Interview: Mariko Tamaki

Mariko Tamaki is a Japanese Canadian writer, activist, and performance artist. Her versatility shines in her craft, her award-winning works encompassing a broad range of topics, from the high school adolescent experience to essays on social issues. With Mariko heading our way soon, we were excited for the chance to pick her brilliant brain.

A lot of your work focuses on the “outsider”, and their experiences. Do you think there are benefits to being an “outsider”?

There’s a theory in anthropolgy that says there’s a benefit to studying a culture as someone outside of it, in that the outsider notices those parts of everyday life that have become part of the hum for people inside a culture.  I think there’s lots of reasons to notice the component parts of the everyday hum.   Being queer meant I spent my high school years surrounded by people who were completely obsessed with something (boys) that I had no interest in.   So I sort of watched all this stuff around being obsessed with boys instead of being swept up in it.  I think there was some benefit in that (or it was just weird that I was taking mental notes at prom instead of just BEING at prom).  That said I also think there’s something to being a writer that makes you kind of a de facto observer.  Which then I think distances you from being a part of things in some way, makes you and outsider.  So maybe it’s a chicken and egg sort of situation.

Skim is a very raw, unabashed look at high school life, especially for the misfit. Though it’s bleak at parts, it ends on a bright note. What inspired bright moments in your own high school life?

I spent a lot of my high school days pretty miserable, but my last years of high school were actually pretty great.  I think as soon as I gave up trying to behave the way I thought I needed to be to be cool or popular (which I was NEVER going to be), I started to really enjoy myself.  I made super nerdy friends and we were in stage crew together, made zines, and we went to Rocky Horror Picture Show, all that good stuff.  I also had some great teachers my last two years of high school, especially in English.

Your books Skim and This One Summer were co-created by you and your cousin. How did you find collaborating with someone so close to you?

I enjoy collaborating with really talented people, and Jillian is incredibly talented.  I think it’s a bonus that we’re related.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve taken inspiration from for your work?

Oh well life is strange, isn’t it?  I get a ton of inspiration walking around malls.  Maybe because malls are usually such overwhelming, bustling, places, I get a lot of material there, especially in the food court.  I have a really specific example but it’s kind of gross so if you see me ask me about it but I won’t write it here.

Please share your writing process with us.

It varies.  I tend to do a lot of walking and talking things through, all throughout the process of writing I do that.  Which means I talk to myself, outside, in my neighborhood, a lot.  Then I sketch in notebooks, notes and diagrams and bits, and try to get a really clear picture of what the story will be before I write.  Then I force myself to sit and write until I loose myself in whatever it is I’m working on.  Then I edit.  Then I have an amazing editor.  Then eventually the book is done.

Who are the biggest influences for your work?

I am a huge fan of Canadian novelists and short story writers.  I love Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Douglas Coupland and Timothy Findley. All of these definitely influenced me.  There’s such keen observation and sadness in the Canadian novel.  Love it.

Your work has allowed you travel all over the globe. Do you have a favourite destination? What’s a place you haven’t travelled to yet that you’d love to visit?

I was just in Germany and that was pretty great.  I love getting to go to small towns, or smaller towns, and do festivals, like I did a festival in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, that was pretty amazing.  I’d love to go to England.  That’s definitely my next goal.

Finally, what is one piece of advice that you would give to an artist struggling with their craft?

Just keep writing.  Keep writing and let other people read your work and then keep writing.


Mariko Tamaki is attending Writers Week 2016 in Wellington. Her appearances include Gala Showcase: Fighting Talk (Thursday, March 10), Taking Form (Saturday, March 12), and Mariko Tamaki: Drawing on Life (Sunday, March 13)

Photo Credit: Sorrell Scrutton

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Faustina Paustin Faustina was reading when she popped out of the womb. Probably. Reading is her life, and she’ll read pretty much anything. After reading her way through primary, high school, and university, and finding she hasn’t gotten sick of it, she’s still reading now. Her favourite genres are YA, realist fiction, and magical realist fiction, with a strong focus on diversity. She believes that houses should have in-built bookshelves in all the rooms, and that ebooks and printed books can get along.

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