Reading Matters 2017: Author Talks: Mariko Tamaki (#YAmatters @marikotamaki @CentreYouthLit)

 

Mariko Tamaki is the award-winning author of graphic novels Skim (2008) and This One Summer (2014), with her cousin Jillian Tamaki, and YA novels (You) Set Me on Fire (2012) and Saving Montgomery Sole (2016). Her upcoming projects include the graphic novel Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me and the mini-series Supergirl: Being Super for DC Comics.

At the 2017 Reading Matters Conference, Tamaki participated in the panel “Invented Worlds, Real Feelings: Writing authentic teen characters” (hosted by Jessica Walton [@JessHealyWalton]). She also gave a speech titled “On Diversity: Exploring the wonders of diverse literature, one queer Japanese Canadian writer at a time”. When asked how she reaches back to her own YA years in order to write books, Tamaki said she examines her own emotions and tries to spend as much time with teenagers as possible.

Walton asked about an image of Supergirl holding up a heavy vehicle while checking on her smartphone. In response, Tamaki said the written world is flat. She is interested in phone and the phone world, and has been slowly incorporating it into comics. “Writers are nerds.”

Teen characters with supernatural powers are often portrayed as “aliens”, “mutants” and/or “freaks”. There is always a sense of unease, but even superheroes have flaws. “Transformation is empowering, but it can also be a pain in the ass.” Tamaki thinks her work is unique because “you just do it the way that makes sense to you”. In the case of Supergirl, trying to invent something new is just a losing game.

Young people constantly face the pressure of “doing something”. The irony is, “you love a community and want to be a part of it, but this makes you an outsider to the rest of the world”. Talking about gender issues such as queerness and sexism, Tamaki said growing up is not just your private struggle, but also about your family. “Kids grow up queer because their parents are queer.” As a result, two or more generations often have to deal with homophobia together. “Even in California there’s homophobia. That’s our life, conventionally binary.”

When asked what she expects young women to learn from her books, Tamaki gave the example of the word “slut”, a weapon that girls often use against each other – and it can be for any reason. “Ultimately, it takes a feminist to call out sexism in girls who refer to others as ‘sluts’,” she said. “Authors try not to be too intense, but their true colours do show. Girls are so like that – conventional. Not every girl is a feminist, but you still try.”

 

“You make art for yourself and your community.” Talking about her first graphic novel Skim, Tamaki admitted an author’s first book “can be personal, confessing and embarrassing”. Still, she encourages aspiring writers to use all five senses to explore all corners of their world. “The result can be tender but intense. Sometimes language is just not enough.”

Skim tells the story of a 16-year-old student who falls in love with her female teacher but cannot tell if it is real. “Comics can show everything outside of the wordy narrative. Readers get to see the faces of the characters, outside the text and context.” Tamaki’s second graphic novel, This One Summer, is more about community than personal relationship, as the two teen girls explore their romantic interests and the emotional lives of those around them. “Adults are just trying to be adults, and it can be hard.”

Tamaki loves Ani DiFranco and K.D. Lang, whose music videos often show lesbians kissing. In a similar way, comics “allow readers to see those things that the characters are afraid to or not allowed to say”. According to the American Library Association, This One Summer was the most challenged book in the United States in 2016. Indeed, of the 323 challenges recorded by the ALA in that year, the top five challenged books all have LGBT content. Even in Canada, LGBT content is always challenging.

Tamaki said it would be nice to have people explaining the reasons why they are against queer people. “It would be nice to have open discussion and exchange about diverse ideas.”

Image Source: Mariko Tamaki’s website. Statistics on challenged books are compiled by Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association.

You can read Inside a Dog’s interview with Mariko Tamaki for the 2017 Reading Matters Conference here.

More information about the top ten most challenged books in the United States in 2016, including the full-size infographic from which the two images above are taken, can be found on Tamaki’s website.

 

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