With the Sydney Writer’s Festival kicking off, a wide range of talents have flooded into Sydney to impart their wisdom for avid readers and budding writers alike. Blitz chatted with one such bright star, Mariko Tamaki, a Canadian graphic novelist known for her LGBT+ themes with a focus on young people (and not mention her novels’ gorgeous illustrations).
For anyone that may not know you, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Mariko Tamaki. I am a writer of YA novels and comic books. I’m Canadian and I live in Oakland, California. I’m the co-creator of the comics This One Summer and Skim, with Jillian Tamaki. I’m currently working on Hulk for Marvel (with Nco Leon) and Supergirl for DC Comics (with Joëlle Jones). I’m also writing a series of Middle Grade prose books based on the comic series The Lumberjanes. I have at least one smoothie a day, if I can help it.
I have recently read (and loved) your graphic novel, Skim (2008), and coming from an all-girls private high school myself I found that you’ve captured the essence of this environment perfectly – it was almost like meeting old friends! What made you focus on the young adult genre in your writing and what has influenced your portrayal of this confusing, hormonal time?
I didn’t set out to write a Young Adult novel. I wanted to write this story, about this girl, and it turns out that books about high schoolers are called Young Adult novels.
That said, I really like writing about high school. For whatever reason high school has always stuck with me, I guess it was a very potent time in my life. High School is also just a really great setting for a lot of the things I want to write about, identity and gender. The kinds of conflict you get in high school settings have always been appealing to me. In terms of influence, my own high school years have clearly had an impact, also I’m a huge fan of shows like My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks. Writing wise, I love Rainbow Rowell, John Green, Andrew Smith, Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood, whose book Cat’s Eye is still one of my favourite portraits of girlhood.
Culture and ethnicity play a big part in some of your books – coming from an Asian and Jewish background yourself, did you draw on any of your personal experiences while writing?
I’m not actually Jewish! That’s a mistake that’s been sitting on my Wikipedia page for quite some time now. So, let the record stand, I am Japanese Canadian, raised Anglican. Although I have taken Jewish classes and attend shul in San Francisco with my girlfriend, Heather Gold, who is Jewish, and also an amazing writer and performer.
That said, my own experiences as a queer person, and as Japanese Canadian absolutely moulded my perceptions of, and the way, I write about culture and ethnicity in ways that are myriad and complex.
I understand that your graphic novels are collaborations where you are the writer and someone else is the illustrator. What is this collaborative process like? Do you get as much of a say in the illustrative process as the writing, and vice versa?
The process of writing comics can, but doesn’t have to, be one whereby two people, one with words and one with images, tell a story. So it’s co-created, as opposed to “a writer” and “an illustrator.” I have had the chance to work with a number of amazing illustrators. Collaboration is a huge part of the artistic process, although I think it’s better understood when talking about film or music. I try to think of my part as being one where I am setting up, or establishing, space for the illustrator to tell a story. I want to give whoever I’m working with all the tools they need to do their part of the storytelling.
One of the storylines in Skim is the main character falling in love with her teacher, Ms. Archer. You have said in the past that Skim was influenced by Nabokov’s Lolita, whose subject matter on child-adult relationships is still stigmatised today. What made you want to address this still largely taboo subject in your work, including the book’s underlying themes of homosexuality?
I grew up on John Hughes and high school love stories. Skim was set out to be the diary of a teen outcast-type. It’s also a story about falling in love. Because of the age difference, it’s often described as a kind of Lolita story, except that it focuses on the younger person in the relationship. I think it sort of takes apart the romance of the Lolita set up. It gives you a moment of what could be described as romance, but then you’re pretty much drowned in teen reality.
I don’t think of the subject of homosexuality as taboo. I’m queer; when I was younger I fell in love lots of times. It’s less taboo as unspoken and underrepresented in both YA and adult literature. We need more queer love stories, of all different types and involving all different perspectives. There are so many straight love stories out there. That’s pretty much ALL I read all through high school, including Romeo and Juliet, which is a story about love and suicide. Which is somehow not described as taboo.
Can you tell us anything about your upcoming graphic novel, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me?
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is a story about falling in love, or being in love, with a person who is maybe not the greatest person to be in love with. It’s a story about romantic relationships and friendships and the way we treat the people in our lives. It’s a love story about breaking up with someone, essentially. And, it is being GORGEOUSLY illustrated by the amazing Rosemary Valero-O’Connell.
Do you believe in a graphic writer/illustrator soulmate?
I believe in the power of the illustrator/writer connection.
Favourite graphic novel?
Oh geez. A favourite? I don’t really have one. Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton is certainly ONE of my favourites.
What are you looking forward to in Australia?
Meeting Australians. Especially the writers on my panels.