropical beach. Paradise. One panel below, when Eliza says, “I can barely take care of myself, most of my energy goes into trying not to die!,” the painting hovers over her shoulder, a sun looming above her collarbone. Parrish subtly nudges the reader through Eliza. Paradise is right over your shoulder. You’re just looking in the wrong direction. Turn inward.
Parrish’s writing sings around these sticky exchanges of desire. On the phone, Eliza and Sasha speak in subtle kink relation about a book following a BDSM cult. Eliza, playing wily dom with a paring knife, slices fruit for her kid’s lunch. Sasha feigns a pants-less sub savoring a popsicle at her place. When Eliza describes the plot, “The protagonist eventually decides that she wants to go back to her old life. / But by that time it’s too late and there’s no going back,” we are likewise undone by these erotics as readers. Parrish emphasizes the necessity of surrendering to intimacy: we are transformed through its process every time we enter into relation with another person. If Sasha and Eliza cannot go back to their old selves—the versions of who they were before they met—Parrish also implies that we must meet ourselves again and again after entering into intimacy.
Once I finished Parrish’s book, I flipped back to that first panel, the laundry on the clothesline, having read pages of deep character transformation. Like Sasha, who spends page after page examining herself in the mirror, Parrish’s work ultimately pushes us toward a more intimate relationship with ourselves, direct dialogue with the self as if speaking with another person. If reading Men I Trust is a conscious journey through liminal places, Parrish’s work also encourages us to consider ourselves as a liminal space, if we’re to cross the lonely distance between ourselves and another human being.
When Parrish and I talked over Zoom for an interview in December 2022, both of us sat framed in our vibrantly hued living spaces. One of us would occasionally pan over to our dog, laughing. When I tell Parrish that I’ve scribbled in the margins in pencil like a chaos demon, I hear echoes of Sasha fangirling over Eliza’s open-mic poetry: “Your writing’s just so, like—[Sasha mimes stabbing herself with a knife].”
But Parrish’s work doesn’t just encourage admiration: their art demands the investigation of what admiring someone else means for the larger world. What does it mean to connect, particularly with someone’s work?
We approached Men I Trust through the lens of vehicles: modes of transportation in service of closeness, whether understanding vehicle as car or metro or word or color palette. To reflect on Parrish’s work, I’ve allowed our shared laughter to remain on the page. Reframing human connection through Parrish’s graphic novel reminded me to honor the liminal space between question and answer, just as much as the words themselves.
Erin Vachon: If we focus on the cars in Men I Trust as vehicles, mobility and responsibility create stark moments of contrast in your book. For example, Eliza trudges back and forth next to the busy freeway, speed walking from AA to pick up her son on time. Meanwhile, a misogynist real estate tycoon drives home drunk, neatly absolved of his actions. Were you actively considering access to transportation as a way of showcasing character in Men I Trust?
Tommi Parrish: I sat with this question for a second, and I scribbled down some dot-point answers here. I’ve become really interested in the idea of the space in-between, as in the time spent traveling from one place to another place, because I moved from Montreal to Western Mass, like two, three years ago, two-and-a-bit years ago, just when the pandemic started, and I didn’t drive. Didn’t know how to drive. Didn’t have a car. And so, I became really intimately aware of these spaces in-between. If you don’t have transportation, then a huge swathe of your day becomes working out the logistics around how to get from one place to another, and I think really profound meditative moments can happen. Because you’re spending hours on the bus, where you’re just sitting with yourself, sweating about trying to get where you’re going. I think there’s the meditation around those spaces in-between the margins. I think they’re really, really significant. Yeah, and I drive now, thank fucking god. [shared laughter]
EV: That is useful in Western Massachusetts.
TP: Even beforehand, in Montreal and Melbourne, just so much time on the train and the tram and the bus. All these really unexpected, intimate, profound moments happen in that period.
