We Read To Challenge Ourselves: An Interview With Mariko Tamaki [Pride Week]
Writer and performance artist Mariko Tamaki is one of the breakout talents of her generation. She recently published the YA novel Saving Montgomery Sole through Roaring Brook Press, and her 2014 original graphic novel This One Summer, co-authored by her cousin Jillian Tamaki, made history last year as the first comics work to win both the prestigious Caldecott Honor for exceptional picture art and the Printz Honor for best Young Adult literature. The book also won an Eisner and an Ignatz!
In recognition of her tremendous success, ComicsAlliance talked with Tamaki for a career-spanning interview about Saving Montgomery Sole, This One Summer, performance art, and the importance of queer characters and stories in her work --- starting with a look back at Skim, the Tamakis' groundbreaking story of a Japanese-Canadian outsider at a Catholic girls' school.
ComicsAlliance: Your first original graphic novel, Skim, had no written page directions before Jillian started drawing. Were you surprised by what Jillian did? When the page count ballooned, did you change or expand the script to match?
Mariko Tamaki: I was surprised, also because Skim was my first graphic novel and I didn’t really have a sense of what it could look like. And I was surprised in an awesome way because it was my first time working with Jillian, and I was pretty much blown away with what she did because it was so amazing.
Skim started out as a script and then became the book it is now with Jillian’s illustrations. I wouldn’t say it ballooned. Illustrations take up more space than text, generally. There are almost always changes that get made to a comic script once the illustration process has started.
CA: The relationship between Ms. Archer & Skim is very hushed; they're only shown kissing on-panel once. What was the thinking behind that?
MT: Because that was the relationship that made sense for this story, I suppose. I try not to overthink why these things end up the way they do.
Skim is the story of one girl’s experience of being a teenager, of being in love, of growing up. The experience she has with Ms. Archer is one kind of love story, as told by a girl who’s not completely in touch with her feelings and not completely able to talk about what’s going on in her life. So we get a piece of the story but not the whole thing.
CA: A Canadian Catholic all-girls school in 1993 is a very specific setting; is there an autobiographical element there?
MT: Skim goes to an all-girls private school in Canada that is not unlike the high school I went to, so there are autobiographical elements in that. The story itself is fiction.
CA: Part one of the book had been published previously; what changed between that version and the finished book?
MT: The first act of the final graphic novel is pretty close to the first act that was published by Kiss Machine (who published Skim in its earliest incarnation as a minicomic). We had more space in the graphic novel, so the illustrations changed/moved around, but story-wise it’s pretty much the same thing.
CA: In Emiko Superstar, you worked with artist Steve Rolston. What was that experience like? How had your scripting process changed by that point? This was put out through DC's now-defunct Minx imprint. Can you tell us what they were like to work for?
MT: Working with DC Comics/Minx and Shelly Bond was a very different experience than working on a graphic novel for a young adult publisher --- for Skim, that was Groundwood Books. Working on Skim, Jillian and I could pretty much make up our own style of working and communicating with each other. Emiko Superstar was a more regimented experience.
Working with Minx was where I learned about the mechanics of comics. I wrote panel descriptions. I learned how to think of a comic book page, about the importance of the page turn. We worked in 22 page sections. The whole bit. Steve Rolston is an incredibly patient man and he was super fun to work with. I get such a kick out of all the little details he put into Emiko Superstar. My first scooter is Where's Waldo-ed in there.
CA: Emiko Superstar is about a young babysitter who gets involved in the world of performance art. Were any of the artists based on people you knew?
MT: The idea of having a kind of DIY performance arts scene came from my experiences in Montreal and Toronto at various stages, set up by various artists I’ve worked with over the years, as a solo performer and a performer with groups like Pretty Porky and Pissed Off. I was very lucky to have had a place to be a terrible dancer and amazing lip syncher as a 20-year-old.
CA: For This One Summer, about two girls forming a friendship during summer break, you reunited with Jillian. Was the writing process for This One Summer similar to Skim?
MT: Yes, although we did a lot more back and forth on the script than we did for Skim.
CA: What's the main difference between writing teenagers and writing middle schoolers?
MT: I try to write to the story, as opposed to writing for the reader. With This One Summer, I was writing about middle schoolers, so I tried there, as with anything I write, to stay true to that experience.
CA: Was it hard writing the book's plot lines with Rose and Windy --- the POV characters --- on the edge of things?
MT: It was hard writing TOS because there were a lot of characters to figure out. Rose was definitely a tricky character to figure out, as was Alice, Rose’s mother, both because they’re not the most talkative characters, so you have to set up an inner narrative to work off of. I did a lot of writing for TOS that didn’t make it to the page, to try and get a sense of why they were doing what they were doing.
CA: This One Summer was the first graphic novel to win a Caldecott Honor. What did that moment feel like? What do you think it means for the perception of comics as a whole?
MT: It’s a pretty awesome thing to get that kind of distinction. Sharing Printz and Caldecott Honors with Jillian for This One Summer was an incredible experience and completely unexpected. I think people are starting to see comics, more and more, as the literary works that they are, and I think that’s a pretty great thing.
CA: This One Summer was also banned in Minnesota and Florida schools for its content; obviously, such things are ridiculous. But do you think these protests helped the book in the end?
MT: I’ve talked to a lot of teachers and librarians about people who have seen this and other books pulled from the shelf. Sometimes it’s something that happens very publicly, sometimes it’s just a matter of a principal going to the library and taking the book out of public circulation without much fanfare.
I like protest. Protest is good. But protest needs to be a conversation, not just a removal of the antagonizing agent.
I think it’s worth having a conversation about what we do, as readers, as libraries, as parents, about books that make us feel uncomfortable, about the criteria we’re setting up for defining a book as “inappropriate.” Books don’t have a nutritional value. Which is to say, we don’t just read "good" books because they’re good for us. We read to expand our horizons, to understand and connect with something outside ourselves, good and bad. We read to challenge ourselves.
Beyond that, part of the experience of reading is a self-selecting process where we as readers, old and young, decide what we want to read or keep reading. I think to deny young readers that experience is an educational disservice.
CA: Saving Montgomery Sole, your young adult novel, sees you moving towards the supernatural. What was the inspiration behind that move?
MT: I’ve always been a fan of the unexplained, the spooky and the surreal. This is the first time I’ve indulged that fandom in book form.
CA: How important is it to have positive, upbeat queer characters in your work?
MT: It’s important to have a variety of characters in every book. It's important to me to recognize all the experiences of being queer or being different as a teen. All the queer characters I write have found different ways to survive and embrace the experience of being a queer you.
That said, I clearly have some favorites that I bring back over and over because I like them.
CA: We know that homophobia is alive and well in our culture right now, and yet in comics and YA we're seeing a surge of queer characters and storytellers. Do you think we're experiencing an important cultural shift, and how does it feel to be part of that moment?
MT: I think there’s a new generation of writers that are writing out their experience of queerness, and I love it. I’m proud to be a part of my generation of queer writers, and I’m super proud of the work that I see coming out now, and the work that inspired me.