Culture | The perks of being a pariah

Surviving high school is no mean feat in Mariko Tamaki’s Skim

Remember high school? Most of us are fairly nostalgic about our adolescent years; proms, parties, and other forms of teenage mischief dominate popular memory. However, after reading the graphic novel Skim, I realized that those years often seem better in hindsight.

The story follows a young, angsty teen named Kimberly Keiko Cameron – known to her friends as Skim – as she suffers through adolescence at an all-girls private school. The story documents her woeful attempt to survive her teen years without any major psychological damage. Though at first glance Skim seems like an emo tribute to adolescent torment, the story is actually a touching and thoughtful homage to the protagonist’s formative years. Author Mariko Tamaki, who collaborated with her cousin Jillian Tamaki for illustrations, received national acclaim for Skim, earning a nomination for the Governor General’s Literary Awards. Though she did not win the award in the Children’s Literature category, the recognition was well-deserved.

For those of us who made it through high school relatively unscathed, Skim is a powerful reminder of the brutality of adolescence. As an overweight, potentially lesbian Asian girl with few friends and an interest in witchcraft, Skim isn’t exactly prom queen material. In fact, she’s more like a fusion of common teenage insecurities that brand her a social outcast.

The plot of the story is set in motion when Skim’s schoolmate loses her boyfriend to suicide, spurring the school into a frenzy of thrill and sympathy. As a clique of popular girls use the event as an opportunity to create the anti-suicide club, Girls Celebrate Life!, Skim is repulsed by the spectacle and remains contemptuous of her peers. Meanwhile, Skim’s own social life takes an interesting turn when she finds herself romantically involved with her teacher, Ms. Archer. As a social pariah with an unrequited love affair, Skim learns that growing up requires a thick skin and a bit of faith in the future.

I caught up with Skim’s author, Mariko Tamaki, in late December to get her perspective on the novel.

The McGill Daily: What was your inspiration for Skim?

Mariko Tamaki: I’ve always been a fan of stories about high school, like Degrassi and other popular shows. I originally had the idea that it would be really cool to draw in the classic Lolita story with a modern twist on it by adapting the perspective to a queer character, which I thought could be empowering for women. I also wanted to draw on the daily boringness of high school; in popular movies and TV shows the lives of the teenagers are so dramatic and unrealistic. I wanted to portray high school as it really was for most of us – a series of boring events you have to suffer through.

MD: What made you decide to write a graphic novel?

MT: I was on the Perpetual Motion road tour, which is basically a bunch of artists driving across the East or West coast. The editor of Kiss magazine was with us, and she gave the writers and illustrators a chance to collaborate to write graphic novels. I knew my cousin was a talented illustrator, and I though it would be a cool idea to work with her on a graphic novel. I essentially wrote Skim as a theatre script with basic narration and dialogue, then sent the whole thing off to Jillian to illustrate.

MD: Are there elements of your own life that influenced this book?

MT: Skim isn’t completely divorced from my past. I went to an all-girls private school and the character is similar to me, but specifically, I never had a clandestine relationship with a teacher [and there was never] a suicide at school. I draw on my own experiences to create a potential history for the characters. The challenge was to figure out, if such an event happened, how would the characters react?

MD: Who would you recommend this book for?

MT: The book is listed as children’s literature, but it would be an amazing book for people who remember what high school was like and would like to reminisce. Ultimately, everyone relates to the adolescent experience, though the book is probably most pertinent to teenagers.

MD: How would you explain the message of Skim?

MT: Skim has the opposite message of something like Romeo and Juliet; it’s a book about survival. Just because everything is not going your way doesn’t mean you have to give up and kill yourself. If you best friend decides she hates you and if you fall in love with someone you’re not supposed to, it’s not the end of your life…. It’s a part of the bigger picture. Life goes on after high school.


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