EV: That’s super interesting because I think your main characters, Eliza and Sasha, are really trying to navigate that liminal space as opposed to just trying to be on top of it all. Considering pigment as vehicle next, you’ve chosen such a rich color palette. Saturated vermillion and olive green that remind me of the different tones in a traffic light. Can you tell me a little bit about the role of color in your work?
TP: Color is a kind of ward for me. Because comics themselves are, like—you’re drawing the same picture essentially, again and again and again, with slight variations. The slightly less brutal version of old-school animation, right? And something that keeps me present in it, and keeps me excited is getting really, really creative with color. My dog’s freaking out on the couch behind you.
EV: Yeah, mine’s in the room too. [shared dog admiration]
TP: So, something that really helps me notice the world around me, something I’ve said a bunch, is the best color palette is just in the world. You see it in nature. You see it, I guess, in advertising, when you just walk into a space. Whatever holds you and grounds you in a moment, in the space, probably there’s something about the colors that really works. An artist, years and years and years ago, said this thing which stuck with me: you know that the leaves on the tree are probably green. The reader knows that the leaves are probably green, so why do you need to make them green? Like why not make it something really interesting in color, that brings the entire palette together? Unless there’s like really crucial information in the coloring you’re choosing, why not be really playful and experimental with it?
EV: Considering words as vehicles, Sasha leans on the word “sorry” over and over, so much that it nearly loses its meaning. How does working in a graphic novel form allow you to approach these unexamined aspects of language?
TP: [interim dog affection] He wasn’t getting any attention, for like, twenty seconds.
I suppose there are a couple of layers to this. One is that culturally, apology has a really different role in Australia and in Canada. Apologizing is just—like, you walk into a doorknob and you apologize to the doorknob. It’s just part of the way the language is constructed in a lot of ways. And then I came to the United States-slash-I entered deeper into the art world where, like, more people were just really thriving on the smell of their own self-importance. [shared laughter]
And you really stop to notice how much you say sorry when no one else around you is doing it. So, I’ve tried to teach myself not to constantly apologize, and it’s been really difficult to unlearn. But in terms of the context and the book, I feel like I have a lot of friends who, I don’t know, so many people are trying really hard to like themselves and they are really not there yet. And they’ve come from a bunch of trauma, or the endless reasons why that is a struggle. And I’ve noticed that these people specifically are the ones that are constantly apologizing, and they’re just waiting for, like, a—it’s almost like they’re always waiting for a blow. Like they’re always expecting that they’ve done something really, really wrong, wanting to get ahead of the curve. And then it gets to the point where it’s totally meaningless, because it’s just self-flagellating, right? And I think I wanted that to be in the character of Sasha, because that’s kind of how I see her. She’s trying, but in a way where she’s just really not there yet. She’s really trying to be good. But at the same time, she’s kind of self-obsessed and selfish—and, so often, those two things are going together. It’s like a person’s self-loathing is just reinforced by the patterns that they don’t know how to unlearn. I think I wanted to write about how complicated that is. I don’t know. Like I said, I apologize constantly.
EV: Me too. [shared laughter]
I even think when you say Sasha is really trying but she’s not there yet, I feel like that might just be an anthem for some of your characters in general. Maybe even human existence. Like people are just trying, and they’re not there yet.
TP: Yeah, like who is there?
EV: Right! Yeah!
TP: Like, I don’t think I want to be around that person.
EV: I mean, I guess what happens when you are there? That must be really boring.
TP: Right? Or maybe you just die. [shared laughter]
EV: Maybe that’s it. Done! It’s like a toaster dings, and you pop up.
TP: You’re just totally baked through. You don’t need any more experience.
EV: Okay, ah, I love this next scene. Thinking about the metro as a vehicle, in perhaps the busiest scene in your book, Eliza and Sasha walk to the metro and have an incredibly intimate conversation about sex work and abuse. How did a community space hold such possibility for writing vulnerability?
