"I don't think Gossip Girl happens to any teenager I know," Mariko Tamaki laughs as we talk about the way a lot of young adult works don't exactly mirror reality. "I think the idea is to stay within a visible realm of experience."
Mariko Tamaki is coming down for the Miami Book Fair International this weekend to discuss This One Summer, her latest graphic novel made in partnership with her cousin, Jillian. The story focuses on a young woman named Rose and her summer friend Windy whose families have visited Awago Beach for most of their lives, and the events that unfold over this particular summer. She's joined on the Coming of Age on the Page panel by Michael Cho (Shoplifter) and Mimi Pond (Over Easy), and their discussion about these comics and the way young adults are depicted growing up will be moderated by comics editor, Joan Hilty.
Where many writers take a route of wish fulfillment for their young adult works, Tamaki has a rather firm stance on the way she approaches her writing. "Just because you're writing about teenagers, which I definitely am, doesn't mean I'm writing to them in a way that would differ from how I would be writing to adults in a certain way if you're talking about something adults deal with," she explains.
The issues that both the aforementioned graphic novel and her first one, Skim, tackle aren't exactly light, and have been criticized by some as "too heavy" or "inappropriate" for kids. Depression, suicide, sexism, trying to figure out first love, and trying to process what it means to be a queer person in a straight environment, are among the topics explored. While they're not necessarily just for young adults, she's noticed that kids are responding to this much better than anyone would think.
"I went to a grade-8 book club in San Francisco where it was pretty clear to me that all of these kids had read the book with all the gravitas that it was meant to be read with," she says of their reactions to her latest. "They'd really gotten the jokes and really empathized with the character of the mother, which is not something that I was expecting. I've also talked to grade-7 boys where they'd been obsessed with the male character in the book. That's another thing: you connect with the person that's most like you, and I think that there's a really complex cross-section of experiences that people will have with this book."
It's certain to happen, especially with writing that exists to explore things that aren't typically shown in YA works, and Tamaki is happy to sit in a literary grey area of sorts. "It's okay to have a book that's more complicated than you as a reader can understand at any given time," she states. "It's funny because I re-read Lord of the Flies recently and as an adult, I read it completely differently. As a kid I was just completely overwhelmed by what was going on in that book."
But another work, Frank Portman's King Dork, was the book that made her comfortable with her place in YA literature after realizing she had become a YA author because of Skim's perspective. "It's a really gritty book about being a teenager and I was like, 'Oh, you just have to write about teenagers, you don't have to do anything specific.'" It's the kind of realization that allows her to be as honest as possible when writing about a certain group of people, in this case being teens.
Part of being a writer though comes with placing your own perspectives and experiences into the product you make, and Mariko Tamaki's academic history in Women's Studies shows in her work. As such, it was a major point to ask her to elaborate on her This One Summer blog tour piece, "Writing As A Feminist," in which she explains that it's her "goal to try, whenever possible, to unpack, girls' and women's experiences and struggles with the complex identities that are 'girl' and women.'"
"I think a lot of that is kind of defining what isn't happening in a book or where the sort of limitations of characters exist," she explains. "And it can be a very easy thing to be sort of focused on what isn't there, as a writer, and what you're planning not to do. I'm incredibly inspired by writers like Alice Munro and Lynn Coady, who's another really amazing Canadian writer, but also I think now especially on television you see more and more complex female characters..."
When it comes to writing these female characters, some of them happen to exist in queer spaces. In the same article, she writes, "I try not to write about characters that are white and straight by default." As such, she's aware of her place in the industry and what might be expected of her as a queer writer. "I think that writing as a feminist and also writing as a lesbian, you feel like a certain responsibility to represent and explore the boundaries of what that means." While these characters may offer something great for people to identify with, a few are disappointed that her young female characters aren't someone they can relate to. Of course, as someone who's had to read a lot of works by and about older white men, it's not something she feels too badly about.
"Harvey Fierstein said once that someone who was straight came up to him and was talking about Torch Song Trilogy and they were like 'I really relate to that' and they were so excited and he was like 'I don't care. I did this for me, this is my stuff.' I could fully see that incarnation that someone wants this to be the 'every person' but this is definitely, like, I am making this queer because it hasn't been queer yet."
In Skim, she features a young woman whose first experience with romance is with her female English teacher, but with This One Summer, she presents queerness in a more subtle manner. "I like the idea that Windy, for example, is a very queer character," she suggests. "Not because she's doing or expressing any interest in anyone sexually, but because there's something about the character that feels very separate and as though she's in a different place than the typical straight experience."
With her next work, a novel titled Saving Montgomery Sole, she's switching gears and focusing on an actual love story between characters, and it's something she's distinctly avoided in the past. Regardless of being a fan of lesbian romance stories -- like Jeanette Winterson's The Passion and Written on the Body, in particular -- she says that avoidance has been because there's something interesting about "the idea of exploring a person that you can know to be queer, but it's not about them falling in love for the first time."
The coming of age experience looks different for everyone, but a massive part of that is in fact romance, and in Skim, the concept of falling in love for the first time and not being able to fully grasp what that romantic feeling was, is at the forefront of discussion. "I think the first time I fell in love as a queer person," she begins, "it felt more like a hurricane than a romance. It was so outside of what I was even looking for that the first time I fell in love, it's just 1980-whatever that I had a crush and when I'd hear my female friends talk about what having a crush was like, I just thought, 'I don't get that. What you're talking about sounds stupid and I don't think what I'm doing is stupid.'"
It's the kind of thing any queer teenager or adult who's gone through that experience can relate to, and in great part it's because of the lack of queer representation that shows us what our experience with this looks like. "I think looking back on that has always fascinated me," Tamaki says. "That feeling of thinking that a queer romance is sort of by its nature different because it hasn't been shuffled into a trope."
Even without an abundance of representation, she's grateful for the works that do exist. "I obviously value the romances that are out there. I'm super pleased that Degrassi has gay characters," she admits. "And at the same time, I think my generation has a necessary different take on it. I think it'll be interesting to see what the next generation of queer writers does to approach it when it's not a secret."
That's what Saving Montgomery Sole is partly exploring: the idea of what it means to be a queer person if you, yourself, aren't queer. "It's about a girl who has queer parents because, for me, that's another interesting part of that narrative," she reveals of the story. "All the people who grew up queer are now having kids, and she's a square peg in a small town outside of big California cities, where she's the only kid with lesbian moms in her school."
Also, there's unsolved mysteries and strange phenomena like ESP wrapped up with this, and considering the strength of her past works, it sounds like an appealing and altogether different treat. But it's a novel that's been a long time coming, as she's been at work on it for years.
"It's about time I finally finish it up. It's like when you're on a really long road trip with one person and at the end of the road trip, you're like 'I still like you, that's good,'" she laughs. "It's like 'I don't want to be on a road trip with you, but I still wanna be your friend.'"
Coming of Age on the Page: Mariko Tamaki on This One Summer, Michael Cho on Shoplifter, Mimi Pond on Over Easy, moderated by independent editor Joan Hilty on Sunday, November 23, 11 a.m., Centre Gallery (Building 1, 3rd Floor, Room 1365)
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