Ever read a comic and thought that the female characters weren’t diverse enough? Meet Miss Moti, the comic-strip protagonist who’s South Asian, plus-sized, and unabashedly proud of her body and of herself. Born out of creator Kripa Joshi’s MFA thesis in 2007 (which was initially a series of paintings to do with body image issues), the Miss Moti comics are about the various adventures of its unlikely protagonist, whose active imagination often blurs the lines between fantasy and reality. Though the first few comics, “Miss Moti and the Cotton Candy” and “Miss Moti and the Big Apple” have been self-published, various other short stories featuring Miss Moti have appeared in anthologies like Rabid Rabbit, Secret Identities, and Strumpet. I caught up with Kripa Joshi for a quick chat, who opened up about her inspiration behind creating this comic, and how Miss Moti has helped her deal with her various struggles:
The word “moti” (fat) is often used for body-shaming, so what made you decide to use this epithet to create a character?
A friend of mine used to call me “moti” when I was in college, but in an endearing sort of way. However, the word “moti” has obviously been used as a negatively as well. When I was making this comic, the reason why I used it because of the play on the word – when you write it in English, you can pronounce it as both “moti” (fat) or “moti”(pearl). So, more than her being ‘fat’, Miss Moti is a gem of a person – an extraordinary woman who has an extraordinary imagination.
So you have reclaimed the word “moti” from its negative connotations?
I think “moti” is a descriptive word – it’s supposed to describe your body, but not pass judgement on it. The negative connotation depends on how people use it, and the intention behind what they use it for. I have used it to describe my character, and to imply that she is a “moti” (pearl) alongside being “moti” (fat) – so that’s how I’ve reclaimed it.
How much of this comic is autobiographical and how do you draw from experiences around you?
I won’t say that it’s autobiographical, but Miss Moti represents everything I’d like to be. I’m not as positive or as life-affirming as she is, but I want to be.
She came out of my own struggles with weight and depression, and the reason I made her was because I wanted to see a fat character who wasn’t caricatured or depressed. She is my aspiration, but there are real-life instances that I have used. In the first story, where she gets stuck trying to climb the stairs, the inspiration of comes from my own experience of struggling with climbing stairs or getting out of bed during my period of depression. The way she comes out of those difficult situations and the kind of willpower and optimism and imagination she shows on the face of it – that’s what gives me hope.What’s interesting about these comics is that while Miss Moti’s body-positivity, of course, forms a large aspect of it, her character is never exclusively about her weight or her body – which is rare for the plus-sized characters we see represented in popular media. Was it a challenge to achieve that?
I don’t think it was a challenge at all. Actually, I didn’t even think about this while I was creating her, but realized this about Miss Moti only later on. The main characteristic of a character does not have to be that they are fat. Their body shape or their skin colour is just incidental and it’s not the what defines their personality, or who they are, and it’s the same for Miss Moti. She is somebody who is positive, she’s somebody who tries to see the best in situations, she’s somebody who’s kind. And she just happens to be fat.
Tell us a little bit about your artistic influences. Why did you choose to not use words in the comic?
In terms of the illustrations, I draw from the stylistic forms of the Madhubani and Maithili paintings of North India and the Terai region of Nepal. I do tend to like folk art a lot, and the simplicity and the decorative elements of it. This is where the bold black lines and the flat image profile of the comics is inspired from. But the comic evolved slowly into a unique style of its own once I continued to work on it.
As for the lack of words, I think it comes from when I was studying the history of comics, and the work of Winsor McCay. McCay’s “Little Nemo in Slumberland” stories were all about a boy who falls asleep and has these adventures, and when he wakes up, you don’t know whether he was dreaming or whether all of it was real. Reality and fantasy were coming together – something that’s there in Miss Moti too. While McCay’s drawings were amazing, I felt they had too many words in them, and on looking through them properly, I realized that the words did not matter, the images did. The color combinations and the artistic styles of the illustrations were so detailed, that you did not actually have to read a word to be able to understand what was going on. That’s why I made Miss Moti wordless.
When I made the first two comics, it seemed like the story that was playing out was more inside Miss Moti, so I felt that keeping it without words would help people put their own ideas and own feelings into what is happening rather than me explicitly stating that “this is what she’s thinking” or “this is what she’s saying”. Later on, I also felt that another benefit of this is that it goes beyond the language barrier, so it’s accessible to people who don’t speak or understand English. But all of these things I have thought about much later. When I had initially started the story, it seemed like it was just Miss Moti and the crowd and words weren’t necessary.
You lived in NYC at some point and I’m sure would have followed the recently concluded election. A lot about body image was said during this time from both campaigns – what were your thoughts when you heard these conversations?
First of all, let me just say how devastated I am that Trump won. It’s not so much the fact that Hillary would have been the first female president (which would truly have been amazing) but more the fact that she lost to someone like Donald Trump, who has said such horrible things about women, about minorities, and so on. The fact that he called Alicia Machado ‘Miss Piggy’ because of her weight, tried to ‘rate’ the women who had accused him of assault…it’s absolutely disgusting. He represents the sexist attitudes in which women aren’t seen for who they are, but for what they look like. Their bodies are constantly scrutinized, but not their personalities or achievements. Even when Clinton was running against Obama, she was being compared to Sarah Palin physically and her looks become the focus, rather than her policies. I do believe that because Clinton was a woman she was judged at a much harsher standard than she would if she were a man.
And would Miss Moti have any thoughts on Trump becoming President?
(Laughs) Well, I have been reacting to current affairs through my Miss Motivation series, which is a weekly thing that I do. When I started it, I had no intention of it becoming political, and in fact, it was a way for me to get back to work after my experience with depression by setting myself weekly deadlines. But over time the series started reflecting current affairs, and whatever had taken place in that particular week. When Brexit happened, I made a comic about continuing to have the courage to go on in the face of adversity and in the week before the elections, I made one about choices and how these choices should be made out of hope and not out of fear. So in the coming week, I might just do one about Trump, though I haven’t thought about it yet.
Where do you plan to take Miss Moti next?
I’m in the process of making a proposal for this Miss Moti book I’ve had in mind for a long time. It’s a five part story arc which include “Miss Moti and the Cotton Candy” and “Miss Moti and the Big Apple”. They are all individual stories but they are meant to have an underlying arc, and talk about Miss Moti’s journey. This has been in the works for a long time and I’m hoping to now get it compiled and get it published.
In not more than a couple of sentences, how would Miss Moti react to:
Great for floating!
People who say body-positivity is somewhat encouraging obesity:
Body-Positivity is about loving yourself and it has nothing to do with size. Even those who aren’t overweight can have bad body image about themselves, so obesity or weight isn’t even a factor.
Thin people when they say ‘I look fat!’
It’s just negative social and media conditioning which makes people think this way.
Body hair (since it is No-shave November!)
It’s bit of a tricky thing, and in a way, it’s easier for a woman to be fat than have body hair because of all the stigma. It’s something that should not matter, but the social conditioning around it is hard to get rid of.