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The author bares all in her new graphic novel

By Erin Kobayashi

Looking at writer Mariko Tamaki is like staring at the pages of Skim, Tamaki’s new graphic novel illustrated by her cousin, Jillian Tamaki. Both Tamaki and the title character, Skim, share the same pear-shaped face, morsel-sized mouth and concentrated leer that leaps out from the hardcover book, or in this case, across the table from me.

But the similarities between Tamaki and Skim do not end there.

Skim, a nickname for Kimberly Keiko Cameron, is a half Japanese lesbian Gothic Lolita who attends an all girls’ private school in Toronto and lusts after someone who does not return her affections.

An identity Tamaki relates to.

“I started writing Skim based on my memories of high school,” says the 32-year-old of the story that first appeared as a Kiss Machine Presents… short comic. Although the academic, currently pursuing a PhD in Linguistic Anthropology at the University of Toronto, appears to have a taste for school, she maintains that it was not always enjoyable.

“Did I like high school?” Tamaki pauses and her eyes dart off to the side, “I definitely did not like some parts of high school. I got pushed around.”

Born and raised in Toronto, Tamaki attended Havergal College, an independent all girls’ school, where there was never more than 18 students in a classroom. “Everyone knew everything about you,” recalls Tamaki, “Teachers paid a lot of attention to you. But who you were in grade seven was not who you wanted to be in grade 12.”

Like Skim, Tamaki largely considered herself an outsider and would only maintain one friend at a time–the “best friend” character in Skim is Lisa, a misfit modeled after Rayanne Graff from My So-Called Life. But Tamaki did not feel like an outcast due to the few friends she had or because her parents were not members of Toronto’s privileged Granite Club like the other students.

“I was the Asian girl at white girl parties,” says Tamaki, “…we were all in the same group–academic, un-athletic and non-rich…we were also the fat kids.”

A reality that has somewhat changed for Tamaki.

While in the book, pudgy Skim is constantly seen lounging around downing soft drinks and gobbling cookies and popcorn, in real life, Tamaki sips on tea, nibbles on an energy bar and debates whether she wants to order an omelette during her hour-long break (she does).

Photos from a few years ago posted on Tamaki’s website show the writer, who performed with the fat activist performance troupe Pretty Porky and Pissed Off, with a different physique altogether.

“A lot of my habits changed. I used to have specific tastes for things I thought I had to have,” Tamaki says of the significant weight loss she underwent four years ago. “It was hard. I loved being a fat activist but there were things that I had to change, too.”

Tamaki, who is slightly sensitive talking about her new weight–“I put myself in the position to talk about my weight because I was so vocal about it before,”–felt a particular responsibility to the girls she knew would read her book which is why she did not want Skim to be slim.

“…One of the things I didn’t want was ‘Emily the Strange’,” says Tamaki of how she envisioned the character’s physical appearance, “I didn’t want the skinny legs, no chest look. I wanted Skim to have zits, calves and look like someone who looked sixteen.”

Tamaki’s reasoning was simple. “We have a Gossip Girl vision of being a teenager but being a teenager is not so hot. My image of adolescents is wearing boxing shorts and eating junk food.”

Another teenage reality Tamaki briefly touched on was having Skim go on a date with a boy despite her total disinterest in the opposite sex. Like many gay teens in high school, Tamaki also had boyfriends although the relationships quickly fizzled.

“I was probably homophobic in high school,” says Tamaki, who came out at McGill University and wanted Skim to quietly deal with her sexuality, not be tormented by it.

“I really wanted it to be a story where there wasn’t a tearful confession to her parents and friends,” she says, “I could never keep it together. I think Skim’s experience reflects something that wasn’t a possibility when I was in high school. I didn’t want a dramatic moment of confession because it would make it crisis-like to find out you are gay.” It is not the teen suicide that is the most intense issue in the graphic novel but sixteen-year-old Skim’s romance with her drama teacher, Ms. Archer. A student-teacher taboo intensified since it is also a gay one.

“Whether or not it happened to me comes up in various forms,” says Tamaki of the student-teacher affair in Skim, “It didn’t.”

The writer says Ms. Archer was a character based on a combination of her “cool” creative writing and English teachers. “The way Jillian drew Ms. Archer is not how I saw her,” says Tamaki, relieved that the character doesn’t resemble anyone she actually knew.

Interestingly, Tamaki is exploring the role of teacher herself through Descant Arts & Letters Foundation’s SWAT (Students, Writers and Teachers) program, which sends writers out to teach workshops in high school classes.

“I used to think I wanted to teach at a university level but that is more instructing whereas high school is more guiding,” says Tamaki of her positive experience working with younger students, “I love it…High school students are fascinating and funny. I also think it is good for me because I am interested in writing about that age group. It’s good to be reminded of the reality of a teenager. Degrassi just doesn’t cut it.”

As Tamaki gets up to leave, I realize we haven’t talked about her personal life except that she married a very talented woman two years ago. “I know I’m not Britney Spears, I just don’t like talking about my relationships,” she says gently although it’s not difficult to find out she’s married to local theatre production manager, Charissa Wilcox. I shake Tamaki’s tiny manicured hand like we’ve done a smooth business transaction and she’s gone.

Although it may appear Tamaki bares all in her book, the naked truth is that she still manages to leave a lot to the imagination.

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