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Books Wed Feb 06 2013
Fred Sasaki never thought he'd do an art project with his father, a California-born Japanese-American who spent a portion of his childhood in a World War II relocation camp. But when offering his son advice on being a writer, the elder Fred suggested pamphlets.
"I had no idea what he was talking about," said Sasaki. "Later I learned he was referring to the classic eight-pager, also known as the Tijuana bible -- these were handmade zines before they were called zines."
Especially popular during the Great Depression, Tijuana bibles were cheaply made underground comic books portraying bawdy sexual encounters between newspaper comic strip characters like Popeye and Blondie. But Sasaki Sr. wasn't suggesting his son pander pornographic cartoons -- his idea was to create manuals offering advice on topics like "how to wake up in the morning," and "how to bathe." Sasaki, who is associate editor of Poetry magazine, fell in love with the concept.
"I thought it was brilliant," said Sasaki. "I thought, we have to do this. Let's definitely do this."
With the additional contributions of Sasaki's 8-year-old son, August, the "How to Fix You" series was born. Filled with simple line illustrations (mostly traced by Sasaki or August) and peppered with typos (often intentional but sometimes not), the series currently consists of three sets of five tri-fold pamphlets printed on brightly-colored paper. The booklets advise on living a physically and emotionally healthy life, covering topics from "How to Feet" (excerpt: "Feeling sorry for yourself? How about the one who saw the person who had no feet?) to "Prelude to Healthy Sex" (available in a special Valentine's Day edition featuring decorative vellum paper).
Gapers Block Book Club caught up with Sasaki to talk more about the process and the inspiration behind the project.
Do you think the pamphlets were something your dad had been thinking about for a while?
I think my dad always has these silly things in the back of his head, but he spent his whole life working very hard as a dry cleaner, so he never really had a creative life. Basically this ended up being a way to tap his creativity/insanity, and a way for us all to appreciate his eccentricities.
Describe the process.
So at holidays we got the notebook out -- me, my son and my father -- and with several drinks would map out the stories, and I would basically write down everything he said. Then I would map out how they would look in the pamphlets and choose the best phrases, edit them maybe slightly, but pretty much [keep them] the way he said it. The order of the words he used was always so perfect. The way my father says things I just love so much. Like, it's not "how to shave," it's "how to shave the face."
What was it like working with him?
He was so great -- he would sit there, he would shake his feet and say something, and it was perfect. And the most puzzling things -- like with "Healthy Sex" in particular, there were these phrases like, "The moon should shine on you through a triangle and make you a benevolent werewolf."
That came straight out of your dad's mouth?
Straight out of my dad's mouth! I don't know where it came from, and I don't know if he's intentionally making a sexual reference with the triangle. These seem ridiculous or just crazy, but I have found that at the base of all of them is this really beautiful idea throughout -- these very kind messages about being happy and positive. And he does all of the things [written in the pamphlets] -- like in "How to Wake up in the Morning," he does drink three glasses of water just so he could have a good bowel movement. Having a good bowel movement is very important to him and is a running theme.
Does he approve the final before you make copies?
No, he's only involved with the inspiration.
But he approves of the final products?
Yes. He's very tickled, and he loves sharing them with people. He has some routines that go along with them. There's one on how to stretch where he will take anyone who's willing through the steps, and then instruct them on the way of gambaru.
Gambaru is a very important idea in Japanese culture, and it very accurately describes the mentality of perseverance in Japan. It means to stick to it and stay with it under any circumstances and bring whatever project you have to completion. In "Healthy Sex" he brings in another one, yamamizu, which is "water from the mountain top."
How have you gotten the pamphlets out to the public so far?
April Sheridan, who works for the Center for Book and Paper Arts, suggested that I be part of the Chicago Zine Fest, and I had a table [last year]. A lot of people bought zines and loved to see my son and my father there. My dad was the most popular guy at the table -- people wanted to take pictures with him, shake his hand. My son's zines were the best sellers. He made a couple others on his own. I was so amazed -- he made a Harriet Tubman pamphlet on his own for school.
Are there plans to make more?
Yes. My secret intention for the whole thing is that this will help keep my father alive for as long as possible (laughs). And also I have to say that -- we were close to begin with. But [the pamphlets] brought us closer in a special way.
Each pamphlet in the "How to Fix You Series" is $1, or five for $5, or 10 for $10. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.