TP: It’s funny because each page takes days to do, and these are full days from the start of the day to the end of the day. I felt like I was wrapped in this purgatory doing that scene, because it’s the same color palette, the same characters, the same patterns. You probably read it in, like, a minute. But it was months of doing this metro scene, and I was like, oh my god. All they were doing was talking, and I’m just like, Jesus! [shared laughter]
I’m glad you liked it. It’s a metro in Montreal. Because each metro is different, and they’re these funny in-between spaces. I became really obsessed with the idea of a tide of people coming and going, like waves of the ocean. Like the water comes in, and the metro is just flooded with people, and there’s all this difference and this busyness, and then it’s just completely deserted. And I think I liked the idea of an intense conversation that was meant to be the conversation where you start to really like Sasha. Because she was a bit—she’s a bit a lot. And there needed to be a point where you were like, okay, this is like why this character is in this other character’s life: because she’s very sweet, and she really cares. And so, I wanted them to still be in their moment together, when this kind of chaotic tide, and then total silence, comes and goes constantly. Yeah, and I think that’s what drew me to it. I was thinking about the idea of that for a long time before I did it, and it was really exciting to be able to bring it to fruition. Minus the whole purgatory part, being in the metro for months. [shared laughter]
EV: Well, the reader doesn’t have to do that.
TP: The reader doesn’t know that. Exactly.
EV: Well, now they do. [shared laughter]
TP: I did it in minutes. I had the idea and then I did it.
EV: Last question. The human body as vehicle. Ultimately none of your characters can escape moving around the world inside their own bodies. I’m obsessed with the way that Sasha roams her house like a pants-less toddler, often staring at herself naked in the mirror and reciting statements of gratitude: “I’m grateful for my body. I’m grateful that I met Eliza.” If there’s a clear delineation between bareness and intimacy by the end of Men I Trust, where are you steering the reader to find fulfilling companionship? A big question.
TP: One is really inward, right? Like one is the result of a heavily therapized adult, who is maybe not actually quite living as an adult yet. Because what is that other than just all the things you assign to yourself when you’re constantly on the verge of having a bit of a breakdown? [shared laughter]
You know, you’ve got to do your gratefulness list. I don’t know. I wrote answers for all of the questions, and I feel like I’m struggling with this last one. It’s a great one though!
EV: Well, just solve our existence, Tommi! [shared laughter]
TP: Maybe I can’t!
EV: Read your book, maybe. That’s it.
TP: Exactly. Well, I don’t know. Maybe the secret to it—I’ve just met someone and I’m trying to work that out myself. How to be healthy about this. Yeah, maybe the secret to it is not trying to use other people to solve your life.
EV: Ah, that’s beautiful.
TP: Yeah, it’s, like, the idea of not holding on to someone with both hands, like letting them move more fluidly in and out of your life. Not looking for a life raft.
EV: Oof, yeah. Grounding in yourself.
TP: Exactly. I think, from the data I’ve collected so far, maybe that’s the secret. Moving away from the life-raft method.
TOMMI PARRISH is a trans Australian cartoonist and painter living in Western Massachusetts. Their debut book, The Lie and How We Told It, won the 2019 Lambda Literary Award for the best LGBTQ graphic novel, was nominated for the Ignatz Awards, was featured in many best of 2018 lists, and translated into eleven languages worldwide. Tommi was the 2020 recipient of the Center for Cartoon Studies Fellowship and their sophomore graphic novel, Men I Trust, was nominated for The Los Angeles Times Book Prize. Their work has been showcased in The New Yorker, Granta, The New York Times, Pitchfork, Vice, and many more. Find Tommi on Instagram @tommi_pg.
ERIN VACHON is a gender-fluid writer and editor living in Rhode Island. Their multi-Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction-nominated work appears in SmokeLong Quarterly, DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Pinch, and Brevity, among others. They are a recipient of the SmokeLong Fellowship for Emerging Writers and an alum of the Tin House Summer Workshop. Find them on Twitter @erinjvachon.