Arts & Entertainment
3 min

Rising from the ashes

Mariko Tamaki tackles young adult angst

Mariko Tamaki is speaking as part of the Ottawa Public Library's Teen Author Fest. Credit: David Hawe
“I have, actually, set myself on fire,” says award-winning author Mariko Tamaki.
She’s talking about her new coming-of-age novel, (You) Set Me on Fire, in which there are a number of fires.
“But when I did it was Enya, not Alphaville, that was playing in my headphones . . . My fire was way less dramatic than the fires in this book. I burned a hole in my favourite shirt.”
Tamaki’s new protagonist, Allison Lee, is an ambivalent lesbian still brokenhearted from her first high-school love. She has been on fire twice before even making it to college. In other words, she is a young adult.
(You) Set Me on Fire is a fresh, airtight, laugh-out-loud tragicomedy, a testimonial for those who escaped the horrors of high school only to realize that the cycle of social awkwardness and peer-to-peer idiocy continues in the post-secondary experience. Allison chooses St Joseph’s College so she can get as far away from her former life, peers and parents as possible, and she moves into Dylan Hall, an all-girls residence. “I wanted to write a book about freshman year, in part because my first year at McGill was so insane,” Tamaki explains.
She pitched similar comic ideas that didn’t pan out before finding her rhythm in the character of Allison. “I’ve always kind of found the idea of the phoenix, as a symbol, to be a bit weird.  This idea that you can just throw yourself into the fire and emerge glorious. I’ve never really bought that. Who do you know who can jump into the fire and emerge anything but burnt?” She presents a microcosm; the insular world of St Joseph’s College is populated by teenagers raised by ineffectual parents, saturated with technology, emotionally stunted by unrealistic promises of love and success. Despite all this they’re still trying to make connections with one another.
Along comes Shar, a model-beautiful, volatile, freshman nihilist who takes the frumpy, burn-scarred Allison into her confidence. Shar becomes the sun (or black hole) around which Allison’s world revolves, and the enigmatic friend begins to embody the destructive side of college life. Allison finds herself between the dark energy of Shar and the worries of college acquaintances who seem to have good intentions for her. Tamaki creates a story as timeless as it is specific, eschewing a gimmicky pop-culture phenomenon that creates a parody or exaggeration of college life. (You) Set Me on Fire presents college life as the absurd pseudo-adulthood that it is. Incorporating modern technologies like texting, the world is something between a John Hughes and John Waters story, at once impressionistic and perverse.
Aside from the dark angel of Shar, Tamaki introduces a cast of characters with completely typical young adult problems, though she avoids the banalities of the coming-of-age genre. “I wouldn’t say this book is a warning. Nor is it in any way instructional,” she says. “I’d say it’s an alternative to the American Pie portrait of adolescence/college life. It’s the anti-Gossip Girl. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with Gossip Girl (I watch ANTM — you watch Gossip Girl — pick your poison). It’s just to say that there’s very little in either of those shows/films that a person actually lives.”
True to real life, each character possesses unseen complexities. They have their own values and priorities. By the end of the year Allison realizes the girls she met in September no longer have boyfriends, are a little more wary about drinking to excess (only a little), and aren’t as one dimensional as they seemed.
Tamaki’s novel captures the college experience so perfectly, and humorously, that the realness shines through the absurdity. “If anything,” she adds, “I would hope any young adult reader reading this book pre-college or university would have some notion that change, the kind of big-dream change you connect with college, is something you make happen.”

(You) Set Me on Fire
Mariko Tamaki
Penguin Canada
Ottawa Public Library Teen Author Fest
LGBTQ teen author panel
Tues, Oct 30, 7pm
Main Library, Auditorium
120 Metcalfe St