“I’m aware that I should be grateful that I have the ability to get broken up with and publicly humiliated the same as my hetero friends,” seventeen-year-old Freddy Riley writes to online advice columnist Anna Vice, “I am progress.”
This wry quip on what it means to be queer fifty years after Stonewall hooked me instantly in Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me. The latest YA graphic novel from Tamaki—author of Skim and This One Summer—tells the story of Freddy’s on-again-off-again relationship with ever-popular Laura Dean. A gentle and tender take on toxic relationship dynamics within young queer love, this adolescent coming-of-age story meditates on the joys and struggles that still colour and complicate queer lives today. The balm it offers—one’s capacity to choose loving friendships in its wake—is a love story of its own.
Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me recently won the 2019 Harvey Award for best young adult book. It came out in May 2019, published by Groundwood Books of House of Anansi Press.
Mariko Tamaki will be coming to the Vancouver Writers Fest to talk love, do improv, and offer insights on the graphic novel-writing process. In the following interview, I ask her about her influences, the importance of intergenerational conversations in the queer community, and tips she would give to new and likeminded creators.
ROOM: Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me is a young adult love story, but interrogates powers dynamics so frequently taken for granted within queer romance narratives. What motivated you to take up this angle?
MT: Growing up, I was definitely obsessed with queer love stories. I think there’s something very satisfying about seeing queer people connect, find their true love, especially when it’s connected to coming out. At the same time, as I’ve continued reading these stories, I’ve always wondered about, you know, what happens AFTER these characters fall in love? Falling in love is easy, you can fall in love with someone you’ve never talked to. Being in love, being in relationships, including relationships with friends, is hard. Also there’s something to looking at a relationship that isn’t necessarily, “the one.” Which is maybe a long way of saying that while I STARTED this book as a love story, it very quickly evolved into Laura Dean, which is probably because I’m in therapy. Therapy does that.
ROOM: The #MeToo movement came into the mainstream two years ago, though was created by anti-violence activist Tarana Burke over a decade ago. How have these big, public conversations on violence impacted your work?
MT: I’m not sure if the more recent conversation itself, as it’s happened in the media and online, has had a specific influence. As a feminist, as a person who has spent considerable time studying queer and gender theory, as a member of a queer community, I feel like these conversations have been very present in my life. And they definitely impact me.
ROOM: In the novel, you weave contemporary everyday experiences with the context from decades of queer history. What was it like researching this history in your writing process?
MT: I didn’t do a ton of research into queer history for this book, but I do a lot of reading about it in general. I think it’s incredibly important to know your history, for many reasons many others have already made note of. You are your history, it is the context your story sits in, the edges bleed into your reality every day. I wanted to make sure there were multiple generations of queer influence in this book because that is the difference between a queer character and a queer book to me, community.
ROOM: Ocean Vuong recently came out with a list of 10 books he needed to write his novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Whose work influenced you while writing Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me?
MT: Gosh. I mean, overall there are a lot of books that have influenced my writing. Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye. Timothy Findley’s Stones. Alice Munro’s Who Do You Think You Are. Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. Also television shows like My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks have been a big influence.
ROOM: Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s illustrations fill and soften the book with plush toys and lush plants. How did these motifs come about during your collaborations with her?
MT: Rosemary came to Berkeley and we did a drive around the East Bay and she took tons of reference photos of all the amazing succulents which just grow along the sidewalks here like it’s no big deal. The idea for the plush toys came from the nightly stitch sessions I used to have with friends in Toronto, where we would buy bags of Value Village toys and cut them up and sew them back together again. Which I thought was pretty original at the time but, apparently, it’s a common geeky kid past time.
ROOM: The voices of older characters, including that of online advice columnist Anna Vice, frame Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me and offer Freddy wisdom, guidance, and support. What intergenerational conversations do you feel still need to happen in the queer community?
MT: I was very lucky to grow up in a community, working at Buddies in Bad Times Theater and at Fireweed Magazine, with a very diverse group of people age wise. I think there’s often a lot of tension between generations of queers, but I also feel and felt lucky to have them in my life. That’s your queer family, you know? Chosen and not, they had a huge influence on me. I do think there needs to be more talk and not less, if only because that is our history, and we are responsible for it. I did try, as the voice of Anna Vice, to give advice that was about supporting rather than telling. I don’t particularly enjoy getting advice, which is maybe why I’m not an advice columnist, but I play one in books.
ROOM: The care and dignity you and Rosemary gave Freddy as a character in her search for love, reciprocity, and respect made me feel seen. It also reminds me of how few explicitly queer, feminist, and Asian Canadian works I read and consumed while growing up, and motivates me to continue holding space for these conversations as a writer and poet. What advice would you give younger, newer creators interested in exploring similar topics within their art and careers?
MT: Well, that’s awesome. Thank you for saying that. I don’t know what advice I have for new creators, other than the most practical piece of advice, which is to start writing things that are things you can finish. I think with these big pieces of our hearts we want to share, sometimes it’s a hard thing to get them down right. Take a little piece of your story and polish it and put it out there. Then work your way up to your opus.
ROOM: You’re curating a new imprint of graphic novels by LGBTQIA+ authors called Surely Books, with the publisher Abrams. What are you most excited about doing this imprint?
MT: I’m excited about all of it. All of it. I’m excited to work with the amazing creators we’ve already lined up for the imprint, including Grace Ellis, Josh Trujillo and Levi Hastings; and Terry Blas and Claudia Aguirre. I’m excited to find new amazing LGBTQ creators and help them tell their stories.
Catch Mariko at Love Sucks (Tuesday, October 22nd), The Fictionals: Build Your Own Adventure (Wednesday, October 23rd), and Graphic Novels Galore (Thursday, October 24th) at the Vancouver Writers Fest, happening October 21st to October 27th, 2019.
Find the rest of the festival events here.
Jane Shi is a queer Chinese settler living on the unceded, traditional, and ancestral territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. She is a poet, writer, editor, and community organizer whose work has appeared in Room, Poetry Is Dead, LooseLeaf Magazine, Canthius, China Channel, and PRISM International, among others. She wants to live in a world where love is not a limited resource, land is not mined, hearts are not filched, and bodies are not violated. Find her online @Pipagaopoetry.