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WASH DAY DIARIES’ Jamila Rowser and Robyn Smith on Their Heartfelt Graphic Novel

The phrase “wash day” has a very specific meaning to Black women and femmes. It harkens the days of our childhood when a grown up would wash our hair in a sink, giving our scalp a much-needed scratch. The memories of sitting under a dryer and—for some of us—the dreaded hot comb are still fresh. And as we grew up, that day manifested into our adult routines with washing, deep conditioning, protein treatments, salon trips, long braiding sessions over girl talk, and much more. That’s why writer/publisher Jamila Rowser and artist Robyn Smith’s Wash Day Diaries will strike a chord with so many of us.

It focuses on a quartet of Black women—Kim, Nisha, Davene, and Cookie—and their critical relationship with their hair along with sisterhood, dating, and mental health among other things. Nerdist caught up with Rowser and Smith to talk about the graphic novel, their hair journeys, and the security of sisterhood.

Chronicle Books/Robyn Smith

Nerdist: Jamila, let’s go back to the beginning with the Wash Day mini comic‘s successful Kickstarter that led to this expanded story. What made you pursue this idea? 

Jamila Rowser: I realized how much I’d been avoiding being a writer or acknowledging that I’m a writer. It wasn’t until I started reading Josei Manga, which is for adult women, where I was like, “This is my niche. I want to create comics like this for Black women.” I couldn’t deny it anymore. I was like, “I need this to exist for me and my friends.” And so, once I accepted that, all these ideas started coming in my head, and I’m like, “All right. If I only make one comic, the first one, what would I be really happy and proud for it to be about?” And I love slice of life [stories], the mundane and quietness…

I wanted to do something very specifically for Black women and non-binary folks who have a wash day. It just came to my mind while having [my own] wash day… I really wanted to acknowledge something that is a part of a lot of our routines and our culture that people don’t realize in a comic…  It was very selfishly, “I want this to exist,” but I also hoped Black women would feel seen.

How did you partner with Robyn to bring it to fruition?

JR: When I finally finished the script, I started to look into artists and stuff… I knew I wanted to work with a Black woman because they’d understand our hair and how to draw it. I came across a retweet of Robyn’s artwork and I was immediately obsessed. I love black and white artwork, mostly because I read tons of manga. I knew I wanted Wash Day to be in black and white and I was like, “Oh my God, this art is amazing.”

Followed her, bought her comics, and bought everything in her shop. So I shot my shot. I had a well paying job at the time and knew I could pay her the advance for her art up front. I shared the details about Wash Day with her and she was super down, thankfully. Now we’re best friends and I love working with her and we have Wash Day Diaries

Jamila Rowser

Love it! We’re often built into the background of other people’s comic stories, so it’s wonderful to see one center a very specific aspect of Black culture. Robyn, as an artist, what responsibility did you have to the story from a visual standpoint? 

Robyn Smith: At first, I thought, “This is what I do. It will be easy.” But I realized that I had to make sure everything seemed as true to life as possible. That’s really important when telling a more mundane story, that you get the details right because the slower it is, the more attention people can pay to the details. And that’s what makes people feel seen, those smaller things that are correct. Jamila put a lot of research into the details of what happens and that was super helpful… It wasn’t left up to me fully, which was nice. So I had all this time to focus on what the hair should look like, rather than making sure I don’t confuse the reader.

Robyn, you have a very specific style that shines through in Wash Day Diaries and Nubia: A Real One. How did you craft your signature approach? 

RS: Thank you for asking this question. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked this before. I used to be a portrait artist, so I care a lot about faces… I’m 28 and spent the majority of my life in Jamaica. The faces I saw around me were super influential to my style. That’s why all my comics are about Black people, because they’re my frame of reference. They’re my friends. They’re my family. They’re who I want to see the most in comics and around me, period. 

Ironically, Archie Comics is also a big influence for me. It was one of the only accessible comics I had in Jamaica. They sold the little digest sized ones in supermarkets. I was really just into their friendships and the fact that the whole comic was just slap stick. There was no real plot. It’s just friends hanging out. And that influences not only my style, but the kinds of comics I want to make. Harry Lucey, who did the penciling and artwork for those comics in the ‘60s, influences me. I like the curves of his lines and the way he draws limbs. And I love Living Single! It’s my favorite show and another influence outside of comics. I also went to the Center for Cartoon Studies, a comics program in Vermont. 

