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For love of Manga.

Every person who has faced brickbats or felt disheartened by incessant trolling on their social media profile ought to take a cue from Zainab al Lawati for a story of hard work and passion, much like the stories and characters she hopes to bring to life one day.

Fresh from winning two awards -- best designer and best display at Middle East Film and Comi Con 2015 in Dubai -- one would think the 25 year old has years of experience under her belt. But Zainab has been practising animes (Japanese animation) for a little over one and a half years. It has also been a period of intense transformation for the soft-spoken artist.

TaiGa Blush, her Instagram page has 5,037 followers.

"TaiGa is my name in the art community and 'Blush' is for how I was a year back, going pink in the face when I had to talk to anyone, hands shaking, breaking into a sweat," she explained with a laugh. The freelance artist has her hands full with an illustration job for a children's book series by a Saudi Arabia -based author. That's apart from a pet project she's not allowed to disclose yet by her publishers.

Proving herself didn't come easy. Apart from doodling landscapes as a child, Zainab's interest in art didn't stretch far. What she didn't know as she watched animes on Oman TV in high school is that she would be a fan of the style a few years on. "Till then, I thought it was just about cartoons for children. My sister told me that there are genres for all ages including adults." Zainab has been hooked since, looking up the style, downloading and watching as many animes as possible. "I need at least one anime a day. I can't do without it," she confesses.

Initially, Zainab's self-teaching process involved copying characters. Those who saw her works online didn't cut her any slack. "I posted my works online with cre-dit to the original artist but I would get a lot of trolls telling me that I was a fake, that I ought to be exposed and that I wouldn't get anywhere with my works. They didn't understand that for me to learn how to do it right, I needed to replicate the pictures myself, that simply watching YouTube tutorials didn't work for me."

When the comments went from bad to worse, Zainab hit an all-time low. "I then had two choices: to either stop for good or show them that I wasn't going to back down." For two months after that, Zainab set herself to practising every day, gradually creating her own characters including Omani siblings Mazoon and Mazin, all wide-eyed and cute and her alter egos, a grey-haired character called Taiga as well as Zoozy, in Omani attire.

After winning first place at a Behance Portfolio Reviews Muscat competition, the comments on her Instagram page immediately turned in her favour, proof that she'd come out on top. "I got comments asking if it was really my work, appreciating my style." The next hurdle for Zainab lay in finding a supportive publisher for her ideas.

"Some people said it was for children, others said what I drew did not look Omani. Now, if you were to understand the concept it would be evident that manga style characters do not even resemble the Japanese, considering that it is originally from Japan. There were others who were impressed with my works and the Omani characters even if it is from Japan. It helped me stay strong," Zainab said, her soft voice rising as she recalled the frustration. "Those who don't understand make no effort to either. The concept is that characters have to be imaginary with big eyes, mostly tall. If I drew Omani versions, the features would be the same except for the colour of the hair and the eyes."

She doesn't hide her disappointment. "A friend of mine who is also a manga artist faced rejection with publishers here. I persuaded her to approach publishers in Dubai. I did so myself because what I heard from here was 'How will this benefit the community? It makes no sense'. But in the UAE, publishing companies were very interested, even excited that there are local artists who do manga. I got two contrasting reactions."

Zainab decided to participate in Comi Con then. Again an uphill task as she convinced her parents to let her travel alone and once at the venue, went about setting up her stall alone. The effort did pay off. Apart from the wins, Zainab was in for a pleasant surprise as people thronged her stall. "They called themselves my fans saying they had come just to see me after having followed my work for so long. It was a very emotional moment for me. I didn't know I had any fans."

She also came away with many lessons. "For one, there's nothing to fear about travelling alone; it was my first time flying alone. Two, as I interacted with other artists and followers of my Instagram account, I noticed that these were people from all over the world and we didn't even speak a common language but we still understood each other because of our interest in anime."

Watching as many animes as she has, Zainab speaks a little Japanese too and hopes to make a trip to the country one day. "It would be great if I could attend a workshop, interact with some artists there."

Trained as a web programmer but being a freelance artist, Zainab's family have got her back. "My sister says it all looks the same to her but she encourages me anyway." Zainab hopes to put her training to good use soon with an app on manga. With a line of accessories which feature her characters and Instagram posts peppered with Japanese terms, Zainab lives anime.

What she would really like is more support for the anime and manga artists' community in the country. That's not to say she didn't try. "We had a group last year and we interacted regularly, even working together to organise a workshop but our sponsor pulled out when we got everything ready."

Zainab isn't kidding when saying she knows what she wants, having learnt things the hard way. "I want to create my own manga at the end of the year. I don't expect people here to accept it as it involves fantasy. But I intend to do it my way because even when you do change your style for them, it doesn't please them. I want my experience to inspire people who love anime and manga drawing here. There are bound to be all kinds of reactions but you can't let that stop you from doing what you love."

Japanese cartoon speak

Some commonly used terms

Manga: Comics

Anime: Animation

Chibi: Japanese for 'little one' where characters are drawn

as miniatures

Moe: Affection towards characters in manga, anime

MANGAKA: Manga artist

Otaku: Anime newcomers

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Publication:The Week (Muscat, Oman)
Date:May 21, 2015
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