Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Mariko Tamaki praises transgression

Writer has a soft spot for never-give-uppers and refuse-to-give-inners

Many queer folk, young and old, share a soft spot for unconventionality. We grow up living and breathing difference, whether we flee it at all costs or embrace its very essence. This year’s Transgress, an event put on by Capital Xtra at the Ottawa International Writers Festival, promises to tap into the well of difference. It looks like the dominant theme might just turn out be “freak night.”

While Derek McCormack’s gay vampires, hillbilly crooners and sideshow curiosities may best embody the leitmotif of the freak, his fellow reader Mariko Tamaki is no stranger to the world of weirdos. Her bibliography includes quirky anthologies like Geeks, Misfits and Outlaws (which featured another Transgress-er — Michael V Smith) and Girls Who Bite Back: Witches, Mutants, Slayers and Freaks. She’s also well known for comic books and graphic novels — genres frequently marginalized in the literary world, which often celebrate deviance from the norm. Asked about her own interest in the outsider, Tamaki is forthright, with a hint of nostalgia.

“I guess the easiest answer is that I am a bit of a freak and a fan of freaks. I mean, I’m a freak who now spends most of her time in a pretty mainstream state, who enjoys reminiscing about the awesomeness of freakness,” says Tamaki.

“On the other side, I think the truth is that everyone is an outsider in their own way. I think my goal is to consider that state of inside and outside and in between, regardless of esthetic. I like quiet fighters, never-give-uppers, refuse-to-give-inners. Sometimes those people are goths and sometimes they are just frustrated jocks.”

Tamaki has an eclectic array of non-fiction, short stories, comics and novels to her credit. She doesn’t shy away from taking on taboos.

“I think in my first book of short stories, True Lies, I was skankily transgressive,” she says, “gossiping out stories about dirty things in a sweet and cheerful way, talking about sex in a way that was celebratory and matter of fact. It was also my first book that contained mention of erotic hair removal. I think Skim is transgressive too, to some degree, because it’s about a girl’s decision to step into uncharted territory.”

Skim is a graphic novel Tamaki created with illustrator and cousin Jillian Tamaki. It has netted a number of awards, including the Doug Wright Best Book Award for Canadian comics and graphic novels and most recently a Joe Shuster Canadian Comic Book Creator Award for writing.

Skim also picked up a 2008 Governor General’s Literary Award nomination in the children’s category. But don’t write off Skim as kiddie lit. While it’s most obvious audience might be a teenaged girl, adults will find much to ponder, especially those who lived their high school years in social exclusion and constant questioning. Tamaki draws in the reader with plain talk, something she perfected in grad school.

“I gained a huge appreciation for language and the details of talk from four years studying linguistics as a Women’s Studies and an Anthropology student,” she explains. “Dissecting and transcribing talk really made me think about how I was writing dialogue in my stories. It made me want to get closer to what talk actually sounds like.”

In Skim, Tamaki nails the voices of her teenaged protagonist and friends with all their “barfs,” “whatevers” and “oh my Gods!” But the kids don’t come off as vapid clones — they’re full characters living with the individual and collective anxieties that plague adolescents. And the illustrations, along with the pace and condensed action of the graphic novel format, heighten the emotional punch. Particularly poignant is the trajectory of the title character, a mildly goth, pudgy, wannabe Wiccan attending a private girls’ school and harbouring a secret crush.

For Tamaki, transgression is not only about raunchiness. Rather, it has something to do with the underlying impulse of the artist.

“Transgression sounds dirty, but really, it’s about options. It’s about refusing to believe in guidelines, in limits, in definitions. Art, at its best, inherently follows a transgressive philosophy, demonstrating the tangibility and existence of options to its audience.”

Last year, Tamaki wrote a column in Xtra bemoaning the lack of queer literary festivals. She’s thrilled to have an opportunity to grace the stage at Transgress, and pleased to find some queer content at a large event like the Ottawa International Writers Festival.

“Writers’ festivals are such an integral part of the promotion of art and writing in this country. Festivals place writing and literary works in the public domain. These festivals remind people of the force of literary works. They make people think of writing as a national pastime, a national resource. Queer writers are a huge part of this country’s reservoir of talent, and it’s a great thing to have a platform to showcase all this fabulousness. Plus, you know, there’s all the hotties that come to these things.”