Mariko Tamaki on her new YA novel, (You) Set Me on Fire


First aired on The Next Chapter (12/11/12)

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In 2008, Mariko Tamaki and her cousin, Jillian Tamaki, collaborated on Skim. The award-winning graphic novel pulls no punches in its depiction of the hell that is high school for anyone who's an outsider. Mariko wrote the story, and Jillian illustrated it. Now Mariko is back with a young adult novel about the first year of university, which also has its Dante-esque moments.

(You ) Set Me on Fire stars Allison, who's trying to figure out where she fits in. It's not the freshman year depicted in campus brochures: there are fires, binge drinking and bullying. But for all the bad things that happen, the novel is also funny and heartfelt.

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Tamaki attributes the dark yet funny voice of the novel to being an outsider. "When you're on the outside of the popular people or when you're on the outside of whatever is cool and sort of legitimate and understandable, If you can be the sort of critical eye, then you see the ludicrousness of it," she said to The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers in a recent interview. She admitted that she found being on the outside was painful. "When you're 15, and you don't have anyone to play soccer with in gym class, it hurts. But at the same time you get to watch all these people take something very seriously that you can't, because you're not part of it. So I think you develop your humour out of that."

Tamaki admits that there are autobiographical elements to the story. "It's bits of me. I was always on the outside. Nobody could understand what I was saying," she said. "Nobody got my jokes. So I've just always been the kind of weirdo person."

Things started to change in her second year of university, when she came out of the closet as a lesbian. "I started not just having my own vision, but communicating with others, in a way that was reciprocal," she explained. "Young gay men were my first reciprocators."

Much of (You) Set Me on Fire is inspired by activism. "Right around the time I was working on this book was when the beginnings of the GSA, the Gay-Straight Alliance, was happening in schools," Tamaki said. "And it was really inspiring to me to see that it was teenagers who were pushing this forward." Rather than passively waiting for change to happen, she said, "[they] were going out of their way to make that change."

In the book, Allison, who is awkward and nerdy, attracts the attention of the most beautiful, but possibly the most cruel, girl in the dorm. Why is Allison so vulnerable? "I think Allison is a character who sort of has an ability to step outside herself," Tamaki explained. "She's the consummate observer." Her relationship with Shar is "a weird, undefined thing where periodically Shar, who is largely straight, has sexual interactions with Alison but doesn't go one step further to acknowledge that they would be in any kind of relationship."

Bullying was a theme in Skim, and it's also part of (You) Set Me on Fire. When asked if the media attention the issue has received has made a difference, Tamaki said it had increased awareness. But the problem still exists. She said she often teaches in high schools, and assigns the students the task of writing about something they love. One class insisted on writing about something they hated. But at an all-girls school, they wanted to describe a person they hated. Tamaki agreed, but set the condition that she alone would read them. She described the class's papers as "smoldering. It was just the most venomous stuff I had ever seen," she said, adding that three girls in the class seemed to be the target of everyone's hate.

So it doesn't seem that bullying is going away any time soon. And Tamaki thinks it will continue to be around as long as it's glamorized on television. Shows like America's Next Top Model, Tamaki said, "feed off the joys of watching girls fight."

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