How Do You Say Your Name?

By Mariko Tamaki

I grew up in Canada, in Toronto, which is a very multicultural city, in a house with a Caucasian mother and a Japanese (third generation Canadian) father.  Being Japanese wasn’t something we discussed; it was mostly something we ate.

Author Mariko Tamaki
Author Mariko Tamaki

Until I was in grade school, I didn’t actually know I was Japanese.  I just thought I had one parent with bigger eyebrows.  He was also my dad so I just thought it was a dad thing.

When I was in grade school, it started coming up.  I learned weird, vaguely racist, rhyming games in the schoolyard and brought them home, showing my mom how I could stretch my eyes.

“Look mom, I have Chinese eyes!”

In grade school, people started telling me I was Asian.  In fact, for a long time I thought “Eurasian” was just “you’re Asian,” because I heard it so often.

When I knew I was Japanese, finally, I looked for books about Japanese Canadian girls.  I got a book of Japanese folktales and, eventually, in high school, someone gave me Obasan by Joy Kogawa, a book about the internment of the Japanese Canadians during WWII. Which is a great book, but it was a little bit like, “here is your book.”

“This is it?”

“Yes.”

As a Japanese Canadian writer, I often get asked questions of how my race, and my background, have affected my writing.

tamaki-thisonesummer
What happens one summer when Rose and her friend Windy befriend a local teen caught up in something bad — something life threatening?

The answer is, of course, it does.

My understanding of the importance of race, of diversity and representation, is absolutely influenced by my experiences growing up Japanese Canadian.

The simple answer of how being Japanese affects my writing is that as someone who is part of the diversity of people on this planet, I see a value in populating my books accordingly.

So just about everything I write has a person who is not white in it, in or close to center.

Beyond that, I would say that, race was a complicated thing for me and so it’s often a complicated thing for my characters.  Most of them deal with a whole mishmash of identity issues, the big identity question we all have to start tackling in grade school and wrestle with into [insert your age here].  They struggle with being different.  They struggle with things they are told to be but don’t feel like being.  With not knowing what else to be.

Race was something I was given that I never completely understood.  It is my theory that all the things we can’t take for granted, like race, like gender, like sexuality, become ripe subjects for art in later years.

It is the benefit we reap from years of frustration.

It’s a diversity of frustrations (because not everyone’s experience of race and culture is the same) that should be in more books more often.


Mariko Tamaki is a Canadian writer and performer. In addition to her celebrated graphic novel Skim, co-created with Jillian Tamaki, she has also published several works of prose fiction and nonfiction, including the young adult novel (You) Set Me on Fire. Mariko’s short film Happy 16th birthday Kevin premiered at the Inside Out Festival in Toronto in May 2013. Her most recent graphic novel is This One Summer, with Jillian Tamaki.