I met up with Yumi for lunch at a French/Mexican cafe in Los Angeles, where we both live, to talk about Life Hacks. The conversation has been edited for length and coherence, and also because we spent 15 minutes discussing RuPaul’s Drag Race.
STEPH CHA: I’m not really a DIY person, but I obviously loved your book.
YUMI SAKUGAWA: I’m not either! And because I’m not a DIY person, I didn’t include super-complicated DIY projects. They’re like stupid, easy things even I can do.
So why DIY?
I think for me, the spirit of the book is not about having this perfect Pinterest/Instagram home life, because I’m certainly not that person. I think it’s more like choosing to have a fresh-cut bouquet in your home, or having one painted shelf to add a pop of color. It’s about having a delightful sense of autonomy in your lifestyle. Even if you’re not a DIY person, you can modify or tweak certain elements of your day-to-day life; you can personalize it to what is aesthetically pleasing to you and what makes you happy.
How did this project come about?
This book actually wasn’t my initial idea. What happened was that my literary agent, when she first approached me, she came across my illustrated life hack guides that I used to do for wonderhowto.com. It was her initial idea and vision that if I were to compile all these life hack guides, they would make for a cool illustrated book and I sort of forgot about the idea as I published three books that weren’t that, but my agent persisted in believing in the potential for this book. And then after four years of making these guides, it felt like a waste to not do something with them.
I’ve read all of your books, and Life Hacks fits pretty naturally into your body of work. There’s a wonderful meditative quality to these how-tos.
I think when it comes down to it, I’m interested in intention and the underlying energy of anything. So whether you’re cleaning your home or you’re using a honey mask to make your skin softer, I think it’s this intention to pay attention to what you’re doing in your day-to-day life to take care of your home and body and health and really taking — not taking pride, but like how Marie Kondo says to thank your clothes when you’re giving them away, that spirit. I just like the idea of honoring these very mundane activities, whether it’s washing your dishes or decorating your office; because I think when you put care and intention into these activities, it infuses everything you do with this mindful sense of care, where things just feel more meaningful because you’re doing them for yourself.
In the course of writing this book, I realized the importance of rituals, namely turning everyday activities into rituals. So for example, when you’re cleaning your living space, it’s not just the very boring practicality of cleaning your mess. There’s a mindful aspect where you’re honoring the energy of your home and when you get rid of things you don’t need anymore, you’re releasing things on a literal and metaphorical level, things that no longer serve your life. And so for myself, I meditate every morning and sometimes I light a candle; or when I’m cleaning my living space, I actually really get into it because I love the newness of the energy that is released when I’m done cleaning. Or when I’m washing dishes, I’m grateful that I have dishes to wash because I’ve been eating food. And so I feel like these rituals infuse your daily life with gratitude and mindful joy.
There’s a lot of good stuff in this book, but I’m curious — how much do you practice what you preach?
That’s a great question. The funny thing is it’s only in the last month that I feel like I’ve suddenly become this much cleaner and more domestic person — I’m cooking for myself more, I’m actually cleaning a lot more, and putting in so much more effort to be organized. So oddly, that mindset wasn’t present at all when I was writing the book. Maybe it’s the weird aftermath of having completed the book that I can embody its spirit more.
That being said, I still don’t know how to sew a button and I think I’m definitely not one of those people where if I were to throw a party I’d go out of my way to buy color-coordinated cups and make things all pretty in the way some of my friends are really good at. I think I’m like 60 percent there.
This book may be a lifestyle guide, but it isn’t meant to be prescriptive. I want people to feel like they can start where they are in life. There isn’t this perfect ideal they have to aspire toward. No matter where they are in terms of their home life/craftiness/domestic savvy, they can be happy.
Have you tried out a lot of these hacks? What are some that have really worked for you?
The one that I use the most probably is the hack where you hang a wrinkled article of clothing in a hot shower and that unwrinkles it, because I’m still not an official adult with an ironing board and an iron. I want to say I’ve done most of them, not so much the cooking ones, but I think a lot of the cleaning ones I’ve completely done. All of the self-love ones I’d say I do practice myself.
Do you clean your makeup brushes once a week?
Thank you. So what are your favorite things to draw?
I will always love drawing women and anthropomorphic creatures in cute outfits. I will never get tired of thinking of cute outfits. It’s kind of sad, but as an illustrator I still get nervous when I have to draw architectural spaces and I had to do a lot of that for this book. And also I think to make the book more interesting for me, I anthropomorphized a lot of things that usually don’t have faces, like sugar cubes, lemons, refrigerators.
As I was reading Life Hacks, it occurred to me that this is your first book that’s explicitly geared toward women. Did you want to write a book for women or was that just marketing happenstance?
My fan base already leans more heavily toward women than men. I think what helped me frame it was to imagine what I would’ve wanted when I was a recent college graduate. I really wanted to make it a beautiful art book in addition to a very practical guide, and what made it extra special for me was that I could draw a lot of women of different body types and ethnic backgrounds wearing really cute clothes. So I think from the very beginning, I wanted it to be for women because if I made it gender neutral it would’ve been not as fun for me to do, and I think, I don’t know — I also feel like we still live in a culture where femininity and girly things are looked down upon, so I wanted to make the book almost overly girly but in this fun way that speaks to me.
I did notice that, with the different body types and ethnicities. It’s visible in a way I suspect will make some people cry about PC gone too far, but it feels really natural, more a point of view than a statement.
Oh, I’m so glad. As an Asian-American woman who grew up in the ’90s, I hardly ever saw women who looked like me in magazines and pop culture in general. One of the greatest things about this book was that unlike other lifestyle magazines that rely on photo shoots, live models, or very graphic diagrams, I had the burden but also the opportunity to completely create an entire world from scratch; and so one of the rules I made for myself was that it had to be diverse in this very natural way.
Which, of course, is what Los Angeles looks like.
Let’s talk about seeming normal in social environments. That whole section about not being awkward at parties really resonated with me. How did you go about writing a how-to guide to socializing?
When I was growing up I just loved reading the sections in women’s magazines that really broke down how to talk to people. I was so shy I felt like I needed those guides that would just lay it out step by step, as if you were an alien from another planet: how to talk to other humans. And so the information I present, it can come across as a bit didactic, but I love that kind of advice. Certainly not everyone needs it, but I feel like if you’re an introvert, or you get nervous at parties, sometimes these very explicitly outlined advice points can really come in handy when you get tongue-tied or nervous.
So you’re helping us make shampoos out of pantry items and teaching us useful tricks for remembering people’s names. What would you say is the overall goal of this project, if there is one?
I feel like I just want people to have more fun with their lives. When you feel like you have autonomy in everything in your life — what outfit you want to wear, or what flowers you want to buy for yourself, or what color area rug you want to put in your home — I feel like when you exercise making these choices for yourself, you just have more ownership of your life; and when you have more ownership of your life, you just make bolder choices for yourself that are going to improve the quality of your life in this really wonderful and intuitive way. I think when it comes down to it I want people to have joyful autonomy.
What are you working on now?
I’m just in the outline phases of this new book. All I will say for now is that it is a science fiction memoir self-help book for Asian-American daughters in space.
Steph Cha is the author of Follow Her Home, Beware Beware, and Dead Soon Enough, all published by St. Martin’s Minotaur. She’s the noir editor for LARB and a regular contributor to the LA Times. She lives in her native city of Los Angeles with her husband and basset hounds.