8 min

Girls on the verge

Writer Mariko Tamaki’s new graphic novel is John Hughes meets Ingmar Bergman

 A page from Mariko Tamaki’s new graphic novel,This One Summer, gets to the “sweet spot” of youth.

“Hey listen, kid. Don’t worry about any of this stuff, okay? It’s all just adult junk that doesn’t mean anything.” — Rose’s dad in Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer

Any artist working in a genre considered to have mass appeal has experienced the patronizing wonder people express when their work is “more developed” — as though these spaces, by virtue of the label, will automatically produce only trite creations.

As a writer, Mariko Tamaki works in young adult fiction and graphic novels — both beleaguered by the disbelief that comes when those who establish these boundaries to begin with are stunned that creators excel within them, choose them, in fact. We have all witnessed the public shock over the past decade that graphic novels can have extraordinary depth and that young adult fiction isn’t all plucky babysitters and ponytails.

Tamaki is skilled at getting at what could be called “the sweet spot” of youth, if that space itself wasn’t so fraught with the limitations of its fleeting sanctuary. Her work doesn’t denigrate the experience of being a kid on the verge of adulthood, but she also doesn’t imbue her characters with the clever, melancholic insight that, because it occupies the financially rewarding space of myth-making nostalgia, defines so much work geared toward young adults. Tamaki doesn’t make her young adults people we wish we’d been; she makes them the people we actually were.

In This One Summer — Tamaki’s latest graphic novel, illustrated by Jillian Tamaki — everyone is struggling. The kids interpret the adults’ exchanges with their incomplete worldview, practising new wisdom and language on the situations that surround them. The small-town teens deal with the humiliation of having their world overrun by cottagers who witness their missteps with middleclass judgment. The parents are flawed, too, trying to protect their children from the painful realities of adulthood as long as possible and dealing with their own bourgeois, bohemian ideals falling apart. It’s as if John Hughes and Ingmar Bergman collaborated on a film and published the storyboard.

Town Dyke had an email exchange with Mariko Tamaki in anticipation of her talk at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival and her launch at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

Town Dyke: One of the most compelling things about this book is that it eschews the trend of having kids behave like clever adults. The two girls and teens in This One Summer are not precocious, overly glib or deliberately jaded (well, the teens maybe). We watch them learn and grow; we watch pivotal moments truly affect them. Was this a conscious decision? Is there anything you want to say about the creative trend of imbuing kids with an overdeveloped canniness?

Mariko Tamaki: It makes sense to me that a young reader would want to read about someone who is smart and who has something either interesting or humorous (or both) to say about the world around them. I mean, I want to read a compelling story; I want to hear from someone who’s got something to say, who’s someone to root for. So it makes sense to create a compelling character who’s funny or brave or smart or clever.  That’s just good reading.

At the same time, for me, whatever insight you give a character has to make sense. And I think it’s possible to have an insightful YA character who has something to say about the world around them at, say, 12 or 15 or 17 in a way that makes sense.  I think the key is to write characters that can be insightful but also, sometimes, wrong in a way that’s palpable and involves consequences. Wrong is everything in my books. My characters are wrong, like, eight times out of 10. And yet, they survive.

It’s funny because now I’ve had a chance to talk to kids, 12 to 14, about This One Summer, which I think is about being wrong in so many ways all at once, and they’ve told me what happens in the story. Kids are so great because they’re mostly, “Why does this happen?” not, “Here’s what I think this means.” So far, they’ve taken a lot of what some of the characters say in the book at face value. They take the characters as truthful and right a lot of the time. I told one kid, “Well, what if Rose [the main character] is wrong?” And he was like, “What?!”

This One Summer is a perfect title. It seems elliptical — as though someone is beginning a sentence to tell a story they may not have realized was so significant to their development, as though the telling of it is the thing that reveals the true weight of it, that it’s not “this one summer” but actually “the summer.” It’s not a rehearsed anecdote, filled with false humility and a carefully crafted lesson but again, one that is revealed in its telling. Was this choice deliberate?

This book had several titles before this one. It was hard to find something that encapsulated summer in this way that was both specific and broad. I liked TOS because it sounded like the start of a story the main character, Rose, would tell. 

You have chosen to write about a very potent time in a girl’s life, one that often takes place over the span of a season. It is a space of radical transformation. The place that was once magically snug is now dashed with unpleasant truths: fighting parents, the realities of the full-time residents of a cottage town coming more into focus and sexual feelings — but it’s all still tainted by a child’s grasp of intimacy, class and sexuality. Yet there is little overt lamentation, little mawkishness. It is more contemplative. Can you speak a little bit about this tone you chose?

It is radical, right? Like one day you’re farming milkweeds and the next you’re skulking around the corner store looking at boys.