Robyn Smith

That’s a wide variety of influences and quite the shift from Jamaica to Vermont. Wash Day Diaries certainly focuses on hair and friendship but also issues like generational trauma. Why was it so vital to discuss that in Cookie’s story? 

JR: Cookie’s story is a very personal story for me. It’s similar to something that I’ve experienced with my Latinx side of my family, but not in the same exact way. And it’s the story that I’ve always wanted to write about… I think recently, at least the past few years, a lot more people have been going to therapy and really understanding boundaries with their own families and stuff. I wanted to show that bubbly Cookie has this current trauma that she’s going through even though she seems like she’s very happy. 

Davene’s story is also very emotional for me. For people who have not experienced depression, it may not be what you assume it looks like. It doesn’t mean your friend or the person who’s depressed is sad 24/7. We have ups and downs. I have depression and anxiety. You get used to putting on a face because you don’t want people to know or you don’t want to talk about it. And I wanted to show that part of how depression is, but also the other side of somebody who wants to help their friend and realizing maybe you aren’t helping in the way that they really need… I wanted to show Davene using medication and Cookie being against it because that’s reality for a lot of people. 

For sure. And both of those stories weave in so well with their daily lives. For both of you, how have your sisterhoods enriched your lives? 

JR: I have a tight friend group from college. And, we have a group chat! But I think especially because I grew up in the military, I don’t have friends that I’ve been connected with since kindergarten or elementary school. It was really in college when I developed those really strong bonds. My parents were in Europe and I was in New York, so [my friends] became my family. We know that we don’t have to go through anything alone. And my friend group is very queer. It fills me with joy. 

RS: Friendship is very important to me and that goes back to growing up in Jamaica. In Jamaican culture, you depend on each other and your neighbors. It’s not about self. But then I came to America and it was not the same. I didn’t have that tight community again until college when I found all the other Black girls on campus. It reminded me of being close to my family and friends in Jamaica. I didn’t realize how solidly I was myself when I was back home until I got here and had to constantly explain my experiences. But with other Black women I don’t have to do that. It’s not an exhausting experience and we all support each other. 

Robyn Smith

It feels proper to end this conversation talking about hair! What were your relationships with your hair growing up and how has it evolved during adulthood? 

JR: My dad’s Black, my mom’s Puerto Rican and Dominican and I got perms as a kid, specifically the “Just For Me!” one. A lot of girls were getting them back then. My mom always did our hair on Sundays so that was wash day. She would put her hair in rollers and then I’d sit between her legs to do whatever style. When I got older, it was blowouts and curls but still a Sunday routine. She always did my hair and she loves doing my hair. It’s a bonding moment between us.

When I went to college in New York, which is where my family was from, I discovered the beauty and the pain of Dominican salons. I stopped perming my hair because I was like, oh, they could just go and burn it, blow it straight. So I kind of stopped doing perms because of that. Not really deliberately, like I want to embrace my natural hair, but I was just like, oh, I don’t need a perm for straight hair. 

As I got older, I started seeing other people with natural hair and made a deliberate choice to stop getting my hair straightened so often because it was damaged. It’s a lot more work, but I began to know what my hair texture was and I love it. I think it’s an amazing journey but I’m also in the frame of mind that Black women should do whatever they want to their hair as long as they are comfortable. I understand what kind of world we live in. Do what you need to do to feel good. 

What about your journey, Robyn? 

RS: My journey’s not long because I am aware of my looser curl pattern. So growing up in Jamaica, a lot of people saw that as “good hair.” As a child, I wasn’t super clear on it. And then I figured it out a little bit later and I was like, oh. Which made me sad, especially because my mom also has a looser curl pattern, whereas my dad and brother have 4C hair.

My brother even said he wishes he had my hair, which is interesting to hear from a man. It didn’t fully dawn on me until I was in high school. There was just so many hurdles that people with a tighter curl pattern had to go through in society. I moved to the states and it took a while to realize I was being exotified in an American context. I’m still learning about what other Black women experience with their hair. 

Robyn Smith

Wash Day Diaries will be available July 5. And, for lucky people in Toronto, Jamila and Robyn will appear at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, which takes place from June 17-19.

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