Working on this story was kind of a mix of drawing on all my summer mixtape memories, like lots of Beach Boys and La Bamba and Dirty Dancing songs all dancing in my head, and this feeling I had of what it was like to actually be at the cottage, which could be loud but also the quietest place in the world. It was all these spaces of time you had to fill on your own devices. It was a lot of just sitting on the beach and being quiet, waiting. I think a lot of that contemplation seeped its way into this story, which is really about all those spaces. And, of course, as a comic, so much of that tone is Jillian’s drawings, which are so good at making you feel that space. Like the space of all those minutes where there’s nothing to do. Or the endless joyous space of just being under water.

It was tricky with this to balance the sad with the kind of carefree-ish-ness. I wanted to make sure all that was in there. That kind of goofy kid stuff that you can still get a whiff of when you’re that age. The stuff you still get to notice before you’re kind of forced to ignore it when you turn 14 or 15. 

It helped to have all these different characters, these different voices to kind of pull the story in and out of these different moods. 

One of the ongoing themes in this book is the class difference between cottagers and the year-round residents. Jillian deals with this so beautifully in the illustrations of the disparities in the housing, clothing and community exchanges and you, with the narrative. These young relatively advantaged girls have already been indoctrinated with dualistic ideologies about women, and they bring the lessons they’ve learned about female archetypes into this space, yet they also learn about them here, too. There is an unapologetic quality about this learning and its damage, unusual for “queer” art, which often has to foreground middleclass shame in order to explore these topics comfortably. You allow the reader to watch this unfold without feebly apologizing for it. I like this. It’s unpatronizing. Thoughts?

I have a pretty solid memory of the day I realized that “the cottage” was actually a town where people lived, not just “the cottage,” ie “My Cottage.” For the longest time (I started going to the cottage when I was six or so), it was just this place my family would go. It was a magical oasis with a beach and a forest and a corner store. Then one day, I saw one of the guys who worked at the store (never teens, like in this book, by the way) coming to work. And it was just, bing. Like, “Oh. You live here. That’s your house.” About a week later I realized, “Oh. So the guys at Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons live here too. Right.” I didn’t have any analysis of it, obviously; it was just, right, and then there’s them.

So, yeah, getting into this story, I knew I wanted to get at this cottage ecosystem, the townie/cottager dynamic. Because that is so much a part of this story. Once I had a sense of the geography and the characters, who I pulled mostly from experiences I’ve had as an adult, it was pretty easy to see how it would play out.

Plus, I love Jillian’s drawings of the Dud. They are amazing.

Another theme is the astonishing difference between someone who is 12 or 13 and someone who is 10 or 11. Windy has yet to embrace shame, yet Rose is recently aware that this is part of being a female, and we can see that it is very likely that this is the last year (until many years later) that she and Windy will be connected. Can you talk a little about this space, which seems to evaporate overnight? Can you talk a little about the concept of shame and how it’s explored in This One Summer?

As the writer of a comic, my main focus is dialogue. Which works for me because I’m relatively obsessed with how people do things with talk.

For this book, I really wanted to dig into the little policing moments I remembered as a kid. Growing up, I was both kind of naturally clueless as to the mysteries of womanhood and a little younger than the other girls I hung out with. So I spent a lot of time between 12 and 16 being told what wasn’t appropriate to wear. And it was always “You can’t.” “You can’t wear tights. No one wears tights.” 

It never occurred to me that they were wrong.

Of course as an adult, I can see the power I held in that dynamic. The least knowledgeable person in a room is an important person. You can’t be an authority of what makes a girl a real girl unless there’s someone in the room who doesn’t know what that is, I think. That knowledge always works best top-down. 

Of course, because I’m a feminist and a dreamer, there’s a part of Windy (who is the younger here) that isn’t like me.  Windy has her own sense of the world, and she fights for it. Thank goodness. And I think eventually, hopefully, Rose will come back around and fight for that, too.

You have been writing young adult fiction for several years. You now have a very distinct style. It comes directly from “the place.” It is not reminiscent but situates the reader directly with the people in the story. It’s interesting: I expected this to take place in the 1970s, but that is simply because that is when I experienced these environments. The parents, with their crappy Lollapalooza tattoos and queer world making could have easily gone through these things themselves at that time. Am I wrong in thinking that there is a 70s quality about this story or am I just being nostalgic? Why did you situate it in the here and now?

I’ve been writing YA, officially, since Skim was published in 2008. So that’s, what, almost six years? Technically, before that I was just immature and writing at the same time.

This One Summer is a here-and-now story, but because it takes place at a cottage it has that sort of ’70s feel to it. Because that is a cottage thing, in Canada. Almost all the cottages I’ve visited in my life have that feel. And smell. I’m pretty sure the big bunker where they are storing the ’70s is really just a cottage up in Muskoka covered in macramé owls and shag carpeting. It’s lovely though, right?